Thursday, October 18, 2012
Although not without a degree of ‘storm and stress’ the unification of Germany was surprisingly easy. There are many reasons why it could have been much, much more difficult. Like Italy there were powerful foreign countries which opposed German unification and there were differences in language (or at least dialect) from one region to another. Yet, unlike Italy, the area that became Germany was much more politically divided with three Free Cities, seven Principalities, five Duchies, six Grand Duchies and four Kingdoms. Nor was there religious unity. The large majority were Protestants (mostly Lutheran) but there was a sizeable minority of Catholics and a smaller Jewish minority as well. Germany also did not have any ancient history of unity to look back on for inspiration. Spain had the Visigoth Kingdom of Spain that existed prior to the Muslim conquest and Italy had Imperial Rome but the area that became Germany had never been firmly under one government at any point in history. The closest was the Holy Roman Empire but for the vast majority of time that it existed, actual central control was only temporary and for the most part the constituent states ruled themselves and bargained with the Emperor rather than submitting to his authority unconditionally. Besides which, though the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire would at times be claimed, the memory of the “First Reich” was a rather problematic one.
Tensions between Austria and Prussia long predated the movement for national unification and, from the very beginning, it was usually Austria that lost and Prussia that gained. In the days of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the unity was more symbolic than factual and especially toward the end, no one even pretended that the Emperor in Vienna actually ruled the Empire beyond the borders of Austria and Hungary. The Prussians had first challenged imperial authority simply by claiming royal status. First the local monarch became “King IN Prussia” and in a later concession “King OF Prussia” and at times Prussians and Austrians went to war such as during the conflict between Emperor Joseph II and King Frederick the Great of Prussia. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars gave them someone else to fight but the old tensions remained. Also as a result of Napoleon (whether by agreements with him or conflicts against him) each made gains but Prussia gained amongst the German people whereas Austrian gains were mostly amongst non-German peoples, mostly Italians and also some Slavs by gaining Tarnopol from Russia. This, combined with the already sizeable Magyar and Slavic populations within the Austrian Empire further served to set Austria apart from the rest of the German-speaking world. However, Hapsburg preeminence remained due to the size of the Austrian Empire and the historic legacy of the House of Hapsburg.
Things began to change in a big way after the accession of King Wilhelm I of Prussia and the rise of Otto von Bismarck to political supremacy in Berlin. More conservative Prussians were coming around to the idea of German unification, provided it was under Prussian leadership. Considering that Prussia had a strong economy and, arguably, man-for-man the strongest army in Europe, that might not have seemed too tall an order. However, there were obstacles. One was the King himself. Wilhelm I was quite content being the King of Prussia who owed his throne to God and had no interest in becoming an Emperor of Germany who would owe his throne to a political agreement or elected assembly. Another problem was the Austrians who emperors continued to serve as presidents of the German Confederation and who had the benefit of legitimacy when it came to pan-German leadership from their history as Holy Roman Emperors. Austria would be sure to resist any effort to unite Germany under Prussian leadership (just as Prussia would likely have resisted any similar effort under Austrian leadership). Another problem was the south German states which were more Catholic, closer to Austria and whose royal families owed their “royal” status to Napoleonic France and thus could be problematic for Prussia. There was also the “problem” of the House of Hohenzollern itself and how unification would be achieved and what sort of a united Germany it would be.
King Wilhelm I, a traditional, old-fashioned sort of monarch (God bless him) was certainly not keen on the idea of German unification. Bismarck was adamantly pushing for Prussia to take charge of the movement, but King Wilhelm I did not really want to be an Emperor. After all, the Austrian Emperor was “the” Emperor and Wilhelm I did not want to appear as a sort of ambitious usurper of the rank and title that had traditionally belonged to the House of Hapsburg and which was bound up in the memory of the very Catholic Holy Roman Empire. Crown Prince Friedrich, however, was another story. He greatly favored unification and was eager to be Emperor of Germany. However, while Bismarck shared this ambition, the sort of united Germany the Crown Prince wanted was definitely not the sort that Bismarck wanted. Crown Prince Friedrich and his wife the Princess Royal Victoria of Great Britain, were rather liberal compared to the Chancellor and wanted to reign over a united Germany that was a democratic, limited, constitutional monarchy similar to what existed in Victorian Britain. Bismarck thought this would be a disaster and set the German princes against Prussia and lead to nothing but trouble. However, Bismarck pushed ahead with his plan, supported at times by the Crown Prince even as he urged the King to keep his son with his liberal ideas on a short leash.
Prussia proved how modern and efficient her military forces were in a war against Denmark alongside the other members of the German Confederation, including Austria, in 1864. This area would provide the excuse for Prussia finally going to war with Austria only a few years later in 1866. It seems more likely that Bismarck was at least largely responsible for orchestrating this, possibly after being less than impressed with the capability of the Austrian army when compared to that of Prussia. By this time, the great Austrian commanders of 1848 were gone and the penny-pinching government in Vienna had failed to keep the Austrian military modernized and up-to-date whereas the Prussian forces were positively state-of-the-art. Once again, events conspired to keep Austria largely isolated in this conflict. Although most of the south German states allied with Austria, other than Saxony they proved to be of little consequence and no outside help came for a number of reasons. France still bore ill-will against Austria and, in any event, did not expect Austria to have any trouble defeating the Prussians. Italy allied with Prussia over continued Austrian rule of Venice and Russia, previously helpful to Austria, remained neutral due to resentment over Austrian neutrality during the Crimean War (something Russia was especially touchy about considering that they had come to the rescue of Austria during the Hungarian rebellion in 1848).
The final course of German unification was therefore decided by a seven week conflict which determined that Prussia would dominate the German nationalist movement and Austria would be excluded. Prussian advances in weaponry and logistics made short work of the Austrians and soon Austria sued for peace. Prussia was not overly demanding in reaching a settlement, anxious to avoid having an embittered Austria as a future enemy. There was also little Austria had that Prussia wanted, they simply wanted Austria out of the way in the drive for German unification under Prussian leadership. Austria was excluded from German affairs and the old German Confederation was officially abolished, replaced by the short-lived North German Confederation which was simply a stepping stone to the united Germany. France helped negotiate the peace and one cannot help but wonder if Emperor Napoleon III realized that he was next on the Prussian menu. He was confident that his forces could defeat Prussia alone but he hoped Austria could keep the south German states from joining in. Again, however, events far beyond the control of Prussia worked together to isolate France.
The southern German states had also, over the course of the wars with Denmark and Austria, come to see Prussia as the rising star in Europe. If they had to be the friend or enemy of Prussia, they would prefer to be friends. There were also worries that they could lose a great deal in any peace settlement between Napoleon and Bismarck if they held aloof. So, despite the hopes of Napoleon, when war came in 1870 the southern states joined with Prussia in invading France. This, of course, was after the doctoring of the famous Ems Telegram by which Bismarck tweaked the Napoleonic nose, provoking France into making the first aggressive move. The war was a triumph for Prussia and the other German states and a stunning defeat for France, ending with the collapse of the Second French Empire, riots, revolution and widespread suffering. However, Prussia achieved the goal of establishing the united Germany in the way the conservative faction wanted (and, happily, France rebounded rather quickly anyway).
The deeper question though, is whether or not this was the best way for German unity to be achieved or should it have been achieved at all? The second question is taken for granted. The united Germany achieved a great level of success it had never known before. As to the first, the way Germany was united was certainly preferable to the sort of unity which had been earlier sought by the Frankfurt Assembly, based on the consent of the German monarchs rather than abstract, liberal ideals and passing trends. Perhaps a more difficult question is whether Prussian leadership was preferable to Austrian in this movement toward unification? We cannot, of course, ever know the answer for certain. I am, admittedly, partial to the House of Hapsburg but I do not think I am being unreasonable to say that history might have unfolded for the better if German unity had been achieved based on the historical legacy of the House of Hapsburg rather than the military might of the unquestionably superb Prussian army. True, one could point to later examples of Austrian adventures as a source of trouble, but all of these came about after Austria had been excluded from German affairs and was forced to focus on the problematic Balkans to find a new place in the world for herself. It is a debatable point and we cannot know the answer. Hapsburg leadership seems to have been the better option to me, but that’s just one monarchists’ opinion.