How much credit should go to Bismarck for the unification of Germany between c. 1848 – 1871?


I see Bismarck’s role in the creation of a unified Germany in two separate ways. The first is how he capitalized on the foundations that pre-Bismarck Prussia created, without the economic and industrial growth Bismarck would have been very hard pushed to ensure Prussian supremacy in Germany. Secondly, is how he capitalized on the situations that arose after he came into power. The European diplomatic climate, for example, and how he dealt with Austria’s attempts at becoming the dominant power in Germany. Many historians see Bismarck as either a master chess player, planning his moves way in advance of the events, or as a great opportunist, making the most of what came his way. I see him as more of an opportunist, but there is no doubt in my mind that he could foresee his oppositions moves, and so made his to thwart theirs as well as capitalize on the situation ion hand, in this respect he is both chess player and opportunist.


How much credit should go to Bismarck for the creation of Germany depends on how you see his role. It is clear that without his presence the unification of Germany is likely to have been either slower, under Austrian leadership, or more likely both. It was his shrewd diplomatic skills that allowed Prussia to unify Germany under her leadership, but that does not mean to say that without him it would not have happened. Before Bismarck came on the scene, Prussia was already developing as the principal German state, and power could have turned either way.


As I just mentioned, the processes that led to the unification of the German states began well before Bismarck’s presence. Indeed, it could be argued that it started with the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century. These wars caused a realization of the need for a strong mid-European power, and within Germany patriotism stirred due to Austrian and Prussian importance in Napoleon’s defeat.


One of the most important pre-Bismarck movements for the unification of Germany was the growth of Nationalism. The ethnic similarities between all peoples of the German confederation were publicized by the growth of literacy alongside the development of the printing press and a national newspaper. These newspapers also revealed the advanced quality of life in industrialized countries such as America and England. As well as reading the same newspaper, the industrial age prompted the building of a rail network across ‘Germany’. Easier transport meant divisions between states became less pronounced and differences between the people of the GC became smaller and less significant. The industrial age also brought with it a need for a wider market, which coincided conveniently with the building of the railways. A Zollverein was created within Prussian territory which excluded Austria, and gave Prussia an early and extremely significant economic advantage. A new middle class created challenged the dominance of the aristocracy, who were a strong force against unification as it would remove many of their powers. All these points are very important contributing factors to the growth of nationalism, of which Bismarck had nothing to do with. It is clear that there was more than just Bismarck that contributed to the unification of the German states.



This growth of nationalism, when the 1848 revolutions took place, led to the creation of a parliament in Frankfurt, which strove to create a constitution accepted by the whole of the German confederation. As well as this attempt at unifying Germany, in 1856 German patriotism was given a massive boost, the 50th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon reminded all of the usefulness of German unification and put another string to the nationalist bow. These events totally independent of Bismarck hint to us that even without the presence of Bismarck, a united Germany would have been accomplished eventually, though how long it is not possible to know. What we can assume, however, is that a unified Germany would be under Austrian control, not Prussian.


One reason that shows just what an effect Bismarck had at ensuring the unification of Germany, under Prussian rule, is the fact that before his ‘reign’ the majority of the nationalists were far more in favour of a Grossdeutsch solution