Bismarck and the Unification of Germany

otto von Bismarck


Prince Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck was the mastermind of German Unification and was the first chancellor of the united nation. Bismarck caused Germany to transform from a loose net of 39 states into the strongest industrial nation of Europe. The unification of Germany had a tremendous impact on European balance of powers for the rest of history. For nearly 30 years Bismarck dominated Germany and European politics.

Germany before Unification

Before Bismarck came into power, the Congress of Vienna formed the Germany Confederation, which was really a collection of small states ruled by minor dukes, princes and kings. Revolutions in nearly every German State occurred. Rebels forced rulers to accept Constitutions, and allow elections to the German National Assembly in Frankfurt. In May 1848, shortly after the revolutionary outbreak in Berlin, delegates from all of the German states met at the Frankfurt Assembly to prepare for the formation of a united and constitutional German nation-state. The Frankfurt constitution established Germany as a federal union, which was to be headed by a monarch having a title. After the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly, a disagreement between moderate and radical liberals started and the German Confederation was renewed in 1851. Fredric Wilhelm IV died in 1861 leaving King Wilhelm I of Prussia to the throne. A year later Otto von Bismarck was appointed Prime minister of Prussia.

Bismarck and his Political Tactics

Bismarck's ultimate goal was to unite the German states into a strong German Empire with Prussia as its core. On September 30, 1862 Bismarck made his famous blood and iron speech, which implied that if Germany was to unify it would be with the use of military force. He hated liberalism, democracy and socialism. Following his speech, he dismissed the budget proposal and ordered the bureaucracy to collect taxes. This money would go to military use, and Bismarck would expand and strengthen the Prussian armies. These armies would than be used in three wars which Bismarck devised to unify the country.

A. The Danish War: 1864- 1865

Liberals in Germany had always wanted to separate Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark. Prussia joined forces with Austria and sent an ultimatum to Denmark on January 16, 1864 demanding a withdrawal of the former constitution, which incorporated Schleswig in Denmark within 48 hours or face military action. At this point, Denmark looked to the European powers for military support but received none. Denmark was beat by Prussian and Austrian military forces. Following their victory, the treaty of Gastein was created to compromise who ruled which lands. The treaty stated Prussia controlled Schleswig and Austria controlled Holstein.

B. Prussian Austrian War: 1866

For several years Bismarck had predicted a war with Austria. His governing policy from 1863 to 1866 was based around this war. One example of this plan was when Prussia made an alliance with Italy, stating that they would help Prussia if war broke out within the next 3 months. When the war actually did brake out, no other German states came to Prussia's aid. Bismarck also persuaded Russia to remain neutral. Austria was isolated and appeared very weak. Ordering his troops to march into the Holestein, an Austrian territory, provoked the country into declaring war. After isolating Austria from France and Russia and receiving Italy's help in a defensive war against the province, Bismarck was ready for his last step in enticing Austria to war. He proposed a unified Germany under the kleindeutsch plan to the Frankfurt Assembly. Under this plan he purposely excluded Austria from the German affairs. This action was what finally forced Austria to attack Prussia.

Most German states chose to side with Austria in the war against Prussia because they felt they were defending their independence. However, Prussia with Bismarck's military intelligence was victorious. Following their victory, Bismarck set up peaceful treaties with Austria to remain as future allies. Prussia joined with Northern German states to form the North German confederation. This was formed in 1867, and created a new powerful German state. Bismarck granted equal manhood suffrage and the budget control switched over to Parliament. The German states were allowed to govern themselves but they still were under the influence of the German Emperor. This pleased many Germans because it was a step towards total German Unification and it also granted Prussia more power.


After three wars Bismarck finished his plan and totally unified Germany.

C. Franco-Prussian war

Through the course of the Austrian-Prussian war, Bismarck made a territorial agreement with France in turn for neutrality, but he never intended on keeping his part of the deal. Bismarck's final step to unification was war with France, but first he had to manipulate countries to be on his side. After this victory, Prussia could then unify Germany once and for all. Bismarck provoked a patriotic war with France by mocking the French in a letter which was later printed in newspapers. The letter vexed nationalistic feelings, causing France to declare war on Prussia. Southern and Northern German states along with Prussia combined their powers to defeat the French army. Although Bismarck was pleasant to Austria, this was not the case towards the French. He brutally punished the already weak country with the Treaty of Frankfurt and took vitally important land from them. This created bad feelings among the French towards the Germans and later created problems.



Bismarck's victory led to the support he needed from his people to create a united Germany. In general the constitution stayed the same as Northern Germany's before unification; Bismarck only made a few changes. The three major changes were a German national Parliament, the Reichstag was now elected by the German people, and Germany developed a federal council. Also the country now had budgetary rights, but could not overthrow the government. Bismarck had succeeded in making Prussia in control of all-important decisions. An example of this is that each German State still had separate armies, but the armies were under Prussian order. Although Germans were pleased with unification, the rest of Europe felt that Germany was going to offset the European balance of power. The Unification of Germany made it a European power along with France, great Britain, Austria, the united states, and Russia. By Germany gaining power it allowed Bismarck to control most of Europe. Germany economically had a major impact and Bismarck's foreign policy created an intricate map of alliances preventing Germany to enter any wars after unification.



this is a map of the German Empire in 1871 the time of unification. Germany is outlined in red

The German empire in 1871 is highlighted in the map above. this also shows what this part of Europe looked like at this time.

German Nationalism

Nationalism, a feeling of loyalty towards one's country, differed from German nationalism. Bismarck used wars to cause national unity within Germany but these nationalistic feelings soon disappeared once the country was actually unified. There were several different types of people located in Germany, all of them containing different views on the how the Empire should be ruled. Bismarck was apart of the Junkers or upper class, who supported militarism, and didn't like universal suffrage because it was a threat on their way of life. On the other hand, Southern German states embraced a liberal constitution, and a movement towards democracy grew in this region.

Politics were not the only difference; religion broke down nationalism as well. Catholics who lived in the Empire felt uncomfortable living in a Protestant dominated environment. They soon created their own political party, the Center Party. This party opposed many of Bismarck's ideas and enticed him to make restrictions on Catholic education and work. Both Protestants and Catholics disliked Bismarck for putting restrictions on religion.

Along with confinements on religion Bismarck started putting restriction on politics. He created anti- socialist laws, which banned Socialism, prohibited the printing of Socialist ideas and Socialist meetings. All of these restrictions prove that German Nationalism was credited to the three wars but after these wars were won, Germany's many differences shone brightly through the country's seeping cracks.

Foreign Policy

Bismarck made Germany the strongest military power on the continent. Geographically Germany was between large military powers. Bismarck had to be sure no country would attack Germany. This caused him to create a secret alliance with Austria-Hungary and a triple treaty including Russia, Austria and Germany: otherwise known as the Alliance of three Emperors. The new country stayed out of the imperialistic race with Africa and Asia to keep peace between the other European countries. Eventually it did get into the imperialistic race but under Bismarck's rule Germany maintained a solid foreign policy.

A map of the five great powers. Bismarck after unifying Germany tried to keep good relations with these countries.


Cause to WW1

Bismarck united Germany, but later on the country he united would cause the First World War. One example of how Bismarck caused World War One relates to the French. Germany, after defeating the French in the Franco-Prussian war, they utterly humiliated them through the Treaty of Frankfort. After this treaty the French people had sour feelings towards Germany. The country had created this treaty to make sure the French would never attack Prussia again but the opposite occurred. This treaty, in the end probably caused the French to stand up to Germany in World War One. Bismarck manipulated several countries during this time and bad feelings just don't go away. after unification Bismarck's next goal was to prevent Germany from entering any other wars. His foreign policy created alliances which was a major long term cause of WW1. These alliances created tension within the continent and allowed Europe to get into a world war situation.


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Sir John Tenniel commenting on the forced resignation of Otto von Bismarck from the government of Emperor William II (Kaiser Wilhelm) of Germany, 1890. By courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd.