Germany’s Wars of Unifi cation

Germany’s Wars of Unifi cation

In 1850, keeping the promise that he made to Berlin’s demonstrators during the March Revolution, Friedrich Wilhelm IV issued Prussia’s fi rst constitution. This conservative constitution made certain conces-sions to the liberals, but ultimately preserved royal authority. It estab-lished a parliament composed of two houses: a lower house, known as the Landtag, and an upper house, called the Herrenhaus.

The del-egates who served in the Landtag were to be elected, but a stringent property qualifi cation ensured conservative control by giving the most votes to those who paid the highest taxes. Meanwhile, members of the Herrenhaus were to be appointed by the king. Furthermore, the king’s authority was augmented by his complete control over the cabinet of ministers, all of whom he appointed, as well as the Prussian civil service and the army.

Along with these political developments, the 1850s were also a time of rapid economic and technological change as well. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Prussia had gained territories in the Rhineland and Westphalia, including the Ruhr, a region rich in coal deposits that would become the cradle of German industrialization.

Disunited and fragmented, the German states had lagged far behind Britain in indus-trial development, but by the 1840s, Germany began to experience rapid industrialization. By the 1850s, some 300 coal mines in the Ruhr Valley fueled massive blast furnaces, turning iron ore into steel for the manufacture of machinery, steam engines, and armaments.

The rapid growth of Germany’s railway system drove increasing industrializa-tion and fostered urbanization, as German cities swelled with masses of factory workers and their families. Germany’s industrial production increased dramatically, and the Saar region, in Upper Silesia, joined the Ruhr as one of the most important centers of heavy industry in all of Europe.

By the end of the 1850s, Germany was gaining on Britain in industrial production. Within two decades, Germany would match British production, eventually becoming Europe’s leading industrial power, its cities and countryside transformed by the spread of railways and the proliferation of factories, mines, and foundries.

Having weathered the turbulent period since the March Revolution, Friedrich Wilhelm IV was incapacitated by a stroke in 1857, and his younger brother, Wilhelm (1797–1888), ruled Prussia as prince regent. When Friedrich Wilhelm IV died in 1861, the crown prince, who had fought with distinction against the armies of Napoléon, took the Prussian throne as King Wilhelm I.

Amid a dispute with parliament about Prussia’s soaring military expenditures, the new monarch was persuaded to appoint Otto von Bismarck, a brilliant statesman serving as ambassador to France, to the post of minister president. Bismarck took the reins of the Prussian government in September 1862, begin-ning a meteoric career that would transform German history.

Bismarck resolved the budget impasse caused by Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s controversial army reform and immediately began to work toward the unifi cation of Germany under Prussian control, a goal that had languished since Olmütz. The conservative Junkers, who dominated the Prussian offi cer corps and civil service as completely as they did their own landed estates, opposed unifi cation. The Junkers feared that within a unifi ed Germany, their beloved Prussia’s stature would be diminished.

They were also concerned that the Hohenzollern monarch, their feudal lord and patron, would be forced to accept liberal reforms imposed by a German assembly. An aristocrat and archconservative, Bismarck’s primary concern was the destiny of Prussia. He understood, however, that Prussian power would be enhanced if the Hohenzollerns could make themselves rulers of a unifi ed Germany.

A practitioner of Realpolitik, a realistic and pragmatic brand of power politics, he was more than willing to appease Prussia’s liberals to advance this agenda, despite his distaste for their political views. The 1850s had been disas-trous for Prussia, which was marginalized by the other Great Powers, Britain, France, and Austria, during the Crimean War against Russia in 1854–55 and again during the Italian War of 1859.

According to Bismarck, the only way that Prussia could regain its former power in Europe was as the head of a unifi ed German nation-state that could vie with these imperial powers on an even footing. In September 1862, the Prussian statesman, arguing the need for military spending, gave his famous “iron and blood” speech before the Landtag, foreshadowing the violence that would accompany Germany’s unifi cation. In the coming decades, Bismarck would demonstrate time and again his willingness to resort to war to achieve Prussia’s ends.