During the early nineteenth century, Prussia was the only German state that could match the power and influence of the Austrian Empire. They were comparable in terms of size, population and wealth. Austria opposed the idea of German unification as it saw this as a threat to its own empire. Although they were a minority, there was a significant percentage of German-speakers in the empire. If they broke away to join a unified Germany, Austria would be smaller and weaker. To this end, Prussia and Austria were rivals.
Austria had lost key allies and was losing influence in Europe.
Austria had refused to help Russia in its war against France and Britain (the Crimean War, 1854-56) and lost a major ally as a result.
Austria was defeated in a war against the French and northern Italian states. As a result, it had been forced to surrender some territories.
Prussia had become the most industrialised state in Germany. She was now a force to be reckoned with in Europe.
Prussia was producing more key resources such as coal and iron than Austria and it had surged ahead of its rival in building road and rail networks to help promote trade.
Prussia had successfully set up an economic alliance (Zollverein) with other German states that made trade between states easier and more profitable.
The master plan?
The man who did most to unite the German states was Otto Von Bismarck. He was the Prussian Chancellor and his main goal was to strengthen even further the position of Prussia in Europe. His primary aims were to:
unify the north German states under Prussian control
weaken Prussia's main rival, Austria, by removing it from the Bund
make Berlin the centre of German affairs - not Vienna
strengthen the position of the King of Prussia, William I, to counter the demands for reform from the Liberals in the Prussian parliament (the Reichstag).
It is important to note that 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 but the strength of nationalist feelings after 1866 led to German unification under its own steam. According to this opinion, Bismarck actually reacted to political changes in other German states and capitalised on it rather than pursuing a master plan from the beginning to control all German states.
Bismarck wanted to build up Prussia's army in case his unification plans led to war. To do this he needed money. The Prussian parliament refused to allow money to be raised for Bismarck's military reforms.
Bismarck ignored the Reichstag and simply collected the money for army reforms through general taxation. He never bothered to obtain permission from the Reichstag.
Congress of Princes 1863
To counter Prussia's growing influence, Austria tried to strengthen its position in the Bund. Since it was in theory the leading member of the Bund, an increase in the power of the Bund would strengthen Austria.
Bismarck thwarted Austria's plans by insisting on popular elections to the Diet (the Bund's parliament). Austria refused and neither its or Bismarck's reforms happened.
Bismarck had successfully ruined Austria's plans and was seen, ironically, as a defender of the Liberal nationalists.
Bismarck knew Austria was a major obstacle to unification. To succeed in his aims war seemed inevitable. Before he fought the powerful Austrian empire, however, he needed to weaken its position in Europe.
Prussia refused to help Poland when it rebelled against Russian control. Bismarck then formed a powerful alliance with Russia.
Bismarck then formed another key alliance with France. In a meeting with Napoleon III, he promised to support France in its plans to invade and control Belgium.
Bismarck also struck a deal with Italy. Italy promised to help Prussia in any war against Austria, providing Austria were the aggressor and Italy gained Venezia in return.
Schleswig-Holstein 1864 - 65 and the Seven Weeks War
German states annexed by Prussia 1866
Bismarck got his excuse for a war against Austria during a territorial dispute over two small German states, Schleswig and Holstein. These were under the control of Denmark but not technically a part of it.
In 1863, the King of Denmark declared Schleswig and Holstein to be a part of Denmark.
In 1864, Prussia and Austria teamed up and declared war on Denmark. They won easily.
Bismarck then engineered a treaty with Austria (the Treaty of Gastein) which he knew was unlikely to work. Prussia was to control Schleswig and Austria would control Holstein. This treaty was designed to provoke, since Austrians would have to go through a hostile Prussia to reach Holstein.
The Austrians tried to use their influence in the German Bund to pressure Prussia to address the Schleswig-Hostein issue.
The Bund backed Austria in the dispute over Schleswig-Holstein.
In response, Prussia said that the Bund was invalid, declared war on Austria and invaded the German states of Hanover, Hesse and Saxony.
The Austrians were quickly defeated by the Prussian army during the Seven Weeks War, with the help of Italy.
Bismarck's plan to isolate Austria was working. As a result of the Seven Weeks War:
Prussia kept all the territories it had captured.
A North German Confederation was set up under the control of Prussia.
A federal Diet (parliament) was established for the states in this North German Confederation. The Diet would be elected and each state could keep its own laws and customs.
The southern German states formed their own independent confederation.
Austria promised to stay out of German affairs.
Austria paid compensation to Prussia but did not lose land to it. Prussia did not want to weaken Austria too much since it might be a useful ally in the future against Prussia's enemies.
With Austria weakened, Bismarck now turned his attention to the other great stumbling block to unification - the French. France had watched Prussia's growing power with alarm. As he had with Austria, Bismarck tried to weaken France as much as possible before war started.
Officially, Russia was an ally of France but Bismarck used diplomacy to make sure Russia stayed out of the up-coming war.
Bismarck also made sure Italy stayed neutral and wouldn't fight for France.
Bismarck gambled that the British would stay out of the war since it didn't want France to become any more powerful than it already was.
Franco Prussian war 1870 - 71
Bismarck found his excuse for war when Spain offered its vacant crown to a relative of the Prussian King, William I.
France was outraged since it didn't want Prussia to become more powerful. The French insisted King William make his relative refuse the crown. King William refused to guarantee this.
Bismarck used the King's refusal as a way to provoke the French. He published a heavily edited and provocative telegram, known as The Ems Telegram, of the King's refusal, making it seem he had insulted the French ambassador. The French Emperor, responding to fury from the French press and public, declared war on Prussia.
In the Franco-Prussian war, France was heavily defeated and its ruler, Napoleon III, was overthrown by a French rebellion.
In the build up to war, the southern confederate German states voluntarily joined the Prussian-controlled Northern German Confederation. Germany was now unified.
The Treaty of Frankfurt
As a result of the Franco-Prussian war, France lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine on its border with Germany. It also had to pay Germany £200 million in compensation. A new imperial constitution was set up within the now unified German states, with William I as Emperor (Kaiser) and Prussia firmly in control.