Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
John Finnemore

The Modern German Empire

The outbreaks of 1848 were followed by fresh trouble in Schleswig-Holstein. Germany and Denmark went to war over the disputed territory and the result was that Holstein was handed over to Denmark. But, as we shall see, this was not the end of the matter. The years which now followed were marked by the growth of a strong and bitter struggle between Prussia and Austria for the leading place in German affairs. Frederick William died in 1861 and was followed by his brother, William I, who had ruled the country for some years as Prince Regent. This post had been given to him because of the long illness of the late king.

William I felt that Prussia was threatened with danger from both sides; on the one side from France, on the other from Austria. France at the time was ruled by Napoleon III, nephew of the great Napoleon. He had overturned the Second French Republic, and seized the crown as French Emperor. He was no friend to Prussia, for he was jealous of the growing power and strength of this great state which bordered upon his country. Austria was known as a rival which was desirous of lessening Prussia's authority and influence in Germany.

Under these circumstances the King of Prussia was anxious to maintain a large army and add to its numbers. His wish was opposed by the representatives of the Prussian people, but after a long struggle, William, aided by his powerful minister, Bismarck, gained his end. Bismarck was the greatest statesman whom Germany has produced, and he had already formed a plan to add largely to the power of Prussia. He wished to break up the German Confederation, in which Austria held the chief place, drive Austria out, and form a new union of German states with Prussia at the head.

In 1864 Austria and Prussia worked together for the last time. The Schleswig-Holstein question came up again, and Austria and Prussia attacked Denmark and took these duchies from her. A quarrel now arose between Prussia and Austria with regard to the government of Schleswig-Holstein, and was carried to a great height. It was a small matter, but it served as an outlet for the bitterness with which the rivals looked upon each other: the real cause lay behind the trivial dispute—it was the struggle for the leadership of Germany.


Imperial Palace at Potsdam.

There was but one end to so keen a rivalry—war, and it came in 1866. It was short and sharp: so short that it is known in history as the Seven Weeks' War: so sharp that Austria was swiftly crushed before the powerful armies of Prussia. The decisive battle was fought at Konigsgratz or Sadowa, in Bohemia, on July 3, 1866, and after a most, desperate struggle, marked by terrible slaughter on both sides, the Austrians were utterly routed. The consequences of this defeat were of the utmost importance to Germany, and to Prussia in particular. The German Confederation was broken up and Austria lost her pride of place in German affairs: Austria no more formed a part of Germany; she gave up Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia, and agreed to pay 3,000,000 as a war indemnity; Prussia added to herself a number of smaller states which had sided with Austria, and the larger had to own her supremacy in the new union of states called the North German Confederation. The great South German states, such as Bavaria, Wurtemberg, and Baden, did not enter this Confederation.

This great triumph of Prussia added vastly to her size and strength. With the addition of her new territories she now formed a large compact state, having a coast line both on the Baltic and the North Sea, and plans were laid for the formation of a German navy. Napoleon of France watched this growth of Prussia with uneasy eyes, and he demanded a rearrangement of the frontier. Bismarck refused to give up an inch of land, even though Napoleon spoke of war. War did not come at that moment, but it was not far off, and both sides began to prepare for the struggle which lay in the near future.

The trial of strength came four years later. By the year 1870 Napoleon had lost much of the favour of his people. He felt that the fortunes of his House were failing, and he hoped that a war of conquest and victory would please the French people and re-establish his power. He feared, too, to see the great South German states join the North German Confederation, when his opponents would be much more powerful. His ministers, also, assured him that his army was in perfect order and ready to march to Berlin. So now there remained nothing to do save to find a pretext for attacking Prussia.

It came when the crown of Spain was offered to a German prince, Leopold of Hohenzollern. The French declared that they would never allow a Hohenzollern prince to ascend the Spanish throne, and they called upon King William I of Prussia, as head of the House of Hohenzollern, to forbid Leopold to accept the crown. But Leopold refused the offer of his own will, and there it seemed the matter would end. But the French government went on to demand a promise from the King of Prussia that he would never permit Leopold to come forward at some future time. King William refused to make any such promise and Napoleon at once declared war: then followed the famous Franco-German war of 1870-71.

From the first the war was one terrible downfall for France and Napoleon. The French army was not ready: the men who had boasted that everything was in order had themselves greatly destroyed its value by careless handling, or stupid mistakes, or even by actually pocketing the money which should have been employed in purchasing the things needed by the troops. On the other hand the German armies were in order. Everything had been carefully provided, every plan had been thought out, every provision had been made. Above all, France had to face a united Germany.

Napoleon had been deceived not only about his own army, but about that of his enemy. His ministers had assured him that the great South German states felt a deep jealousy of Prussia, and would never come to her aid. Never was a greater mistake made. Germany rose as one man when her old foe and oppressor, France, hurled the challenge of war across the frontier. Old feuds and quarrels were forgotten as though they had never been, and North and South Germany stood shoulder to shoulder to defend the Fatherland. Within a few days of the declaration of war more than 400,000 Germans were under arms and marching towards the frontier to prevent the war being carried into their own country.

Disaster after disaster befell the French troops. One large army was driven into the great fortress of Metz and shut up there, another into Sedan. The fate of Sedan was sealed on September 1, 1870, when in a tremendous battle the Germans won a crushing victory. They took Sedan, made the Emperor Napoleon a captive, and a French army of 83,000 men became prisoners of war. The news of this terrible defeat aroused deep anger in Paris. The French cast off Napoleon for ever and proclaimed the Third French Republic; the Empress Eugenie and her son fled to England, and a republican government was formed. This government resolved to carry on the war, and the Germans marched on Paris and laid siege to the chief city.

The people of Paris felt no great fear. The capital was guarded by strong forts, a strong army lay within the walls to defend it, and other armies would come to its aid. But though armies were raised to relieve Paris not one came near its object: each was over-thrown in turn by the victorious Germans, and fortress after fortress fell. In September Strasburg was seized, and in October Metz was given up with a huge French army of 175,000 men. All these disasters to the French cause set free fresh masses of German troops to face the armies raised in different parts of France, or to aid in the siege of Paris. Thus, when winter closed in, the great capital lay in an iron ring of armed men against which her garrison dashed out in vain. Slowly, but surely, the grim shadow of famine crept across Paris. Food became scarce, and all kinds of creatures were eaten by the starving people—cats, dogs, rats from the sewers. At length Paris could hold out no longer, and at the end of January 1871 she surrendered.

France was now beaten to her knees, and Germany demanded that she should give up Alsace, part of Lorraine, and pay a war indemnity of £200,000,000.

Until this was paid German troops were to hold part of the land. To the astonishment of all Europe, France paid this vast sum in about two years, and the last German troops then retired across the frontier.

During the course of the war a great step had been taken by Germany, a step to which her best thinkers and noblest patriots had looked forward for many, many years, the uniting of her states into a German nation. It was felt that as all the states were now joined in war to defend the Fatherland, so should they be joined in peace to protect it. In November 1870, while the siege of Paris was going on, Bismarck invited the representatives of other states to Versailles to confer on the subject of German union.

An agreement was made, and on December 3 the King of Bavaria, the chief ruler of South Germany, proposed that the Imperial crown should be offered to the King of Prussia as head of the new German Empire. William I accepted the crown on January 18, 1871. He did so at Versailles, in the great hall of the palace of Louis the Great, a hall hung with pictures of the victories of the mighty Napoleon, he who had destroyed the ancient empire, and amid the joyous shouts of princes who had but a few years since fought against Prussia: all were now united under one ruler and as members of one empire. In March the new German Emperor rode into Paris as a victor: he had done so once before, but nearly sixty years had passed since, as a boy, he had ridden into Paris with his father after the fall of the great Napoleon in 1814.

So, after centuries of strife and misery, of war and bloodshed, Germany was once more united, and her principalities and cities welded into a firm whole, raising her at once to the rank of a great world-power and one of the leading nations of Europe. Since the days of that great war she has developed swiftly under the rule of William I, his son, and his grandson. William I died in 1889, more than ninety years of age, respected and honoured by the whole German people. His son, Frederick William, an able and kindly man, only reigned a few months, and then William II came to the throne as King of Prussia and German Emperor.

He still reigns over Germany, and his reign has seen a wonderful development of German industries and commerce. For the victories of war Germany has exchanged the victories of peace. Her manufactures have grown with wonderful rapidity, her men of science have made striking discoveries, her scholars and thinkers have added greatly to the sum of the world's knowledge. She has known no war since the struggle which saw her born anew as a nation, and in the long interval which has passed she has steadily risen in power, wealth, and authority.