Index Previous Page Next Page
Bismarck and the New Germany
Meanwhile Germany had also become a nation under the leadership of Prussia, the kingdom of Frederick the Great. After Napoleon had seemingly crushed Prussia (1806), her great patriots had set to work to improve the country, to abolish serfdom and educate the people, and to impose military service on all the citizens. Then, when Napoleon fell, Austria and Prussia were the leading kingdoms in a new and loose union of German states.
The Austrian Empire was a medley of peoples of different nationalities, and this was its fatal weakness. During the 1848 revolution, Hungary found her national leader in Kossuth, and strengthened her position in the empire.
But Prussia, not Hungary, was Austria's most dangerous enemy. Since the time of Frederick the Great there had been a growing rivalry between Austria and Prussia for the leadership of the German peoples of Central Europe.
Now Prussia had three able men: William I, its king; Moltke, the head of its army; and Bismarck, its chief minister. Prince Bismarck is famous in history as the "Iron Chancenor," who made the Germans a nation, with his own state of Prussia as the leading power. He was born in the year of Waterloo (on April 1, 1815), on his father's estate in Pomerania. As a university student he took at first more interest in swordsmanship than in study. He was, he said, a "terrible junker" in his early days. However, after a period at home, he entered into Prussian politics and strongly opposed that movement for popular liberty which arose in Prussia, as all over Europe, in the year of revolutions, 1848. He believed, like the Grand Monarchs of the old regime, that in a Christian country the power should lie with the king.
When William I became King of Prussia (1861), he began to reorganize his army. Parliament refused to vote the funds, and William made Bismarck his chief minister. Such was Bismarck's strength of character that he actually governed the country for four years without a budget, though all parties opposed him. Even the Crown Prince, the heir to the throne, was against him. No man could have made himself more disliked.
But in the meantime, King William was building up his army until it became the strongest in the whole of Europe. This was what Bismarck wanted. He believed that Prussia, not Austria, should be at the head of the German States, and that they could only be united into an empire by "blood and iron," as he told the Prussian Parliament in 1862 -- that is, by war, not by speeches and votes.
There was an old, long-standing dispute about the two "Elbe duchies," whose duke was the King of Denmark. Bismarck wanted both the duchies for Prussia. Accordingly he got Austria to help him in an attack on Denmark.
Next Prussia went to war with Austria, whom she defeated at Sadowa (1866), and then she seized both duchies and deprived Austria of her leadership in Germany. Nor was this all. Prussia annexed Hanover (which had sided with Austria) and other states, and then formed a new union of North German States.
Bismarck was aware, however, that if the South German States were to join as well, this would arouse the jealousy of France. It must be remembered that ever since the days of Henry IV (1589-161O), and of the religious wars, France had steadily aimed at keeping Germany divided and weak.
Just as Bismarck had outmatched Austria, so now he outmatched France. He contrived that France should be the one to declare war in such a manner that the South German States rallied to the help of Prussia. France was invaded, and suffered disasters at Metz and Sedan (1870). Paris was besieged. Then, ten days before it fell (1871), King William was proclaimed "German Emperor," in the great Hall of Mirrors in the palace of Versailles, where the splendour of Louis XIV had found its highest expression. Alsace and Lorraine, which Louis XIV had taken from the Holy Roman Empire two centuries before, were now made over to Germany.
Less than fifty years later, in that same Hall of Mirrors, on June 28, i919, the Germans signed the treaty which restored to Denmark the northern Danish-speaking part of one of the Elbe duchies (Sleswick), and to France Alsace and Lorraine.
Bismarck was thus the founder of modern Germany. His work was not confined to making war. He also developed her system of education, of old age pensions and state insurance, even before Britain was ready for these great changes. Nor "is it fair to say he was any more dishonest than the statesmen against whom he was pitted; his dishonesty was cleverer than theirs; he tricked and outwitted them." The making of Germany into a nation is the true monument of Bismarck's greatness. "Seldom," says Lord Bryce, "had such a national rising (1870-71) been seen -- so swift, so enthusiastic, sweeping away in a moment the heart-burnings of liberals and feudals in Prussia, the jealousies of North and South Germans, of Protestants and Catholics. Every citizen, every soldier, felt that this struggle was a struggle for the greatness and freedom of the nation."
Bismarck continued to hold office as Chancellor of the new empire -- now regarded as a great German statesman. The foreign policy of Germany was entirely in his hands. Several times he offered to resign, but on each occasion the emperor refused to allow him to do so.
But two years after William II ascended the throne, Bismarck was dismissed from office (1890), spending the rest of his life in retirement. Thus the new emperor, William II (1888-1918), "dropped the pilot." "Though he was the ablest of the Hohenzollerns since Frederick the Great, William II was unequal to the autocratic ru1e to which he aspired." Both Hohenzollern and Hapsburg were to lose their thrones in the greatest World War of history.