Otto von Bismarck: Architect of German Unification | History Hit

Otto von Bismarck: Architect of German Unification

Celeste Neill

12 May 2023
18 January 1871: The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles
Image Credit: Anton von Werner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Otto von Bismarck, often referred to as the “Iron Chancellor,” was the mastermind behind the unification of Germany. Through strategic diplomacy and nationalistic fervour, Bismarck paved the way for the birth of a united German nation.

With its newfound unity, Germany rapidly emerged as a formidable force in Europe. Bolstered by its industrial prowess, economic growth, and a powerful military, the nation exerted its influence on the global stage.

Under his leadership, the German Empire was formed, ending centuries of fragmentation. The symbolic significance of the unification ceremony cannot be understated. By deliberately choosing the Palace of Versailles, located outside Paris, as the venue instead of Berlin, Bismarck sent a powerful message. This decision represented a bold statement of military might and conquest, foreshadowing Germany’s ambitions and its trajectory as a dominant European power throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Otto von Bismarck’s legacy as the architect of German unification would shape not only the country’s trajectory but also the geopolitical landscape of Europe for years to come.

A motley collection of states

Before 1871 Germany had always been a motley collection of states sharing little more than a common language.

Over 300 distinct states existed within the region, each differing in customs, systems of rule, and even religion. Unification seemed improbable and was often dismissed, much like the contemporary notion of a United States of Europe. However, the vision and determination of Otto von Bismarck would change the course of history.

As the 19th century progressed, a wave of nationalism began to sweep through Germany. The defeat of Napoleon by several German states played a significant role in fueling this nationalistic fervor. Initially, the call for unity was championed by students and middle-class liberal intellectuals who emphasised the importance of a shared language and a somewhat tenuous common history as unifying factors.

Monarchs of the member states of the German Confederation (with the exception of the Prussian king) meeting at Frankfurt in 1863. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Few people took much notice beyond a few mildly nationalistic festivals, and the fact that the movement was confined to intellectuals was illustrated poignantly in the European revolutions of 1848, where a brief stab at a national German parliament quickly fizzled out and this attempted Reichstag never held much political power.

After this, it seemed that German unification was no nearer to happening than ever. The kings, princes and dukes of the German states, typically opposed to unification for obvious reasons, generally retained their power.

The power of Prussia

The power balance of the German states was important, for if one was ever more powerful than the others put together, then it might attempt conquest of intimidation. By 1848 Prussia, a conservative and militaristic kingdom in the east of Germany, had been the strongest of the states for a century.

However, it was restrained by the combined strength of the other states, and, more importantly, by the influence of the neighbouring Austrian Empire, which would not allow any German state to have too much power and become a possible rival.

After a brief flirtation with revolution in 1848, the Austrians had restored order and the status quo, humiliating Prussia in the process. When the formidable statesman von Bismarck was appointed Minister-President of that country in 1862, he aimed to restore Prussia as a great European power.

After effectively taking command of the country unconstitutionally, he vastly improved the military for which Prussia would become famous. Bismarck harnessed the aspirations of the German people and united them under a singular cause.

Otto von Bismarck. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The defeat of Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War

The war that followed in 1866 was a resounding Prussian victory which radically changed a European political landscape which had remained virtually the same since the defeat of Napoleon.

Many of Prussia’s rival states had joined Austria and been cowed and defeated, and the Empire then turned its attentions away from Germany in order to restore some of its severely battered prestige. The ethnic tensions that this move created would later kick-start World War One.

Prussia, meanwhile, was able to form the other beaten states in North Germany into a coalition which was effectively the beginnings of a Prussian Empire. Bismarck had masterminded the whole business and now reigned supreme – and though not a natural nationalist he was now seeing the potential of a fully united Germany ruled by Prussia.

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This was a far cry from the heady dreams of the earlier intellectuals, but, as Bismarck famously said, unification would have to be achieved, if it was to be achieved, by “blood and iron.”

He knew, however, that he could not rule a united country dogged by infighting. The south remained unconquered and the north was only tenuously under his control. It would take a war against a foreign and historic enemy to unite Germany, and the one that he had in mind was particularly hated across Germany after Napoleon’s wars.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71

Napoleon III and Bismarck talk after Napoleon’s capture at the Battle of Sedan, by Wilhelm Camphausen. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Wilhelm Camphausen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

France was ruled at this point by the great man’s nephew, Napoleon III, who did not have his uncle’s brilliance or military skill.

Through a series of clever diplomatic tactics Bismarck was able to provoke Napoleon into declaring war on Prussia, and this seemingly aggressive move on France’s part kept the other European powers such as Britain from joining her side.

It also created a furious anti-French feeling across Germany, and when Bismarck moved Prussia’s armies into position, they were joined – for the first time in history – by men from every other German state. The following war was devastating for the French.

The large and well trained German armies won many victories – most notably at Sedan in September 1870, a defeat which persuaded Napoleon to resign and live out the last miserable year of his life in exile in England. The war did not end there however, and the French fought on without their Emperor.

A few weeks after Sedan, Paris was under siege, and the war only ended when it fell in late January 1871. In the meantime, Bismarck had gathered the German generals princes and Kings at Versailles and proclaimed the new and ominously powerful country of Germany, changing the political landscape of Europe.

Tags: Otto von Bismarck

Celeste Neill