Wars of German Unification

Wars of German Unification
Wars of German Unification

The period between 1864 and 1871 saw three wars that resulted in the unification of Germany. In essence, this period saw the formation of a German state under the influence of Prussia, guided by its chief minister, Otto von Bismarck. Prussia had put itself in a good position to lead Germany.

The German Zollverein, or Customs Union, that broke down physical and financial barriers had been formed in 1819. By 1842, under Prussian leadership, it included most of central and northern Germany.

Its rival, Austria, was kept out on the grounds that the bulk of its empire was non-German and outside the traditional borders of The Holy Roman Empire and its successor, the German Confederation.

In addition, Prussia had gained millions of new German subjects by the Congress of Vienna in return for giving up some of its Polish subjects; it received much of Saxony, much of the Rhineland and Westphalia, and dominated northern and western Germany.

It had the effect of turning Prussia into a German state. In Bismarck, appointed in 1862, it had a practitioner of power politics who could gauge the attitude of his opponents and take advantage of opportunities.

It was unlucky that neither of Germany’s neighbors, France nor Russia, would welcome a united Germany and might combine to stop it. Bismarck secured the acquiescence of Russia by providing assistance to Russia when it put down Polish disturbances in 1863.

Moreover, he promised Russia that he would aid them in future Polish-related problems, thereby gaining a secure eastern front and the avoidance of a two-front conflict. Bismarck had as his goal the expansion of Prussia. If this resulted in the unification of Germany, it would be a positive by-product.

The two obstacles were Austria and France. Although polyglot in composition, Austria’s ruling dynasty had held the position of emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the precursor of the German Confederation between 1438 and 1806. France had benefited from the disunity of Germany for over three centuries.

The First War

The first of the three wars was over the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. The provinces that were either German in composition, as in the case of the Holstein, or partly German, as in the case of Schleswig, were united to Denmark by family inheritance through the house of Oldenburg, With the impending end of the direct male line of the crown of Denmark, the German Confederation claimed the two duchies.

Denmark promised to respect the political independence of the two duchies. This agreement was violated in November 1863, when the new king, Christian IX, accepted a constitution that included the incorporation of the northern mixed population duchy of Schleswig into Denmark proper. When Denmark refused to cancel this act, Austria and Prussia as representatives of the Confederation, declared war.

The Austrians, geographically separated from Schleswig-Holstein, would have been content to allow the duchies to remain tied to the crown of Denmark by a personal union. Bismarck, however, was determined to add the duchies by one means or another.

Denmark, certain that the powers would aid her, refused. War resulted. The Jutland Peninsula was occupied between January and April 1864. After an attempt at mediation by the Great Powers between April and June 1864 failed, hostilities were renewed.

Bismarck made some vague hints to Napoleon III of compensation, perhaps in Belgium or Luxembourg, to secure French neutrality. Britain, under a liberal Whig administration, was sympathetic to German nationalist feeling, and Russia’s neutrality had already been secured.

Therefore, hostilities were renewed, and by fall much of the Jutland Peninsula had been occupied and the major Danish island of Funen had been threatened. Denmark’s position was such that it was forced to sign the Treaty of Gastein. As a result, Austria administered Holstein, and Prussia controlled Schleswig on behalf of the German Confederation.

War Between Germany and Austria

It was nearly inevitable that conflict would then occur between Austria and Prussia. Austria had nothing to gain by keeping Holstein separated from Austria by central and northern Germany, while Prussia could annex Schleswig-Holstein to connect Prussian Brandenburg with its Rhenish possession.

When Austria proposed that the provinces be returned to the legitimate heir of the senior cadet line of the house of Denmark, Bismarck said this was a violation of the Treaty of Gastein and sent troops into Holstein. Austria, supported by the majority of members of the German Confederation, declared war on June 1, 1866.

The Austrians at the time were distracted by a domestic crisis with the Hungarians and started the war at a disadvantage. Bismarck had concluded a treaty with Italy on April 8, 1866, in which Italy agreed to participate on the side of Prussia should war occur within three months.

In return, Italy was to receive Austria-administered Venetia. Once again, Bismarck secured the neutrality of France through vague promises of compensation after the wary Napoleon III indicated that he would like to annex Rhenish Hesse, the fortress of Mainz, Luxembourg, the Saar, and parts of Belgium.

Bismarck rejected those demands and saved them for future reference in case of need of French assistance or neutrality. The Austro-Prussian War is often called the Seven Weeks’ War because of its duration. Prussia had superiority in spite of its inferiority of population.

Since 1862 the Prussians had been updating their military. They had developed military training and tactics involving quick flanking pincer movements. As a result, in spite of opposition from German states such as Hanover, Bavaria, Baden, Hesse, Wurttemberg, Saxony, and others, the Prussian armies advanced very quickly. They defeated the Hanover army at Langensalza on June 29 and occupied Nuremberg and northern Bavaria by July 1.

In the meantime, Prussian armies occupied HesseCassel, Nassau, and Frankfurt. The decisive action came in July. Since Austria had sent some of its army to meet the Italians, whom they defeated at the Battle of Custozza on June 24, and some troops remained in Hungary, a way was opened for a Prussian thrust to the capital of Vienna.

Therefore, in von Moltke’s plan, three Prussian armies advanced from Saxony and Silesia into Bohemia. The Austrian commander general von Benedek took up a position at Koniggratz (known as Sadowa in Czech), where on July 3 he was attacked by the united first and second Prussian armies.

They were joined by the Prussian third army under the crown prince, which turned the tide of battle. This intervention ended with an Austrian rout and an opening to Vienna. The war ended, although the peace agreement at Nikolsburg was not signed until July 26.

After the Seven Weeks’ War

The consequences of the Austrian defeat were greater for the German Confederation than for Austria. Austria had to pay a war indemnity, cede Venetia to Italy and Holstein to Prussia. Henceforth, Austria was to be excluded from German affairs.

The German Confederation paid a heavier price. Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, Nassau, and Frankfurt were directly annexed to Prussia. This had the effect of connecting all of Prussia’s possessions in northern and western Germany. Prussia now composed more than half of Germany.

There were other consequences of the Seven Weeks’ War in terms of German unification. The old German Confederation was replaced by the North German Confederation of all German territory north of the Main. The four states south of the Main (Baden, Bavaria, grand ducal Hesse, and Wurttemberg) could form a South German Confederation.

They had sided against Prussia, but escaped punishment except for a reduced war indemnity and an offensive and defensive alliance with Prussia. The southern states consented to Prussian troops being introduced into the military fortifications after Bismarck revealed Napoleonic demands.

The North German Confederation included the kingdom of Saxony, the former Hanseatic cities of Bremen, Lübeck, and Hamburg, the grand duchy of Brunswick, Mecklenberg, Oldenberg, and 13 other duchies and principalities. The North German

Confederation was arranged so that Prussia dominated. To further emphasize this, the presidency of the confederation was given to the king of Prussia, and the direction of the affairs of the confederation was placed in the hands of a chancellor, in this case, Bismarck.

The authority of the confederation extended to foreign policy, the army, and economic affairs. The constitution of the confederation established a unified commonweal in criminal justice, economic, and judicial affairs.

The laws of the North German Reich were to have precedence over the laws of the states. The states could maintain their own administrative system, educational affairs, and church affairs.

Although the upper house, or Reichstag, gave each state one vote, the lower house, the Bundesrat, based on universal male franchise, was controlled by Prussia, with its greater population. Also, the Bundesrat had the right with the approval of the president (king of Prussia) to dissolve the Reichstag.

He semi-coerced the South German states into closer association by saying that a new customs union that would replace the Zollverein had to be operated through a customs-parliament that met in Berlin.

Not wishing to forfeit the large market, the South German states entered into the new custom-parliament that had equal representation from the South German states and the North German Confederation.

The South German confederation that might have served as a partial obstacle to further unification never materialized, as Baden and Wurttemberg were not willing to put themselves under Bavarian leadership.

Much of the reason for this was a perceived loss of power against Bavaria, which had over half of the population of the South German states. The next few years, from 1867 to 1870, Bismarck used to firm up support both within and without.

Prelude to War with France

French demands for parts of southern Germany and also Luxembourg had been put in writing. This, when disseminated, stirred up nationalism throughout Germany, including in the South German states.

The French demands upon Belgium alienated the British, who considered themselves the protector of Belgium. Austria was alienated from France when Bismarck leaked the negotiations with France prior to the Austro-Prussian War. Italy would not support France as long as French troops remained in Rome.

Russia was already bound to Prussia by the 1863 agreement. The immediate cause of the third war that led to German reunification was the succession to the throne of Spain after a revolution had ejected its previous occupant.

The Spaniards asked a member of the Catholic branch of the Hohenzollern (the Prussian royal family) to accept the appointment of a constitutional king of Spain. This proposal caused great indignation in France, which threatened war if a Hohenzollern accepted the throne. The French felt that Hohenzollern princes in Spain and Germany would put them in a vise.

After some weeks of hesitation, the Hohenzollern prince Leopold withdrew his candidacy. It appeared that after several years of diplomatic setbacks, the French had gained a victory. However, a feeling developed that the renunciation was not enough.

They sent their ambassador to Prussia to the town of Ems, where the Prussian king William I was taking the waters. The ambassador asked William to guarantee that he would never again permit the Hohenzollern to seek the throne. The king refused to undertake such a task. He then sent a telegram to Bismarck describing the incident.

This famous Ems Telegram was edited and abbreviated by Bismarck so that it appeared that the French ambassador had been brusque to the point of insult to the Prussian king, while the Prussian king had been equally short to the point of offense to the French ambassador. The message was then published in an abbreviated form. Public opinion in both countries was incensed. The French declared war on July 15, 1870.

The Third War

Although the Prussians and the French appeared equal, Prussia had certain advantages. First, the French military was still somewhat demoralized from its ill-starred adventure in Mexico between 1863 and 1867. Second, parts of the French army were tied down in parts of Indochina and Algeria, where they were busily establishing the French overseas empire.

Finally, the Prussians ultimately had an advantage in manpower. The South German states had to recognize the stipulations of their offensive and defensive alliances with Prussia that put their forces under Prussian command in the event of war.

The Prussians could also count on the manpower of the North German Confederation in addition to their own. Altogether, there was an army of a unified Germany of 1.2 million as opposed to a French army of 500,000, some of whom were overseas.

The Prussians immediately acted upon prearranged battle plans. Three armies were immediately formed for the purpose of invading French territories from three separate directions. General Steinmetz advanced from the Moselle, Prince Frederick Charles from the Palatinate to Metz, and the crown prince from the upper Rhine to Strasbourg.

The war was fought in two phases; July–September and September–February. At first, events went well for the French. They advanced into the Saar district in late July 1870 and won a small victory. So confidant were they of victory that they drew up plans for a partition of Prussia and a redistribution of the coal-rich Saar district.

They would soon be disillusioned as Prussia/Germany scored a number of victories in August. On August 4 and August 6 the crown prince won victories over Marshal MacMahon at the Battles of Weissenburg and Worth and forced him to evacuate Alsace. Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, fell by the end of the month.

The Germans also advanced into Lorraine and approached its capital of Nancy. Two other German armies surrounded the troops of Marshal Bazaine at the key city of Metz and at bloody battles at Vionville and Gravelotte on August 16 and August 18 repulsed the attempts of the French to break out of the ring.

When Marshal MacMahon attempted to get around the German north flank to relieve Bazaine at Metz, he discovered the road was already closed. When he attempted to break through against superior numbers of troops, he was decisively defeated at Sedan on September 1 and surrendered together with his army and the emperor on September 2.

The war continued for another five months, but the French Empire fell. The French request for an armistice was not accepted, due to their unwillingness to surrender Strasbourg, Metz, Toul, and Verdun.

The main German army then advanced against Paris, and the main fortresses of Metz and Verdun fell in September and Strasbourg in October. The last frontier fortress, Belfort, fell in mid-February 1871.

In the meantime, Paris was besieged between late September and late January 1871, and most of northern France was the scene of battles. The attempt by French troops from the north and the Loire Valley to relieve Paris failed, and ultimately it too fell on January 28, 1871. The last remaining efficient army of the French was pushed into Switzerland, where it was interned early in February 1871.

A preliminary peace was signed on February 26. The official treaty that ended the war was the Treaty of Frankfurt, on May 10, 1871. In its provisions, Alsace, northern Lorraine, and the city of Metz were ceded to Germany. (After the final formation of the German Empire, Alsace-Lorraine became a common province of the empire.)

Moreover, France had to pay 5 million francs in war indemnity. German troops occupied central and southern Lorraine until the indemnity was paid (in 1875). German troops occupied Paris until the Treaty of Frankfurt was approved by the national assembly in May 1871.

End Results

The most important result of the Franco-Prussian War was the unification of Germany. The feeling of nationalism that swept Germany in the wake of the war led the South German states into negotiations.

After some special concessions, especially by Bavaria, which retained the right to control its own army in times of peace, the South German states entered the confederation. After further maneuvers by Bismarck, the question of a new German Empire led by the king of Prussia, first by the king of Bavaria and then by a delegation from the North German Confederation, was presented.

Upon acceptance on January 18, 1871, the king of Prussia became German emperor. This last title took the place of emperor of Germany in deference to German dynasties that did not wish to be officially subordinated to the Hohenzollerns.

The constitution that covered the old North German Confederation plus the South German states plus Alsace-Lorraine was adopted on April 14, 1871. The form of government adopted by this new state closely reflected the government of the North German Confederation, with special concessions to the South German states, such as control of posts and telegraphs and the right to post taxes on beer and brandy. The new state automatically became the strongest state in Europe due to its army and its manufacturing base.