The Struggle for Unity Among the German States in the 19th Century
Overview of the struggle for unification in 19th-Century Germany, under Otto Von Bismark and the Kaiser.
Call for Reform
At the beginning of the 19th Century, Germany was not a unified country. It was a conglomeration of autocratic states (39 in all), where only the very wealthy and powerful ruled. Many of these states dated back to medieval times when they were independent kingdoms, principalities and duchies. As the 19th Century progressed, a call for reform and unification began to echo throughout the German states. With the spread of democratic ideals, carried over from the United States, Great Britain and France, rulers faced growing unrest from their people.
The question of reform and unification came to head in 1848, with revolutions in all the German states. One of the loudest voices of reform came from the Socialist Party, whose ideals called for a government that would bring economic and political equality to all of the German states. Delegates from each state met at Frankfort in an attempt to draw up a constitution that would unite them all. Unable to come to an agreement, the revolution of 1848-1849 failed.
Between 1815-1866 Prussia, the largest of the German states, began taking over other areas by force. This did little to endear the German government to the other European countries, particularly Great Britain. In 1864, without any instigation, Prussia attacked Denmark, a notably poor and neutral country, totally unable to defend itself. Prussia claimed the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. This greatly angered the king and queen of Denmark (go figure) as well as their two daughters, Alexandra and Minny, who were married to the future king of England and the future tsar of Russia, respectively. Personal animosities of Europe’s Royalty would play out for the entire world to see, in the coming decades.
Otto Von Bismarck and German Unification
Further wars with Austria (1866) and France (1870-1871) added even more territory to Prussia. Unable to cope economically, the southern German states, including Bavaria, joined with the northern German Empire, as it was styled. The Prime Minister, Otto Von Bismarck, who dressed up this autocratic government in the façade of a democracy, was the unofficial leader. He set up the government to be controlled primarily by the Kaiser (emperor) whom Bismarck had complete control over. This would be a costly mistake for Bismarck, who failed to ingratiate himself with the future Kaisers, Frerich III and Wilhelm II.
One of Bismarck’s biggest goals was to get rid of any socialist influence in Germany. In 1878, there were several attempts on the life of the Kaiser. Even though there was no evidence to support his claim, Bismarck declared the Socialist Party behind the assassination attempts. The government quickly outlawed any groups or newspapers with socialist ties. In order to gain further support against the socialists, Bismarck played up to the German workers by offering them several government funded programs, including health insurance and pensions. It worked, as many German voters exchanged political ideology for economic stability.