Process of German Unification

Revolutions and the Frankfurt assembly: 1848

The immediate effect of the revolutions, and two days of street fighting in Berlin prompt the King of Prussia, now Frederick William IV, to propose a national assembly which will consider a German constitution.

Elections are rapidly held in the various German states (in many of them by universal male suffrage). On 18 May 1848 some 600 delegates gather in Frankfurt. But there are strongly differing views as to how constitution might be realized. 

Bavaria, wanted a balance between Prussia and Austria. Protestants supporting Prussia argue for a kleindeutsch (‘small German’) solution, which excludes Austria. Catholics prefer the grossdeutsch way, to include at least the German-speaking parts of the Austrian empire. But Austria introduced a new constitution treating her entire empire (including Hungary and north Italy) as a single unitary state (against German Unification).

Later delegates at Frankfurt take the kleindeutschroute; they elect the Prussian king, Frederick William IV, as emperor of the Germans. But he turns it down.

In both Berlin and Vienna authoritarian governments are back in position by the spring of 1849. The hard work of avoiding change can be resumed. But the underlying contest between Prussia and Austria for leadership of the German states remains e.g. question of Schleswig-Holstein. 

Schleswig-Holstein: 1848-1864

The region of Schleswig-Holstein (German speaking) lies at the interface between German and Danish-speaking regions but with no clear geographical boundaries.

In 1848 a revolutionary group seizes Kiel, declares the independence from Denmark and appeals to the German Confederation for help. The result is an invasion of Schleswig-Holstein. But international pressure forces the Prussians to withdraw, and regions were restored to Denmark. But the crisis flares again in 1863 when the Danish king Frederick VII dies. He has no direct male heir. A joint Austrian and Prussian army overruns both Holstein and Schleswig. The result regions were ceded jointly to Prussia and Austria.

It is agreed that Prussia will administer Schleswig while Austria will be responsible for Holstein. In June 1866 under the order of Otto Von Bismarck, Prussian troops march from Schleswig into Holstein. 

Austria, presiding over the German Confederation(a role acquired half a century earlier at the congress of Vienna), proposes that the Confederation as a whole should restrain its belligerent member. When Saxony, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel refuse to give assurances that they will remain neutral, Prussia invades all three states. 

Seven Weeks’ War: 1866 (Battle of Sadowa)

Under the military leadership of Helmut von Moltke Prussia achieves what can be described as the first blitzkrieg (lightning war).

Prussian armies began winning over west and southwest regions in the first stage. An armistice has been agreed on all fronts by the end of July, bringing the hostilities to an end within seven weeks. 

With the treaty signed in Prague, on August 23, Bismarck demonstrates conclusively that the leadership of the German world, exercised for four centuries by Habsburg Austria, has now passed to Hohenzollern Prussia.

Austria ceded all rights in Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia. Austria was removed from a new organisation of Germany. This is all that Bismarck needs.

North German Federation: 1867-71

With a free hand now in Germany, Bismarck immediately annexes Hanover and Hesse-Kassel. They bridge the previous gap between the main Prussian kingdom and Prussian territories on the Rhine.

Later Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria, are now a separate group, recognized as having ‘an internationally independent existence’ – a condition agreed by Bismarck with the Catholic emperors west and east, in France and Austria. However, these Catholic regions retain a strong economic link with north Germany. A continuation of the old Prussian Zollverein is agreed in 1867, again incorporating all the German-speaking regions except Austria.

With Austria reduced to impotence by defeat in the Seven Weeks’ War, the only other neighbour inclined to challenge Prussia’s inexorable growth is France. The clash perhaps comes sooner than France might wish. But Bismarck is ready. 

Franco-Prussian War: 1870-71 (Battle of Sedan)

In 1870, news of Prussian Hohenzollern family accepting the Throne of Spain panicked France. In an escalating crisis, the Prussian king William I withdraws his relation’s candidacy. But France made a diplomatic blunder. It demanded an assurance that the candidacy will never be renewed. William refuses to give this assurance. The French government declares war on Prussia on July 19. In September, the French surrendered.

France deposed Napoleon III and declare a republic.

Early in 1871, Versailles agreed an armistice. This time the Prussian king has been proclaimed emperor of a united Germany. 

The German empire: 1871

When France declares war in 1870, southern German states Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria supported the Prussian king, William I. After the victory at Sedan, final German unification began. By November 1871 terms were agreed.

William I made proclamation in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (the symbol of French power and triumphalism). In the treaty of Frankfurt France cedes Alsace and most of Lorraine to the new Germany, pays a massive indemnity of 5000 million francs and suffers German occupation in part of France until the money is delivered.

The reconstitution of the ancient German Reich, in a modern, compact, national form, brings back the Reichstag as a parliament. The executive is Bismarck himself – the first imperial chancellor. But it is at last a nation, federal in kind but with strong central control. The story of Prussia becomes that of Germany.

Later Remark

Bismarckism, was the German variant of Bonaparte’s which throughout the imperial era remained a principal watchword of the German ruling classes.

In Germany, during the years 1870-1878 the anti-clerical element in bourgeois nationalism prepared the basis of the conflict with the Social Democratic party and movement after 1878. The new rightwing nationalism, which emerged in the late 1870s was hostile to left-wing liberals as well as Social Democrats.

Successful overseas expansion was supported by the right wing to secure economic benefits, which would not only benefit businessmen, and middleclass colonial officials, but also the industrial working class, at least in the export industries.

The German right-wing was able to forge an alliance of landowners, industrialists and middleclass to hold in check the growth of the liberal middle class, workers and socialism.

The success of this Bismarckian strategy of rallying parliamentary support for the conservative through electoral manipulations ultimately depended on his skill ‘for running internal politics on the steam power of foreign affairs. National prestige was one consideration which could turn critics into supporters. This strategy remained unchanged even after Bismarck’s rule came to an end in 1890.

The inevitable consequence of this strategy was a certain kind of ultra nationalist popular mobilization along racist lines anticipating in away the basic features of Fascist mobilization of the early twentieth century. The phenomenon of the charismatic leader, which was an important feature of Bonapartism, continued to inform Fascist mobilization at a later date.

In Nazi Germany, the Fuehrer (title used by Hitler) demanded complete obedience and surrender to the leader.

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