Analytical Essay on German Empire: The German Confederation, The Wars of German Unification

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Table of contents

  1. The Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation 1815-1864
  2. The Wars of German Unification 1864-1871
  3. Wilhelm and the Kulturkampf 1871-1888
  4. Economy, Industry, Nationalism 1871-1900
  5. Wilhelm II 1888-1914

The Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation 1815-1864

The year is 1815. Napoleon has finally been defeated by the combined forces of Prussia and Britain. The Emperor of France was sent to the Pacific Island of Saint Helena, never to return. After the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna was called, a meeting between the old powers of Europe, to return the continent to its pre-Napoleonic state. During the reign of Napoleon, most of what is known as Germany was part of the Confederation of the Rhine, a French puppet state. The people of the Confederation did not enjoy living under French occupation, and would attempt to counteract it by emphasizing their German heritage. This would ultimately lead to the idea of German nationhood, and at the Congress of Vienna, the German Confederation was established, a loose alliance of German states, ruled by the Austrian Emperor. It is important to note that while the states in the German Confederation shared a similar cultural and linguistic heritage, they were still vastly different. The Northern German states were heavily influenced by both the Netherlands and Britain, with a largely Protestant population, while the Catholic South (dominated by Austria) shared more ties with the Italians, Hungarians, and French, than with their Northern neighbours. These cultural differences had begun during the wars of the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), and many North Germans, particularly the Prussians, were just as unhappy living under Austrian dominance as they were under France.

The German Confederation would become further divided after 1848, when a wave of nationalistic revolutions struck Europe. In the ethnically German North, this was a uniting factor, but in the South, which was comprised of Austrians, Czech, Bohemians, Saxons, Bavarians, French, and Hungarians, it was a dividing factor. As the Austrians were occupied with putting down their nationalist rebellions, Prussia became more and more influential in the German Confederation. Despite being wracked by infighting, the German Confederation was still largely a positive influence on Germany, as its standing army of 300,000 men was able to effectively defend its borders, and allow for economic growth. As time went on, Austria would continue to become less influential in German politics, largely due to being blocked by Prussia from joining the Zollverein (a German trade union).

The Wars of German Unification 1864-1871

“The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by blood and iron!”

Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia

Cracks had begun to form in the German Confederation as early as 1818, but the decisive turning point came during the Second Schleswig War. The territories of Schleswig Holstein had long belonged to the Danish Crown, but in 1864, war broke out between the German Confederation and Denmark for control of the territory. Prussia and Austria supplied the majority of the troops for the conflict, with 60,000 men against Denmark’s 38,000. It was a relatively brief war, ending in October 1684 with the Treaty of Vienna, which ceded both Schleswig and Holstein to the German Confederation. In recognition for their services in the war, Prussia would receive Schleswig and Austria would receive Holstein. The Austrians were displeased with the result of the war, as it meant that they would have to travel deep through Prussian controlled Schleswig to reach their own territory of Holstein. The Austrians would confront Prussia on this matter, and it would ultimately lead to another war. The Prussian forces were extremely well drilled and equipped, under the leadership of General Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who was also Chief of Prussian General Staff. Unlike many commanders of the time, Moltke embraced modern technology, particularly railways, allowing Prussian forces to mobilize and deploy much faster than their opponents. Prussia had a long martial history, and their soldiers had been regarded among the best in Europe since the Seven Years War (1756-1763.) Furthermore, junior officers and generals in the Prussian army were highly educated on military tactics, making them far more prepared for conflict than their opponents. The Austrian army was considerably less modernized, still using the same tactics that they used to achieve success in the centuries prior, while their general staff was hindered by bureaucracy. The Prussians had also formed an alliance with the Kingdom of Italy, and it was agreed that Italy would invade Austria through the South, while Prussia would invade through Bohemia. The war was a shocking success in the North, as they caught the Austrians off-guard, and advanced deep into Bohemia, crushing the Austrian army at Koniggratz, furthermore, Prussian morale was high as they were personally led by Kaiser Wilhelm. Austria would enjoy some success against Italy, but they were pressured by Prussia to sue for peace after only seven weeks.

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Prussia had been very careful to ensure that France, Britain, and Russia stayed out of the war. Much of this was done through the work of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian Minister President. He would later be responsible for much of Prussian, and later German foreign and domestic policy until the twentieth century. Bismarck, Moltke, and the Prussian War Minister, Albrecht von Roon championed the political movement Realpolitik, suggesting that Prussia should act extremely pragmatically, with a selfish national interest at heart. While at certain occasions, Bismarck was a cold and calculating man, he was also known to have sporadic childish tantrums. During a heated debate over how Prussia should proceed against Austria after the Seven Weeks War, for instance, Bismarck allegedly broke down in tears, smashed a lamp, and threatened to jump out of a window if the Kaiser did not accept his advice. It must have been a rather uncomfortable situation for the Prussian general staff.

In the aftermath of the Seven Weeks War, the Austrians found themselves abandoned by most of their former allies, and many German states joined Prussia, forming the North German Confederation. The Austrian Empire was displeased with this result, but ultimately accepted it, and decided on shifting their foreign policy to the Balkans, steering clear of Prussia. For the time, the North German Confederation was quite liberal, allowing men above twenty-five to vote for their representatives in the Reichstag (Parliament). This rapid Prussian expansion was noticed by the other major powers, and it would not be long before someone challenged Prussian hegemony in Northern Europe.

This would come when Leopold, Prince of Hohenzollern and cousin to Wilhelm I, was offered the Spanish crown. This proposal worried the French Emperor Napoleon III, as he did not want to be encircled by the Hohenzollern family, as had happened to France during the sixteenth century, when the Hapsburg dynasty controlled both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon III expressed this to Wilhelm in a telegram that was a thinly veiled threat as to what would happen if Leopold took the throne. The Kaiser then proceeded to send the telegram to Bismarck. The telegram, known to history as the Ems Telegram, was edited in a manner which made the French appear weak and cowardly, provoking them into declaring war. Much like in the Seven Weeks War, Bismarck ensured that the other great powers would stay out of the war, while making alliances with the German states of Bavaria and Wurttemberg. The North German Confederation army was once again lead by Helmuth von Moltke and Albrecht von Roon, who had painstakingly planned for the war. The army numbered 900,000 strong, along with 200,000 reserve soldiers who would join later in the war - they were equipped with a new weapon, the Needlegun. France outnumbered the Prussians by nearly a million soldiers; however, they were less well drilled, equipped, and organized. Napoleon III would personally command the French army, despite lacking the military experience required to combat the Prussians, but before his army had fully mobilized, the Prussians had already crossed into French territory. The war was another resounding success, after Napoleon III and most of the French army was captured at the Battle of Sedan. Led by Moltke, the German army pushed onwards to Paris, and bombarded the city, after a request for the Parisians to surrender was refused. Furthermore, the German navy had blockaded France, sending away any foreign aid. After the fall of Paris, German forces would march South to Orleans and Metz, where they gained even more victories, and on the 26th of January, 1871, the French government surrendered to the Prussians at Versailles. Earlier that month, on January 1st, at a meeting of the German leaders in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, Bismarck called for the creation of the Kaiserreich, the German Empire, with Wilhelm I as emperor, and Bismarck serving as the first Chancellor of Germany. In the mere seven years from 1866 to 1871, Prussia had humbled the Danes, Austrians, and French, never faltering, and managed to do what so many had failed in the last millennium, create a united German Nation.

Wilhelm and the Kulturkampf 1871-1888

During the reign of Wilhelm I, Bismarck continued to play a major role in both foreign and domestic policy, managing to centralize the many states of Germany, and making alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy, while securing peace with Russia and France.. The German Constitution was largely based off of the North German Constitution, as all men above twenty-five would be given the right to vote for their representatives in the Reichstag, the legislative branch of the government. Bismarck would also organize the 1884 Berlin Conference, a meeting between the great powers of Europe to divide Africa, as he dreamt of making Germany a great colonial empire, much like Britain and France.. The German Empire would gain several colonies, such as Ghana, but a global empire was ultimately not in its future. Also under Wilhelm (and until the outbreak of WWI), Germany would continue expanding their army, at its peak numbering over four million, making it one of the largest in Europe. The navy was also swelling in size, increasing from a largely unimportant coast guard in 1871 to one that would ultimately rival that of Britain in the early years of the 20th century. In the early years of the German Empire during the 1870s to 1880s, the nation experienced what was known as the Kulturkampf, the “Culture Conflict.” Prussia, the core of the German nation, as well as their neighbours such as Hanover and Schleswig were largely Protestant, while the South German states maintained strong ties to the Catholic Church. Bismarck desired to remove any foreign influence on the German people, whether it be from a rival nation, or the Clergy. He would do this through several laws passed by the Reichstag, which limited the power of the Church (most importantly, the School Supervision Act of 1872 blocked Church oversight in Schools and Universities, Wikipedia, Kulturkampf)

Economy, Industry, Nationalism 1871-1900

From 1871 onward, Germany urbanized, alongside a rapid period of industrialization. Factories sprung up across the nation, producing massive quantities of iron, steel, and most importantly, coal. While this allowed for unmatched economic growth, making them the world’s third largest economy by 1900, the sheer amount of people moving into the major cities (Berlin, Konigsberg, Frankfurt, among others) led to extremely poor quality of living for the middle class, ultimately causing the rise of the Social Democratic Party, which championed the rights of the lower and working class. politicians and philosophers looked to the German past to build a united country. To counteract the poor quality of life, Bismarck introduced the German Welfare State, which formed the basis for much of modern day European and American welfare, providing a modicum of healthcare, and a pension for senior citizens. Since 1848, Nationalist movements had sprung up across Europe, with one of the major uniting factors being a shared cultural heritage. For this purpose, politicians and philosophers looked to past “Germanic” heroes to build a united nation. One of the most influential figures for German nationalists was Arminius,a 1st century C.E Germanic tribal leader who had rebelled against Roman hegemony, which ultimately lead to his death. Another Proto-German was Friedrich Barbarossa, a Holy Roman Emperor who had fought against both French and Italian incursions into his territory, as well as dying on crusade. A legend was spread that he was alive and well in the mountains, waiting to aid Germany in its hour of need (Hitler’s Wehrmacht codenamed their Russian invasion Operation Barbarossa.) Naturally, these figures were heavily propagandized, and it is unlikely that either (among others) of them truly believed in a German nation, rather securing power for their families. Another uniting factor for Germans was their Anti Semitism, which had existed for centuries, as they were viewed by the common people as a cult who desired world domination.

Wilhelm II 1888-1914

Wilhelm I would die at the age of 91, in May of 1888, and the throne passed to his son Friedrich III, who would also maintain Bismarck as German Chancellor. Friedrich III did not achieve much in his reign, aside from marrying the daughter of Queen Victoria, intertwining the British and German royal families. Less than half a year into his reign, Friedrich died of cancer, and his son Wilhelm II succeeded him. Wilhelm II was extremely hot headed and did not appreciate Bismarck constantly meddling in foreign and domestic policy, dismissing him in 1890. The year before Bismarck’s death, he visited the Kaiser one last time, telling him that within a few years, a “Great war would break out, likely over some foolish thing in the Balkans”. During the early years of Wilhelm’s reign, Germany reached its peak, as he proudly supported Mathematics, Philosophy, Arts, Science, and Music, making the country one of the most culturally diverse and advanced nations in Europe at the time. Furthermore, he added on to the welfare reforms, making Germany a comparatively liberal place to live by 1900. The Kaiser maintained good relations with the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, as well as making several visits to the Ottoman Empire, securing alliances. Despite being cousins with George V of Britain and Nicholas II of Russia, the Kaiser disliked both of them, seeing Nicholas as somewhat bumbling, while the British viewed Wilhelm as simply too arrogant. Both of these assessments are probably fair. Germany also experienced a population boom under Wilhelm II, the nation numbering over sixty million at its peak. The Military would also increase in size and skill, particularly the navy. Under the leadership of Alfred von Tipritz, Germany would rapidly modernize and increase the size of their fleet, with nineteen warships by 1905 (Wikipedia, Imperial German Navy.) These naval exercises greatly worried Britain, as they saw it as a threat to their naval hegemony, which had existed since 1805, and was one of the major reasons that relations soured between Wilhelm II and George V. The army also expanded, numbering approximately three million in the early years of the twentieth century, under the competent, but not exceptional leadership of Alfred von Schliefen and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, cousin of the previously mentioned Moltke the Elder, and by 1910, Germany established a rudimentary air force, of around four thousand planes. So it would appear that on the eve of the twentieth century, Germany was prepared to become the pre-eminent world power within generation. A mere eighteen years later, that dream would come crumbling down.

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