Socialist Worker

How Otto von Bismarck won Germany's unification

Why did a Prussian aristocrat succeed where the liberal business class failed? asks Jamie Allinson in the second of his four part series

Issue No. 2096

Otto von Bismarck in 1884

Otto von Bismarck in 1884


As we saw in last week's column, Germany failed to pull off a bourgeois, or capitalist, revolution in 1848. The country remained divided, politically and legally, into many small states.

But the aims of a unified German state and capitalist development were eventually achieved by Otto von Bismarck, a member of the Junkers, as Prussia's landlord class was known.

Bismarck was made chancellor of Prussia, the most powerful German state, in 1862. He was appointed to overcome a parliamentary crisis over proposals to strengthen the Junker-dominated army that were opposed by Prussian liberals.

Bismarck embarked on a series of political manouevres to maintain the power of the Prussian military which led to the creation of Europe's most powerful capitalist state. 'If there is to be a revolution, we want to make it, not suffer it,' he explained.

The unification of Germany both reflected and encouraged capitalist growth. Investment increased rapidly in the years after 1850, as did steel, coal and iron production and railway construction. Most of this growth occurred in Prussia.

A customs union of the German states provided a market for these products and for grain exports from the Junker-owned lands.

Bismarck's strategy involved launching three wars in quick succession against Denmark, Austria and France. The result was the foundation of a German empire under Prussian leadership in 1871.

Prussia won partly due to Bismarck's skill and luck, but mainly due to its higher level of industrialisation – Prussia's national income grew at twice the rate of Austria's in the 19th century.

Victory was ensured through Prussia's economic pull on smaller states combined with the more advanced weaponry produced by Prussia's industrial base.

The newly unified empire underwent an economic transformation as Bismarck and his allies sought to deepen their competitive advantage.

The country's laws and jurisdictions were unified, thereby making all citizens equally able to be exploited as wage labourers. A national banking and communications system was established.

Industrial centre

Germany, once seen as a land of quaint village folk, became the industrial centre of Europe. Manufacturing firms grew enormously thanks to the new unified market and links with banks encouraged by the state.

For example, Krupps had the exclusive right to build the German navy and made a 60 percent profit on every piece of steel plate they sold.

By 1900 the Prussian regional railway was the world's largest employer. Tariffs protected heavy industry and Junker agriculture from foreign competition.

Control of the economy passed increasingly to a few massive firms. Siemens and AEG controlled half of all electronics production.

This strategy of state supported capitalism was successful. At the outbreak of the First World War, Germany produced a quarter of the world's coal, the lifeblood of early 20th century capitalism.

The new German empire overtook Britain in advanced sectors such as chemicals. By 1914 Germany was the second biggest economy in the world.

This revolution from above made Germany the most powerful state in Europe. Bismarck had created the appearance of democracy while preserving the Junkers' power in alliance with industrial capitalists.

This alliance was directed against the threat of a new working class political force, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

All adult German men had the vote, but the powers of the Reichstag central parliament were limited and the electoral system favoured the rich. The SPD, Europe's largest socialist mass movement, was banned until 1890.

The new German state eagerly competed with older European empires to carve up the rest of the world. These measures reflected the shared interests of Junkers and capitalists rather than some kind of 'special path' by which pre-capitalist influence was preserved in Germany, as some historians argue.

Germany's revolution from above meant the creation of a unified and independent state and the fostering of a capitalist class within that state.

Yet it was the interests of the Prussian Junkers that led to this result, which had also been a central demand of the liberal bourgeoisie.

Next week we look at an even more all-embracing case of revolution from above – the transformation of Japan in response to imperialist pressure.


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