Otto von Bismarck, who was known as “the Iron Chancellor,” led the Prussian autocratic state and played a prominent role in the unification of Germany “from above” throughout the 1860s. Prussia accomplished this largely through its “blood and iron” policy of successful wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-1871). These wars effectively marginalized the German middle class democratic politicians who had failed to realize their idea of unification of Germany “from below,” through the use of peaceful democratic mechanisms and popular political mobilization. Accordingly, most of these politicians lost their independence and instead had to support Bismarck’s aggressive foreign policy. Thus, the opposing politicians had to become national liberals and reach a strategic compromise with the Prussian aristocracy and militarism. This had the effect of weakening German middle class liberalism.
Bismarck did not succeed, however, in fully integrating the German workers’ movement. He tried to do so through cooperation with Ferdinand Lassalle, who played a key role in the emergence of the German union movement and of socialism as a political force. The weakness of German middle class liberalism was a major factor contributing to the rise of Marxist Social Democracy as the main opponent of traditional German autocracy and hierarchical order.
Marginalized by the success of Bismarck’s unification policy, German liberals could not play the role of effective mediators between left-wing socialists and right-wing conservatives. This failure of liberal mediation in Germany contrasts with the prominent role of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century French and British liberals and democrats in the political life of their respective countries. While in England and France liberals were responsible for the important advances of the social welfare state, in Germany Bismarck’s own initiative brought about similar policies, which accordingly contributed to the social importance and prestige of the political autocracy and militarism through which he launched them.
These circumstances influenced the disastrous course of German politics during the Weimar era, when Prussian militarism increasingly allied itself with the nationalist extremism of the Nazi movement and paved the way for a Nazi takeover in 1933 and for Hitler’s aggressive policy of European expansion and, ultimately, for World War II, which began in 1939.