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Europe (1848-1871)

German Unification (1850-1871)

Italian Unification (1848-1870)

The Second Empire in France (1852-1870)

Summary

Whereas Camillo di Cavour directed Italian unification, a Junker (the Prussian name for an aristocratic landowner from old Prussia in the east) named Otto von Bismarck pushed German unification through "blood and iron" and skillful understanding of realpolitik. As the map of central Europe stood in 1850, Prussia competed with Austria for dominance over a series of small principalities fiercely keen on maintaining their independence and distinctive characteristics. Prussia proper stretched from modern-day Lithuania to central Germany. Prussia also controlled the German lands around the Rhine River in the west. In between, from Denmark to Switzerland, lay small provinces that Bismarck needed to incorporate under the Prussian crown to create a viable German Empire.

In 1862, Bismarck reorganized the Prussian army and improved training in preparation for war. In 1864, he constructed an alliance with Austria to fight Denmark over Denmark's southern provinces of Schleiswig and Holstein. Prussia received Schleiswig while Austria administered Holstein. That situation, however, could not stand for long, as Austrian Holstein was now surrounded by Prussian lands. Bismarck provoked a conflict with Austria over an unrelated border dispute and in the subsequent Seven Weeks' War--named for its brevity--Prussia crushed the collapsing Austrian army. The peace settlement transferred Holstein to Prussia and forced Austria to officially remove itself from all German affairs.

With Austria out of Bismarck's way, his next obstacle was the skepticism of the southern provinces. Overwhelmingly Catholic and anti-militaristic, the southern provinces doubted Prussia's commitment to a united Germany of all provinces. Prussia's Protestantism and historic militarism made the gulf between north and south quite serious. Therefore, Bismarck turned to realpolitik to unite the Germanic provinces by constructing a war against a common enemy. In 1870, Bismarck forged a note from the French ambassador, implying that the ambassador had insulted the Prussian king. After he leaked this letter to both populations, the people of France and Prussia, roused by nationalist sentiment, rose up in favor of war. As Bismarck hoped, the southern provinces rallied to Prussia's side without any hesitation. In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. Within a matter of weeks of fighting in Alsace-Lorraine, France lost this Franco-Prussian War. Alsace-Lorraine was transferred to Germany in the peace settlement, allowing Prussia to declare the German Empire, or Second Reich, on January 21, 1871.

Commentary

Like Italy, Germany had quite a few serious issues to resolve once unification took place. Regional differences, developing since the first settlement of the Germanic tribes during the Roman Empire, were distinct, and local princes refused to give up substantial power to the central government. The Berlin assembly, therefore, was kept weak. Germany, like the United States under the Articles of the Confederation, seemed merely a loose of confederation of autonomous states. In Germany's case, one state, Prussia, was absolutely dominant due to its size, power, and military strength. This, combined with Bismarck's skillful conduct in international and national affairs as chancellor, kept the empire together until 1914.

However, the creation of a unified Germany in central Europe marked one of the greatest revolutions in the history of international relations. Since the establishment of nation-states in Europe, France, under the Valois-Bourbon royal line, dedicated its foreign policy to the weakening of Habsburg (Austrian and Spanish royal families) and the continued disunity of the Germanic provinces. Now that central Europe was united into two major powers--Germany and Italy--Europe was quite a different place. What would now become of the traditional balance of power in place since the defeat of Napoleon? The whole point had been that no one nation should gain excessive power and strength on the Continent. With the unification of Germany in central Europe--an essential economic and strategic region--was the balance of power doomed?

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