Background to Unification

The term “German Problem” commonly refers to the deterioration in European stability following the unification of Prussia, The German Confederation, Bavaria and the smaller German states into a single German Empire in 1871. Understanding the conditions brought on by this unification is requisite to an understanding of the causes of the First World War, beyond the typical yet poignant Baldrick thesis, which states “Someone named Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.” which mistakes the catalyst for the cause.

The phrasing has less to do with assigning blame than acknowledging German unification as the central force in making the great catastrophe not only possible, but somewhat inevitable. The question to answer is then why German unity would be so destabilizing. The seeds of the answer go back quite a ways, to Roman times.(Big surprise). The Germanies stand, like Scotland apart from the rest of Western Europe as the regions which saw no Roman domination. Hence, from the very beginning German lands would be distinct among Western European nations, separated by their initial lack of a common cultural heritage, and a stigma as the barbarous destroyers of the majestic Roman Empire.

Of course as time went on, Germany became fully integrated into European culture, but remained culturally and technologically backward as the rest of Europe moved forward in the Renaissance towards nationhood. Here's why: The Holy Roman Empire, which still stands as history's greatest misnomer, was a loose confederation of hundreds of small provinces and territories. Technically there was an emperor, but the two strongest German states, Prussia and Austria more or less installed the emperor and fenagled the German princes to their own ends.

This trend was most prominently displayed by the Thirty Years War, itself the culmination of Europe's 500 years of Religious Wars, be they against Mohammed or Luther. The Thirty Years War stands as a black hole in history, for the most part an opaque and completely unknowable heap of confusion. Be wary of anyone professing to know what the hell was going on there. The only thing we know for sure is that European nations fought against each other in Germany, and that the German method of saying 'kiss my ass' , “Gotz Von Berlichingen” also emerged from the muckery.

Now that I've lost most of my audience, I should explain for those who remain. The point here is that Germany was functioning as the rest of Europe's Political and Military chessboard, and had been for time immemorial. In the Thirty Years War, Germany had been devastated, losing as much as 2/3 of its population via the usual methods of rape, pillage, brigands, conscription, plus the resulting famine and disease. The end finally came in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia. The game would continue, although less violently up to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. During the turn of the 19th century, French revolutionary armies were touring the continent as armies are wont to do. There was one unusual aspect to this trip however in that the tourists were bringing souvenirs with them from France to the places they were “visiting”. Puppet regimes, constitutions, The Napoleonic Code, and nationalist sentiments were but a few of the wonders thus bestowed. One of the many stops was, you guessed it...Germany.

Much like a relative who brings a shirt of the latest fashion from New York when they come to visit, the German political wardrobe of faded blue jeans was shown to be hopelessly out of date, and completely incompatible with the sleek cut and fancy materials of the Napoleonic Code. Simply put, The Germanies more or less lacked the Bourgeois requisites necessary for the new system to work. But as people will, Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and established a simpler confederation of redrawn states, thrusting a system upon a region socially and economically unprepared to receive it.

Following Napoleon's final defeat in 1815, Europe's most reactionary politicians gathered at The Congress of Vienna. You think GOP get togethers are bad? Get real. Here they carved up Europe, with the goal of creating a balance of power, creating more or less equal states, which of course would prevent one nation's domination, and hence allow the easy dispatchment of any country which attempted any boat rocking revolutionary nonsense. The system did seem to be working, the bastards were getting along, and from 1815- 1914 Europe saw no major conflagration like the Napoleon fiasco. The major players also had imperial holdings, allowing them to resolve their conflicts by “stepping outside” for a little colonial skirmish. During this time, the Germanies were playing catch up with the rest of bourgeois, industrial Europe. By 1848 they had largely met or exceeded France's status in 1789, and were fully ready to participate in the revolutions of that year. By this time, nationalist sentiment was firmly established, as a largely German romantic movement wracked European culture. Voices of Schiller, Goethe, Beethoven, and Kant to name a few, had helped to create and codify a valid and distinct German culture. German lands (especially in the Ruhr) had surpassed French levels of industry and were even giving the Brits a run for their capital.

The Revolutions of 1848 were pretty much in line with the rhetoric of the French National Assembly of 1789, demanding an end to aristocratic privilege, constitutional government, and equality before the law. The “pretty much” comes into play from the Pan-German calls for unification, which contributed to much of the revolution's popular support. The idea was doomed to failure however by the stipulations that the new unified Germany must include the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire in a "Greater Germany". These demands worried Austrian leaders, who wanted no part of an upstart revolution, voicing increasingly liberal demands. The Austrians proceeded to prop up counter-revolutionary elements in Germany, which eventually won out.


Why unification? Good question. Obviously Nationalist thought played its part, but what would make unification seem so appealing to the respective German governments? After all, the status quo was still chugging its merry way along. (Albeit with more mileage than healthy even for a Honda.) The answer to this quandary begins with Prussia. Following the defeat of Napoleon, and with him the blockade against Britain, or the Continental System, Prussian goods were exposed in all their inferior craptitude. The British commercial empire was quite more than a nuisance for Prussian manufacturers on the prowl for markets. The Brits had even the market for rubbish squared away. When revolution attacked in 1848, the Junkers caught the scent of opportunity in the air. The Prussian leadership pounced, and extended a series of trade agreements to north German territories, collectively known as the North German Union. Prussia would get new markets, and those states which complied would get Prussian infrastructure investments for their trouble. In addition to this boon for industrial development, the leadership would receive hearty applause from the prolific nationalist elements. Match made in heaven? Not according to Otto Von Bismarck who had not approved of the acquiescence to liberal demands during the revolutions. Firmly in the conservative camp, Bismarck was fine with the idea of the NGU, but the idea of liberal nationalists getting the credit and influence scared the bejesus out if him. When the forces of Russia, Britain and Austria mobilized as per the Congress of Vienna in opposition to the NGU, Bismarck convinced Prussian king Frederick William IV to abandon the revolutionaries to Metternich's Trap. Bismarck, shrewd fellow that he was, realized that the only hope for the old order was to take nationalist initiative away from the liberals.

This process was twofold, first a bone had to be thrown to the upper middle class, secondly a bone needed to be picked with Austria. Why mess with Austria? To end any question about a “Greater Germany”, which was completely hopeless anyway. Bismarck feigned interest in a “Greater Germany” with the intent of pissing off Austria enough to get a war going. In this he succeeded, starting and winning the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. The Prussians had certainly heeded their defeats by Napoleon earlier in the century, creating a efficient and powerful military machine. The saying “Most countries have armies, but Prussia was an army with a country.” became highly pronounced, and very worrisome to France in particular in the face of an increasingly unified north Germany. Bismarck's idea was to play off the antagonism between France and the Germanies to finally bring the southern German states into a union. To do this France would have to be provoked into making war against Prussia. Bismarck got the go ahead from fate to make his dream a reality in June, 1870. The Spanish throne was offered up to a member of the Prussian ruling house, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. France, under the ever goofy Napoleon III, a nephew of Bonaparte, was wary of being boxed in by Prussia to the east, and a Prussian ruled Spain to the south. Understandably so, as Bismarck knew it would be. The French made their protests, and Prince Leopold rescinded his candidacy to the Spanish throne. But when the French asked for a guarantee that Leopold's candidacy would never be resumed, The Prussian crown refused, and Bismarck leaked the Ems dispatch, which was essentially a letter between Bismarck and King William of Prussia mocking the French. Napoleon III immediately pounced on the chance to improve his regimes floundering public support, and went along with the knee jerk calls for war with Prussia. The Predominantly Catholic south German states saw French behavior as Bismarck hoped they would, attempting to cut the Germanies out of the Catholic picture by refusing Leopold the Catholic throne of Spain. They proceeded to join on the side of Prussia, and war proceeded to work its nationalistic wonders. The Franco-Prussian War ended quickly in a decisive Prussian victory.

At this point, Prussia had proved itself as the strongest power on the continent via its easy victories against Austria and France. But in theory the balance of power still stood. If France and Austria joined forces, or if Russia came into the picture, the Prussian would likely still be put in his place. With German unification following on the heels of victory however, the edicts of the Congress of Vienna were completely in ruins. Gemany was now the strongest entity in Europe, and save the United States, the world at large. The war reparations imposed upon France gave German industry its biggest leg up to date, making Germany the leader of the second industrial revolution in electricity, steel, and chemicals, with a massive economic growth rate of 8-10% annually. (the current growth rate of China's economy being 7-10%) By 1900 Germany was also on top of the list for public education, machinery, military technology and number of scientists employed in private firms. The rest of Europe was understandably wary.

The facade went on as usual however, and the appearance of the 1815 system was kept up. Officially no one would admit that a superpower had been born. But a Germany led by a Prussian emperor, who had annexed provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, was the mortal enemy of the French, making peace extremely shaky. Bismarck himself realized that two opposing forces now existed in Europe, and the only question was who would join whom. His policies aimed at presenting Germany as a benevolent broker, an agent of peace, all the while strengthening the German economy and military, and making sure to keep France diplomatically isolated. The main idea was that Germany should be a “saturated power”, demanding less than it could, and making sure not to rock the boat. Bismarck's personal reason for going into politics “not so much to give orders, but to not have to take them.” echoed throughout imperial policy. Unsurprisingly, an arms race emerged between France and Germany, the French aiming to close the gap via their overseas empire, enlarging and consolidating it as much as possible, with the rest of Europe forced to maintain equal footing.

By the time Bismarck was dismissed in 1890, he had dismantled the pervasive spirit of 1789 in Germany. His program of increasing the Monarch's power to despotic levels, and snatching nationalism from liberals and fusing it with conservatism turned the fortunes of the old regime around. Where before it had been slowly losing ground to progressives, a force of resistance to change, it was now alive and vital in its own right. In the words of Michael Sturmer, “His achievements did not spring from the fact that he was in tune with his age, but that he was against it.”Bismarck's dismissor, the new ruler Kaiser Wilhelm II was desperate to not rule in Bismarck's shadow, perhaps thinking of the sentiment; “if Frederick the Great had a Bismarck, he would not have been great.” In any event he was certainly lesser minded if not less wicked than the “'Iron Chancellor”. Under Wilhelm II, Bismarck's system of stability began to unravel. The careful balance of relations with Russia and Austria, which was designed to play the two powers against each other and prevent Germany's becoming tied to either was ended with a policy of Austrian preference, eventually allowing France to find a major ally in Russia. Another bit of half baked bravado saw the kaiser's obsession with German naval power, which was a significant factor in driving a spike between England and Germany, as the Brits didn't take kindly to threats against their naval supremacy. Bismarck's Realpolitik clearly required significant levels of competence to avert disaster, which the kaiser, another inbred European monarch, was unable to muster. The kaiser's pompous thrashings completely destroyed the non threatening image Bismarck had constructed, and his misunderstanding of the “German Problem” (which is essentially a question of how an emergent superpower should behave) was at the root of “civilization's first unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide.”

Sources: Michael Sturmer, The German Empire. Questions on German History, Companion to the eponymous historical exhibition in the Deutches Dom, Berlin. Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders, Europe 1800-1914.

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