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East Germany

Bismarck and Unification

In 1862 King Wilhelm I of Prussia chose Otto von Bismarck as his chancellor. Of Junker ancestry, Bismarck championed the dominance of the aristocracy in matters of state more than he favored absolutism. He had been elected to the new Prussian parliament in 1848, and from 1851 he served as Prussian delegate to the German Confederation's diet. As Prussian chancellor, Bismarck's main task was to resolve the conflict on the issue of military reform, which had been announced by Wilhelm I in 1861. The reform, intended to expand and strengthen the Prussian army, had led to a bitter conflict between crown and parliament. From 1862 until 1866, the liberal faction within the parliament's Chamber of Deputies, which consisted of representatives from the middle class, voted against budget appropriations required for the military reform. In order to break parliamentary opposition and reaffirm monarchical authority, Bismarck asserted his famous Lückentheorie (gap theory), which maintained that in cases of conflict between crown and parliament the will of the former must prevail. During the parliamentary struggle of the 1862-66 period, the Lückentheorie enabled the king to expend tax monies on the military without the approval of parliament. The enlarged Prussian army then made it possible for Bismarck to initiate a policy of militarism that was to establish Hohenzollern hegemony within a German nation-state.

In June 1866, Bismarck defied Austria, protector of the sovereignty of the German monarchical states, by demanding the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, then used Austria's rejection as a pretext for war. The Seven Weeks' War, which was won by Prussia, resulted in the dissolution of the German Confederation and the exclusion of Austria from German politics; in 1867 Hungary consequently became a semiautonomous kingdom, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was created. In the same year, the constitutional North German Confederation, headed by the Prussian king, was established in Germany. The south German states--Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria--remained autonomous but promised military allegiance to Prussia in time of war. In an attempt to conciliate parliament, Wilhelm presented the Prussian parliament with the Indemnity Bill, which admitted past budgetary impropriety but requested ex post facto approval. Moderate liberals, impressed by Bismarck's victory over Austria, helped pass the bill, thus retroactively approving the crown's illegal military expenditures of 1862 to 1866.

In 1870 Bismarck resumed his Machtpolitik (power politics) by provoking the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) as the means to incorporate the particularist south German states within a constitutional German nation-state. By releasing to the press the so-called Ems Dispatch--a telegram from Wilhelm in which the king refused to renounce future Hohenzollern claims to the Spanish throne--Bismarck succeeded in provoking the French and eliciting a declaration of war. Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria joined enthusiastically in the war against Germany's traditional foe. The promised annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire, intensified German nationalist sentiment. Bismarck's major war aim, the voluntary acceptance of the Constitution of the North German Confederation by the southern states, was accomplished by Germany's victory over France. In January 1871, the Prussian king was proclaimed German emperor.

Data as of July 1987