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5. Politics I: Forging an Empire
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Overview: Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany, 1866-1890   |   1. Demographic and Economic Development   |   2. Society   |   3. Culture   |   4. Religion, Education, Social Welfare   |   5. Politics I: Forging an Empire   |   6. Military and International Relations   |   7. Politics II: Parties and Political Mobilization

The Wars of Unification. While military matters and international relations after 1871 are dealt with in the next chapter, this one underscores the interpenetration between domestic and foreign policy in the forging of German unity between 1866 and 1871. In these years, three successful wars brought immense prestige and power to Bismarck, King Wilhelm I, and the Prussian army (IM1, IM3, IM12, IM13, IM20, IM30, IM31, IM32). The first documents in this section nevertheless reflect the contingent and contested nature of the political, diplomatic, and constitutional developments that eventually resulted in the proclamation of the German Empire in January 1871. These developments – presented through the eyes of foreign diplomats, the man on the street, and commentators stationed far from Berlin (D1, D2, D3) – demonstrate that almost every aspect of “imperial” power had to be negotiated. We read of the deals Bismarck struck with myriad individuals and groups: with his own king and with Germany’s federal princes, who were determined to preserve as much of their own traditions and autonomy as possible at each stage of the unification process (D8, D9, D10); with liberals in Prussia, who were forced to reassess the possibility of pursuing the twin goals of unity and freedom together (IM11); with Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian general staff, who wanted to use the military’s battlefield triumphs as a springboard for domestic political influence (D7, IM25); with foreign powers, including France, Britain, and Russia, who were concerned that Prussia now posed a threat to international peace (IM14, IM15, IM16); and with the growing power of the press, which could portray Bismarck as the most hated man in Germany at one moment and as the most popular the next (IM2).

These documents and images also draw back the curtain on behind-the-scenes discussions leading up to two of the most compelling moments in the unification process. The first was Bismarck’s decision to edit the Ems Dispatch on July 13, 1870. Shown here in its original and revised versions, the dispatch allowed Bismarck to goad the French into declaring war on Prussia (D4, D5, IM17, IM18). The second event was the “Hail!” to the new Kaiser in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18, 1871 – a scene that was famously painted by Anton von Werner in three versions, each with a distinct perspective and intent (IM27, IM28, IM29). Images drawn from French and German satirical journals help us assess the resistance to Prussian hegemony in Central Europe, from depictions of “Wilhelm the Butcher” to innumerable variations on the Prussian eagle and spiked helmet (IM33, IM34). Contemporary drawings and photographs also depict the opposite sentiment, epitomized by Prussian victory parades through the streets of Paris and Berlin or sentimental paintings telling the story of Prussia’s “inevitable” rise (IM30, IM31, IM32, IM36). But they do not allow us to forget the dead and wounded whose sacrifices made those victories possible.

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