Not by speeches and majority resolutions are the great questions of the day decided—that was the mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by blood and iron.— Otto von Bismarck
Germany had been fragmented into as many as 300 separate states ever since the Investiture Struggle in the Middle Ages had wrecked the power of the German emperors. In the following centuries, it had suffered repeatedly from foreign wars and aggression, most recently Napoleon's rule. However, Napoleon had inadvertently done Germany two favors in the process of his rule. Besides instilling a sense of nationalism in its people, he had also consolidated Germany into 38 states, a giant step toward unification. Since Napoleon's defeat two states had competed for leadership of Germany: Austria and Prussia. Most people would have expected Austria, with its longer imperial tradition and larger territory to dominate. But it was Prussia, with its better organization and more progressive reforms (e.g., its customs union known as the Zollverein), which was destined to unify Germany.
The man who would lead Prussia in Germany's unification was its chancellor (prime minister), Otto von Bismarck (1815-94). He was a man of massive size and strength, brilliant mind, and iron will. Childhood stories of Germany's heroes had inspired him with a sense of German nationalism, while stories of foreign conquerors, especially Napoleon, angered him and instilled in him a desire for a unified nation. Bismarck's early career was rather undistinguished, although he did see foreign diplomatic service, which gave him experience in that field. He also witnessed Austrian arrogance toward Prussia in the German Diet (parliament), which set his mind to earn his country respect both inside Germany and outside of it. In 1862, he got his chance.
In 1858, Wilhelm I had succeeded Frederick William IV. The new king wanted to build up and reform the Prussian army. But one obstacle stood in the way: the Prussian Reichstag (parliament), formed as a result of the revolutions of 1848, refused to grant Wilhelm the needed money. In 1862, Wilhelm, on the verge of abdicating, appointed Bismarck as his chancellor.
Bismarck, among other things, was no lover of democracy, including the Prussian Reichstag, which he said bogged itself down in speeches and resolutions. He believed only clear-sighted decisive policies of "blood and iron" could build a German nation. He figured that once the nation was successfully built, German liberals, inspired by the reality of the long sought for German nation, would come around to his way of thinking. Therefore, he simply ruled without parliament and rammed through his own reforms. Prussia got its army and Bismarck could now turn to unifying Germany. Bismarck was an excellent diplomat who brilliantly manipulated alliances and played different powers off against one another. He was also a master of limited objectives, using each diplomatic step to set up the next one. He started with a revolt in Poland.
The Polish revolt against Russia in 1863 gained a great deal of popular support in Europe. But Bismarck was more interested in power than popular support (unless it was a means to gaining power). He clearly saw that the Czar would put down the revolt, and therefore helped Russia in crushing the rebels. This secured his eastern flank and gained an ally against Austria who had refused to help Russia in the Crimean War even after Russia had helped the Hapsburgs suppress their uprisings in 1848.
With his eastern border secure, Bismarck next championed the liberties of Germans in Schleswig and Holstein, whose Danish ruler was incorporating them more tightly into the Danish state. The resulting Danish War (1864) accomplished three things for Bismarck. First of all, it won him useful popular support among the Germans since he appeared to be defending German liberties. Secondly, it gave the reformed Prussian army valuable combat experience. Finally, it dragged Austria into the war on Prussia's side, since it could not afford to let Prussia be the sole champion of German liberties. This served Bismarck's purpose, since it got Prussia and Austria hopelessly entangled by their joint occupation of Schleswig and Holstein and helped set up a showdown between the two powers: the Austro-Prussian War (1866)
Bismarck laid the diplomatic groundwork for this war with typical thoroughness. Russia, already Prussia's friend and still mad at Austria, was effectively neutral, which suited Bismarck fine. Bismarck kept France out of the war by making vague promises of Rhineland territories if he won. And Italy, wanting to get Venice into its fold, allied against the common Austrian enemy. Prussia's military preparations were equally thorough. The Prussian army was better trained, organized and equipped than the Austrian army. A new breech loading rifle, the "needle gun", gave Prussian soldiers four times the firepower of their Austrian counterparts. A combination of using Prussia's railroad system for rapid movement of its armies with the telegraph to coordinate those movements allowed the Prussians to converge at the point of attack with unprecedented precision and overwhelming force. As a result, the Seven Weeks War, as this was also known, was a rapid and total victory for Prussia, in stark contrast to the drawn out conflict of the Seven Years War a century earlier
Bismarck's settlement looked forward to the eventual unification of Germany. His treatment of Austria was fairly lenient, taking only Venice and giving it, as promised, to Italy. But he also excluded Austria from German affairs, thus clearing the way for Prussian dominance. For Prussia itself, he took Schleswig and Holstein as well as the lands dividing Prussia from its holdings along the Rhine in the West. Bismarck also unified the north German states into a confederation under Prussian leadership, while expecting the south German states to follow Prussia's leadership in war. The confederation was organized along democratic lines to gain popular support, but the real power rested with the Prussian king and chancellor.
Bismarck's next move was to galvanize German support against a common enemy. He found that cause by going to war with France. Napoleon III of France had his motives for war as well. Sagging popularity at home and concern over Prussia's growing power helped drive him on a collision course with Bismarck that erupted into the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1). Once again, Bismarck had laid firm diplomatic foundations. Russia was still Prussia's friend. Italy allied with Prussia in order to get Rome out of French hands. Austria, still licking its wounds from its recent struggle with Prussia, was neutralized. The one big question mark was: what would Britain do? Bismarck took care of that by taking out a full-page ad in the London Times claiming France wanted to annex Belgium. Public opinion was outraged and Britain left France to its fate.
Few people then would have given Prussia any chance to beat the French, anyway, since France was still considered the foremost military power in Europe. The Franco-Prussian War proved that assumption wrong. Prussian training, equipment, leadership, and organization quickly smashed French armies in rapid succession. Within six weeks the Prussians had surrounded Napoleon III’s army at Sedan. After a day of desperate but suicidal assaults against the Prussian positions, Napoleon III was forced to surrender along with 120,000 men. The French mounted sporadic local resistance, especially in Paris whose besieged inhabitants survived on elephant meat from the zoo. In the end, it was too little too late and France had to ask for terms.
The Prussian victory had two main results. First of all, Prussia annexed Alsace and Lorraine, a bone of contention between the two countries since the Treaty of Verdun in 843 A.D. This alone was enough to spark French bitterness. Secondly, Bismarck officially unified Germany by declaring the Second Reich (German Empire) and crowning Wilhelm as Kaiser (literally Caesar or emperor). Not only that, he did this at Versailles, for 200 years the symbol of French power and now the symbol of its humiliation. This newly unified Germany would become an economic superpower by rapidly industrializing. For example, German steel production doubled every decade between 1870 and 1910, even passing British steel production after 1900. Both Prussia's treatment of France and its unification and industrialization of Germany would upset the balance of power and trigger a system of interlocking alliances that kept Europe on a knife-edge of readiness for a war that nearly everyone expected to break out. That war, World War I, would be the beginning of the end of European supremacy.
Internally, Germany between 1870 and 1914 presented a picture of seemingly incompatible contrasts. While its economy forged ahead to make it the most advanced nation in Europe, its political structure resisted any liberalizing trends and remained conservative and autocratic. Likewise, it maintained an increasingly obsolete social structure of rich landowners who had mechanized their farms at the expense of the peasants and even richer capitalists making profits at the expense of a downtrodden working class and shrinking class of small shopkeepers and craftsmen. As the social and political systems lagged behind economic progress, tensions in the form of growing opposition parties (including socialists), protests, and strikes emerged more and more. Discontent was partially diverted away from the government by being focused against such groups as Catholics, socialists, and especially Jews. This and World War I only put off resolving these tensions. Unfortunately, the banner of discontent would be picked up by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis whose terrorist programs would plunge both Germany and the world into a much worse nightmare than even World War I proved to be.