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READ: Bismarck and German Nationalism

In the 1800’s, nationalism enflamed passions all across Europe. The German-speaking kingdom of Prussia and its minister, Otto von Bismarck, used these passions to build a German nation-state.

Bismarck and German Nationalism

By Bennett Sherry
In the 1800’s, nationalism enflamed passions all across Europe. The German-speaking kingdom of Prussia and its minister, Otto von Bismarck, used these passions to build a German nation-state.

Too many Germanies

What do Snow White, militarism, and juggling all have in common? You’ll know by the end of this article. We’ll examine the German nationalism that is as legendary as Snow White. We’ll explore how the advanced militarism of one German-speaking kingdom built a unified German nation-state. And we’ll look at the career of the power-hungry politician whose juggling of his opponents’ agendas made him a masterful diplomat—and made Germany happen.
For almost a thousand years, the place we now call Germany sat at the heart of a multi-ethnic political mess known as the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). For most of its history, this HRE wasn’t much of an empire. It was a collection of hundreds of smaller states. Various communities, such as principalities, bishoprics, duchies, city-states, and kingdoms formed a patchwork from Italy to Denmark. It was ruled loosely by an emperor who was elected by a council of aristocrats.
Map of the Holy Roman Empire in 1789. By Robert Alfers, CC BY-SA 3.0.
By comparison, countries like England and France were much simpler. Each was a sizable nation-state with a centralized government. Many people at the time wished that the HRE could be more like those nations. U.S. President James Monroe once called the HRE, “a nerveless body... agitated with unceasing fermentation in its own bowels.” After Napoleon’s wars led to the destruction of the HRE in 1806, German-speaking people didn’t miss it one bit. In place of the disunified, toothless empire, they started to believe that there was really just one “German people.” If France and England could each be powerful and unified nation-states, they figured, so could Germany.

Snow White and the several Germanies

During the nineteenth century, the idea of a distinct German people with a common language and a homeland in Central Europe was more than an ambition of political leaders. Intellectuals produced art and scholarship that supported a German national identity. Two German-speaking academics known as the Brothers Grimm published a collection of German folk tales. These tales—now familiar throughout most of Western culture—included Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, and Snow White. They were written to create an imagined past that would give German-speakers a unified history and culture. These expressions of nationalism and emotion rejected Enlightenment ideas of universality and rationalism. By creating an ancient German culture, nationalist writers hoped to generate passion for a united Germany.
German postal stamp showing Snow White eating a poisoned apple, 1967. The stories told by the Brothers Grimm are still a part of German national identity. By Vintageprintable1, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Nationalism went hand-in-hand with two things: a powerful state and violence. Germany was no exception. Nationalist fervor could be molded by a powerful state. But understanding whether nationalistic emotions create a powerful state, or if a powerful state leads to more nationalism—well that’s a chicken-and-egg sort of question. Powerful states did promote nationalist wars and policies, but a sense of nationalism among citizens helped make states more powerful. German unification is an example of both.
Germany is also an example of the connection between nationalism and violence. As had happened in France, Italy, and the United States, deadly wars were fought to define the borders and character of Germany. In particular, German unification was won through two wars, between Prussia and Austria and Prussia and France. The two world wars that would come later had a lot to do with extreme nationalism. Nationalism also meant the exclusion of people defined as “other,” or not part of the nation. In order to have a German nation, nationalists believed they had to define what was and was not German. Some leaders embraced racist views and targeted minorities like Jews and Roma. These nationalists portrayed these minorities as different and a danger to the nation.

Half measures

In the mid-nineteenth century, the goal of a united Germany was a long way off. In 1815, the Concert of Europe created the German Confederation after the allies defeated Napoleon I at Waterloo. The confederation was supposed to help unite the many different German-speaking states. But the purpose was also to limit the power of the two strongest German states—Prussia and the Austrian Empire—by balancing them against each other. Their rivalry eventually destroyed the Confederation.
Map of the German Confederation. The border of the confederation is in red. Note that parts of Prussia (blue) and Austria (yellow) are outside the Confederation. By 52 Pickup, CC BY-SA 3.0.
After the Revolutions of 1848, which erupted across Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, conservatives came to power in Prussia and built a strong state. However, around 1859, a Prussian liberal middle-class came to power. They were a new thing, made possible by the new wealth industrialization provided. The conservatives, who controlled the throne and the military, clashed with the liberals who kept winning parliamentary elections. However, the radical leftist factions in Prussian politics were weakened by the failure of the 1848 revolutions. Many democrats, socialists, and other radicals had migrated to the United States. Their departure weakened anti-monarchical forces in the Prussian government, creating an opening for a powerful leader.

Prussia's militarism creates Germany

Meet King Wilhelm I of Prussia. No, that’s not the powerful leader we mean, but we’re getting there. Craving a victory over Austria, Wilhelm was encouraged when Italy challenged Austrian authority and achieved Italian unification in 1859-1860. He wanted to unify the German states under Prussian rule, but the liberals in Parliament opposed war. That’s when Wilhelm revealed a secret weapon: Otto von Bismarck.
Bismarck, a Prussian count, was a conservative patriot determined to increase the power of the Prussian state. When he was appointed Minister President in 1862, the liberal parliament that opposed him was all that stood between him and the power he wanted. So he came up with a strategy: ignore parliament. He ignored liberal election victories, expanded and reformed the military, levied whatever taxes he wanted, and consolidated the king’s control of the army.
The always cheerful Otto von Bismarck. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R68588 / P. Loescher & Petsch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de.
In the 1860s, both conservatives and liberals in Prussia were nationalists. They wanted a unified German nation-state. But many liberals wanted to achieve this through negotiations with Austria. In an 1862 speech before Parliament, Bismarck warned that Prussia’s borders would not be secured through speeches and resolutions “but by blood and iron.” Bismarck wanted a Germany free of Austrian influence. To achieve this, he needed war.
In 1866, Prussia attacked Austria, winning an easy victory in just seven weeks. The war proved that Prussia’s army was the best in Europe. Prussia’s victory ended the German Confederation. It also ended Austrian influence in the German states, and convinced the northern German states to join Prussia. Bismarck’s success persuaded the liberals in Parliament to work with him, and more German states voluntarily joined Prussia. But in order to create a unified Germany, Bismarck needed another war, this time against France. The blood and iron strategy was not over.
Map of Germany. The north German states, which joined Prussia after its defeat of Austria are in red. The south states, which joined after victory against France are in orange. And Alsace-Lorraine is in beige. By 52 Pickup, CC BY-SA 2.5.
In 1870, France declared war on Prussia. The French emperor, Napoleon III, was willing to fight the mighty Prussian army because he believed that other countries would join him to prevent Prussian dominance. He had underestimated Bismarck’s talent as a diplomat. Bismarck essentially tricked France into starting the war themselves, creating the illusion that Prussia was merely defending the German states. Bismarck turned the great powers of Europe against France and united the German states behind Prussia.
The French had no idea what they were up against. Bismarck turned Prussian society toward war-making. The French army quickly ran into the teeth of a deadly, more efficient enemy army. Prussia was able to mobilize a million soldiers in a few weeks. Prussian trains, industry, and culture had been engineered over the previous decade to function in support of war. Bismarck’s militarized Prussia—and later, Germany—seemed to express itself as a masculine state, referred to as “the Fatherland.” Women had smaller roles in public life, and male soldiers were the heart of the patriotic state. In just four weeks, the Prussian army steamrolled the French, the Second French Empire collapsed, and Napoleon III was a prisoner of Prussia. The war dragged on for several more months. The Prussian army laid siege to Paris, and the starving citizens surrendered, giving the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire.
Proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, France. Wilhelm I stand on the dais, and Bismarck wears white in the center of the painting. By Anton von Werner, public domain.

Juggling on horseback

After Bismarck had secured the borders of the nation of Germany, he set out to assure the other great powers that Germany didn’t want to expand any more. He promised Britain that it was welcome to its large empire and control of the seas. Germany would not compete with them in that arena. Once again using skillful diplomacy, Bismarck negotiated peace deals designed to maintain a balance of power in Europe. He held a conference in Berlin in 1884, to agree on how the European empires would divide up Africa in order to avoid a war between European states. His pursuit of a balance of power is part of the reason he stopped short of destroying France and Austria during the wars of unification. He believed that Germany needed to establish its borders but not become so powerful that it upset the balance. Peace in Europe depended on a strong (but not too strong) France, Austria, and Germany.
King Wilhelm I called Bismarck’s work in building and maintaining a complex system of alliances “juggling on horseback.” It was incredibly delicate. Without a diplomat of Bismarck’s skill holding everything together, the system seemed likely to collapse. When Wilhelm II decided to fire Bismarck in 1890, and expand Germany’s empire, the balance of power crumbled, leading eventually to the First World War. Later, the nationalist, militarized state model of Bismarck—that had been so effective in unifying Germany—would see disturbing echoes in the violent German totalitarianism of the mid-twentieth century.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt’s World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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