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The Road To German Unification – 1856-1871 Essay

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During the period 1856 – 1871 the unification of the German states was achieved due to a number of interconnected factors, which accumulated together, realised this aspiration. These factors included both internal and external factors; internally Prussia’s growth into an economic super power within Europe, military advances and the invoking of latent nationalist sentiment by Bismarck through the use of his shrewd diplomacy and political aptitude all contributed. Externally the shifting international setting into a propitious climate twinned with the roles of France and Austria compelled the unification process.

Following the ravages of the Crimean war the international setting fluctuated from being favourable and unfavourable towards the aspiration of German unification. The roles of the major powers; Britain and Russia together with France and Austria played a pivotal part in the eventual unification of Germany. The withdrawal from European affairs and disputes by arguably the two strongest superpowers Britain and Russia had previously been unseen in Europe and so left the door wide open for smaller, upcoming powers such as Prussia to become more active and more influential. While Britain were concerned with maintaining a stronghold over their imperial colonies in Africa and the Indian subcontinent and with Russia occupied in attempts to reverse the black sea clauses France emerged as the predominant European superpower. France’s role in the German unification process were initially favourable as Napolean III wanted to champion a nationalist cause and search for a stroke of European prestige which would make him more viable to the growing number of European nationalists.

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An example of France aiding the German unification process was the signing of the informal Biarritz agreement between Bismarck and Napolean III stating that France would remain neutral in any Austro – Prussian war in exchange for Venetia, which Napolean would subsequently hand over to Italy. Napolean also had another reason for signing neutrality as he hoped a protracted war between two of Europe’s strongest central powers would leave them both battle worn and weak and therefore France’s dominant position would be yet more intensified and entrenched. What is clear about France’s role is that however France attempted to aid Germany or any form of European nationalism they did it for the sole purpose in which to further their own gains and power. Austria’s role within the international setting was more apparent.

The reactionary henchman set up to prevent the spread of European nationalism and nationalist sentiment was now the sole defender of the Vienna settlement and so aimed to suppress any forms of European nationalism especially on or within its borders as this would have meant the complete break up of the already crumbling Austrian polyglot empire. Although Austria’s intentions were to crush nationalism their feasibility within Europe had deteriorated as a direct result of poor politics, poor diplomacy and the Crimean war. Austria was left ally less (the Austrian glove had even lost the iron fist of Russia).

The climate within the Austrian borders was also bleak, as Austria had swamped to a level where they were politically stagnant, economically bankrupt and militarily overstretched in trying to keep a stranglehold over its fragile empire. In essence the international setting looked more favourable towards the goal of German unification as there was little or no intervention from Britain or Russia, France were supporting the cause to an extent but only to further their own gains and Austria’s decline in power influence and pride left a gaping hole for a viable struggle to begin.

Alongside the international setting the biggest role played in the German unification process was that of Prussia and her growth into a major European superpower. Prussia during the 1850′ and 1860’s flourished into an economic superpower within Europe. Her advance far outshone that of either France or Austria. One of the major developments of the 1850’s was Prussia’s new and modern railway system, which arguably gave the whole nation a foundation onto which they could build and communicate. Some historians state that the railways were Prussia’s backbone and stemmed the military advances.

In just one year alone an additional 3280 km of track was laid and by this Prussia had as fleet of 15000 steam engines with a combined horsepower of 800000. this new railway system came to goods use in the military efforts of Prussia against both France and Austria as it allowed the quick and efficient mobilisation of troops and supplies. An example of this was in the Austro- German states war against Prussia where Prussia moved all of its army to the battlefield in five days opposed to the five weeks it would normally have taken. Alongside the railways the production of other vital resources such as coal iron and steel increased and continued well into the 1860’s where coal production rose from 9.7 to 14.7 million tonnes.

Prussia at this stage was now producing more coal and iron than any of its European rivals and this echoed in the rise in stock companies from 58 to 172 and the boost in wealth and industry. The growth in Prussia’s economic level also increased Prussia’s role as a major European exporter by 1858 Prussia had a surplus of over 17 million marks which they used to fight the war of 1864. Due to this and other factors historians believe that economic advances underpinned military advances JM kaynes quotes that, “the German empire was not found on coal and iron but on blood and iron.” In pr�cis it is clear from the evidence that Prussia’s growth into an economic superpower enabled them to fight the unification struggle.

In contrast to the beliefs of JM Kaynes some historians argue that it was not coal and iron but rather blood and iron that led to the eventual unification of Germany. The military advancements were made on two levels initially through re-modelling and having a better-organised army and secondly through the use of new technology such as the needle gun. Bismarck through appointing two key figures in von Roon and Von moltke modernised the army a central command structure was initially introduced which enabled better and improved communications, logistics and enabled supplies and troops to be mobilised efficiently through the use of the railways.

As well as this manpower was increased through the implementation of conscription the numbers went from 40000 to 63000 alongside this the service time of a soldier was increased from 1-3 years this resulted in an army which was bonded together, better organised and more professional. The organisation and efficiency of the new army was shown ion the Franco- Prussian war where France managed to mobilise only 200000 troops onto the battlefield in comparison to the 380000 of Prussia. Alongside all these factors the formation of new barracks and regiments gave a greater strength of unity and this unity was illustrated on the battlefield through the execution of new war tactics such as Von Moltke’s empty battlefield strategy where his forces would divide into 3 regiments and then would surround the enemy from all sides leaving them in an uncompromising position.

Together with structural advances technological advances such as the needle gun, which could be loaded and fired far more swiftly, and effectively than the previous muzzle loaded rifles allowed the Prussians to grasp victory on various occasions. Some historians have the view that it was Prussian soldiers on horseback with rifle and cannon which unified the German states between 1856-71. Concisely the military advances alongside economic growth brought about the unification of Germany.

The military and economic advances were propelled through the nature and character of German nationalism and the latent nationalist sentiment which existed in Germany and was simply waiting for someone to ignite it into a flame of nationalist glory. In this case the spark was Bismarck who invoked nationalist sentiment by creating the illusion of a united Germany where in all honesty he was only interested in expanding Prussian interests. Firstly the growth in nationalist press and propaganda enticed and inspired German nationalists and liberals into thinking they had a new leader. Alongside this a sense of unity was arising within Germany itself through the growing number of German societies which were run and completely under the control of Germans.

An example of one of these societies was UFL Bochum which was a sporting club established in 1840 by Germans and for Germans. The clubs success is evident as it later became a professional football club playing in the German Bundesliga. These clubs and societies gave the nation a sense of unity and boosted morale. In conjunction with the societies and clubs nationalist themed operas and fables such as ‘The Flying Dutchman’ and ‘The Brothers Grim’ again inspired nationalists and liberals and gave the whole a sense of pride and belonging. Bismarck was so influential in raising nationalist sentiment that even the German parliament turned a blind eye to him collecting illegal taxes in the hope that he would unite Germany and then they would push for their liberal and democratic ideals in the formation of Germany. In the final analysis Bismarck exposed latent nationalist sentiment through injecting a sense of unity and through the use of propaganda which together gave the whole nation a point to aspire to and made himself the figurehead who would part the waves and lead the nation there.

In conjunction with German nationalism and the aforementioned factors the role of Bismarck was key and arguably the most important role in linking all the factors to bring about German unification. Bismarck never had the intention of uniting the German states he simply wanted to expand Prussian interest within Europe. AJP Taylor summed up Bismarck’s role effectively in saying that, “he was a Prussian patriot rather than a German nationalist.” There are two defined views that historians have on the role of Bismarck some believe that he was an opportunist in that he learnt to take advantages of opportunities which arose on the European frontier and gain the best out of unpredictable circumstances in contrast to this view some historians argue that Bismarck was a master planner in that he engineered events to suit his needs and that he had a clear blueprint of his future aims which may have been influenced by his Junker upbringing and his conservative, autocratic view.

What is clear about Bismarck is that he used shrewd diplomacy and his political skill through which he exploited industrial strength in conjunction with other factors such as the favourable international climate in which he played of power against power to good effect. Bismarck on various occasions between 1856 – 1871 used his political genius to increase Prussian interests whether he had a master plan or not. An example of this was in 1863 when he crushed the polish revolts on his borders in order to ensure that nationalist sentiment did not spill over onto his borders as this would have resulted in his personal conservative and autocratic views would have been challenged.

In crushing the revolts Bismarck also gained the friendship of Russia. Later when the issue of the Danish duchies was raised Bismarck went to war with Denmark however enlisted Austrian support this was to show Austria as the major partner if anything went wrong, as well as this the union of two of Europe’s major superpowers would have prevented any foreign intervention from any other European powers. In 1866 and 1870 Bismarck provoked both Austria and France into going to war with Prussia in Austria’s case through mobilising his troops on the Austrian border and forcing an ultimatum from them and engineering the situation so Austria looked the aggressor and therefore preventing French involvement. After winning this war he again provoked France this time by utilizing the issue of the Hollzolleren

Candidature to his advantage and through doctoring the EMS telegram he enticed the French into setting an ultimatum which was to back out of the running for the Spanish throne and apologise or go to war. Bismarck refused to apologise and France declared war making themselves look the aggressor in a war which they lost because of a better, more organised Prussian army. Succinctly through Bismarck’s success all of Germany looked to him for leadership in the German unification struggle. However Bismarck could not have known how France and Austria would have reacted to his politics nevertheless through his cunning tactics and from knowing that Prussia had a modern and better organised army than its aggressors he united Germany in conservative and imperialistic manner whether he intended to or not and therefore I deem that Bismarck was an opportunist who learnt to gain the best out of circumstances rather than a master planer.

In conclusion Germany was united because of a number of interconnected factors such as the growth of Prussia into an economic superpower, which in turn provided the resources needed for the Prussian army to be strengthened to the extent that it could math if not succeed that of any other European power. As well as this the fluctuating international setting which Bismarck used to great effect alongside invoking latent nationalist sentiment to bring about a viable unification struggle and eventually achieve the endeavour of German unification.

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