Together with general industrialization, the most significant change in Europe from 1848 to 1914 was the rapid rise to power of Germany following its unification in 1871. Before 1871, Germany consisted of a number of small principalities orbiting around two German-speaking empires, Prussia and Austria. In the mid-1860s, Otto von Bismarck, an ambitious and brilliant political strategist, began a series of wars to unite Germans under the aegis of the Prussian monarchy. Bismarck first led Prussia (allied with Austria) to war against Denmark, gaining territories to the north, including the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Bismarck then provoked war with Austria, gaining additional territory to the south and solidifying Prussian hegemony in central and northern Germany. The conflict with Austria was exceedingly important for understanding the world around 1914. The war established Prussian Germany as the chief “German” state while at the same time preserving the major power status of Austria and enough goodwill for future German-Austrian alliance. Finally, in 1870, Bismarck engineered a crushing defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, a one-sided conflict that deprived France of some of its most heavily industrialized border regions with Germany, the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. With this succession of wars in the 1860s to 1871, the European political map was dramatically altered. Previously, the dominant European powers had been England, France, Austria, and Russia, with Prussia a distant fifth. By 1900, the most industrialized, populous, and militarized state in Europe was the German Empire (in 1850, the population of France was 35.8 million, Germany was 33.4 million. By 1900, France had a population of 38.5 million while Germany had grown to 56.4 million).
Bismarck made three moves that forever altered European politics. The first concerned domestic affairs. Even though Bismarck was from an elite class (the German nobility or Junkers) he realized that it was no longer possible to keep the middle class, the bourgeoisie, at bay. German middle class liberals would have to be included in the government. Bismarck concluded that if he would have to include the bourgeoisie, he might as well include all classes in the democratic process, believing that it would be easier to sway the lower classes into supporting the monarch’s agenda through emotional or irrational appeals to issues concerning the good of the German nation. Democracy, he believed, would bring about not the end of imperial power, but a strengthening of it against the forces of the liberal bourgeoisie. Bismarck was right. His move opened up a new era of culture-based politics and ushered in a new phase of German nationalism, based on widespread popular appeal. The second move Bismarck made was in the arena of international affairs. He knew that Germany’s position in the center of Europe made it vulnerable on all sides. To the west, Germany faced its traditional enemy, France. To the east, there was another potential danger, the enormous and expanding Russia. To the south, Austria was a natural ally, but the Austrians were struggling for their survival against nascent nationalist movements in the Balkans, Bohemia, Italy, and Poland. In the realm of the northern seas, the British had their navy, putting German shipping and naval power always at risk. Germany, Bismarck concluded, must never be isolated from France, Russia, and England simultaneously. Germany must have flexible alliances to avoid being surrounded on all sides. Critically, Bismarck believed, France and Russia should never conclude a treaty of mutual support against Germany. As long as Bismarck remained in power, this never happened. We will come to see the consequences of this intricate political chess match when less skilled diplomats were at the helm of the German ship of state. Bismarck’s third move was to enter into the colonial “scramble.” He did this largely to appease powerful constituencies in Hamburg and throughout the German north who wanted to get a piece of the colonial pie. But Bismarck also recognized the writing on the wall. Industrialization required resources and markets, both of which any European power had in only limited supply. What’s more, the swelling German population might become a hotbed of radicalism, a problem that could be alleviated in the same way Britain had done by sending undesirables and idlers out into the wider world. Finally, an assertion of colonial power would give Bismarck what he really desired, more pieces on the chessboard of European power politics. The more pieces that crowded the board, however, the greater chance there would be for conflict.