The first major question facing the leaders of central Europe after the revolutions of 1848 was whether Prussia or Austria would dominate the German Confederation. The “Big German” solution called for federation with Austria; the “Little German” solution called for separation from Austria or even from south Germany. The “Little German” program also meant Prussian domination of the non-Austrian states, and therefore became Bismarck’s goal.
Prussia was aided and Austria was hindered by the rising sense of nationalism. Austria contained many language groups, each of which hoped for a national destiny of its own, while Prussia became increasingly centralized. In the 1850s Prussia moved steadily forward in administrative efficiency, well-planned industrialization, financial prudence, and military strength. Furthermore, despite the constitution of 1850, which technically provided for universal male suffrage, the electorate was divided into three classes on the basis of taxes paid, so that the wealthier voters could continue to control the less well-to-do in the lower house, or Landtag.
The Frankfurt Diet had long since lost the support of artisans and industrial workers, as it espoused increasingly conservative policies. From 1851 to 1859 the Prussian minister to the Frankfurt Diet had been Bismarck. At the Diet, Bismarck took every occasion to thwart Austrian designs. He favored Prussian neutrality in the Crimean War (1854-1856), in which Britain and France fought (with Turkey) against Russia, while Austria harassed rather than helped the Russians.
Realizing that Austrian behavior was alienating Russia, and that Russian friendship would be valuable later when Prussia came to grips with Austria, Bismarck frustrated those Prussians who hoped that Prussia would enter the war against Russia and thus line up with the West. Counting on a military showdown with Austria, Bismarck also wooed the French emperor Napoleon III.
These diplomatic and military concerns led directly to the beginning of Bismarck’s undisputed domination of Prussian policies. King William I was above all a soldier. His minister of war, a friend of Bismarck’s, easily persuaded the king that an army reorganization was necessary. He wanted to increase the number of conscripts drafted each year from 40,000 to 63,000, and to lengthen the term of their service from two to three years.
A conscript army took time to mobilize, but a professional army (like Britain’s) did not. A liberal majority in the Landtag opposed funds for the increase in troops, and a prolonged political crisis over the budget threatened to block other legislation as well. At the height of the crisis, the king, convinced that Bismarck could outwit the parliament, called him back from Paris, where he was serving as ambassador, and appointed him to the key posts of prime minister of Prussia and minister of foreign affairs.
On the grounds that the constitution permitted the government to use taxes collected for other purposes even when the budget had not been approved by parliament, Bismarck carried out the army reforms. Again and again he dissolved parliament, called new elections, faced another hostile house, and then repeated the process.
He suppressed opposition newspapers in defiance of a constitutional provision that the press should be free. Yet despite four years of this illegal behavior (1862-1866), Bismarck got away with everything in the end because of the glittering successes he scored by his unorthodox and daring foreign policy. In 1866 an admiring parliament voted retroactive approval of his unauthorized expenditures, rendering them legal.
Since Bismarck probably intended to overthrow the German Confederation as it was then constituted, he opposed Austrian efforts to reform it. Austria wished to create an assembly of delegates chosen by the parliaments of the member states, in addition to those delegates named by the princes, all to be responsible to a directorate of six monarchs.
In 1862 Bismarck prevented William I from attending a congress of princes called by Austria to discuss these proposals, and thus wrecked the congress. In 1863 he kept Austria out of the Zollverein, the German Customs Union. He also consolidated his good relations with Russia during a Polish revolt by an agreement that allowed the Russians to pursue fleeing Poles onto Prussian territory.