“Supreme opportunism was the key to unification” How far would you agree with this statement in reaction to Bismarck and Germany?
The Prussian leader Otto Von Bismarck is often singularly credited with uniting Germany. However, there is much historical debate over whether this is well deserved or not, as it is argued that unification would have happened anyway, regardless of Bismarck, because of the pressures that were increasing in the 19th century. For example, Germany had the shame of the Frankfurt parliament collapse in 1849 which was brought on by the Revolutions in Germany; the first attempts to challenge Austria’s power in Germany. The Parliament broke down due to it’s divided leadership and inexperience. It was called ‘a layers parliament’ meaning that it was too divided and ‘talked too much and did too little’. This also led to Frederick William IV refusing to lead a united Germany, then the fail of the Erfurt Parliament and the ‘Humiliation of Oldmutz’ which had all recently taken place. Therefore, there was much pressure on Germany and it’s military leader to thrive and prove to its people and the other nations that it was still a powerful country. Nevertheless, the key debate is how skilled Bismarck was in uniting Germany, or whether he was mainly being opportunistic. There were many factors which contributed to Bismarcks successes in unifying Germany, such as the Military, the Economic factors, the Political factors, and the Personality of Bismarck. For example, Prussia had weak enemies - Austria was in decline, the Danes were too amateur and not in control, and the French were too arrogant. Besides this, Bismarck had the advantage of Prussia’s already strong economic power, and the growing success of the Zollverein was another factor that pushed Germany towards unification. Thus, it is apparent that circumstances suited Bismarck; and he was showing great opportunism and drive. Some described him as operating ‘like an architect who had a master plan’, which he followed in order to build a united Germany. The best description, however, is probably that Bismarck acted as a catalyst who sped up changes which would have happened anyway, but he also had the political skill and acumen to take advantage of circumstances as they arose and over which he often had no direct control. This shows that Bismarck was an opportunist first, making his policies open to flexibility, and it was this that led to his success, as well has his strong policy of ‘Blood and ‘Iron’, which basically means that democratic power was wasted and military power served as the success measure for German unification.
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Thanks to Bismarck, Germany had strong military power due to its huge modern army and two outstanding generals, Von Roon and Von Moltke, who ultimately caused the victory of the three Wars that Bismarck commanded. Von Moltke was a conservative and brilliant military straegist, who had clever direction and use of resources; he thought of using rail roads for rapid troop transport. The speed of the Prussian troops enabled them to achieve their surprising victory over Austria. Prussia’s strong military force enabled them to win the three wars, starting with Denmark in 1864. The cause was due to the Danish invasion of Schleswig and Holstein. The Danish parliament passed a constitution, which incorporated Schleswig into a new Danish kingdom, justifying this with the argument that most of the population of Schleswig was Danish. Bismarck argued that it was a threat to the European monarchies and suggested that a combined Prussian-Austrian force should attack Denmark. Bismarck’s plan to rush into War worked and it was an easy victory, giving Prussia the glory of defender of German interests. At the Treaty of Vienna, Denmark gave up it’s claims to Schleswig and Holstein, which marked the end of the war, but at the Convention of Gastein 1865 it was agreed that Holstein would be goverened by Austria, and Schleswig by Prussia. This was Bismarck’s first step in weakening Austria’s power to make Prussia the most powerful German state, and it worked because Austria was politically and militarily cornered by Bismarck as they could not refuse to get involved in the war against Denmark if they wanted to keep their influence over the German Confederation. This meant Bismarck could provoke a war with Austria when it suited him. From the conflict with Denmarck, Prussia’s status was boosted, since it looked as if Prussia was a supporter of German Nationalism against the threat of Denmark. Also, the recently reformed Prussian army was tested in an ‘easy’ war before any conflict with Austria erupted.
The second war was between Prussia and Austria in 1866. This war, it can be argued, took much planning from Bismarck, and it shows that the success of unification was not just his opportunism alone, but also his careful preparation and planning. Bismark’s first steps were to ‘neutralise’ Russia and France to ensure that neither would get involved in Prussia’s war against Austria, leaving it ‘isolated’. The Polish rebellion in 1863 meant that Bismarck could gain Russia’s friendship. He helped Poland (which was then a part of Russia) in the round-up of rebels by closing the border to Prussia to stop the refugees escaping. Bismarck was then secure in the knowledge that Russia was now less likely to take sides against Prussia in any future conflict between Austria. France was easy to maintain. In 1865, Bismarck arranged a meeting with Napoleon III in Biarritz to secure extra territory for France if they pledged to stay out of Prussia’s war with Austria. Bismarck also made an alliance with Italy to help Prussia fight the war against Austria, promising them the land around Venice, called Venetia, if they helped. Italy agreed, and Bismarck proposed that Italy attacked from the south, and Prussia attacked from the north, meaning that Austria would have to split its armies. Bismarck had now set the diplomatic scene and was ready to fight.
Germany complained that Austria was not running Holstein properly after gaining it’s control in the Convention of Gastein agreement and claimed that Austria was creating disorder in Schleswig, stirring up anti-Prussian feelings. Prussian troops marched into Holstein and won the war in seven weeks. However, fair terms were created in the Treaty of Prague 1866 and is a good demonstration of Realpolitik, Bismarcks’s policy which was a way of thinking politically, which placed the state higher than the individual. Austria was excluded from Germany and it lost all territory to Italy, while having to give Venetia to France. By this, Bismarck had achieved his aims, doing what was necessary to achieve them, but no more. It had never been his intention to destroy Austria, just Austria’s influence over Germany. The result was a Kleindeutschland being created, and it seemed that Germany was close to unity under Bismarck’s successful ‘blood and iron’ technique.
The third war was the Franco-Prussian War between 1870-71. Historians use this war with France as an example of Bismarck taking a situation out with his control and using it to his advantage, showing that he was an opportunist first, and a planner second. Bismarck needed a situation, which would make France appear to be in the wrong. Napoleon had wanted to buy Luxembourg, and this suited Bismarck, however, new leaked and people shoed their indignation. Spain was the cause of the rift to war, but Bismarck had the opportunity of gaining the support of the three South Western states. France refused to uphold the new King to the Spanish throne, but Bismarck supported him. As a result, France raged in war fever, believing that war was the only way to regain French prestige. Napoleon III pushed France into war, but with the help of the three South West states, the Prussian army crushed the French at the battle of Sedan, and France surrendered in January of 1871. This became the war that unified Germany at last, bringing back the New German Empire. The German princes proclaimed King Wilhelm of Prussia as Kaiser of a unified Germany, in the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.
The Economic factors which lead to Bismarck’s success under his rule using opportunism were the already successful Zollverein. The economic changes that the Zollverein encouraged brought the different states together, hovever, it was not oringinally intended to promote unification. The separate German states joined for their own financial and economic benefit, but the Zollverein did increase the power and status of Prussia. It has been described as ‘The mighty lever of unification’, as without the Zollverein, Prussia would not have had the muscle to defeat the power of Austria and it was the foundation for success.
The Prussian economy was built on “Coal and Iron” which provided the money, transport and munitions for successful war. Economic prosperity was brought by the development of heavy industry in which there were big profits to be made. Also good road and rail networks and a good education system created the ‘German’ infrastructure. Prussia had both a big arms production and a huge merchant navy.
Politically, things were to Bismarcks advantage as Austrian weaknesses, such as it’s backward economy and loss of Russia as an ally meant that Prussia had a good chance of defeating it. Prussia, on the other hand, was remarkably strong due to the work of Bismarck, from its economy and culture to its large armies. It was also fuelled by the Bandwagon effect that success breed success.
The personality of Bismark was that he was a realist and beleieved in the blood and iron technique, and in actions not words. His strong leadership qualities enabled Germany to be unified after the defeats of three different wars. Not only was Bismarck an opportunist, but a planner too, and used his two superb Generals to direct the Prussian army into war. He was a diplomat also, and bought off all the potential friends of Austria. Despite this, Bismarck was more of an opportunist than a planner as he used people and events to his advantage and kept his options open.
In conclusion, Germany became more Prussianised than ‘unified’ as Bavaria was bribed by Bismarck to join the new Germany and many smaller states still believed they had been defeated and absorbed by Prussia, rather than choosing to unify. Furthermore, the Prussian king became the German Kaiser and Bismarck became the German Chancellor whilst Prussian taxes and laws became German taxes and laws. Such evidence suggests that the German states had been ‘Prussianised’ rather than unified. However, the fact remains that an independent German Empire existed from 1871. Certainly, without a reformed army, a revived economy, nationalist enthusiasm and several coincidental pieces of good fortune like the Spanish revolution to find a new ruler, Bismarck could not have unified Germany, and would not have been so successful without these events. It is clear that he was very aware of circumstances, coincidences and other factors that helped him to achieve his aims, and that he was not just lucky. Bismarck has been likened to a card player who played his hand very well, even though he did not deal the cards. He was a catalyst in German unification, and he had the ability to use the opportunities that events presented. Therefore, to a large extent, I would agree with the statement that “Supreme opportunism was the key to unification”, however, it took some degree of skilful planning and preparation, for Bismarck’s actions to be achieved.