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The Emerging Prussian Empire

Friedrich Nietzsche would famously say, "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger".

Since Nietzsche, a German philosopher, wasn't born yet, it is unlikely he was referring to Prussia, but his statement certainly was applicable nonetheless. 

Over in Prussia, the Hohenzollern rulers heaved a huge sigh of relief. They understood quite clearly that they had dodged a bullet.  They had not made a single clever move during the scourge of Napoleon, and yet here they were the most unified state in central Europe. 

At the time of the Napoleonic Wars began, Prussia was a socially and institutionally backward state grounded primarily in the virtues of its well-established military aristocracy (known as the Junkers).

However, Napoleon had put the fear of Sparta into Sparta.  Prussia's vulnerability to Napoleon's military proved to the old order that they weren't even remotely ready to face a major power like France in the condition they were in.  They also understood their neighbors in a fragile, divided, and backward Germany would be easy prey for a cohesive, industrialized neighbor like France.  They wondered if it was just a matter of time before France rose again.  Wouldn't it make sense to be better prepared the next time? 

Prussia's defeats at the hands of Napoleonic France highlighted the need for administrative, economic, and social reforms to improve the efficiency of the bureaucracy and encourage practical merit-based education. Prussia needed to become as strong as France... or Austria for that matter.  Prussia saw clearly that if it was going to go toe to toe with Austria for the hearts and minds of the German people, it needed to get stronger.  In a sense, the looming competition with Austria made Prussia determined to try harder.

Everyone agreed the army definitely needed to be tougher.  These reforms laid the foundation for Prussia's future military might by professionalizing the military and decreeing universal military conscription.  Prussia began to train and arm itself.

In order to industrialize Prussia, working within the framework provided by the old aristocratic institutions, land reforms were enacted to break the monopoly of the Junkers on landownership.  In order to this, the feudal practice of serfdom was abolished. 

Prussia knew it had been lucky during the Day of Napoleon.  Since everyone was too tired from Napoleon to start any trouble at the moment, the leaders understand they had been given an amazing opportunity to get their country back in shape.

In a flash, Europe's balance of power had shifted. Napoleon's victories had often come at the expense of Austria, which left it weakened.  Prussia emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the dominant power in middle Europe, overshadowing long-time rival Austria, which had abdicated the imperial crown in 1806.  Now Prussia was the dominant force in Europe along with England.  Furthermore, since England was more interested in conquests overseas than any risky ventures on European soil, Prussia's growth on the continent continued unchecked. 

Now that Napoleon was out of the way, the Kingdom of Prussia swept into the vacuum.  Prussia was now the strongest military power on the European continent.  Following Napoleon's bitter defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Prussia was ready to fulfill its destiny. 

Prussia took a big step in 1815 by joining the German Confederation, a loose association of 39 German states in Central Europe.  It was time to play politics with the big boys and see what developed.  Prussia understood that throughout the 1800s, Prussia, Austria and France would all attempt to dominate the politically weak, greatly divided Germany territories.

Prussia had as good a chance as anyone to dominate.  All they needed was a good leader.



Between Otto von Bismarck and Frederick the Great, it is hard to tell who was more valuable to Prussia. 

Ever since Frederick the Great in 1740, Prussia had been a major thorn in the side of Austria.  But since his death, they had lacked a man with the cunning or the will to take the country to the next level.  In Bismarck, Prussia found that man.

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was born in Berlin just two months before the Battle of Waterloo. His father was a wealthy Junker estate owner and a former Prussian military officer; his mother was the well-educated daughter of a senior government official in Berlin.

Bismarck grew up as a typical Prussian Junker.  He loved military training and he frequently wore military uniforms. Bismarck was well educated and cosmopolitan, with a gift for conversation. He was fluent in English, French, Italian, Polish and Russian.

From his youth, Bismarck had been drawn to a career as a diplomat.  He served in the army, then studied to be a lawyer.  Although distracted for a time by several pretty girls, in 1847 Bismarck married happily and settled down to raise a family.  He and his wife would have three children. 

That same year, Bismarck, now 32, was chosen as a representative to the newly created Prussian legislature.

One year later, 1848, a revolution broke out in Prussia.  At first, King Frederick William IV (1795–1861) moved to repress it with the army, but later decided to recall the troops.  Instead he decided to listen to the demands, an unusual step for any monarch back in those days.  The King formed a liberal government, convened a national assembly, and ordered that a constitution be drawn up.

In addition, the King promised to commit Prussia to a path of German unification, an idea growing increasingly popular in Prussia and the surrounding territories.  However, due to strong opposition from Austria and Russia, the German Unification effort died shortly thereafter.  Bismarck was glad; he was strongly opposed to German Unification.

In 1851, Friedrich Wilhelm IV appointed Bismarck as Prussia's envoy to the Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt.

Bismarck's eight years in Frankfurt were marked by changes in his political opinions. No longer under the influence of his ultraconservative Prussian friends, Bismarck became less reactionary and more pragmatic. He became convinced that to countervail Austria's newly restored influence, Prussia would have to ally herself with other German states.

As a result, Bismarck grew to be more accepting of the notion of a united German nation. Bismarck worked to maintain the friendship of Russia and even developed a working relationship with Napoleon III's France.  This was a bold move for Bismarck; the conservatives back in Berlin were staunchly opposed to any favorable move with the dangerous France.

However Bismarck felt a bond with France was necessary both to threaten Austria and to prevent France allying herself to Russia.

In a famous letter to his patron Leopold von Gerlach, Bismarck wrote that it was foolish to play chess having first put 16 of the 64 squares out of bounds. This observation was ironic as after 1871, France indeed became Germany's permanent enemy, and eventually did ally with Russia against Germany in the 1890s.

The point here is that Bismarck was learning to keep all options in play, even the longshots.

In 1857, King William I (1797-1888) was appointed Regent of Prussia after his brother King Frederick William IV had a stroke and was disabled.  King William didn't like Bismarck very much, so he sent him to Siberia so to speak.  He transferred Bismarck from nearby Frankfurt all the way to Saint Petersburg as Prussia's ambassador to Russia.  Situated in this remote outpost, Bismarck had little choice but to simply watch.

William would serve as Regent for four years.  Upon his brother's death in 1861, he would become King of Prussia.

Above all else, William was a soldier.  A poor performance by the military in the Prussian-Sardinian War convinced him the army needed strengthening.  The geographical position of Prussia in the center of Europe sandwiched between powers like France, Russia, and Austria left the country vulnerable on all sides.

Unlike some of his recent predecessors, William understood quite clearly this dangerous situation meant no sacrifice be spared to develop an army as efficient as any other military force in Europe.  A well organized army for Prussia was just as necessary as a powerful navy for England.

Otto von Bismarck

King Frederick William IV

King William I of Prussia

William was worried because he was convinced Prussia's military power was inferior to that of France.  Something had to be done.

On July 25, 1858, a chance meeting between General Albrecht von Roon and Regent-Prince William at the railway-station in Potsdam (a suburb of Berlin) led to a very serious conversation.  William was deeply impressed by Roon's observations. William asked Roon to draw up a scheme of army reform and subsequently appointed him to install the changes.

Roon immediately began to whip the Prussian army back into shape. William was very impressed with Roon's administrative abilities, so on December 5, 1859, William made Roon his new Minister of War.  

Only one problem.  The liberal Prussian Landtag (Senate) refused to fund the money necessary for the expensive military reform.  This involved raising the peace time army from 150,000 to 200,000 men and boost the annual number of new recruits from 40,000 to 63,000. However, the truly controversial part was the plan to keep the length of military service at three years.

The Landtag refused to budge.  They strongly resented the military buildup.  Meanwhile King William was so angry he was ready to resign, but his son talked him out of it.  Frustrated, William turned to Roon, the only man he really trusted, and asked his advice.

Roon had anticipated this moment.  He had recommended Bismarck, a close friend, before, but had been rejected. Roon understood the King didn't like the aggressive Bismarck at all.  In fact, 5 years earlier King William had sent the man to Russia just so Bismarck wouldn't be around to interfere with things.

However, Roon sensed this time might be different. 

Due to the emergency situation with the Prussian Landtag, at this moment, Roon was in constant communication with Bismarck.  At the moment, Bismarck, now Ambassador in Paris, was in the South of France. There he received several communications from his friend Roon urging him to come to Berlin.

Bismarck started at once, and reached Berlin on the morning of September 20th, 1862. Roon saw him immediately on his arrival and explained the situation.  Then Roon went to King William, who was at the Castle of Babelsberg.

Roon found King William in despair. The King knew that the entire army estimates would certainly be rejected by the Landtag in a couple of days. William was convinced of the absolute necessity of army reform, but even his own family was against him. Pressure of every sort and kind was brought to bear on him to give up the fight, by Queen Augusta, by the Crown Prince, by other members of the Royal family, and even by some of the Ministers.  William didn't know what to do.  At this point, Roon was his only remaining ally. 

Roon urged him to stand firm. "Call Herr von Bismarck, Your Majesty," said Roon.

"Bismarck will not be willing to undertake the task," answered the King; "besides, he is not here, and the situation cannot be discussed with him."

"He is here and at Your Majesty's orders," Roon replied.  The King's eyes grew large.  What was going on here? 

That afternoon Bismarck was summoned to Babelsberg.  When Bismarck entered the room, the fate of Prussia hung in the balance. The King sat at a table with papers on it. One of these papers was the act of his abdication, already signed.

William asked Bismarck whether he would undertake to carry on the Government in face of a hostile majority.

"Most certainly," Bismarck replied.

"Notwithstanding that the supplies may be stopped?" continued the King.

"Yes," said Bismarck in even tone. 

And so the conversation began.  The powerful personality and confident attitude of the statesman made the King wonder if perhaps he had misjudged this man.

King William told Bismarck he would get back to him, but he was so impressed that once Bismarck left the room, he tore up his act of abdication.  Just maybe there was a chance after all...

On the 23d of September, the Landtag rejected the army requests in their entirety.  Furthermore William's entire Ministry resigned.

Roon saw the King again that day and begged him to hesitate no longer.  William nodded.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  William had trusted Roon on the military buildup, so now he decided to trust Roon again on Bismarck. At 5 pm that afternoon William appointed Bismarck to the position of Minister President and Foreign Minister of Prussia.

Bismarck got right to work. Despite the initial distrust of the King and Crown Prince, and the loathing of Queen Augusta, Bismarck soon acquired a powerful hold over the King by force of personality and powers of persuasion. 

On 30 September 1862, Bismarck made a speech to the Budget Committee of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, in which he expounded on the use of "iron and blood" to achieve Prussia's goals:

"Prussia must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia's boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood."

It was an impressive argument, but the Landtag was in no mood to soften.  No matter; Bismarck was intent on ending the budget deadlock in the King's favor.  Bismarck would make sure the King had his way, even if he had to use extralegal means to do so.

Unable to persuade the Landtag to do his bidding, Bismarck had a trick up his sleeve.  Bismarck argued that since the Constitution did not specify what to do when legislators failed to approve a budget, he could merely apply the previous year's budget.

Thus, on the basis of the previous year's 1861 budget, collection of taxes continued at the same pace for four more years. At this point, one can assume Bismarck and the Landtag did not get along very well.  But the impasse was broken and this was enough money to allow Roon to implement his changes.

In the privacy of his office, King William smiled.  Maybe Roon had been right about this man all along. 

With the addition of Bismarck to the team, the final key was in place for Prussia to flex its muscles in the European theater.

In William, they had a king who was firmly committed to a strong military and territorial expansion. 

In Albretch von Roon, they had an effective military administrator. 

In Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of staff of the Prussian Army for thirty years, they had a man who would come to be regarded as one of the great strategists of the latter 19th century.

And in Otto von Bismarck, Prussia had the greatest statesman of his era.

This was the 19th century equivalent of a dream team.  Prussia was set on a path to greatness.

Bismarck, Minister President, Albrecht von Roon, Minister of War,
Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army


Prussia's Rise to Power

With the domestic politics now under his control, Bismarck turned his eye to European politics.  He didn't have to wait long for his first challenge.  When Frederick VII of Denmark died in November 1863, the succession to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were disputed. 

Prussia had no claim to either duchy.  However, through a series of diplomatic judo moves that included the invasion of Denmark in 1865, Bismarck was able to get Austria to give Prussia Schleswig while Austria received Holstein.  In truth, Prussia deserved nothing, but got a valuable piece of property anyway. It was a pure case of the lion demanding his share of the kill.

Only one problem.  One year later Austria reneged on the deal.  Austria understood that it had a legitimate claim to both duchies and wanted the matter reopened.  Bismarck smiled.  This was the chance he had been waiting for.

Bismarck used this argument as an excuse to start a war with Austria.  Bismarck sent Prussian troops to occupy Austria's  Holstein.  Provoked, Austria called for the aid of other German states to come and help.  This was the start of the 1866 Austro-Prussian War.

Bad move, Austria. This is was the perfect test for the Prussian Dream Team.  Thanks to von Roon's reorganization, the Prussian army was now nearly equal in numbers to the Austrian army. Furthermore, Prussia had the strategic genius of von Moltke to call upon.  In addition, Bismarck pulled a move out of Frederick the Great's playbook and made a secret alliance with Italy.  The Italians desired Austrian-controlled Venetia. Italy's entry into the war forced the Austrians to divide their forces in order to protect Venice as well.

To the casual observer, Austria had a seemingly powerful army; it was allied with most of the north German states and all of the south German states (keep in mind that Germany was still divided into those 39 independent states).

However, Austria never knew what hit them. General Moltke had devised a frightening new battle technique called "Blitzkrieg", lightning war.  Moltke made a daring advance in Austria with two separate armies. These divided armies were quite vulnerable to destruction if Austria could react fast enough.

However the Austrian generals were too surprised to know what to do.  By being indecisive, the Austrians failed to use their superior numbers to eliminate the Prussian armies individually.

Consequently two Prussian armies had been allowed to penetrate deep into Austrian territory.  This meant any battle would be fought on Austrian soil, not in Germany near the Prussian homeland.  At the Battle of Königgrätz, the Austrian army of 240,000 faced the Prussian Army of the Elbe (39,000) and First Army (85,000).  One would assume a 2-1 advantage would make a difference, but nonetheless Prussia won handily.

King William and his generals were excited.  They wanted to push onward, conquer Bohemia and march straight into Vienna.

However, Bismarck was worried that Prussian military luck might change or that France might intervene on Austria's side.  Bismarck enlisted the help of the Crown Prince (who had opposed the war but had commanded one of the Prussian armies at Königgrätz) to dissuade his father at a very angry meeting.

Bismarck insisted on a "soft peace" with no annexations and no victory parades, so as to be able to quickly restore 'friendly' relations with Austria.  By threatening to resign, Bismarck got his way.  This would start a pattern.  Each time Bismarck won a battle, he found a way to allow the vanquished side to safe face.  His caution served him well.

Prussia got everything they wanted at the Peace of Prague (1866). First the German Confederation was dissolved. Then Prussia annexed former Austrian territories Schleswig, Holstein, Frankfurt, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, and Nassau.

Thanks to this highly profitable war, Prussia now controlled practically all of Northern Germany. 

This 1867 political cartoon mocked Bismarck's tendency to juggle roles from from general to minister of foreign affairs, federal chancellor, hunter, diplomat and president of the Zollverein parliament.  In a way, the cartoon was probably a compliment.

Battle of Königgrätz, July 3, 1866

As one can see, following the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, by absorbing all those Austrian states into Prussian alliance, Northern Germany was just short of becoming unified under Prussian rule.


The Franco-Prussian War

The 1866 Austro-Prussian War had been an amazing campaign. The war had lasted only seven weeks.  All four men on the Prussian Dream Team had played a key role in bringing Austria to its knees.  But they knew they weren't done yet.  They understood there would be serious repercussions from this war. 

Austria of course was the big loser.  Poor Austria. Not only did they lose all their holdings in Northern Germany, they lost Veneto as well.  In 1866, Venice became part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy.  These twins blows left Austria reeling.

These devastating losses initiated what historians refer to as "The Misery of Austria". From this point on, Austria would serve as a mere vassal to superior Germany, a relationship that lasted for over 150 years into the World Wars of the 20th Century.

Prussia of course was the big winner.

Back at home, this military success in Austria brought Bismarck tremendous political support in Prussia.  In the House of Deputies elections of 1866, liberals suffered a major defeat, losing their large majority. The new, largely conservative House was on much better terms with Bismarck than previous bodies; at the Minister-President's request, it retroactively approved the budgets of the past four years, which had been implemented without parliamentary consent.  Now Bismarck's shenanigans had been rendered perfectly legal. 

France of course was the biggest worrier.

After Austria's pathetic collapse, Europe sat up and took notice. Napoleon III in France was particularly upset. Napoleon III feared that a powerful Germany would change the balance of power in Europe.

Napoleon III had every right to be suspicious of Bismarck.  He suspected Bismarck wasn't done yet.  Bismarck had united half the independent German states into Prussia, but the southern part of Germany was not yet in his domain.

Indeed, Napoleon III's instincts were right on the money.

In his memoirs written long after the war, Prussian Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck wrote:

"I always considered that a war with France would naturally follow a war against Austria... I was convinced that the gulf which was created over time between the north and the south of Germany could not be better overcome than by a national war against the neighboring people who were aggressive against us.  I did not doubt that it was necessary to make a French-German war before the general reorganization of Germany could be realized."

What Bismarck needed was some way to persuade the South German states of Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt to join Prussia's coalition of German states.  Bismarck believed that if these states perceived France as the aggressor in any war, they would unite behind the King of Prussia

A suitable premise for war arose in 1870, when the German Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was offered the Spanish throne, vacant since a revolution in 1868.

France blocked the candidacy and demanded assurances that no member of the House of Hohenzollern would become King of Spain.

Seeing the opportunity to unify Germany’s loose confederations against an outside enemy, Bismarck adroitly created a diplomatic crisis over the succession to the Spanish throne.

Apparently there was a meeting between William, the Prussian King, and the French foreign minister whereby William snubbed the man.  Or that's how the story goes.  No one is quite sure exactly what was said or done. 

What is known is that Bismarck exploited for his own gain. Bismarck stirred political tensions between France and Prussia by rewriting a telegram from William I and the French foreign minister to make both countries feel insulted by the other. 

One has to wonder how one can write a letter that insults both sides at the same time, but it worked. Bismarck was successful at inflaming popular sentiment on both sides in favor of war.

Indeed, the French press and parliament demanded a war. Even better, the generals of Napoleon III assured him that France would win. On 16 August 1870, the French parliament voted 101 to 47 to declare war, and the war was declared on 19 August.

Considering Prussia's military build-up, it seems odd that France would be so eager to take on this modern Sparta.  Apparently someone had "intelligence" that the southern German states were more loyal to France than to Prussia and would surely turn on Prussia the first chance they got.

What they didn't know is that Bismarck had been busy getting secret treaties with the Southern German states.  They just stepped aside and let the Prussia war machine roll through.

Considering the magnitude of France's mistake, it makes one wonder why 'intelligence' is called 'intelligence'.

In truth, it appears that both sides were itching for a fight.  All they needed was any reason whether it made sense or not.

What a joke.  Whichever general whispered to Napoleon III that France would win this war should have been guillotined.  France was no match at all. 

Using that Blitzkrieg trick again, the German coalition mobilized its troops much more quickly than the French army.  They rapidly moved into northeastern France. The German forces were superior in numbers, had better training and leadership, and made more effective use of modern technology, particularly railroads and artillery.

A series of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France culminating in the Battle of Sedan.  Napoleon III and his whole army was captured on 2 September just two weeks after France had foolishly declared war on Prussia.  Now that is fast! 

Yet this did not end the war. A new French army was quickly raised. Over a five-month campaign, the German forces defeated another group of the newly recruited armies in a series of battles fought across northern France.

This brought the Prussian army to the doorstep of Paris.  The history books say that Paris was "ineffectually bombarded", a euphemism for lobbing a cannonball into the Seine River every hour or so.  One suspects Bismarck did not have the heart to destroy this beautiful city, so he exercised his characteristic restraint as usual.  It was easier just to play a waiting game.

Following a prolonged siege, the French eventually conceded.  10 days after William was proclaimed Emperor, Paris fell on 28 January 1871.

At the conclusion of the war, France was forced to surrender Alsace and part of Lorraine.  Chief of Staff Moltke and his generals wanted it as a defensive barrier. Bismarck opposed the annexation because he did not wish to make a permanent enemy of France, but he was overruled.

France was also required to pay an indemnity; the indemnity figure was calculated, on the basis of population, as the precise equivalent of the indemnity which Napoleon I had imposed on Prussia in 1807 following the embarrassing Battle of Jena.

It seems likely that Bismarck was overruled here too.  The Prussians wanted their revenge far too much to heed Bismarck's wisdom. 

It is often said France's determination to regain Alsace-Lorraine would subsequently be a major factor in France's involvement in World War I.

Following the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Bismarck was now obsessed with finishing the task of uniting Germany.  He kept a close eye on Saxony, Bavaria, and the other grey states that were not yet part of his Prussian Confederation. 

All of Europe watched as Prussia and France prepared to square off.

This picture says it all.  France got clobbered.

The Prussians at the Arc de Triomphe

The Hohenzollern dynasty started in 1192.  Seven centuries later,
the jigsaw puzzle is finally complete.  Germany owns Central Europe.

Too bad they could resist taking Alsace-Lorraine as well.  The temptation to seize Lothair's ancient Kingdom from the days of Charlemagne would come back to haunt them.

Take a look at Konigsberg in the upper right corner.  That is where the Kingdom of Prussia originally started in 1220 and spread west.

German Unification

Even while the French capital was still under siege, King William I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles.

William quickly appointed Bismarck to become the first Chancellor of the new German Empire.

Bismarck acted swiftly to secure the unification of Germany. He negotiated with representatives of the southern German states, offering special concessions if they agreed to unification. 

Following Prussia's impressive defeat of the French, the negotiations went quite smoothly.  The Southern German States were proud to join this powerful empire.

The southern states became officially incorporated into a unified Germany at the Treaty of Versailles of 1871.

The victory over France in 1871 expanded Prussian hegemony (dominance) in the German states to the international level. With the proclamation of Wilhelm as Kaiser, Prussia assumed the leadership of the new empire.

The new German Empire was a federation, i.e. a collection of states.  The Hohenzollern kingdom was at the center operating like a magnet.  Several of its 25 constituent states retained some autonomy such as keeping their own army.  These particular states were a part of the Empire because they chose to be and because it was definitely in their best interests.

The King of Prussia, as German Emperor, was not sovereign over the entirety of Germany; he was only first among equals.  He did hold the presidency of the Bundesrat, which allowed him to propose policy and appoint chancellors.

Officially, the German Empire, or German Reich as they called it, was a federal state. In practice, Prussia's relationship with the rest of the empire was definitely confusing.

The Hohenzollern kingdom included three-fifths of the German territory and two-thirds of its population. The Imperial German Army was, in practice, an enlarged Prussian army, although the other kingdoms (Württemberg, Bavaria, and Saxony) retained their own armies. The imperial crown was a hereditary office of the House of Hohenzollern, the royal house of Prussia.

The conflicting identities of Prussia and the German Empire were something of a paradox.  Maybe this analogy will help.  Texas was an independent nation that chose to join the United States in 1845.  At the start, the Texans still thought of themselves as Texans first and Americans second.  Then over time with each new generation, that idea switched.  Today the citizens of Texas are Americans first and Texans second.

At first, it was "Prussia within the German Empire".

The Bavarians were Bavarians first, German second.  The Prussians were Prussians first, German second.  But over time, as people got used to the idea, it became easier for the general populace to think of themselves as "Germans" who were members of the "German Empire" first and their state second.

Gradually Prussia was absorbed into the land of Germany.  And now after 700 years, the Hohenzollern destiny was complete.

William I of Prussia is proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles.

Bismarck can be seen wearing the white military uniform.


Blood and Iron

"Prussia must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia's boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood."  Otto von Bismarck, 30 September 1862

Realpolitik is the study of the powers that shape, maintain and alter the state.  It is the basis of all political insight. It leads to the understanding that the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world. In other words, Realpolitik is a term analogous to 'power politics'.

Realpolitik was alluded to by Bismarck in his famous “Blood and Iron” speech.  Bismarck hinted that all the lofty ideas of "German Unification" amounted to nothing more than a lot of talk talk talk that never came close to reaching consensus.

Bismarck believed that nation-making required cunning and military power, not lofty ideals.  He remembered how his predecessor Frederick the Great had stolen Silesia from Austria by bullying an inexperienced woman (Maria Theresa) and persuading France to attack Austria as well to create a diversion.  Those dirty tricks had started Prussia on its path to the birth of the German Empire.

Minister Otto von Bismarck, the brilliant statesman, saw himself merely picking up where Frederick the Great had left off.  Thanks to these two leaders, throughout the 18th 19th centuries the Kingdom of Prussia added one slice of territory after another till suddenly the Southern States of Germany couldn't wait to join the parade after the defeat of France.

Just like a giant jigsaw puzzle, the massive hole in Central Europe created largely by the Holy Roman Empire had finally become solidified due to the work of these two brilliant men.

As for the series of wars that created the finished product, they did not happen by accident. These wars were part of Bismarck's calculated plan of power politics, aggression, and annexation.

Bismarck used Realpolitik in his quest to achieve Prussian dominance in Germany. He manipulated political issues such as the Schleswig-Holstein Question and the Hohenzollern candidature in Spain to antagonize other countries and cause wars to attain his goals.  These Machiavellian policies were characteristic of Bismarck, who never ceased to demonstrate a willingness to twist the events of the "real political" world to achieve his ends.

Today little has changed.  Hitler started World War II with a series of annexations under the flimsiest of excuses. Currently in the news of 2014, we see Vladimir Putin using the frightening threat of military power to annex Crimea and perhaps next the Ukraine without any real excuse.  He does it simply because he can.  This is a pure example of the fabled European "balance of power" strategy not working - Russia is simply too strong.

The story of Germany, and for civilization in general, has been one of neverending war.  This article started with war... barbarians racing into Central Europe and plundering anything in their path.  Then came the Romans.  Then came the Franks.  Then came the insanity of the Medieval Europe where millions of innocent people were slaughtered in religious wars.  This was followed by the Middle Ages when all the wars were referred to by their length... Seven Years, Thirty Years, One Hundred Years.

Next came the Napoleon Wars where any number countries lined up on one side versus any number of countries on the other.

And then of course came the two horrible World Wars. 

While it has been fascinating to trace war after war after war, at some point one has to ask if civilization has ever known any kind of lasting peace.  Has any country ever been born without a fight?  Probably not. 

By coincidence, the final German Wars of Unification took place in 1860s at the same time as the Civil War in America.  This was America's first-hand chance to see the same horrors that had plagued Europe for all those centuries.

Germany's fate in World War I and World War II certainly makes one wonder if maintaining a military state makes much sense. 

A nation engaged in an arms race like Bismarck’s Prussia can not only plot wars but can also stumble into wars, as was the case in the First World War.

Arms races dramatically increase national government spending. After 1871, the German Empire, France and Britain all increased military spending, thereby reducing the amount of their wealth that taxpayers could keep. It is impossible to have a vast, sprawling military without also having a vast, sprawling government.

Third, reliance upon force rather than consent — upon military power rather than treaties, trade and legal immigration — is no path to long term peace, prosperity, or moral government.

Are there lessons to be learned from Germany? 

Our nation was founded upon the principle that we would be on friendly and peaceful terms with any nation that would leave us in peace as well.  The worst trouble America has ever gotten into came when America deviated from those principles. 

In Vietnam and in Iraq, we attacked countries that had not attacked us first.  Both invasions cost America countless men, countless dollars, and the moral high ground.

When America strays from that path, when we embrace the Machiavellian cynicism of Europe  - think Richard Nixon - and imagine that "Empire" can create peace and wealth, then we risk finding we have neither peace nor prosperity.

Yes, it is important to have a strong defense, but a policy based on Prussian's Blood and Iron aggression can never lead to peace.  Prussia had created so many enemies along the way that the German people were doomed to pay a heavy price in the Twentieth Century.

War is not the answer.  The true way to build a nation is to make allies and nurture trust.

One of the few good things to come out of World War II was a rebirth of Germany into something pretty wonderful.

Today's Germany is a great power in regional and global affairs. The Germans of today are certainly barbarians no longer.  Hardly! Germany has the world's fourth-largest economy and is blessed with one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Germany is well-known for its rich cultural and political history.  It has created one of the finest educational systems in the world.  Over the years, Germany has been blessed with many influential philosophers, inventors, writers, music composers and scientists.

It gives me great pleasure to point out Germany is one of the best allies the United States has in the entire world.  In this crazy, mixed up world, I think America is very fortunate to have Germany on our side.

I hope you have enjoyed my story of how Germany became a nation.

Rick Archer
May, 2014

For comments,

Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army,
Otto von Bismarck
, the newly appointed Chancellor of the German Empire, and Albrecht von Roon, Minister of War, at the coronation of Prussian King William I as the Emperor of the German Reich at Versailles in 1871.

In a move heavy with irony, Germany was blamed for causing the First World War in the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in the very same room on 28 June 1919. 

The German Empire had come full circle.

Dresden, World War II.  The German people paid a heavy price for the warlike ways of its leaders. 


Teutoberg Forest


Holy Roman Empire



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