With Imperial Russia neutralised, the increasingly dominant force in Eastern Europe was Prussia, under the inspired leadership of its chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Under his guidance the country had embraced the latest technology to leapfrog Britain’s Industrial Revolution practices although on a smaller scale. Prussia was a distance ahead of all other Germanic states in sciences, production and its overall economy; to this add military might. Bismarck’s vision included the concept of ‘Zollverein’, by which trading with and between other Germanic states was conducted without customs costs and restrictions. He commanded their respect.
His ambition was always to unite the loosely federated states into a dominant Germany and to this end he was ruthless. In 1864, in alliance with Austria, he invaded and conquered the Danish duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Two years later he quarrelled with Austria over control of the acquisitions, instigated the Austro-Prussian War and won it with ease.
He then turned his attentions on France, and in 1870 provoked Napoleon III into declaring war on him, resulting in the Franco-Prussian War which again ended in victory for Prussia and allied German states. The latter two wars were conducted under the military direction of Helmuth von Moltke, who had also concluded the war in Schleswig Holstein. His name would live on.
Following the final French defeat at Sedan the Prussians occupied Paris for three years, Napoleon fled and, under the auspices of Bismarck, King Wilhelm of Prussia was proclaimed and crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I of the united Germany in the Palace of Versailles. Two empires ceased to exist in their previous form to be supplanted by one more powerful than both.
Later, in a reflective moment, Bismarck was recorded as having observed “Now we stand between the hammer of France and the anvil of Russia”; he was almost right again. He was also reported to have asserted that he had no further territorial ambitions in Europe, which is quite plausible. He had coined the term, ‘Weltpolitik’, which was indicative of his real ambitions.
Wilhelm died in 1888 to be succeeded by his son as Kaiser Wilhelm II, who took the view that Bismarck was perceived to be ruling Germany and he contrived to force his resignation two years later. He was a sultry and ill-tempered man due, as it is widely believed, to a withered left arm from birth giving him a complex he found difficult to disguise. His bellicose disposition was to be reflected in his government’s conduct of foreign affairs up until 1914.