When Otto von Bismarck was first voted into Prussian parliament in 1847 he strongly refused the idea of a unified Germany. But as history shows, he changed his views on the unification of Germany and became the architect of German unification and the German empire.
But why did Bismarck want to unify Germany? What had changed his mind?
Bismarck’s big goal was to increase the influence of Prussia. After being hesitant over the idea of German unification during the late 1840s he realized that the Kleindeutsche Lösung (Little German Solution), which means uniting the German states under Prussian dominance while excluding Prussias main rival Austria from unified Germany, would enhance the power and influence of Prussia.
Let`s find out more.
- 1 Why did Bismarck want to unify Germany?
- 2 This is why Bismarck refused the idea of a unified Germany during the 1840s?
- 3 How did Bismarck unify Germany?
- 4 Sources
Why did Bismarck want to unify Germany?
When we look at why Otto von Bismarck wanted to unify Germany we first have to look at Bismarcks’ motivations.
When Bismarck was appointed Prussian prime minister on 24 September 1862 he displayed himself as a loyal vassal who saw his feudal lord in danger. That kind of display also fitted well with Bismarcks’ upbringing. He was born as a part of the Prussian landowning aristocracy, the so-called Junkers.
Otto von Bismarck: Social Background, upbringing, and political ideas
These Junkers based their wealth on large estates that were worked by servants with very limited rights.
That kind of upbringing and heritage shaped Otto von Bismarck. So it should not come as a surprise that he was a convinced royalist and his political views and politics were both anti-parliamentarian shaped to strengthen the position of the Monarchy in Prussia.
Here you can find out more about Bismarck’s political views and ideas.
When Bismarck attempted to enforce the will of the Prussian king against the will of the Prussian parliament with its liberal majority he didn`t even shrink back from unconstitutional measures.
A good example of that is the conflict over the enlargement of the Prussian army that would lead to Bismarcks famous Blood and Iron speech. Please check out my article here for more information on the Blood and Iron speech and the conflict between the Prussian king and the Prussian parliament that would lead to Bismarcks’ appointment as Prussian Primeminister.
So after taking a look at Bismarcks’ upbringing and his political ideas we can now find out how these ideas led him to work towards the unification of the German states.
But before we look at why Bismarck wanted to unify the German states we first have to take a brief look at the states we are talking about.
The German Confederation: the successor of the Holy Roman Empire and predecessor of the German Empire
When Otto von Bismarck became Prussian Prime Minister in 1862 the Germany that we know today didn`t exist.
Instead, Bismarck and his contemporaries lived in the German Confederation, an association of 41 predominantly German-speaking states with Prussia and Austria being the two dominant powers within.
The members of the German Confederation changed slightly over time as some left, others joined, and some merged.
Here is an overview of the 41 states that made up the German Confederation:
- The Kingdom of Prussia
- The Austrian Empire (excluding most of its non-german speaking areas like the kingdoms of Hungary and Croatia)
- The Kingdom of Bavaria
- The Kingdom of Hannover (until 1837 in personal union with the United Kingdom)
- The Kingdom of Saxony
- The Kingdom of Württemberg
- Hesse-Kassel (= The Electorate of Hesse)
- Hesse-Darmstadt (= The Grand Duchy of Hesse)
- The Grand Duchy of Baden
- The Grand Duchy of Luxemburg (its western parts united with Belgium in 1839 and left the German Confederation)
- The Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin
- The Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
- The Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
- The Grand Duchy of Oldenburg
- The Duchy of Brunswick
- The Duchy of Limburg (including the Netherlands, joined in 1839 to compensate for the territories that were lost when the western parts of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg left)
- The Duchy of Holstein
- The Duchy of Nassau
- The Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld
- The Duchy of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg
- The Duchy of Saxe-Hildburghausen (until 1826, than merged with Saxe-Meiningen)
- The Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen
- The Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg
- The Duchy of Anhalt-Bernburg (until 1863, than merged with Anhalt-Dessau)
- The Duchy of Anhalt-Dessau
- The Duchy of Anhalt-Köthen (until 1853, than merged with Anhalt-Dessau)
- The Principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen (until 1850, then merged with the Kingdom of Prussia)
- The Principality of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (until 1850, then merged with the Kingdom of Prussia)
- The Principality of Liechtenstein
- The Principality of Lippe
- The Principality of Reuss Senior Line
- The Principality of Reuss Junior Line
- The Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe
- The Principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt
- The Principality of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen
- The Principality of Waldeck and Pyrmont
- The Landgraviate of Hesse-Homburg (1817-1866, than merged with the Grand Duchy of Hesse)
- The Free Hanseatic city of Bremen
- The Free Hanseatic city of Lübeck
- The Free Hanseatic city of Hamburg
- The Free City of Frankfurt upon the Main
The German Confederation was established in 1815 by the congress of Vienna as a replacement of the Holy Roman Empire, more on how the Holy Roman Empire got its name here, which had been dissolved by Napoleon in 1806.
The Federal Assembly was the only organ of the German Confederation and consisted of representatives from the different member states who met under the chairmanship of the Austrian representative.
It is important to state that the German Confederation had been established for eternity and could not be dissolved.
Well, at least on paper the Confederation could not be dissolved. Since Bismarck had already used unconstitutional behavior in 1862 he did not hesitate to use them again in 1866.
Here you can find out more on how Bismarck caused the end of the German Confederation.
The system of the German confederation had some clear advantages, especially since federal law overruled the individual state laws.
But there were also a few disadvantages:
- The German Confederation was limited to security matters
- The Federal Assembly required unanimity to make decisions
- The German Confederation was dependent on the willingness of the two dominant states (Prussia and Austria) to cooperate. But since both states were rivaled each other over the leading position within the Confederation cooperation between them was limited.
All these weaknesses but especially the dualism between Prussia and Austria during the 1860s and their rivalry over the dominant position within the German Confederation must be remembered when we talk about why Bismarck wanted to unify the German states!
So let`s now return to the question of why Bismarck wanted to unify Germany.
Why did Bismarck want to unify the German states?
As we have already stated in the past paragraphs:
Otto von Bismarcks’ main goal was to increase the influence of Prussia! And he had realized that for Prussia to increase its power it would have to unite the german states under its leadership.
Bismarck already hinted at the role of Prussia as a leader of the German states when he held his Blood and Iron speech in 1862, more on that here.
There was only one problem with his plan. Remember when I wrote to remember the rivalry between Prussia and Austria over the dominant position within the German Confederation?
Not only did Austria provide many Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, the predecessor of the German Confederation but the Federal Assembly of the German Confederation was also presided by the Austrian representative.
Bismarck realized that in order to increase the position of Prussia and its influence over the other German states the Austrian influence would have to be pushed out of German politics.
The opportunity to push Austrian influence out of the politics of the German states presented itself in 1866. Here you can find out more about how Bismarck provoked a war with Austria and how that war would end the German Confederation.
The war with Austria also manifested the decision of the German question.
The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 also meant that the Little German solution (=Kleindeutsche Lösung; uniting the german states while excluding Austria) had triumphed over the Großdeutsche Lösung (=Greater German solution; uniting all german states including Austria with its non-german regions).
The reason why Bismarck clearly preferred the Little German Solution (Kleindeutsche Lösung), a unification of the German states without Austria, is obvious.
By excluding Prussias old rival for influence and power Prussia would be the undisputed leader within unified Germany.
By the way: The dispute over whether or not Austria should be a part of unified Germany was the reason why Bismarck refused the idea of German unification during his time as a young representative during the late 1840s.
This is why Bismarck refused the idea of a unified Germany during the 1840s?
While Bismarck was appointed as Prime minister of Prussia in 1862 and almost immediately started to come up with ideas to increase the Prussian influence over the other German states the young Bismarck during his time as a representative in the late 1840s refused the idea of German unification.
I think the main reason for his refusal of german unification was that the german question hadn`t been decided yet. As described in the last paragraph, it would take until the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 that the Little German Solution (Kleindeutsche Lösung)was chosen over the Greater German Solution (Großdeutsche Lösung).
Please check out my article here for more information on the war between Prussia and Austria of 1866.
While in 1866 Bismarck clearly favored the Little German Solution (only uniting the German states while excluding Austria with its partially non-german regions) the situation was very different during the 1840s and 1850s.
During the 1840s and 1850s, the advocates of a Greater German Solution argued that Austrian emperors had presided over the Holy Roman Empire for almost 400 years and that Austria because of that was the logical leader of a unified Germany.
Do you wonder why the Holy Roman Empire was called that way although the joke among historians is that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire? Here you can find my article with the answer!
I think it is obvious why a man like Bismarck who always had the goal of increasing the influence of Prussia refused the idea of a unified Germany under Austrian dominance. Another part was religion. Bismarck was a protestant while Austria was catholic. And the idea of a united Germany being ruled by Catholics also strived against the convinced protestant Bismarck.
It wasn`t until after the war of 1866 that Bismarck had crushed the Austrian influence. But that war was only one step on the way to a unified Germany!
How did Bismarck unify Germany?
After Otto von Bismarck had successfully provoked Austria into war, more on how he did that here, he had come a big step closer to his main goal.
After the war between Austria and Prussia in 1866, the German Confederation was replaced by the North German Confederation in which Prussia united all German states north of the river Main. Bismarck also created a constitution that would later be adopted by the German Empire. But the constitution of the German Empire is a story for another time.
Bismarck’s next step was to bring the German states south of the river Main into the newly founded federation. And once again Bismarcks Blood and Iron speech proved predictive.
Once again a war would be needed to ignite the flames of German nationalism that would convince the German states in the south to join the federation under Prussian dominance and accept the Prussian king as the emperor.
The war that would ultimately lead to the unification of the German states under Prussian dominance was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/1871. But that is a story for another time. Please check out my article here for more information on how Bismarck provoked France into war.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
F. Herre: Bismarck. Der preußische Deutsche (Köln 1991).
C. Graf von Krockow: Bismarck (Stuttgart 1997).