'Bismarck inaugurated a revolution from above.' Assess the significance of the role played by Bismarck in bringing about the unification of Germany in 1871.

Bismarck’s involvement in the brining about of the unification of Germany is undeniably incredibly significant. As Feuchtwanger rightly asserts “Bismarck dominated Germany and Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century” playing an instrumental role in uniting a number of preexisting ideas of nationalism into formulating a united Germany[1]. Yet it can’t be said that Bismarck was an innovator of revolution nor that he really inaugurated a revolution from above. Rather it can be said that Bismarck capitalised effectively upon a golden opportunity for unification found in the progression and development of both economics and nationalism. German transition from a predominantly agricultural economic system to one of hybrid agricultural and industrial production methods prompted a natural economic progression that saw unification as a logical means to furthering this economic prosperity. Coupled with a developing national sentiment in Germany in the nineteenth century that began to combat a large sense of state particularism constructed a groundwork for unification. Without such developments being made Bismarck’s bringing about the unification of Germany in 1871 would have been far more complex. Whilst these groundworks were fundamental to unification Bismarck’s role should not be downplayed, his crafty manipulation and exploitation of opportunities were of great importance in setting up and executing unification. His ability to weasel both Austria and France into war with Prussia whilst simultaneously avoiding assuming the role of aggressor in any situation as not to encourage international intervention was of course of great significance in removing outstanding barriers to unification. Yet his actions cannot grant him the title of an innovator of unification when previous developments of nationalism played such an important role in unification. [PH1] 

The economic landscape in the German states in the early 18th century was one of agricultural production. Up until the early 1840s the role of industry in German economics was minor, hence at this time a rapid industrialization of the German states vastly changed the economic landscape, not only in what was being produced and sold but on what scale. The industrial development of Germany consequently triggered a chain of growing nationalism. German economist Friederich List, recognised by Berdahl as “one of the first to associate German economic retardation with the absence of national unity” highlights the importance of this economic progression. List contradicts the cosmopolitan economic theories of Adam Smith, rather suggesting that the wealth of a nation is correspondent to its “productive power”, suggested to be a “cultivation of all its resources”, arguing that the increase of industrial production puts in place a natural economic progression in which as production increases demand should increase hence consumer base will also need to increase[2]. This will continue until “the unity of a nation becomes the fundamental condition of economic prosperity”[3]. [PH2] Lists argument that economic development progresses nationalism out of the convenience of the growing potential for economic prosperity is an entirely valid one. The creation of a German customs union in the form of the Zollverein in 1828 is evidence of this, by 1842 29 of the 38 German states had agreed to be part of this customs union. As Kitchen notes Friederich von Motz’s liberal vision made the argument that “customs dues were symbolic of political division” which undoubtedly, they are[4]. A direct barrier to free trade was recognised by at least these 29 states to be a barrier to economic progression hence the action of economic expansion in the expansion of markets and consumer base has a consequent nationalist effect. This is furthered as the Zollverein grows in importance particularly for smaller third Germany states in the second half of the nineteenth century as the free trade provided by the customs union is of such necessity that they have to oblige to Prussian ruling[PH3] . This sort of dynamic is exploited by Bismarck in the build up to Prussian and Austrian war in which Bismarck was able to prevent third German intervention on the side of Austria due to the economic reliance of states on Prussia. Such a situation is an appropriate demonstration of the groundwork that had be laid for Bismarck to exploit in his pursuit of unification as a means of furthering Prussian dominance[PH4] .

Further development of nationalism and construction of nationalist groundworks which Bismarck would later utilise can be seen in the deterioration of traditional societal structures as economics progress and is modernised. Berdahl refers to Robert Emersons study of nationalism in modern Asia and Africa, applying the concept to nineteenth century Germany[5]. Berdahl suggests that with economic modernisation and the break down of traditional society from the agricultural and localities-based manner it had previously existed in that there is a “psychological need for the creation of the consciousness of a broader community, the nation”. [PH5] Berdahl’s assumption is undoubtedly valid [PH6] and further suggests that it can’t be said that Bismarck was of sole significance in bringing unification, rather historical developments of economics in this case had developed foundations of nationalism in the German states [PH7] that certainly made Bismarck’s role easier [PH8] and reduces the significance that can be accredited to him in this context. It is to be noted that the effects of economic progression weren’t all directly positive when relating to the goal of unification. By expanding economic output, the Zollverein was created of course excluding Austria and creating somewhat of a divide amongst German states. Arguably this division forged a barrier to unification in later years when Austria rejected the Kleindeutschland Germany, opposing unification[PH9] . However, given Bismarck’s goals of extending Prussian dominance it may actually have been beneficial that economic relations between Prussia and Austria were kept to a minimum as it made for a clear goal of excluding Austria from unification. Ultimately, the shift from an agriculturally based society to one of far greater industrial production triggered an economic shift that had large consequent national impacts. A development of economics in terms of production power set a natural progression to a greater market and hence expansion into different states. Moreover, this change prompted a change in social structure as society expanded from localities into a far broader social spectrum. This combination helped form a nationalist feel and movement that predated Bismarck’s attempts and actually aided Bismarck in his achievement of unification by providing existing national feel and support for unification. [PH10] 

In his work “Germany, from Napoleon to Bismarck” Nipperdy suggests that in hindsight the Napoleonic conflict with the German states and the succeeding French occupation of German states “can be seen as the beginning of the nationalist movement which was to become so critical in German history”[6]. Nipperdy argues that that the Napoleon’s conflict with Austria, Prussia and the third Germany inspired the beginnings of German nationalism in the sense that for the first time the German states found themselves united in a cause: fighting Napoleon and the French. The development of a large-scale anti-French feeling, both during and after the conflict, proved fundamental to the development of a united German sentiment. The situation of having a common enemy is as explained by Nipperdy a stimulant to developing a national sentiment being united against and enemy.[7] Furthermore, the War of Liberation proved particularly impactful in progressing nationalism. After the war education was expanded in Prussia installing greater senses of nationalism in young men. The first use of the German colours of Black, Red and Gold in the wars embody the progression of nationalism in the time. These German colours began to build the foundations of a nation that all German states could be a part of. The Lützowsche Freikorps are a telling demonstration of this; a subsection of the Prussian army formed of predominately non-Prussian volunteers forming 12.5% of the Prussian army after the war and dressed in the German colours. The diversity of this group whilst fighting for a single cause are testament to the begging of a transition from state to national patriotism. Nipperdy’ s assumption that this was critical to German history is undoubtedly true, it’s hard to pinpoint an event predating this one that inspired nationalism in the same way this did. Whilst unification was far from close in the years after this, a significant and necessary step had been taken from a primarily provincial patriotism in states to at least a consideration of a national patriotism[PH11] . The extent to which Nipperdy stresses this change, however, is overplayed. Nipperdy directly states that “The old provincial patriotism becomes a nationalist German patriotism and spawns the German nationalist movement” [8]undoubtedly this change spawned the beginnings of the German nationalist movement however it is implied here that state patriotism is replaced, a statement which seems far from true. In this take it would seem that Bismarck’s role becomes far less significant if state patriotism was eliminated in such a manner. It is clear that in the second half of the nineteenth century Bismarck finds opposition to unification in the German states for a multitude of reasons, of which traditional state patriotism is one. It is important to stress the extent to which the French conflict with German states resulted in a nationalist movement: whilst it ignited the beginnings of the movement, it did not solidify a strong nationalist movement otherwise unification would  have happened far earlier yet opposing political belief such as traditional conservatism opposed it[PH12] . Perhaps a more influential nationalist impact of the French occupation of German lands was the subsequent development of a Prussian policy of expansion and arguably dominion. The French destruction of the Prussian army and occupation of Prussian lands was a deep blow to the militaristic pride of Prussians. As a result of such defeat a clear policy to strengthen Prussia was developed that was seen in most Prussians, this feel of a need for military prowess was highly influential in the decision making of Bismarck. This development of Prussian desire for military dominance can be seen to decrease the significance of Bismarck’s role in unification. Had Prussian expansion not been of importance to Prussian’s unification would have appeared far less fruitful in the eyes of Prussians. [PH13] The concept of Prussian expansion was one of great importance of Bismarck himself, the very benefits of unification to Prussia was the extension of Prussian influence, unification was merely a means to the end of Prussian expansion. Henceforth the Prussian expansionist culture that was embedded in the state after the devastating defeat to Napoleon was an incredibly large driving force to unification and Bismarck by no means introduced a Prussian feeling of expansionism. Without Bismarck the Prussian feelings of expansionism would still have existed and unification would still have presented the same benefits hence the role of Bismarck appears to be one of less significance than previously considered. [PH14] 

Whilst economics and the Napoleonic invasion of German states may have ignited and progressed a nationalist movement that assisted Bismarck in his unification of Germany, Bismarck’s role was by no means straightforward. Despite showing signs of struggle in the early stages of his career as Minister-President, described by Crankshaw as an “apparent lack of understanding of the real forces at work in Prussia, in Germany [and] in Europe”[9] Bismarck demonstrated an impressive aptitude for manipulating situations into his favour and persuading those against him to favour him. These manipulative skills [PH15] were fundamental to the build up to unification, Bismarck almost single handedly eliminated all barriers to unification during the 1860’s. Firstly, he gained the favour of Frederick Wiliam I, solidifying his own position and increasing his influence over Prussian affairs. He then disposed of both Austria and France through military dominance whilst at no points allowing international intervention to contest Prussia’s dominance. The first of Bismarck’s significant successes was his gaining of the favour of the King. Gall argues that Bismarck’s appointment and progression to gaining the King’s favour “signified a transfer of political leadership from the King to his new chief minister”, validly asserting that Bismarck’s ascendance in the power rankings resulted in a correspondent gaining of power that unlocked the potential for Bismarck to be able to dominate Prussia and take the daring risks he was famous for[10]. The significance of this is obviously important as it granted Bismarck the power to carry out his process to unification however, the significance is even more credible given the King’s original lack of faith in Bismarck[PH16] . Lerman places emphasis upon the lack of agreement between Bismarck and the King regarding foreign policies, Bismarck wanted an alliance with France to ensure there was no threat of French intervention in his future plans yet for Wiliam an alliance with France was close to unimaginable[11]. To further this Bismarck was very much at the mercy of the King in his early days, with little security in his position Bismarck had to be savvy as to not overwhelm Wiliam with his policies and risk being removed from the position of chancellor, rather he took a slower approach with which he eased into the position, eventually gaining the favour of Wilhelm. Perhaps the two most obvious international successes in Bismarck’s career were the Prussian victories over Austria and France. The first of these being the Austrian Prussian war of 1866. Whilst the military victory was great the significance of Bismarck’s role can be found in his exclusion of Austria from the Zollverein in 1865 and his manipulation of the Schleswig-Holstein situation, both of which forced Austria into a position of war which similarly with France Bismarck was then able to defeat them and eliminate their ability to oppose unification. Firstly, Bismarck’s exclusion of Austria from the Zollverein evoked a greater anti-Prussian feeling in Austria which was demonstrated in the resignation of Rechberg as Austrian Prime Minister to be replaced by Schmerling and Biegleben as secretary of German affairs whom both pursued far harsher policies against Prussia. By developing anti-Prussian feelings in Austria Bismarck was able to encourage the development of conflict. Having laid the foundations to the war Bismark capitalised upon the Schleswig-Holstein conflict as a means of pushing Austria into war. Feuchtwanger describes the “smouldering conflict about the future of Schleswig-Holstein” in 1865 regarding the temporary join administration of the state under both Austria and Prussia. Bismarck exploited this by producing agreements over the future of the state that Austria would never have been able to agree to, a deliberately provocative action to spur Austria into war. In February of 1865 Bismarck laid out Prussia’s conditions under which hey would not annex Schleswig Holstein which amounted the “virtual military control key bases and the armed forces Schleswig-Holstein by Prussia” which of course Austria were unable to allow. Further Prussian disagreement to other proposals just enhanced the growing sense of war. Once war happened Prussian military modernisation shone, the use of needle guns and telegrams ensured Prussia won the war and removed Austrian opposition to unification. Bismarck’s ridding of Austria by forcing them into war was crucial to unification, his role was of great significance given the proactive moves he made to exploit these opportunities. The significance of Bismarck’s role is furthered when taking into account his manipulation of the Spanish monarch candidature struggle. Despite opposition from the king Bismarck recognised the value of putting the Hohenzollern Leopold up for candidature and succeed in this task. The value of this move cannot be understated, by placing a Hohenzollern in line for the Spanish crown the French would be provoked. The thought of having Hohenzollerns on one side of it’s borders and now having Hohenzollerns on the other side threatened the surrounding of France which of course the French were not comfortable with given the increasing power of Prussia at the time. Consequently, the French acted in a rash manner attempting to force the Prussian’s to give up Leopolds candidature, furthering the rivalry and conflict between the French and Prussia. D.G Williamson summarises the move by saying that “Bismarck had now deliberately set sail on a collision course with the intent of provoking either war or a French collapse”. His expertise demonstrated in yet another move like this is what grants him such significance in his role in unification, this when coupled with his confidence to take significant risks such as engaging both Austria and France in military confrontation make his role very significant. [PH17] 

Ultimately, Bismarck’s role in unification was one of great significance, he orchestrated the unifying of a combination of preexisting nationalist movements culminating in German unification. Whilst Bismarck was significant in his role in unification and inaugurated a revolution, he did not innovate one. The concept of unification is one that had been discussed and encouraged far before Bismarck, the nationalist principles that Bismarck utilised to encourage unification in the German states were developed by several events. The shift from agricultural economics to industrial economics in the German states was fundamental to the development of nationalism. This shift encouraged the expansion of economics meaning that markets and consumer base expanded, in turn developing greater nationalism as states interact more with one another on economic grounds. Yet arguably German nationalism was first inspired in the war with Napoleon when German states found a common enemy and united in a cause. Furthermore, the Napoleonic humiliation of the strength of Prussia evoked a Prussian mentality of necessity to expand and dominate that was fundamental in encouraging Prussians and Bismarck individually to strive for unification. Hence Bismarck was instrumental in collecting together these progressions of nationalism but didn’t himself orchestrate the progression of nationalism. [PH18] 

Jenson Ives



[1] Edgar Feuchtwanger, Bismarck: A political history.

[2] Friderich List

[3] Berdahl, New thoughts on German nationalism.

[4] Martin Kitchen, A History of Modern Germany, 1800 to present.

[5] Berdahl, New thoughts on German nationalism.

[6] Thomas Nipperdy, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck.

[7] Thomas Nipperdy, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck.

[8] Thomas Nipperdy, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck.

[9] Crankshaw, 1981.

[10] Lothar Gall, Bismarck: The White Revolutionary: Volume I 1815-1871

[11] Katharine Lerman, Bismarck (Profiles in Power)