Bismarck’s politics during the wars of German Unification (1864-1871)
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Bismarck’s politics during the wars of German Unification (1864-1871)

In the 19th century there was one European
Statesman that towered above all others, contrary to the expectation of both his friends and
foes. Otto von Bismarck as a person managed to captivate
my imagination and historical curiosity ever since my first year of university. One of his curiosities, and certainly his
greatest achievement, was the unification of Germany under the King of Prussia. Now, what stands out in terms of this achievement
is the near universal consensus that Bismarck was a practitioner of Realpolitik. The fact that he is so well known, and such
a historical anomaly due to his Realpolitik, made me wonder if his practice was observable,
and why it was seemingly rare in history. So, well, I decided to research it. Since this is a long one, timestamps, as always,
will be in the description. Before we start, in order to sketch Bismarck’s
character, I feel this short paragraph by Jonathan Steinberg describes him very well:
(p. 184) -intro- Background Bismarck
managed to unify Germany through several wars, without upsetting the European equilibrium
all too much. The Schleswig war and Bruderkrieg were two
crucial wars Prussia fought, and won, in order to accomplish German unification with the
Franco-German war of 1870. Many biographies have been written about Bismarck,
and fortunately for us he left an incredible amount of written letters, diaries and notes. Generations after him read his memoires in
order to shape their political thought. Fact of the matter is that Bismarck is a historical
anomaly and a complex person. I believe this complexity makes it even more
interesting to attempt to understand his politics. The wars fought during the 60s offer an insight
in the strategist and politicians Bismarck. Most biographers refer to him as one of the
few shining examples of Realpolitik; I mean, thanks to his pursuit of Realpolitik he managed
to accomplish German unification. The amount of conflicts he embarked upon,
could hint at a superficial, aggressive yearning for expansion. So why wasn’t Bismarck an ordinary expansionist,
but a deliberate statesman and loyal advisor to his King, Wilhelm I of Prussia? It is exactly Bismarck’s relationship with
his colleagues, peers and King Wilhelm I that stand central in this analysis. I’ll tell you why: while Bismarck often
had conflict with his adversaries, his peers, and especially the King, ought to have pursued
the same objectives, don’t you think? All of them wanted a more powerful Prussia. The more you’ll read about Bismarck, the
more you’ll realize Bismarck was in constant conflict with these entities: the ones that
pursued the same goal as he did. Why were these conflicts present? And what does that tell us about the possibility
of Realpolitik? In order to attempt to answer these questions
I’ll firstly try to conceptualize Realpolitik: what does it really mean? Secondly, what was Bismarck’s personal political
vision, his thoughts on the Prussian monarchy and the possibility of a German Unification. Lastly, the Schleswig war and Bruderkrieg
are elaborated upon: not so much the chronology of the wars, but what happened behind the
scenes during the war and in its aftermath. What did Bismarck’s peers, colleagues and
King Wilhelm I think of the policy Bismarck was propagating? Well, that’s certainly enough room for an
analysis I’d say, so let’s delve into it. Realpolitik: the exception or the rule? The term Realpolitik was thought up by the
German liberal journalist August Ludwig von Rochau in 1853. Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ is often
seen as one of the first documents, drenched with a spirit of empiricism, describes the
political tactics of Realpolitik. The word Realpolitik is used frequently, yet
many political scientists and historians agree the word is poorly understood. There’s a reason for this: there is barely
any agreed upon explicit description of the term. While there is no central definition, there
are several elements that are often at the forefront of practitioners of Realpolitik. Henry Emery describes a Realpolitiker as ‘a
statesman that only lets current events and needs influence his course of action’. The necessity to apply political methods that
aren’t always… ethical, since that’s often the accusation of Realpolitik, has to
be understood in light of the frame of society and the geopolitical sphere. This geopolitical sphere often consists of
material and structural constraints for states. Power in a crucial element: thanks to power,
policy can be carried out, disregarding the aforementioned constraints. Realpolitik operates on the basis of pursuing
power in a rational way, maintaining power, and applying power. As Bismarck ascended as Prime Minister of
Prussia, it was the fifth Greatest Power on the continent, cowering between a bigger Russia,
France, Britain and Austria. There certainly were material and structural
constraints when operating on the basis of Prussian interest. In order to maximize the potential of Prussia,
the logical consequence would be that many Realpolitiker seated in positions of power. I’ll quote the prominent political theorist
Hans Morgenthau on this: “Rationality, and as such Realpolitik, tends to be the exception
rather than the rule”. This statement is also applicable to Prussia. Centred in Realpolitik are utilitarian and
pragmatic considerations. In order to apply this to Bismarck it ought
to be emphasized that Prussian conservatives developed a romantic view of transnational
solidarity against liberalism and its idea of a “Rechtsstaat”, or state of law. The German liberals were, in their turn, preoccupied
with the idea of this Rechtsstaat and how to realize it. Bismarck wasn’t preoccupied with these ideals,
but with the actuality. Just like Machivalli he realized: power is
the essence of politics, or in his words: “Macht geht vor Recht”. To deal with power in this respect it assumes
a rational thought process. This rationality detaches current events from
emotions, ideologies and, to a certain degree, even morality. Friedrich Meinecke, a historian, claims that
a realist has to detach himself from his emotions, personal preferences and aversions. He ought to pursue the safeguarding of the
common good. As such, a Realpolitiker has to have an objectieve
view of the current situation. One of the many examples that underline this
phenomenon in Bismarck was said by his contemporary, Henrich von Treitschke, a politician and idol
among German professors. Treitschke belonged to a small group of liberals
that were converted to conservatism by Bismarck. In Treitschke’s words: “I think it is
horrible the most important Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bismarck) has been the
most hated man of German.” Yet, after Treitschke had met Bismarck, he
recounted: “Of all moral powers in the world, Bismarck does not even hold the smallest whim”. … Bismarck generally did not let himself
be influenced by emotions, moral considerations or ideologies. The two components of realpolitik I’ll apply
to Bismarck’s politics during the German unification are the sober consciousness of
oneself (as a state) on the international playing field and the capacity to envision
the near, and far future in order to create cost-benefit analysis and create a policy
that will be the most beneficial to the state. And, well, Bismarck certainly pursued that
type of politics. Bismarck the Politician One of Bismarck’s famous sayings goes like
this: “A statesman does not create the stream of time, he floats on it and tries to steer”. His conviction that power was the most important
asset in politics is often seen in his sayings as well: “Those that stand weakest in war,
are most prone to give up. Tohse that isolate themselves, lose influence,
especially as the weakest of the Great Powers (Prussia in this case)”. On the 30th of September 1862, Bismarck gave
his first speech to the Reichstag. In it, he said the great questions of their
time would not be decided by majority decisions and debate, but – ‘Sondern durch Eisen und
Blut’, or by iron and blood. The Revolutions nearly 15 years prior of 1848
made a great impression on Bismarck. In order to understand Bismarck as a politician
I want to look at his personal idea of objectivity, his loyalties, German ‘nationalism’ and
his ultimate goal. The Natural Scientist Bismarck In 1874, 3 years after German unification,
Bismarck spoke to the Reichstag in a very telling speech. He told the Reichstag: “I am a disciplined
statesman that subordinates himself fully to the needs and demands of the state, all
in light for peace and prosperity of my country”. There are more speeches and diary entries
by Bismarck where he convinces the reader that Prussia’s monarchy, or his conviction
the world is steered by a divine power, are not up to scrutiny in his world. It’s nearly altruistic, don’t you think? He’s convinced he sacrifices himself for
a greater good. Footnotes should be drawn, as plenty historians
agree Bismarck was projecting his own ambitions and desires onto the Prussian state and ‘God’s
will’. It relieved him of any shame or guilt in his
ruthless mission to power. He was always able to justify it to the public:
he fought for the Prussian monarchy, and later the German nation. That footnote isn’t to say Bismarck didn’t
attempt to be as objective and realistic as possible. He often compared himself to a natural scientist. To a colleague, he wrote: “I try my best
to approach my official tasks with the greatest possible objectivity and correctness”. He concluded: “To achieve the greatest political
gain, it ought to be pursued with the greatest possible objectivity. To the statesman, as well as the natural scientist,
the only trustworthy guide is rationality.” He certainly suppressed his own convictions
and emotions, as in his words: “Even the king does not have the right to subordinate
the interests of the country to his own personal feelings of hatred or love.” So… there isn’t a set political strategy
Bismarck pursued, more something that resembles a general political technique that Bismarck
adhered to in order to maximize his gains in the dangerous game of politics. In essence, at all times Bismarck held multiple
irons in the fire. He ensured political flexibility, the option
to always choose a different path if it suited him better. A contemporary from Bavaria managed to put
it into words: “In major domestic and foreign affairs and questions Prince Bismarck likes
to provide himself with an alternative in order to be able to decide the same in one
of two opposed directions.” Bismarck was continuously aware of the changing
circumstances around him, and managed to display great flexibility in adjusting to these situations. Bismarck’s Realpolitik: Schleswig War (1864) So… It took a while but we have arrived at the
wars that Bismarck became famous for. In 1864 the Danish King Frederick the 7th,
against the Protocols of London, attempted to push a new constitution to the domains
of Schleswig and Holstein. Considering the majority of the population
was German, a nationalist reaction from, mainly the smaller German states, erupted. The suppressed Germans within these 2 domains
had the right to self-determination. After all, the Protocols of London said they
could. Bismarck approached this event with the intention
to annex both provinces. While annexing them didn’t have the absolute
priority, it was the “best result could come from this dispute.” Now here’s where we get to the first glimpse
of Bismarck’s Realpolitik. Characteristic for this event was the resistance,
from noble convictions, that Bismarck experienced among his colleagues and peers after he told
them of his proposed approach. During a meeting of the crown, Wilhelm I “lifted
his arms up as if he was doubting my sanity”, Bismarck later reminisced. Prussian did not have a rightful claim over
these duchies, which was made very clear to Bismarck by Wilhelm. The King stuck to his ‘romantic ideal’
of conservative solidarity and sovereignty of the government of both duchies. Bismarck’s proposals were controversial
to the degree that Wilhelm ordered to have them erased from the minutes of the meeting. After all, Bismarck certainly wouldn’t want
to have the world know about his preposterous ideas. The contrary turned out to be true: Bismarck
personally made sure his utterings were replaced. With great skill and dexterity Bismarck manipulated
the situation. Eventually, the crown council agreed to a
war. Bismarck saw this diplomatic campaign as his
magnum opus: regardless of the complex relation with the Austrian empire, he managed to goad
them into an alliance so both great powers could wage war on the much smaller Denmark. The Schleswig war was a fact. It didn’t take too much effort for Prussia
and Austria to crush Denmark. Following their victory, Bismarck managed
to place the duchies under both Austrian Habsburg and Prussian Hohenzollern control. Prussia received Schleswig, and Austria received
Holstein: a duchy that was far removed from its territory, isolated by Prussia. Friction between Austria and Prussia over
these duchies allowed Bismarck with a new trump card. A situation could be created where Austrian
interference in the small German kingdoms, and certainly Prussia, could forever be removed. Bismarck was one of the few men that wanted
to exploit this opening. His colleagues weren’t supportive of his
plan. Bismarck started pressuring his colleagues
in the crown council, and Wilhelm himself, to annex both dutchies, as this would ensure
the “definitive consolidation of Prussian territory”. It would lead to an inevitable war with Austria. Bismarck’s primary goal was to push back Austria
that had interfered in political issues among the German states for centuries, by establishing
a Northern German Bund. Creating this Bund, or confederation, meant
dethroning, or at least curtailing the power of many German princes and kings. As for the Catholic southern German states,
they weren’t too eager to join a Germany united under Prussia. As you can imagine, there was fierce resistance
against Bismarck’s plans. Even from his colleagues, and the King himself. King Wilhelm was extremely fierce in his resistance:
“There is no talk yet of war, let alone of dethroning German princes”. Bismarck tactfully used diplomacy, or rather
lack thereof, to bait Austria into a war. Eventually, two mistakes by the Austrian Minister
of Foreign Affairs, Count Alexander von Mensdorff, led to the direct reason for Wilhelm to declare
war on the Austrian Empire. The Crown Prince of Prussia opposed the war
as well, considering it ‘fratricide’. Hence the name Bruderkrieg, for the war that,
in my opinion, perfectly shows Bismarck’s cunning political genius and Realpolitik approach. Bismarck’s Realpolitik: The Bruderkrieg
(1866) So, when 2 years after the Schleswig war the
Brudgerkrieg between Austria and Germany erupted, Bismarck wrote to the commander of Prussian
forces, General Helmuth von Moltke: “The goal is to have Austria agree with the new
German constitution we want to install. Containing ourselves to Northern Germany allows
for understanding from southern German states, mainly Bavaria, as well.” Austria didn’t adhere to the Gastein Convention
that had been agreed upon in the wake of the Schleswig war: it allowed Holstein’s diet
to convene. Finally, King Wilhelm was convinced of the
necessity of war: Austria didn’t adhere to its agreements. In his words “Treachery by Austria is followed
with lies, and lies are followed with the violation of good faith. So, had Bismarck steered towards a war with
Austria from the moment the Schleswig war was over? After all, he wanted to push Austria out of
Prussian, and German, affairs. Well, he had undoubtedly realized the potential
of a war with Austria. Yet, early in his career Bismarck was in favour
of an agreement with Austria, where Germany would be divided by the Main. A north and south Germany, if you will. Bismarck considered this possibility far after
tensions between Prussia and Austria reached a near boiling point. Even in May 1866, as war with Austria seemed
inevitable, Bismarck repeated his offer to Ludwig von Gablenz, an Austrian general. Until the very last moment, when the troops
finally clashed in battle, Bismarck retained this trump card, in the event of king Wilhelm
not willing to wage war, or if French intervention would make war with Austria too risky. Yet again, Bismarck had multiple irons in
the fire. The chronology and events of the Bruderkrieg
is fascinating, I mean, Austria got crushed within 7 weeks and it featured the battle
of Königgratz that certainly speaks to the imagination. But the fascinating aspect for this analysis
is what happened behind the scenes in its aftermath. After Prussia had, unexpectedly might I add,
defeated the Austrian empire, the only question that remained was ‘how far will it go to
demand concessions from Austria?’ In Berlin there was speculation about the
absolute necessity of annexing Saxony and Bavaria, two southern German states. Let alone other alluring annexations. Some politicians even wanted to push through
to Vienna and perhaps Hungary. Prussia had won, after all, and should exploit
this victory. A basic assumption about Realpolitik would
assume that the logical result of such a landslide victory would mean exploiting it to the greatest
extent. And here’s where Bismarck truly shines:
he did exactly the opposite. He used strategic restraint. And mind you, literally no one at the Prussian
court was happy he did so. Lothar Gall describes Bismarck’s actions
as “Retreating at the moment of victory”. Previously I mentioned how part of Realpolitik
is an awareness of oneself on the international playing field, and the ability to foresee
both the short- and long term future. Bismarck was very well aware of all elements
and how his actions would be perceived by other countries. If King Wilhelm and the Prussian military
command got what they wanted, the Prussian army would end up taking Vienna, or enter
Hungary even. Such a frontal assault would certainly disturb
Europe’s equilibrium and would have resulted in hostile climates in Paris, Moscow and London,
if not immediately a foreign intervention. Bismarck was aware of this, and thus whilst
he aggressively pursued the war, he now had Austria where he wanted them, and showed restraint. King Wilhelm, the Prussian Military high command
and Prussian ambassadors had other plans, however. Ambassadors in Paris and München complained
about the fact Bismarck didn’t want to consolidate the unification of Germany. Whilst some argue about military inferiority,
it becomes pretty evident when reading about this that the Prussian high command was fully
convinced of their military superiority. Paul Kennedy nuances this by stating that
several mistakes were made, yet the Prussian victory was incredible for the morale. Many of Bismarck’s colleagues were led by
their emotions – a swift victory led to impulsive, short-sighted and dangerous ambition. Jonathan Steinberg describes Bismarck’s
worries during this time: “he felt as if he was playing cards with a million Frank,
that wasn’t really his money.” Bismarck’s ‘card game’ had played out
great so far, now it was his mission to ensure Prussia wouldn’t outplay itself. Why wasn’t Austria invaded? So Bismarck didn’t follow the King and military
high command in their wish for concessions. But why? As a vassal of the Prussian king and a monarchist
if any, wasn’t his priority the expansion of Prussia? Bismarck realized Austria should become an
ally instead of an enemy. If Prussia alienated Austria, it could enter
an alliance with the much hated France, or even more hated Russia, a former partner Austria
had horribly betrayed during the Crimean war. In his memoires, written in 1890, Bismarck
reflects on the situation: “I attempted to make clear one cannot lethally wound someone
when he has to live with them in the future.” King Wilhelm responded: “My first minister
(Bismarck) is a deserter in the eyes of the enemy, and he forces me into this humiliating
peace”. This exchange of words between Wilhelm and
Bismarck were the most serious during their relationship. Eventually, after Bismarck threatened to resign
as Prussia’s prime minister, and the subsequent intervention of the Crown prince, King Wilhelm
accepted the peace Bismarck proposed. The Southern German states of Bavaria, Baden
and Württemberg remained independent but had to sign a treaty of alliance. When the representative of Bavaria was told
of these very mild demands, it is said he burst into tears and hugged Bismarck. Peace with Austria was established, without
annexations and without a victory parade. According to Steinberg this was Bismarck’s
pinnacle in human and diplomacy terms. In a letter Bismarck wrote to his wife, six
days after the victory, he wrote: “I have the thankless task of reminding people we’re
not on our own in Europe, but with three other great powers that hate us and are jealous
of us”. In his memoires, he reminisces: “I had the
greatest possible difficulty with getting the King into Bohemia, and the greatest possible
difficulty getting him out again.” This sentence certainly describes this precarious
situation and it makes it all the more commendable he was able to, and foresaw Austria was a
crucial ally in the war that would follow with France, 4 years later. The aftermath of the Bruderkrieg highlights
Bismarck’s Realpolitik sentiment. Previously, people could have argued Bismarck
was an expansionist which is why he was fighting with his colleagues. All doubt is now removed: his cost-benefit
analysis was on another level than most of his colleagues. The irony is in the fact he pursued an aggressive
policy in attempting to get Prussia into this war, and once it was won, to restrain it. The Franco-German War & Epilogue The battle for German reign was nearly finished. The question now posed itself: who was superior
in Western Europe. Was it Prussia, or an increasingly nervous
and suspicious France? Nearing the end of the 1860s both countries
were weighing their chances. France seemed the strongest: its population
was larger and the French army had the best rifle available at that moment: the Chassepot
and mitrailleuse. Its navy outmatched Prussia by a lot. Not just that, but it was very likely Austro-Hungary,
as it was now called, and Italy would come to France’s aid if war were to break out. When in July 1870 the conflict reached its
boiling point and war seemed inevitable, few French doubted the outcome of the war. The swift victory of Prussia ended this fantasy. On the 4th of september the French army surrendered
at Sedan and Napoleon III became a prisoner of war. In Paris, the imperial army was overthrown. Prussia had now truly established itself as
a European great power: ‘Europe had lost a mistress and gained a master’, in Kennedy’s
words. The consequence of this war was, among other
things, the unification of Germany in the Kleindeutsche staat and annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. Bismarck pushed Prussian King Wilhelm to be
crowned in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles as the Kaiser of the new German Reich. The annexation and coronation of Wilhelm were
the reason for French revanchism, which would be one of the reasons for the First World
War. Realpolitik and Bismarck’s neutral and objective
vision seems to be completely absent. There is a reason why many historians refer
to Bismarck’s decisions over here as the ‘single greatest mistake of his lengthy
political career’. I don’t think they’re all too wrong. Nevertheless, in the words of Hans Morgenthau:
Rationality is the exception, rather than the rule. Perhaps even for Bismarck. Thank you for watching this video, I hope
you found it interesting! This was based on a paper I wrote in university. It was extremely interesting to research this
topic again. Prussian and German history provides such
a fruitful ground for fascinating political analysis and historical research that it is
something you’ll see much more on this channel. I’ll see you next week, don’t forget to
subscribe, see you next time!


  • House of History

    Based on a paper I wrote in university. What's a part of Prussian/German history you'd like to know more about? Let me know your thoughts in a comment!

    Support HoH:

    I decided to open up a Patreon where people can support HoH. Consider pledging as little as 1$/month in order to gain access to a monthly series exclusive to my Patrons!


    1:29 Historical Background and Introduction of Analysis
    4:00 Realpolitik: The Exception or the Rule?
    7:39 Bismarck the Politician
    10:39 Bismarck's Realpolitik: Schleswig War (1864)
    14:32 Bismarck's Realpolitik: Bruderkrieg (1866)
    18:57 Why wasn't Austria invaded?
    21:23 Franco-German war and Epilogue


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    Gall, Lothar, Bismarck, the White Revolutionary (Taylor & Francis, 1990).
    Holborn, Hajo, "Bismarck's Realpolitik." Journal of the History of Ideas 21:1 (1960) 84-98.
    Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (New York, 1987).
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    History (New Haven, 1957).
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    (1955) 548-566.
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    Pflanze, Otto, Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification,
    1815-1871 (Princeton, 1963).
    Rathbun, Brian, "The Rarity of Realpolitik: What Bismarck's Rationality Reveals about
    International Politics." International Security 43:1 (2018) 7-55.
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    Zustände Deutschlands (Stuttgart, 1853).
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    Smith, Michael Joseph, Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (London, 1986).
    Steinberg, Jonathan, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford, 2012).
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  • Wilhelm I. of Prussia

    Another amazing video!I would love to see more of these longer episodes!Are you planning to make a video about Italian Wars?

  • This is Barris! - French History

    Great video man! As always. And I'm excited you're getting a Patreon – I'm supporting you as soon as I get my credit card.

  • Brendan McDonough

    Mijn Nederlandse vriend – duchy = dutch-y, though I am sure Nappy 3 and the Danes found Bismarck to be quite douchey! Great topic, thanks for your hard work… Otto's descendents have some great stories too – from Nazis to cocaine suicides!

  • nirfz

    20:18 No victory parade? Johann Gottfried von Piefke composed the Königgrätzmarsch and he conducted it himself at the victoryparade. To this day people of the red colored german territory at 20:18 are called "Piefke" ("peefkay" for native english speakers) in most parts of Austria if they manage to earn themselves an insult. (If they come across as arrogant or behave badly)

  • peoplehavetherights

    If Bismarck was "ruthless" in his attempt to gain power, he was still far more soberly disciplined than Wilhelm II regarding realpolitik rather than the emotional roller-coaster in inter-related monarchies.

  • Michael Moritz

    Would enjoy a video on Major Ernest Junger, and his famous World War I experience told in; “Storm-of Steel”, written in 1920. Bismarck created the German Empire through unification a key number of lectures and reading in World History Books. Bismarck more than unified the German states, he change the future of Europe and his work influenced the world. This was another excellent history lesson.

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