From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The years of the last Russell and Derby administrations and the early years of the first Gladstone administration were marked by events on the Continent which almost amounted to a revolution of the European system, through Prussia's two great contests first with Austria and then with France. Those contests incidentally secured the completion of United Italy. To any one born within the last fifty years "Germany" means a consolidated German Empire wielding the most highly organised army in Europe, a military power which it is assumed that no other nation could defeat single-handed. In the popular mind Austria, however closely allied with the German Empire, is as completely distinct from it as Russia or France or Italy. The unity of Italy is taken for granted no less than the unity of Germany.
Nevertheless, in 1865 a great section of Northern Italy was still a province of the Austrian Empire, while Germany was at best a confederation of independent states, among which Austria rather than Prussia still exercised a sort of presidency. To Austria, in fact, still clung the tradition of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, which had in effect been essentially Germanic ever since it was created by Charlemagne. Not till the days of Frederick the Great had the King of Prussia acquired among the German princes a position which made it possible to challenge the Austrian ascendency. Never at all had there been a consolidated German Empire, a Germany standing as a united nation among the other nations of Europe. The creation of a united Germany was the work of Otto Von Bismarck, the great minister of William, King of Prussia, in association with the great soldier Moltke.
The name of Germany, then, like the name of Italy, was little more than a geographical expression covering a number of loosely associated Teutonic kingdoms and principalities, two of which ranked among the first-class Powers; while to one of these two, Austria; tradition assigned a sort of leadership. But of the Austrian Empire only a portion was Teutonic, the greater part of the dominion being either Slav or Magyar. Bismarck s great aim was to transform this loose association of German states into a solid unity but in a United Germany there would be no room for Austria. Prussia must be supreme, and she could not be supreme unless Austria were entirely excluded.
The Seven Weeks War
The first business, therefore, was to secure the ejection of Austria and the acceptance of Prussian ascendency. There would have to be a war between Prussia and Austria, and Austria would have to be decisively beaten. The war, then, must be procured at the moment and under conditions which would ensure victory. No one outside Prussia knew the perfection with which the military machine was being organised. Bismarck timed his arrangements with consummate precision. The neutrality of the British and the Russians could be reckoned upon; that of France was secured through Napoleon's complete miscalculation of the odds.
He anticipated that Prussia would be soundly beaten, that he would be able to intervene at the right moment to shield her from destruction, and that he would reap his reward on the Rhine. Italy was drawn into active participation, with Venetia - the completion of a united Italy as her reward. In 1866 Austria was manoeuvred into a quarrel at the right moment, with a sufficient appearance of her being the aggressor, and war was declared. In Italy the Italians were defeated; but in Austria the brief Prussian campaign was absolutely decisive.
The victory of Sadowa or Koniggratz wrecked the Austrian army, and Bismarck was able to dictate his terms, which were not vindictive. Italy was rewarded with Venetia, Prussia annexed Hanover and some other minor principalities; the general German confederation was dissolved, and a new North German confederation was established practically under Prussian direction. South Germany was as yet excluded. The complete unification of Germany was still to wait for a very little while, until the South German states should learn to realise that their own interest was engaged in it.
The outcome of the "Seven Weeks War" was not at all what Napoleon had desired. Bismarck had got what he wanted without French help, and what the Emperor had wanted he entirely failed to obtain. The danger now to the completion of Bismarck's plans lay not in Austria but in France. It was his object therefore to crush that danger, but not to fight till he could strike with certainty of victory. Four years after Sadowa he was ready for a decisive struggle.
The Franco-Prussian War
The proposal for placing a Hohenzollern prince on the vacant throne of Spain gave him his opportunity of forcing war upon France for which public opinion in France was at the moment more than willing. As with Austria, so now, Prussia had a plausible case for maintaining that France was the aggressor - that it was France which forced the war. Again, as in the case of Austria, the perfection of the Prussian military organisation, now extended over the North German confederation, coupled with the support of South Germany, gave the Prussians or Germans decisive victory. When peace was made after the fall of Paris Alsace and Lorraine were surrendered to Prussia, and a terrific war indemnity was imposed upon the French nation.
The Third Republic
But the cession of territory and the indemnity were not the only results. The French Empire collapsed when the Emperor himself surrendered at Sedan. For the third time France became a republic, with a government which for many years was necessarily unstable. But, on the other hand while the besieging armies lay before Paris, the King of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor, the Southern States uniting with those of the North German confederation to form a single union with the King of Prussia at its head., Germany had become the greatest military power in the European system. The new German Empire was born, like the fully armed Pallas Athene of Greek mythology.
Incidentally Italy had seized her opportunity, when the French Emperor was no longer in a position to shield the Papacy, to crown her unity by taking possession of Rome and making it the capital of United Italy.