Bismark and the Unification of Germany

Overview | The Schleswig-Holstein Question | The Seven Weeks War | The Franco-Prussian War | Aftermath


By the 1850s Germany was a loose jumble of 39 states led by Austria and Prussia. Jointly, they were known as the German confederation, but for all practical purposes they were not united. The Hohenzollern Kings of Prussia decided to go about changing this situation in their own favor. Their objective was to unify Germany under their own rule and to completely exclude Austria.

Map of the Unification of Germany

William I, King of Prussia chose a minister who could put his program into effect. He chose a fiery Junker named Otto von Bismark. Bismark was not afraid to trample the German constitution underfoot nor to practice, what became known as real politik in order to achieve his goals. He began by providing the funds Prussia needed to modernize its army. He did this by defying parliament and collecting taxes which that body had not approved. When the Prussian Landtag called for an explanation he replied that the problems of Germany would not be settled by parliamentary debate by "Blood and Iron". This statement earned him the nickname, the "Iron Chancellor".

The Schleswig Holstein Affair

With the army improved, Bismark determined to put this instrument of power to use. He began by provoking an incident with Denmark. The two small states of Schleswig and Holstein were ruled by Denmark. When Denmark decided to formally annex Schleswig, the German portion of the population was encouraged by German agents to protest. In 1864 Bismark took the opportunity to ally with Austria and strip both Schleswig and Holstein from the Danes. Prussia and Austria then proceeded to occupy the duchies.

The Seven Weeks War

Bismark now proceeded to isolate his next target, Austria. He promised Napoleon III of France that he would receive territorial compensation if France stayed out of a war between Austria and Prussia. He promised Italy the province of Venice. Earlier he had secured Russia's acquiescence in his scheme by supporting them in suppressing a rebellion in Russian Poland. Now he was ready to dust up a conflict with Austria over the much disputed Schleswig and Holstein. He intended bringing both duchies into the Prussian sphere. Austria opposed this move in the German Confederation Diet. In 1866 Prussia moved troops into Holstein and Austria declared war along with some other German states. Prussia destroyed the Austrian army at the battle of Sadowa. Austria capitulated and Prussia formed a north German confederation and excluded Austria from any participation. Austria suffered far less than she might have, giving up only minor territories including Venice to Italy (finally pushing her out of Italy entirely). Bismark wanted to keep Austria relatively strong, so that she might be an ally in future struggles, especially against Russia.

The Franco Prussian War

The only roadblock to complete Prussian dominance of Germany was four small German states in southern Germany and the disapprobation of Napoleon III of France. To provoke a war with France, Bismark put forth the candidacy of a Hohenzollern for the throne of Spain. Not wanting to be surrounded by Prussian power Napoleon III objected. The King of Prussia agreed to withdraw his support for the candidacy, but the Emperor of France pressed to make this a guarantee. At an interview between the King and the French minister words were spoken. Bismark got hold of the dispatch from the king (the Ems Dispatch) and changed the wording of the noted conversation so that it appeared that a full blown argument including insults had occurred. Napoleon's touchy sense of honor provoked him to declare war on Prussia.

The resulting Franco-Prussian War was relatively short. Prussia invaded France in 1871 and after a few battles, defeated the French decisively at the Battle of Sedan. Napoleon III abdicated. Though the French government fought on it was finally forced to surrender at the siege of Paris. France was forced to give up Alsace and Lorraine (which would cause much trouble later). The remainder of the German states, excluding Austria, were annexed to Germany which now became an empire under William I and ruled largely by the Iron Chancellor.


Austria was the main loser in the unification of both Germany and Italy. The sprawling Austrian state had dominated both regions, and it was her influence which had been the main roadblock to unity. She had never been powerful enough to outright annex the regions, but she had been powerful enough to hold sway. In any case, it was the Austrian style of governance to have a multi-cultural state. But the advent of nationalism had made this sprawling empire an anachronism. By the end of the First World War, nothing would be left of the Austrian empire but a tiny German state that would be gobbled up by Hitler's Germany in the Anschluss.

Prussified Germany would now become a leading power in Europe, overtaking France as the leading continental power. She would reach out to build a colonial empire and would use her influence to advance German interests, not only in Europe, but around the world.

Take a quiz on the unification of both Germany and Italy!


The Renaissance

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Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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