- BBC World News
It is curious to think that there is so much of the world as we know it is such a recent construction.
The essential was there, of course. But artificial issues like countries were slow to take the forms we are used to.
And not always in the expected order.
By the time most of the New World countries were independent, in the Old World there were still some to be defined.
Germany, for example, is celebrating (just) 150 years of birth as a unified nation.
The proclamation took place on January 18, 1871, at the Palace of Versailles in France.
Why in Versailles and not in Berlin?
For perverse taste: the palace, recently captured by the troops of the German states in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, had been built by Louis XIV, who was vilified in the states that would become German for having consolidated France’s dominance over Alsace and laid the groundwork for his annexation of Lorraine.
Securing those territories as one of Germany’s key demands, the headquarters served to humiliate the French, whose army remained the most powerful military force on the continent, but had suffered a series of disastrous defeats at the hands of the German alliance.
Even more symbolically appreciated was choosing for the occasion the famous Hall of Mirrors, with paintings by Charles Le Brun on its vaulted ceilings extolling past victories, such as that of Louis XIV on the Rhine.
What better place to read the proclamation in which William I, “by the grace of God, King of Prussia” announced that the German princes and the free cities had made him “a unanimous call to renew and assume, with the reestablishment of the empire German, the dignity of emperor “.
A call that the monarch, the document said, accepted “with the hope that the German people will be granted to enjoy, in lasting peace, the rewards of their arduous and heroic struggle, within borders that will give the Homeland that security that it has lacked for centuries in the face of renewed French attacks. “
Thus began the German Empire, which unified 26 German states, including four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory, and which lasted until the end of World War I when it became a republic.
And there was a strategist to who he was credited with the feat to turn what for centuries had been a power vacuum, a space always subject to internal rivalries and external interference, into a solid presence in the center of Europe with a population of 41 million inhabitants.
Prince Otto von Bismarck, one of the most influential statesmen of the 19th century.
Who is remembered as the founder of modern Germany came to politics by chance in 1847, when he was asked to replace a member of the Prussian parliament who had fallen ill.
Until then, as the second son of a minor noble family, he had led a life without much purpose, earning the nickname “Mad Bismarck” and a dubious fame for his reckless pranks and honor duels.
But when, at the age of 32, he entered parliament, everything changed forever.
Among the intrigues and machinations of the political world, he found his vocation.
The combination of the influences of his grandfather, a cabinet secretary, his mother, an intelligent and resourceful woman, and his father, a staunchly conservative junker (Prussian aristocrat), turned out to be ideal for the political world of that time and place.
Bismarck was an arch-conservative junker with the Machiavellian mind of a politician.
He quickly made a name for himself as a supporter of Prussia and its king, earning him the post of Prussian envoy to Frankfurt (1851), St. Petersburg (1859), and Paris (1862) before becoming minister-president in 1862.
In this position, he gained almost total control of the political course the kingdom would take.
As minister-president, Bismarck tried to bring more and more German-speaking lands under Prussian control.
He was born in 1815, when Napoleon was about to be definitively defeated by a coalition that included a collective German force with many enthusiastic volunteers.
The glow of that joint effort colored his childhood with stories of bloody wars infused with heroism and sacrifice.
And the success of that fight learned that states united when faced with foreign enemies.
The other thing that floated in the atmosphere were the nationalist aspirations that sprouted with the French Revolution.
AND, even though the usual has become associated nationalism with the right, in the 19th century it was a left force.
For liberals, generally city dwellers, intellectuals and middle class, the most expeditious way to abolish authoritarian governments was by creating nation states without kings and with parliaments that were due to the people.
Although Von Bismarck was far from being a liberal and believed in the divine right of kings, he sensed that he should incorporate these ideas into his vision.
In 1862, the desire of the King of Prussia to reform his army caused a crisis as the parliament, which had been liberal since its creation in 1848, opposed it.
Von Bismarck pledged to achieve reform despite parliament and collect the necessary taxes even if it were by unconstitutional ways. So it was.
That undemocratic behavior was a gamble Von Bismarck won with victory in the first of three deliberate wars he fought to forcefully pave the way for German unification: the Duchy War that pitted the Austrian Empire and Prussia against Denmark in 1864. .
As a result of the conflict, the Danes had to cede territories that the Austrians and Prussians divided, but neither was satisfied.
Only 18 months later, after moving his pieces on the chessboard that was Europe, Von Bismarck provoked a war against the ally of the previous one, the Austrian Empire, and another victory was credited.
After annexing Hannover, Hesse-Kassel and Holstein, it formed the North German Confederation.
The telegram from Ems
Everything was going from strength to strength, but what had been achieved had to be solidified and to convince four southern states to become part of that new Germany.
Bismarck had the formula to achieve this: take advantage of the patriotic fervor that wars against a foreign and historical enemy create … and there was a hatred that had unified all Germans since the Napoleonic wars.
The tension was on the verge It only took a spark to make it all explode.
It was then that Spain offered its vacant throne to Prince Leopold (a relative of William I of Prussia), which made France feel threatened.
Although Leopold’s candidacy was withdrawn on July 12, the following day, the French ambassador to Prussia, Count Vincent Benedetti, approached King William at the seaside resort of Ems to ask him for guarantees that no member of his family would ever be again. candidate for the Spanish throne.
The king politely rejected Benedetti’s demand and the discussion ended; Bismarck was sent a telegram describing the incident.
He edited it, omitting the courtesies in the conversation between the ambassador and the king, and making it look like each had insulted the other. Bismarck’s altered version was published on July 14.
Offended, France declared war on Prussia 5 days later: on July 19, 1870.
The southern German states enlisted on the Prussian side in the war and, after victory, were part of the unification of all German states (except Austria) into modern Germany.
Once the Empire was proclaimed, Bismark assumed the position of chancellor and led the new industrialized Germany, managing to remain in power for two more decades.
His prestige was enormous. In a matter of six years, he had scored three great victories and had founded the Reich.
Thanks to the German constitution, he didn’t have to worry about pleasing the population; his chancery had been approved by William I, an emperor whom he managed as he pleased.
His policies as chancellor were aimed at holding the newly formed state together in the face of religious, political and social divisions.
One of his problems, however, was the popularity of the Socialists, who tried in vain to wane through laws and measures against them, until he came up with a better method: beat them using the same tools that they.
Thus, for example, he was ahead of them by creating the Health Insurance Act or health insurance law, the first system of its kind nationwide in the world.
On the other hand, he wove an intricate web of foreign policy connections in Europe that allowed the new German state to become a respected entity on the continent.
But he was also known for his ruthless tactics, ignoring democratic institutions, engaging in dirty politics, leaking the press and bribing journalists.
He resorted to measures of repression of minorities such as Catholics and severe methods to “Germanize” the Poles, Danes and French that ended up within the new borders.
He left power in 1890 and by the time he died eight years later he was a bitter man.
His successors had allowed the new German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, a clumsy and immature ruler, to direct politics and tensions in Europe had risen, threatening to sink the newly formed Germany.
But Bismarck had inspired a cult that would endure long after his death.
There are about 10,000 places in the world with a reference in their honor, from statues and monuments, to cities -Bismarck, North Dakota, USA-, squares -such as Dar es-Salaam- and even mountains -the mountain range. of Bismarck in Papua New Guinea- with his name.
To this day, there are those who still consider him a brilliant statesman.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.