How Important Was the Role of Bismarck in the Unification of Germany?

1 January 2017

Some argue that unification would have been inevitable and had nothing to do with Bismarck, although others argue that the unification was solely down to Bismarck’s role. There are differing opinions on whether Bismarck was a planner or an opportunist or whether he was merely just a catalyst. Bismarck also provoked neighbouring states which led to wars of unification against: Denmark and Austria. Other factors such as the role of the Prussian military, the Zollverein and Austrian weakness all had an input in the unification of Germany, as did cultural nationalism.

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Bismarck’s long term aim was to unite Germany under Prussian leadership. In Prussia, King William wanted to improve his army but due to the cost of this request, the King’s plans were blocked by the Prussian Progressive Party. The King considered abdication because his request was denied; this worried many of the King’s ministers. They feared this abdication would result in the triumph of the parliament over the king. Von Roon, Minister of War suggested that Otto Van Bismarck be recalled from Paris to help solve this constitutional crisis.

Bismarck resolved this crisis by announcing that since Parliament could not agree with the King that the King had power to rule himself. Bismarck claimed that the loophole in the constitution that he did not cover this kind of crisis and so the logical thing to do was to let the King decide. The budget was passed. The King was very grateful to Bismarck who was then appointed Minister-President of Prussia. Bismarck knew an efficient and powerful army would be necessary in the near future. After the failure of the 1848 revolution, he wrote ’Germany does not loot to Prussian liberalism, but to its power… ot by speeches and majority verdicts will the great decisions of the time be made but by iron and blood. ’ Bismarck provoked surrounding foreign powers into war, the result of this being an increase in the power and the unification of Germany which were his main aims. So Bismarck’s role was relatively important at this stage of in the unification of Germany. The first war of unification was against Denmark. The Prussians fought Denmark in an attempt to weaken Austria’s power. A crisis developed within Denmark between the duchies and Denmark, the dispute broke out over Schleswig and Holstein.

Bismarck used this row to his advantage. Bismarck suggested that a combined Prussian and Austrian force should attack Denmark. Denmark was quickly defeated and Prussia gained the glory as defender of German interests. As Bismarck used this row to his advantage, this makes it evident that he was an opportunist. He merely used this dispute for his benefit and seized an opportunity which had the potential to move one step closer towards the unification of Germany. The second war of unification was against Austria in 1866.

Bismarck used the unresolved situation left after the convention of Gastein in Schleswig and Holstein to complain that Austria was not running Holstein properly. Bismarck seized this opportunity which represents him as being an opportunist. He took advantage of an opportunity which could help him achieve his main aim; unification. Aronson states; “Bismarck was an opportunist…” Bismarck complained that Austria was stirring up anti-prussian feelings in Schleswig. On July 3 1866 a battle which has also been named the “Battle of Sadowa” the Austrian army was defeated. 24 000 Austrians were killed and 13 000 were captured. A Kleindeutsch was created, this was a North German state without Austrian influence. This brought Germany closer to unification. Prussian Liberals were so pleased with this outcome that they forgave Bismarck over the army reforms. Bismarck had brought Germany closer to unification, Thus, meaning Bismarck had an important role in the progression of the unification of Germany. Some historians argue whether or not Bismarck was an opportunist or a planner. In the case of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 it is evident that Bismarck deliberately planned the outbreak of war against Austria.

In William Carr’s Germany 1815-1945 he quotes a conversation between Bismarck to Disraeli in 1862: “when the army has been brought to such a state as to command a respect then I shall take the first opportunity to declare war with Austria” proving that Bismarck had planned to go to war with Austria. but he also took advantage of an opportunity which enabled him to go to war with Austria as he stated. Therefore Bismarck can be viewed as both a planner and an opportunist. The wars of unification helped unite Germany as all members of the Bund came together and fought as one in all of these wars.

However, some historians argue that Bismarck was a catalyst and he simply sped up the process of German unification. Prussia gained land in the Rhineland, which was many miles away from Prussian mainland. German States prompted the Prussian authorities to abolish all internal taxes within Prussia itself in 1818. This led to the creation of a large free trade area. Prussia’s control of the rivers of the Rhine and Elbe encouraged other German states to realise they should reach agreements with Prussia. In 1834, the Zollverein was created (customs union. ) Two years after its creation, 25/39 states had joined the new economic trade free area.

The Zollverein proved to be an important factor in the unification of Germany, therefore showing that Bismarck was not the key role in the unification of Germany. There were other factors which helped such as the growth of nationalism. There was a growth of cultural nationalism in Germany. Nationalist feelings were first expressed in 1815 in the universities and amongst Germany’s great writers and poets. This was named the ‘Romantic Movement’ during the war, there was an emergence of nationalist student societies, named burschenschaften. Poets like Goethe also praised the idea of the nation-state.

The folk tales of the Brothers Grimm celebrated Germany’s past and looked forward to the day when Germany would be a united nation. Through their studies they realised that German language had come from a common source. As they were united by language, it was very much possible that Germany could also be united politically. Andrina Stiles states: even in 1815 there were tens of thousands of people, especially among the young, the educated, the middle and the upper classes who felt passionately that German’s deserved to have a fatherland in the same way as the English and the French. This again proves that although Bismarck played an important role in the unification of Germany his role was not vital. This also proves that Bismarck was merely a catalyst as he didn’t have any input in this movement whatsoever. He sped up the unification of Germany. Austrian weakness also proved to be a factor which had an input in the unification of Germany. Due to the exclusion of Austria from the Zollverein they were suffering economically. They contemplated creating a new customs union. However, they lacked the correct resources to do so. Austria had been isolated.

This was because of the Austrian’s failure to help their allies, the Russians, in the Crimean War. Therefore meaning they now had no allies. Austria also had a weak military. Their military was weakened by the wars fought against Italian states and France. Reporters at the time described the army as: “weak and disorganised” Austria was defeated and lost land from its empire in Northern Italy. The Austrian army were exposed as weak, poorly equipped and out of touch with modern military tactics. During the 1850’s one of the main obstacles to unification was Austrian Power therefore it was eliminated.

Prussia was gaining strength and Prussia was seen as a potential leader of a future of a united Germany. This again makes it evident that Bismarck was a catalyst and he only sped up the process of unification. In turn this shows that there were other factors which led to the unification of Germany. On the one hand the role of Bismarck was important because if not for him, the wars of unification would not have taken place. The wars of unification were important because it allowed him to achieve his aim of unification under Prussian leadership and bring all the military forces of Germany together as one, to fight.

However, other factors like cultural nationalism were also important factors in the unification of Germany, this growth of nationalism led to vast numbers of people involved in the romantic movement realising that Germany was bound together by language and literature. The Zollverein also proved to be an important factor, a factor which again Bismarck had no involvement in. The customs union was important in the unification as it joined 25/39 states together which was a huge step towards a united Germany.

Austrian weakness also proved to have an important role in the unification of Germany as it destroyed one of the main obstacles to unification which was Austrian power. Germany managed to eliminate this obstacle. Hitler argues that “it was he [Bismarck] who created the conditions which rendered possible the creation of a great Germany” On balance, the evidence suggests that the role of Bismarck in unifying Germany was important to an extent. Bismarck did play an important role although there were other factors which were equally as important as Bismarck’s, if not more.

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