Bismarck Continued: Bismarck and the Founder of the German Empire

  The German Empire in 1871

Wilhelm was good natured, old-fashioned, polite and well-liked. He and Germany were both respected globally as the period known as the “Kaiserreich” commenced and ran from 1871 to 1918.

Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig von Preußen was born in Berlin to Friedrich Wilhelm III and the most beloved German queen in history, Luise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, on March 22, 1797. As the second son, he was not expected to ascend to the throne and received little education. From 1814, he bravely served in the army against Napoleon, fighting under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at the Battles of Waterloo and Ligny. He later distinguished himself as an excellent diplomat. He successfully crushed a revolt aimed at his elder brother Friedrich Wilhelm IV during the Revolutions of 1848. When his brother, the King, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1858, Wilhelm became Prince Regent, and on January 2, 1861 he ascended the throne as Wilhelm I of Prussia upon his brother’s death. It was he who appointed Bismarck as Prime Minister.

In 1851, Bismarck was chosen to represent Prussia in the Federal diet, and in 1859, he was sent as ambassador to Russia, from where he was recalled in March 1862 to become French ambassador. Six months later, Bismarck returned to Berlin, where as prime minister of Prussia he represented the Prussian Junker interests and sought to gain the support of Germany’s rising industrial class with the goal of unifying Germany. He became a master diplomat capable of shrewdly balancing alliances to keep the European peace, primarily by isolating a militaristic France which had tormented, plundered and coveted German lands for centuries.

As Prussia and Austria vied for leadership of the German states, the question of Schleswig-Holstein reared its head. Historically, Holstein had been within the German empire and Schleswig outside it, but both duchies had been attached to the Danish crown since 1460. In 1848, a revolutionary group had seized Kiel, declared the independence of the two duchies from Denmark and appealed to the German Confederation for help. The result was an invasion of Schleswig-Holstein and then of Denmark itself by the Prussian army on behalf of the Confederation. Political pressure forced the Prussians to withdraw and the two duchies were restored to Denmark until another crisis in 1863, when joint Austrian and Prussian armies overran both Holstein and Schleswig, resulting in the two duchies being ceded jointly to Prussia and Austria by the treaty of Vienna in October 1864.

To Bismarck, the 1865 agreement that Prussia administer Schleswig and the Austrians Holstein was unsatisfactory. Prussian troops marched from Schleswig into Holstein in June, 1866. Austria fumed, and when on June 15, Saxony, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel refused to promise their neutrality, Prussia invaded all three states. Prussia obtained a quick victory against Austria in the war of 1866 largely as a result of reforms of the Prussian army under General Helmut von Moltke who had greatly improved his army with recent technological developments. Eventually, when a treaty was signed in Prague on August 23 under Bismarck’s leadership, the entire German world passed to the Prussia of the Hohenzollerns. The sudden emergence of a powerful Prussia was a shock to many, including Great Britain who enjoyed control over almost a quarter of the of the world’s surface.

One year after the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, an attempt was made on Bismarck’s life. As Bismarck was making a speech in Unter den Linden on May 7, 1866, anarchist student Ferdinand Cohen-Blind forced his way up through the crowd, pulled a revolver out of his coat and fired at the Chancellor. The bullets caused only slight bruising on Bismarck’s ribs. Cohen-Blind’s pockets were found stuffed with anarchist and communist literature. He killed himself in prison the next day.

France’s historic dominance in Western Europe was threatened as well, eventually resulting in the Franco-Prussian War. The specific event triggering the war was Bismarck’s staged attempt to place a German prince on the Spanish throne. To resist France being bound on each side by the proposed German-Spanish coalition, Napoleon III predictably and confidently declared war on the German Confederation on July 19, 1870. But as Bismarck had calculated, the southern German states perceived Napoleon III as the aggressor, and the kingdoms of Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse joined Bismarck and the Northern German Confederation, placing their armies under the command of the widely-respected Prussian king,Wilhelm I. The size, organization and leadership of the German military contrasted with the gross incompetence of the French military, proved to be decisive, allowing them to win most of the battles and the war.

After repeated and humiliating defeats, Paris fell on January 28, 1871, with an armistice signed the same day. The Treaty of Frankfort formally ended the war on May 10, 1871. The Deutsches Reich, had been declared: the German Empire was born.

After the German victory, Wilhelm I accepted the title of Emperor. Bismarck issued a proclamation in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the symbol of French power that had bloodied and humiliated Germany for decades. In the treaty of Frankfurt, France ceded Alsace and most of Lorraine back to Germany and paid a massive indemnity. She also had to put up with German occupation in part of France until the money was delivered.

The reconstitution of the ancient German Reich brought back the Reichstag as a parliament with Bismarck as the first imperial chancellor. His German empire, like its medieval prototype, consisted of separate constituent states: 4 kingdoms, 5 grand duchies, 13 duchies and principalities and the free cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen. It was, all the same, a nation, and federal, with strong central control. After German victory, the power in all of Germany passed to Hohenzollern Prussia.

The Franco-Prussian War resulted in not only the unification of northern and southern German states into the German Empire, but to the overthrow of Napoleon III and the establishment of the Third French Republic; French dominance in Western Europe ended, the Papal States were annexed into a unified Italy after French troops withdrew to fight in the war and France would simmer in resentment and ache for revenge for the next half century.

The imperial constitution was declared in April, 1871 and Bismarck was appointed imperial chancellor, not responsible to parliament but to the Emperor. The Reichstag, the imperial parliament, was convened by universal, equal, direct and secret elections. The German Reich was a federation of 25 states which all maintained their own constitutions responsible for some internal matters with a Parliament elected by universal suffrage and with budgetary rights but also with a high proportion of Prussian members.

Because of his reputation for fairness and wisdom, the Kaiser was often called upon by other nations to act as a mediator to settle disputes. He was appointed to resolve a tiring dispute over claims to the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest between the US and Britain. In November, 1872, the Kaiser had also announced his decision in favor of the U.S. The “Alabama Claims” between the United States and Britain had only recently settled, wherein the U.S. argued that during the Civil War Britain violated its neutrality when British shipbuilders built and refitted Confederate ships.

The Washington Treaty of 1871 stipulated that the Alabama Claims would be arbitrated by a five member Geneva Tribunal which included the Kaiser. On September 14, 1872, the Tribunal announced that Britain should pay the U.S. $15.5 million. The caption was “It Never Rains But It Pours,” referring to two major decisions in favor of the U.S. within two months, with the German Kaiser acting as the defining factor in both of them. Wilhelm died March 9, 1888 at aged 90.

Memorials to William I

Bismarck Poland Speech 1

Speech 2

“I have seen three emperors in their nakedness, and the sight was not inspiring.”

It was Bismarck as Imperial Chancellor who decided upon policy outlines and who proposed the appointment and dismissal of state secretaries who were in turn responsible for the administration of the ministries of the Reich. Bismarck knew that in order to survive in the European world of the day, it was imperative for the German states to unite. While he had been firmly against this idea in his youth and had no sympathy for the struggles of the 1848 rebellions, he grew to recognize the grave situation the German states would find themselves in if they remained small and powerless at a time when other aggressive European nations were building vast global empires.

In 1874, a fanatical cooper’s apprentice named Eduard Kullmann also made an attempt to shoot Bismarck at Bad Kissingen; but this attempt failed as well, although it injured Bismarck’s right hand. Kullmann was immediately arrested and condemned to 21 total years in prison, during which time Kullmann died. Later, in 1878, two attempts were also made to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I, the first by Emil Hödel, an ex-Social Democrat, the second by Karl Eduard Nobiling, an anarchist; both attempts failed.

In 1889, under Bismarck’s tutelage, Germany became the first nation in the world to adopt an old-age social insurance program in order to both promote the well-being of workers and also to keep the German economy operating at maximum efficiency and to thwart calls for more radical socialist alternatives. Workers’ compensation programs and a “sickness” insurance program were established that gave the Germans a system of income security based on social insurance principles in 1844. In 1878-79, Bismarck implemented significant economic reforms which made Germany one of the strongest financial powers in Europe, one of the chief assets of which was putting of Tariffs on iron and grain. Bismarck also developed a common currency, a central bank, and a single code of commercial and civil law for Germany before his policies began to come under attack.

Bismarck, who was never keen on the idea of colonies, was eventually pressured by financial supporters of colonial ventures, to agree to the creation of German “protectorates.” The first were established in Southwest Africa (Namibia), Cameroon, Togo, and Southeast Africa during the mid 1880s. Others were later founded in New Guinea, on the Marshall Islands and on a number of additional Pacific islands, and in the Chinese territory of Kiaochow around the port of Tsingtau.

Die Wacht am Rhein

Max Schneckenburger died in 1849 before his stirring poem, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” which issued a call for Germans to defend the German Rhine, became a popular song. Schneckenburger had been inspired by the Rhine Crisis in 1840, when Adolphe Thiers antagonistically renewed French claims for the Rhine River as France’s “natural eastern border,” and Germans feared, with good reason, that France was planning to annex the left bank of the Rhine as it had done during the Napoleonic Wars a few decades earlier. In the two centuries from the Thirty Years’ War to the defeat of Napoleon, the Germans in these lands suffered from repeated, and often bloody and destructive French invasions.

The music director of Krefeld received the poem in 1854 and wrote a version that his men’s choir performed on June 11, the silver anniversary of Prinz Wilhelm von Preussen, who would later become Emperor. France initiated the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and in the aftermath of their defeat, the German Empire was established in 1871. The song became duly famous. But it wasn’t only popular in the Fatherland. “Die Wacht am Rhein” was published even in Boston and for Americans, German and otherwise, and became particularly popular following German unification

Men’s choruses from Wisconsin to St Louis sang it. It was played at parades, in Liederkranz societies, on front porches and at beergartens across America. Even the tune for the alma mater of Yale University “Bright College Years” was taken from Carl Wilhelm’s version of “Die Wacht am Rhein” with new lyrics added in 1881.

During Bismarck’s era, Germany gained global respect. Towns and cities were named in his honor. Several great American writers and artists went to Germany for an education. German Americans enjoyed a period of respect as well, and their ethnic institutions were at their heyday, and German songs, customs, clothing and food were in vogue in large parts of the US. Bismarck towers, left, are a unique German monument phenomenon to honor Bismarck. The towers were built on four continents, Australia, South America, Africa and Europe. Only 172 of 240 Bismarck towers still remain in Germany, Austria, France, Russia, Chili and the formerly German parts of the Czech Republic and Poland.

In 1888, the son of Wilhelm I became German Emperor, but he died of throat cancer after only 99 days, at which time his son Wilhelm II took over the throne. Hence, 1888 was known as the Year of Three Emperors. Two years after Emperor William II’s accession, Bismarck was forced to resign on March 18, 1890, but the forty years following the foundation of the German empire were years of peace in Europe. He had a long, happy marriage and three children. For the last eight years of his life, he resided at his Friedrichsruh estate near Hamburg, writing hundreds of editorials. He also enjoyed giving speeches on trips through Germany and, after his reconciliation with the Emperor, turned into a living legend even before his death, a figure of German national greatness. He died at Friedrichsruh on July 30, 1898. Bismarck was often compared by his followers with an oak tree, the symbol of the German soul and the German national character since the eighteenth century.

Had the German states never been consolidated into an empire, their days would have been short lived indeed, and they would inevitably have been swallowed up by greedy neighbors on all sides. At the same time, however, it was not the better or even the natural course of action for the German psyche. The old order of entrenched European powers regarded the new German empire with fear, festering jealousy and simmering resentment. It would take but a blink of an eye in human history for them to eliminate their new competition, and it would cost millions of lives.

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