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Nation Building: Italy and Germany

The liberal revolutions of 1848 failed in the short term, but their attempts to unite Germany and parts of Italy were not completely in vain. As industrial nations like Britain and France developed strong economies, it became obvious to a few visionaries that small, independent states would soon fall behind in terms of financial and political importance in Europe. Based on the idea that a larger, stronger state would have more influence in Europe, revolutionaries helped unite regions into nations. In the cases of Germany and Italy, nationalism proved to be the glue that bound the smaller states together. Channeling the nationalism toward a common goal was the trick.

Unification of Italy

Italy had never been united. Over the centuries, the region had been controlled by the French, the Austrians, the Spanish, the papacy, and various Italians. The north was industrialized and the south highly agricultural, but many Italians wanted a unified Italy despite the traditional cultural and regional differences. Over the years, three legitimate plans arose for the unification of Italy into a single nation. Some people wanted a democratic state with universal suffrage. Some wanted a union of states under the authority of the papacy. Still others wanted an Italian kingdom headed by Piedmont-Sardinia, itself a kingdom.

Piedmont-Sardinia had a liberal constitution, so many Italians thought of it and its king, Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878), as liberal. Sardinia’s leading statesman, Count Camillo di Cavour (1810-1861), wanted a unified Italy under Sardinian leadership, but only made up of the northern states. To do so, the Austrians had to be expelled from Lombardy and Venetia, which he knew couldn’t be done without help.

Cavour secretly formed an alliance with Louis Napoleon of France, convincing him to render aid in the event Sardinia fell under attack. Then, in 1859, Cavour picked a fight with Austria. Just like he planned, France came to his aid. After Austria was defeated, though, Napoleon III pulled out of the alliance. As a result, Sardinia received only Lombardy. Disgusted, Cavour resigned.

Would You Believe?

Napoleon pulled out of the Sardinian alliance because French Catholics were upset that Napoleon supported an enemy of the pope.

However, the Austrian troops’ “invasion” of “Italy” enraged nationalists all over Italy, so Cavour returned to work. He worked a deal with Napoleon to smooth over any objections the French had about a new Italian state, and the central Italian states joined Sardinia. Half of Italy was united, but half remained independent.

Cavour next had to control a zealous, patriotic radical named Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1887), whose thousand-man army of “Red Shirts” threatened Cavour’s plan for unification. Garibaldi led an interesting, mercenary-style life prior to his activity in the Italian unification process. He once traveled to South America where he met Anita, his lover who would become both his wife and comrade-in-arms, and fought in a rebellion there. Garibaldi even led the Uruguayan navy against Argentina. Several years later, in 1849, Garibaldi defended Rome against Napoleon III.

Continental Quotes

“I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death. Let him who loves his country with his heart, and not merely with his lips, follow me."

—Giuseppe Garibaldi

In 1860, Garibaldi invaded Sicily and easily defeated the much larger armies there, then set his sights on Naples and Rome. Cavour went in behind Garibaldi, used Sardinian troops to occupy the conquered or “liberated” states, then organized elections. (He also stopped Garibaldi from attacking the pope so as not to upset Catholic France any further.) As Garibaldi moved through Italy, the locals rallied behind him and people all over Italy fell in love with him and welcomed him as liberator. After he conquered Sicily, Garibaldi earned renown not only in Italy but across Europe.

Though Garibaldi disliked Cavour, he believed Victor Emmanuel was the right person to finish the unification process and to be King of Italy. After liberating Italy, Garibaldi simply resigned and refused to take any reward or recognition for his accomplishments. When the dust settled, the people of southern Italy voted to join Victor Emmanuel and Sardinia as a unified kingdom of Italy in 1860. Venice and Rome later joined Italy, too. The Italian states were now united, but the Italians still had issues. The Sardinian administrators ruled strictly and undid many of the reforms Garibaldi instituted, and, in the beginning at least, very few Italians enjoyed suffrage.

Unification of Germany

Just as Cavour played the lead role in the unification of Italy, the master politician Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) almost single-handedly created the unified German state. From his earliest days in politics, Bismarck’s goal was the strengthening of Prussia at the expense of Austria. Tensions existed between Austria and Prussia long before Bismarck’s time, however.

Would You Believe?

Cavour never got to see Venice and Rome united with Italy. He died just months after the 1860 unification.

One source of tension was the Zollverein, a German customs union designed to help boost the economies of the states in the German confederation. The German states enjoyed free trade within the Zollverein and paid customs duties on imports. The catch was that Austria was not included in the Zollverein, so they missed out on the economic benefits. After 1848, Austria tried to seduce the southern German states to leave the Zollverein, but the states stayed put.

Define Your Terms

Kaiser is a German word for emperor derived from the Roman Caesar; it is the equivalent of czar in Slavic. William I was the first of three German rulers to use the title.

Two years after the beginning of the unification process in Italy, William I (1797-1888), eventually Kaiser Wilhelm I, replaced Frederick William IV in Prussia. His plan was to double the size of the Prussian army so as to be ready in case of war. The Prussian parliament rejected William’s demands for higher taxes to fund his new army and insisted that the army be responsible to the people, not the king. The parliament also intended to prove that the supreme power lay with parliament and not with the king. Determined to have his way, William chose Otto von Bismarck to get the job done for him any way he could. He appointed Bismarck prime minister, a position responsible only to the king and not to the parliament.

Bismarck set out to make Prussia one of Europe’s great powers. He considered several strategies and decided to channel the German people’s intense nationalism. The fiery Bismarck moved ahead with William’s plans without the consent of parliament, declaring that only through “blood and iron” would things get accomplished, not through “speeches and resolutions.” Bismarck ordered that taxes be collected regardless of parliament’s disapproval. Bismarck also overhauled the military. As Bismarck focused German ire on foreign enemies, Germans eventually rallied to support his plans; initially Bismarck had the support only of the Prussians.

In 1864, Denmark tried to take Schleswig-Holstein again, as it had in 1848, and Prussia joined Austria in the relatively easy defeat of Denmark. Bismarck saw an opportunity to get Austria out of German affairs for good. He goaded Austria into the Austro-Prussian War and then defeated it. Rather than crushing Austria, he let them off easily; in return, Austria agreed to stay out of German politics forever.

After the war, the mostly Protestant northern German states formed the North German Confederation, led of course by Prussia, while the southern states formed an alliance with Prussia. Bismarck then drew up the constitution for the new Confederation. Each state kept its own government but recognized William as king and Bismarck as chancellor. The king and the chancellor handled virtually all affairs of the Confederation while the two houses of the legislature made the laws. The lower house consisted of members elected by universal male suffrage—a huge step for liberals in Germany, which helped bring liberals who often criticized Bismarck’s authoritarian ways on board. Germany now found itself in a similar situation as the Italians only a few years before: half united and half to go.

Continental Quotes

Always a strategist, Otto von Bismarck once said, “One must always have two irons in the fire."

Bismarck finally persuaded several of the southern German states to participate in the customs parliament that had been created from the old Zollverein. However, the southern states’ interest in unification stopped there, at least partly because of the strong religious differences between north and south. Bismarck decided to stir up nationalist zeal again to bring the southern states on board, too.

Would You Believe?

Bismarck said the release of the Ems Dispatch was like waving a red cape in front of a bull. The infamous note was released to the public in the German city of Ems, hence the name of the dispatch.

He picked a fight with France in 1870 and began the Franco-Prussian War. To get France mad enough to fight, Bismarck used the notorious Ems Dispatch. William met with a French ambassador who requested that no Hohenzollern ever accept the Spanish throne, which would effectively push France into a corner. The conversation was polite, but William refused. Bismarck reworded the account of the meeting and gave it to the press. Bismarck’s account made the French feel insulted by Germany and the Germans feel insulted by the French. Less than a week later, France declared war.

The southern German states quickly rallied behind fellow Germans and Bismarck’s plan drew ever nearer to completion. Of course, he first had to win a war, but the German troops handled the French with little trouble and even captured Napoleon III at the Battle of Sedan. In Paris, a Third Republic was created, but it capitulated after several months of being starved by Germany. In victory, Germany hit France with tough sanctions including huge reparations and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. To add insult to injury, William became German Emperor and was crowned in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

Would You Believe?

Napoleon III, with no empire to go home to, fled to England, where he lived out his last few years in exile.

The victory over the French created a huge swell of nationalism in Germany that arguably carried over into the early twentieth century. In less than a generation, Bismarck had taken an obstinate and divided Germany from worst to first among the powers of Europe. His transformation of Germany made Germany a force to be reckoned with for the next 75 years.

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