Before Germany there was a Prussia, an Austria, and thirty-seven smaller independent German countries. Napoleon had left Europe in an awful mess so when he lost, the victorious met in Vienna to fix the borders that he’d thrown all into disarray. This ‘Congress of Vienna’ wasn’t a punishment (like a certain treaty a century later would be to Germany) but instead to restabilise the continent once more by drawing out the spheres of influence, balancing enemies and allies with and against each other. And this worked, for a while. The fixed borders and disincentives to war meant that those with ambitions to conquer and empire turned their ambitions elsewhere, to other continents. but there was one fractured region in Europe that was not particularly well-balanced and the two intended balancing powers didn’t have overseas colonies on which to take out their frustration. That region was central Europe: that aforementioned Austria, Prussia and those 37 smaller independent German countries. The war that eventually happened had been the result of a centuries-old rivalry between the two dominant German powers and the result of the war was mostly down to four factors: The existing political order, Central European Geography The Enlightenment …and Italy. Prussia and most of the small states were situated in an area of Europe with few natural barriers. While this could make you vulnerable, as the many partitions of Poland can tell you, the way German states bahaved was part of what preserved the relative stablity of the region despite being it being in almost three hundred pieces for a Millenium. While individually, these mostly city-states are vulnerable to outsiders, they recognised the need to band together, multiple times, under multiple flags. Collections of states of roughly equal power, so none could really dominate, or at least, that was the theory. So Europe was a collection of states in a delicate balance of powers, and at its centre, a collection of states, in delicate balance of powers. In geopolitics, geography is everything. That’s rivers, mountains, oceans, terrain, and where your borders lie in relation. Austria was an South-East-facing country, with the majority of its land in that direction from Vienna. The branches of the Danube flowed through Austria away from traditional German lands. The Alps and Carpathians mostly protected the core from invaders, but also isolated Austria from its interests in the north and west, and its territories on the other side of these mountains. Contrast: Prussia. A country wealthy with natural riverine connection, and none of those pesky major mountain ranges separating the political core from its wealthy and industrious regions in the west. And as well as those rivers, Prussia also had a better artificial network. Modern canals had arrived with the industrial revolution, and together with the smaller states, Prussia had a national rail network before its major neighbours had even connected two cities Austria was excluded from all of this because of its geography. These networks initially implied Prussia as the leader of Germany, and isolated Austria. Germany was integrated culturally, economically, militarily and bureaucratically around Berlin. While Prussia was in the process of connecting. Austria was dividing. The enlightenment was the culmination of philosophical revolution that lead in part to the idea of self-determination. With failures of political and economic systems across the continent, the traditional order had been collapsing piece by piece, and in its place, new schools of thought were to arise. Here’s an example of how a pre-enlightenment country worked. One sociopoliticophilosophical revolution later, and people broke those rules, and the bible was translated anyway. People could now directly read the word of God, and interpret it in their own way, which lead to an explosion in different schools of thought and churches. The Catholic church was no longer all-powerful, and the word of god was no longer simply what you were told. People could think for themselves, and now they could rule themselves. Then later, the French and American Revolutions were all about self determination and religion in government. Now, let’s look back at these 37 smaller German Nations. In all this furore, wasn’t it just the time for the region to unify? But around which of the two strong German powers would it be? Prussia or Austria? Let’s compare. Prussia had great water and rail connections with the region. With Prussia they shared a single common language. They were majority ethnic German. And Prussia had one of the strongest armies on the continent. Austria, however… was on the other side of the mountains, had a hundred billion different languages across its territory, was rebellious and fragile from top to bottom, and was a country out of time. In fact, Austria was lucky to still exist as multinational country after the congress of Vienna. Most other new and reformed countries had abandoned the ‘Because God Says So’ form of government, and graduated to the nation-state self-determinism model. But not Austria. She married her way to the top, merging royal families and lands to build this empire. And she wanted to keep it all after the congress, so that she did. However, the Czechs, Slovaks, Polish, Hungarians, Slovenians, Italians, Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Ukrainians and Romanians in her empire had different ideas. Ideas that came from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Ironically, one of the last places to unify in this period under the idea of the self-determined nation-state was perhaps the seat of philosophical thought in Europe: Italy. 1866.
Those Austrian lands that I mentioned earlier were on the other side of the Alps? Yeah, some of those were filled with Italians. That’s a group of people who were currently warring their way across southern Europe, unifying under their flag. And Austria was in the Way. They fought three wars to unify their lands, under the ‘Because We Said So’ kind of government. The first war didn’t change much. The second war was a mild victory for Italy. The third war, however, came with incredible timing and was incredibly devastating to the future of Austria. The sweet relationship between Austria and Hungary, that had worked for so long, was souring. A series of wars of independence had to be managed, and worst of all, Hungary was in Revolt. Prussia, seeing a rising power in the south and the potential downfall of a rival for the German leadership, decided that they might as well consolidate their problems into one easily repayable continental war. Austria was in no shape to lead anything by the end of the war. Not the German Confederation, not Germany, and by this point, not even Austria. Hungarians made themselves equal in the empire, which now went by a different name: Or, as we know it today, Austria-Hungary. Prussia easily scooped the remains of German Europe and with a victory over France in yet another war, they declared the birth of the German Empire in the palace of Versailles, the French seat of Power. At this point, what couldn’t Prussia do? Austria-Hungary was a shambles on a rapid descent in power and wealth, an absolute tinder box ready to ignite at the flick of a trigger. World War One, and despite for some reason allying with Austria-Hungary the pair nearly steamrollered all of Europe fuelled by German industry. For the second time in half a century, Germany capitalised over the internal volatility of a neighbouring country to make significant territorial gains, making it as far as 1500km from Berlin and essentially winning in the East, making all of these gains real and official. At least for a few months. One Treaty of Versailles, one demilitarisation, one hyperinflation, billions in reparations, one great depression, two decades of economic and social turmoil, and STILL, AGAIN the country was nearly able to steamroller Europe a second time in the 20th century. …and then. One demilitarisation, one partial deindustrialisation, several occupations, one cold war partition, half a century of separation, and then, finally, unification. And today. The country is stunningly once again the economic and industrial centre of Europe and its leader. but not in war this time (that’s bad, apparently.) It’s in the boardroom. On the leaderboard, the GDP rankings, and quality of life. And the football. France kept a permanent seat on the UN security council because a unified Germany was an incredible threat for a century, constantly upsetting Europe, dragging France again and again into catastrophic bloodshed. Until today, France still maintain one of the most expensive militaries in the world. They built the Iron and Coal community to make war unthinkable by tying their economies together, and take access Germany’s vast mineral and geographic wealth. In a Europe without borders, that’s the great equaliser, no? It turns out the Germans turned even that to their advantage. The EU is a free and ready-made market. Germany is as of 2016 by some measures the number one exporting country in the world, competing with China, a country twenty times the size. And there are things that Germany has coped with better than any other western country. After WW2 there was somewhat of a labour shortage (which was apparently something to do with all the working-age men dying in catastrophic bloodshed or something) They plugged the labour shortage with Mediterranean guest workers. The potential collapse of the economy due to the structure of the welfare state and the age of the population that as of 2016 is taking its toll on Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe, soon to hit China and the West, is being plugged in the Germany of the 2000s by citizens of the expanding EU, the best and brightest of working age across the continent coming to Germany to work. that’s a steady stream of potential tax-paying skilled workers and crucially, they’re consumers paying for the pensions of the ageing and retired Germans spending their twilight years finding lebensraum, this time on the sunbeds of the Mediterranean.