Today while I was having an online conversation with a friend about her background (which was Danish and German), I was reminded of one of my favorite obscure wars of history: the Danish War of 1864. In this war (to give a brief nutshell for those who are unaware), the Danish were overwhelmed (as would be expected) by the combined military might of Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was, notably, the last war ever won by the Austro-Hungarian Empire . The war has largely been forgotten in Germany (though, not surprisingly, it is remembered bitterly in Denmark), but it is important for us to understand in light of the way in which Otto von Bismarck unified Germany.
It irritates me when I receive messages from prophesy buffs all excited every time a retired politician talks about European unification. Talk is cheap, and words are just empty vapor, not unless there is a specific and achievable strategy to put the plan into action. Instead of assuming that wishes on the part of a few people means that events are falling into place, let us examine a little bit, in light of the historical record, how such a goal could be achieved. Since Germany itself unified rather late in the game, in the 1800’s, after a long history of disunity, we have a good picture of how it would be achievable for Europe (with an even longer period of disunity) to do so. All we have to do is look and draw the appropriate comparisons.
For many centuries Germany was powerfully culturally and economically, divided among different nations, the playground of empires, without being united politically. It was divided by religion with the Lutherans in the North and the Catholics in the South. In a microcosm, it faced the divisions of Europe (aside from linguistic divisions), and its unification was difficult. After centuries of seeming contentment with being filled with separate states, it was the conquest of Germany, and the ending of the (largely fictitious) Holy Roman Empire (which wags said was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) and its replacement with the Confederation of the Rhine, which pushed forward German unification. Faced with the embarrassing reality of foreign rule, and forced unity in what is now the western part of Germany, the Germans reacted to the defeat of Napoleon with economic union, in what was known as the Zollverein . To decrease the customs barriers, a trade union (without political union) was made within Germany to allow Germany’s economic might to increase to the level of its industrial and commercial potential.
The growing economic unity of Germany led to serious political questions about unifications. After all, the various German states, by and large, enjoyed their freedom. Of course some states were more powerful (like Prussia), but many states had long and noble traditions as duchies or kingdoms or even empires (like the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Nonetheless, economic union created a tension with the long-held independence of these German states. The familiar questions arose about how an economic union could maintain German economic strength without some kind of political union as well. Then questions arose about the place of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had extensive interests outside of Germany and was at best lukewarm about ceding its power and influence (despite its rather fading place as an empire) to a German union. The question of how to resolve the tensions of unification and the place of Austria took decades, including an unsuccessful attempt to unify Germany democratically in 1848, and offer the throne of a democratic Germany (something Prussia’s ruler wanted no part of) to Prussia’s king. Instead, Germany would be united by iron and blood, with yeoman’s labor by Otto von Bismarck and the Prussian army.
Germany’s unification (which, intriguingly enough, also helped to unify Italy) occurred as a result of three wars, and it is in waging these three wars that Otto von Bismark showed his genius, and provided a template for the unification of Europe. The first of the three wars, as already mentioned, was the Danish War of 1864. Taking advantage of Denmark’s long-held rule over largely ethnically German areas, Austria and Prussia joined together to remove the Danish dictator from holding those territories, and delivered a sound defeat to Denmark’s army without Denmark receiving any effective military aid from its neighbors, resulting in a joint victory for the victorious empires. But that was only the first step. The solution to the Danish problem led almost immediately, about two years later, to a war between Prussia and Austria.
Here, Austria was joined by the majority of German states, which opposed Prussian dominance in much the same way that the majority of Europe opposes German dominance. But Germany was able to ally with Piedmont, another nation seeking to unify its cultural region under its rule, and therefore present its main opponent (Austria) with a two-front war. Even through Austria was mostly victorious against Piedmontese forces, the decisive defeat of Austria’s German allies and Austria itself at Koniggratz led to a decisive change in German fortunes . Prussia unified with North German states (swallowing up some of its recent enemies, including Hanover), and totally excluded the defeated Austrian from the German state. The Austrians had to give up Venetia, which ended up in defeated Italy’s hands. Additionally, Austria’s sound defeat led it to make peace with its restive Hungarian minority, making a dual empire that only further oppressed its Slavic majority.
But the Prussians were not done. Germany was still not completely unified. So the Prussians maneuvered the French into declaring war, with the French assuming their military superiority over the upstart Germans and lacking in diplomatic support . The Germans decisively won (incidentally enough one of the side benefits of the German victory was the Italian takeover of Rome), and the result was the unification of Germany under Prussian dominance. Of course, as an afterword, Prussian arrogance as a result of their victories later led to their defeat (and division) in two 20th century wars. But German unification was sufficiently strong by this point that Germany did not stay divided once the Soviets were out of the picture.
Even if we, like British historian A.J.P. Taylor, think that Otto von Bismarck was not a master strategic thinker but merely an opportunist, we must recognize what opportunities it took to unite Germany. Someone had a vision that was a Germany unified by war rather than depending on the fickle will of the people. If Europe is to be unified, we would be foolish to expect it to be unified merely by vote, but by significant economic and military pressure, perhaps even active conflict. If one looks at Europe, there is an outsider with a lot of pressure (the United States), a somewhat fearsome neighbor in Russia, and a powerful nation with ambivalent views toward unification in the United Kingdom. Germany is the driving economic and political power within Europe, and there are plenty of scenarios where Germany could be pushed into demanding a more fair relationship between its economic power and (at least potential) military strength vis-a-vis other European countries. It is certainly possible that just as Germany was unified by iron and blood, so could Europe. It just remains to be seen. Until then, we would do well not to get excited just because a German politician wants a united European state. Much work remains to be done. But when we wonder if and when and how Europe will be unified, it might help to ask the question: what would Otto von Bismarck do?