The role of Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck and Prussian King Wilhelm I
Otto von Bismarck and Prussian king, Wilhelm I

Otto Von Bismarck was the Prussian Chancellor. His main goal was to further strengthen the position of Prussia in Europe. Bismarck had a number of primary aims:

  • to unify the north German states under Prussian control
  • to weaken Prussia's main rival, Austria, by removing it from the German Federation
  • to make Berlin, not Vienna, the centre of German affairs
  • to strengthen the position of the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, countering the demands for reform from the Liberals in the Prussian Reichstag

Military improvements

In the 1850s, Bismarck and Wilhelm I wanted to build up Prussia's army to be ready if war broke out with the other German states or Austria

To do this they needed to raise money through taxation. The Prussian Parliament refused to allow money to be raised in this way.

Bismarck ignored the Parliament - he collected money for military reforms through direct taxation. These reforms included:

  • an increase in army conscription from two to three years
  • the introduction of new battle tactics
  • the introduction of and weapons such as the needle gun

The Congress of Princes 1863

To counter Prussia's growing influence, Austria tried to strengthen its position in the German Federation.

Since it was the most influential member of the Bund, an increase in the power of the German Federation would strengthen Austria.

Bismarck thwarted Austria's plans by insisting on popular elections to the Diet (the Federation's Parliament). Austria refused and the reforms were discarded.

Bismarck had successfully ruined Austria's plans. Ironically as a defender of the Liberal nationalists.

Was Bismarck really that influential?

There is much debate about Bismarck's aims to unify all German states under Prussian rule.

Some historians argue that Bismarck only intended to unify the north German states. According to this opinion:

  • Bismarck did not begin with a master plan to control all German states
  • Bismarck actually reacted to and capitalised on political changes in other German states
  • strength of nationalist feelings after 1866 led to German unification under its own steam
  • economic co-operation meant that unification may have happened eventually anyway
  • Bismarck made sure that it happened

However, other historians believe that unification would not have happened without him:

  • he made sure that the army reforms took place
  • he successfully isolated other countries by making them look like aggressors
  • he made Prussia appear to be the defender of the German states and protector of their rights