Bismarck and the German Empire

Prussia’s Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck paved the way for the first German nation-state. Bismarck became the Chancellor of the new German Empire.

The failure of Germany’s March Revolution (1848/49), a futile attempt by bourgeois liberal forces to restrict the power of Germany’s rulers, unite the German Confederation and establish a constitutional parliament, led to the imposition of “unity from above” as Prussia’s Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck paved the way for the first German nation-state.

By the mid-19th century, Germans were still not united in one state. The Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck wanted to change that – not through parliaments or majorities but, as he said, “with blood and iron.” At that time, the German Confederation was an alliance of more than 30 independent states, with Austria and Prussia at their head. But when Prussia wanted to incorporate the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein against Austria’s will, it became a test of power: Who had the say in Germany? Austria or Prussia?

The vote for war or peace took place in Frankfurt am Main, the seat of the German federation, on 14 June 1866. Austria’s proposal to mobilize the federation’s forces against Prussia was accepted. Prussia saw the vote as a declaration of war and walked out of the federation. That spelt its end, because the member states were doing exactly what it was set up to prevent, going to war with each other. Austria’s armies were routed, and from now on Germany and Austria went their separate ways. Austria was literally pushed out of German history.

Bismarck’s victory over Austria was a triumph worth a monument to the Prussian fatherland: the Victory Column in Berlin. The North German Confederation of 1866 under Prussian leadership was the precursor to the united Germany of a few years later. The south German states such as Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg were initially aloof but that changed with the war against France in 1870. The common enemy united the Germans and their nation.

In January 1871, Bismarck declared the birth of the Prussian-German nation-state in the palace of Versailles. For the first time in their history, the Germans were united in a single state with a single capital: Berlin. Bismarck became the Chancellor of the new German Empire. The overall balance of his domestic policies was mixed. On the one hand, they saw the creation of a modern parliamentary system and a welfare state with health, accident and pension insurance. But on the other, Bismarck was pitted against both Social Democracy and the Catholic Church.

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