Bismarck certainly played an important part in the unification of the German states. His intentions are shown in his iron and blood speech, where he set out his aims to protect the king and to unify the German states by isolating Austria. However, many historians argue that Bismarcks plan relied on luck, and that events unravelled greatly in his favour. Even Bismarck later admitted in his memoirs I was like a man wandering in a forest. I knew roughly where I was going but I didnt know exactly where I would come out of the wood. There where also other, arguably more important factors that contributed to unification. Cultural and economic nationalism had already established itself, and had brought Germany closer to unification through passion for the country and potential economic gain. Therefore, Bismarcks role in German unification has been overstated.
By the time Bismarck had been made minister president in 1862, nationalism in the German states had been around for almost half a century. The French revolution left many Germans disappointed after Napoleon failed to deliver the promises of liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression set out by the Declaration of the Rights of Man. His France before all policy was resented across Europe and, although Napoleon changed the structure of the German states for the better by reducing the number of them from over four hundred to just thirty nine, the German people realised that the French revolution was far different in theory than in practise, and the German states were again stuck in a regime that promised little.
Anti-French feelings soon came to the fore, and the idea that people sharing the same language and culture should be united and ruled by their own government became known as nationalism, and spread throughout the German states and elsewhere in Europe. The rise of these nationalist feelings was brought about by the romantic movement, which adhered to the philosophy that passion for ones country counted for more than a sense of logic and reasoning. It was artists, philosophers and writers such as the Grimm brothers who encouraged fellow Germans to remember German heroes and legends of the past. The romantic movement inevitably reached the student community, who were encouraged to act on their views. An example of this was the burning of unpatriotic books in 1877 on the anniversary of Napoleons defeat in Leipzig. This was called cultural nationalism, and it played a part in the eventual unification of Germany re-introducing a passion for the whole German nation.
Economic nationalism is, however, considered more important than cultural nationalism, and is considered by influential historian W. Carr to be the mighty lever of German unification. The population explosion that started in the middle of the eighteenth century resulted in a growth of industry in Germany, and by 1840 many more factories and mills had established themselves. However, the further growth of industry was being slowed by the poor relations between the German states. Different currencies and trading laws meant that goods were liable to customs duties every time they crossed a border.
Prussia decided to stop many of these customs barriers by forming the Zollverein, a customs union that brought many German states together under the same trading laws and regulations. The states surrounding Prussia were forced to join, as they needed to trade along Prussian territory such as the Rhine and Elbe rivers. The Zollverein included twenty five of the thirty nine states by 1836, and greatly improved economic relations between these states, bringing better employment and pay. There were also other benefits for Prussia as well as her wealth. It was a way of uniting the countries around Prussia, which would in turn play a part in isolating Austria. Economic nationalism brought Germany closer to unification because of the promise that it created. Businessmen and workers alike wanted to see more of a change in this direction, as it would undoubtedly mean more economic growth, and a chance for Germany to escape from the unemployment and poverty that it was suffering from.
When Bismarck was made minister president in 1862, he set out three aims in his famous iron and blood speech. The first was to protect the king from the liberals amidst disputes over army reforms, the second was to unify Germany, and the third was isolate Austria from the rest of the German states. In order to settle the dispute over army reforms, Bismarck convinced the king to collect taxes behind the Landtags back in order to fund the army. This is an example of Bismarcks shrewdness and forward thinking, as Prussia later went on to win three wars as a result of these reforms. It is believed by many historians that Bismarcks motives behind his second aim ( the unification of Germany), was to keep the Landtag contented so that he could defy the Landtags other main wish, which was to control the government. Bismarck knew that he would have to destroy Austrias power in Germany if unification was to become a possibility, and force, or at least threat of force would have to be used.
Bismarcks first step was to make sure that king Wilhelm did not attend the congress of Princes in August 1863. The intention of this congress was to discuss the reform of the German Confederation, and Bismarck felt that any decision that the Princes came to would benefit Austria, not Prussia. However, without the attendance of King Wilhelm, Bismarck knew that Austrias plans had no chance of going ahead. This was Bismarcks first role in the unification of Germany. The congress of Princes represented Austrias last chance to uphold her authority over the German states, and there was never another congress of Princes.
However, the most discussed pieces of manoeuvring by Bismarck were the three wars that he supposedly engineered against Denmark, Austria and France.
In 1863, the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were handed over to Denmark. When Austria and Prussia fought and quickly defeated Denmark and occupied the duchies, Bismarck saw his opportunity to manoeuvre Austria into a position where he could start a war with them. After much deliberation, it was decided that Prussia would control Schleswig and Austria would control Holstein. Some historians say that this was masterful strategic planning by Bismarck, as the Austrians would have to go through Schleswig to get to Prussia. This would be a huge advantage to Prussia if a war were to arise, which it did. Bismarck also now had a perfect opportunity to pick a fight with Austria, and would do it when the right opportunity came along. Historians say that Bismarck waited until he was sure he had the support of France and Italy before going to war with Austria.
However, the situation in Europe at the time was already in Prussias favour, as France wanted to see Europe formed into larger states, and Italy were in a dispute with Austria over land. In 1866, Prussia started war over Austria over Holstein. Italy attacked Austria from the south while Prussia attacked from the south. The Prussian army was better organised than the Austrians, and the illegitimate army reforms from 1862 also worked greatly in Prussias favour. Prussia won quickly and decisively, however, Bismarck insisted that Prussia did not send troops into Vienna after the victory, as he did not want to humiliate the Austrians We had to avoid leaving a desire in her for revenge If Austria was too severely injured by a long war she would become an ally of France. Although Bismarck was instrumental in this victory, he did have a lot of luck, as the situation in Europe suited him greatly. Also, he did not plan every move from the outset, he instead waited to see what happened next before planning his next move. This shows that Bismarck was a great opportunist who could take advantage of situations.
The treaty of Prague put an end to the war between Prussia and Austria and practically ended Austrias power over the German states. A new north German confederation was formed, however, France would not allow the remaining southern states to join this confederation. As a result of this, Prussia went to war with France in 1870. Again, Bismarck created a disagreement by taking full advantage of situations that arose. When the vacant Spanish throne was offered to Leopold of Hohenzollern, who was an ancestor of the Prussian monarchy, Bismarck used all of his persuasive powers to convince an unenthusiastic Leopold to accept. Bismarck knew that France would respond to this, as a Prussian leader in Spain meant that France had potential enemies on both sides. However, there are disagreements between historians as to Bismarcks reasons for provoking an issue with France, as historian W.N. Medlicott says There were two possibilities; either that France would agree to the Hohenzollern election, in which case Prussia would be no worse off or France would not, in which case there might be a war, for which he was ready.
There is however no doubt that Bismarck wanted war after the news of the Hohenzollern candidature leaked. The French objected to the candidature strongly, and Bismarck pounced on this opportunity to stir trouble. Although Leopold stood down from the Spanish throne, the French demanded that King Wilhelm never renewed the Hohenzollern candidature. The King politely refused this proposition, but the telegram sent by the king from his holiday resort in Ems was intercepted by Bismarck and edited to look like an angry rejection, making sure that this reached the French newspapers. Consequently, France declared war on the German confederation on 19th July 1870. This sparked a surge of patriotism throughout Germany, as a German writer at the time said Any German who is not now on the side of his people is a traitor. Troops were sent from the southern states, who were bound to fight with north Germany under the secret treaty of 1866. Because of the extremely efficient rail system in Germany, 462,000 troops were available on the French border within eighteen days. The war dragged on until January 1871, when Germany where finally declared victorious. Later that year, the new German confederation was finally formed in the hall of mirrors, Versailles, and King Wilhelm was made German emperor.
The German people saw this as a triumph for Bismarck, but there is the question raised by historians as to whether Bismarck intended to unify Germany from the start, or whether it just turned out that way. There is no doubt that Bismarcks priority was Prussia, but it is not known whether unification was originally part of Bismarcks plans.
In conclusion, Bismarck was a great opportunist rather than the driving force behind unification. Some historians argue that Bismarck single handedly unified Germany, and that he had a master-plan from the moment he was made minister-president, while others think that he was in the right place to take credit for unification at the right time. However, the opinions of most historians lie somewhere between the two extremes. There is no doubting that Bismarck was an outstanding opportunist who took full advantage of the situations that arose, but as historian W. Carr says If he played his hand with great skill, it was a good one in the first place. At best, Bismarck sped up the process of unification. The economic situation and the growth of cultural nationalism were already moving Germany toward a unified state, and Germany would have unified without the intervention of Bismarck.