The process of German unification during the 19th century was speeded up by the creation of a national market, a network of railways and communications and a self-conscious bourgeoisie. Unification was achieved by an alliance of liberal bourgeoisie with the landowning class in which war and diplomacy played a vital role.
The German Bund or Confederation of 1815, with all its deficiencies, served as a preordained and legitimate theatre of operations till 1867 for nationalist forces in Germany. In 1815 East Prussia and Schlewig were not a part of the German Confederation while Bohemia and Moravia, predominantly Czech area, were included. The Czech liberals refused to take part in the elections to the German Assembly in 1848.
The German National Assembly in 1848 was created on the basis of the most substantial and widespread upsurge in Germany in the 19th century. Briefly the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848 indicated the possibility of a democratic and untied Germany. But it had limited success, evident by the fact that even in 1849 the National Assembly opted for a Kleindeutsches Reich or Little Germany.
Rivalry of the two major dynastic powers in Germany eventually led to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 which ended in Austrian exclusion from the German nation. In 1863 the issue of German claims over the Duchies of Schleswig- Holstein, an important issue in 1848, were revived and once these duchies were taken from Denmark, it was not difficult to pick a quarrel with Austria over tenure. In the Austro-Prussian war although the Austrians secured a victory at Custozza they were decisively defeated at Koniggratz. In so far as the creation of the North German Confederation in 1867 menaced the power or security of France, it has been rightly remarked that it was France rather than Austria which was defeated at Koniggratz.
In July 1863 the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph convened a meeting of all the German Princes at Frankfurt to discuss a scheme for Federal reform, by which the reconstituted central authority was to be placed permanently in the hands of Austria and of her allies, the secondary states. Prussia’s absence (which was the result of strong advice by Bismarck to King of Prussia) made the Austrian proposal unworkable.
Austria’s policy of trying to overthrow the Zollverein by using the resentment of the south German secondary states against Prussia’s liberal customs policy also failed to yield results. Despite political sympathies with Bavaria and Austria Saxony remained within the Zollverein. The south German secondary states were compelled to accept the Prussian customs policy since they were unwilling to join a tariff union with Austria without the north German states.
Bismarck’s skill lay in securing a favourable international situation before the waged war with Austria in 1866. Also considerable statesmanship was involved in the manner of handling the small German states after Prussian victory in 1866 and in the creation of the North German Confederation in 1867. The fear of France also encouraged the small south German states to attach themselves to Prussia.
The failure to create a Southern Confederation indicated that the southern states would eventually join Bismarck’s North German Confederation. The conflict with France in 1870 led to military victories which in turn led to the creation of the German Empire. The four southern states, Bavara, Wurtemberg, Baden and Hesse joined the German Empire in 1871.
In short the whole process is summarized as follows; Under Bismarck, Prussia went to war with Austria and forced Austria to surrender some areas. He also made peace with South German states. Austria withdrew from any involvement with the German Confederation.
Prussia also went to war with France in 1869 when France tried to secure Luxembourg and Belgium and opposed Prussia’s support for a Hohenzollern candidate for the Spanish throne. This war led to a new nationalist wave sweeping through the South German states as well. This helped in the process of unification. The war ended with the treaty of Frankfurt in February 1871 by which Alsace Lorraine was ceded perpetually to Germany and France also had to pay an indemnity of 5 billion francs.
Bismarck showed a remarkable ingenuity in manipulating democratic institutions and principles for galvanizing popular support for the monarchical order in the newly established German empire after 1871. In a way this political strategy, described as Bismarckism, was the German variant of Bonapartism which throughout the imperial era remained a principal watchword of the German ruling classes.
Illiberal Shift in Late 19th Century
Towards the late 19th century there was an illiberal or right wing shift in the nature of nationalist politics. The reason for this growth in right wing orientation of nationalism was the fear of popular participation in politics, especially by the working class and the left wing or socialist parties. The liberal intelligentsia and middle class, which had championed a republican or liberal nationalism in the first half of the 19th century made a compromise with the conservative landowners and dynastic states after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848. In Italy the relation between the national movement for political unification and popular participation was so weak that Massimo d’ Azeglio observed: “we have made Italy, now we have to make Italians”.
It was the revolution of 1848 that revealed the weakness of the liberal bourgeoisies in Europe. In Germany and France, middle classes were willing to side with conservative Prussia or the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, rather than accept a greater pace of change. In Germany, during the years 1870-1878 the anti-clerical element in bourgeois nationalism prepared the basis of the conflict with the Social Democratic party and movement after 1878. The new right- wing nationalism which emerged in the late 1870s was hostile to left-wing liberals as well as Social Democrats.
The weakness of liberal democratic movements in 19th century Germany certainly led to the growth of right wing nationalism and the containment of Socialist Democracy.
Successful overseas expansion was supported by the right wing to secure economic benefits which would not only benefit businessmen, and middle class colonial officials, but also the industrial working class, at least in the export industries. The German right-wing was able to forge an alliance of landowners, industrialists and middle class to hold in check the growth of the liberal middle class, workers and socialism.
An authoritarian government legitimized by popular support had to take recourse to imperial expansion as a measure aiming at domestic political stability. The man who successfully outlined the basic framework of this policy was Otto von Bismarck who became the Minister- President of Prussia in 1863 and subsequently held the position of Imperial Chancellor after the unified German state came into being in 1871.
In fact in 1863 Bismarck was summoned from his estate in East Prussia by a besieged Prussian monarchy to solve the political and constitutional crisis caused by the rift between the liberal majority in the Prussian parliament (Landtag) and the government over the extremely contentious issue of army expansion.
The confrontation first took shape in 1860 when a new law was laid before the Landtag for financial approval of the war ministry’s plans of army expansion. The liberal majority saw this as a step towards the further militarization of society. They feared that the expansion of the regular army at the expense of the citizen’s militia would become a weapon of repression in the hands of Prussians despotism. In such situation Bismarck, appointed as PM ruled without parliamentary approval of budget. Prussian victory in the battle of Sadowa (between Prussia and Austria in 1866) fulfilled the liberal dream of national integration under Bismarck’s leadership, the Prussian liberals were even agreeable to giving retroactive sanction to Bismarck’s budget less regime of the early 1860’s by condoning the excesses of the great leader who was increasingly looked upon as a white revolutionary in liberal circles.
The compromise that was finally reached between Bismarck and his liberal critics determined the character of the German Empire. The governmental system was basically an extension of the Prussian system in which the privileges and power of the military aristocracy remained insulated from popular intervention. The success of this Bismarckian strategy of rallying parliamentary support for the conservative through electoral manipulations ultimately depended on his skill ‘for running internal politics on the steam power of foreign affairs. National prestige was one consideration which could turn critics into supporters. This strategy remained unchanged even after Bismarck’s rule came to an end in 1890.
The inevitable consequence of this strategy was a certain kind of ultra nationalist popular mobilization along racist lines anticipating in a way the basic features of Fascist mobilization of the early twentieth century. The phenomenon of the charismatic leader which was an important feature of Bonapartism continued to inform Fascist mobilization at a later date.
In Nazi Germany, the Fuehrer (title used by Hitler) demanded complete obedience and surrender to the leader. In addition much of the racist ideologies in the Nazi movement were derived from the racial theories that the German ruling classes had earlier deployed (in the late 19th century) to bolster the extremist nationalist sentiments. Central to this racist and ultra- nationalist mentality was Social Darwinism which transferred to the human sphere the biological theories of natural selection and an equally volatile notion of, ‘survival of the fittest’.
The whole argument implied that competition between different nations for achieving dominance in the world is endemic in which only the strongest will survive. The theory fitted in well with the imperial ambitions of the German state. Pan German league popularized the notion of Germanisation of Europe, particularly the continent’s eastern reaches inhabited by ‘inferior Slavonic people’. Civilising them was looked upon as the great mission of the Teutonic (Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, German and Scandinavian) race.
The anti-Semitic ideology, which was substantially reinforced by the activities of the Pan German league since the 1890’s reached a bloody climax in Nazi Germany.
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