German Unification



The German Confederation

The German Confederation was the loose association of 39 states created in 1815 to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries, which most historians have judged to be weak and ineffective as well as an obstacle to German nationalist aspirations.

Learning Objectives

Diagram the political relations and structure of the German Confederation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • One of the major outcomes of the Congress of Vienna was the creation of German Confederation, a loose association of 39 states designed to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries.
  • It acted as a buffer between the powerful states of Austria and Prussia to preserve the Concert of Europe.
  • Most historians have judged the Confederation as weak and ineffective, as well as an obstacle to German nationalist aspirations.
  • Further efforts to improve the Confederation began in 1834 with the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein , to manage tariffs and economic policies.
  • It collapsed due to the rivalry between Prussia and Austria, warfare, the 1848 revolution, and the inability of the multiple members to compromise.
  • It was replaced by the North German Confederation in 1866.

Key Terms

  • German dualism: A long-standing conflict and rivalry for supremacy between Prussia and Austria in Central Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. While wars were a part of the rivalry, it was also a race for prestige to be seen as the legitimate political force of the German-speaking peoples. The conflict first culminated in the Seven Years’ War.
  • Holy Roman Empire: A multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also came to include the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Italy, and numerous other territories.
  • Rights of Man: A book by Thomas Paine, including 31 articles, that posits that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people. Using these points as a basis, it defends the French Revolution.
  • Zollverein: A coalition of German states formed to manage tariffs and economic policies within their territories, formed during the German Confederation.

The German Confederation (German: Deutscher Bund) was an association of 39 German states in Central Europe, created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries and to replace the former Holy Roman Empire. It acted as a buffer between the powerful states of Austria and Prussia. Britain approved of the confederation because London felt there was need for a stable, peaceful power in central Europe that could discourage aggressive moves by France or Russia. Most historians have judged the Confederation as weak and ineffective, as well as an obstacle to the creation of a German nation-state. It collapsed because of the rivalry between Prussia and Austria (known as German dualism), warfare, the 1848 revolution, and the inability of members to compromise. It was replaced by the North German Confederation in 1866.

In 1848, revolutions by liberals and nationalists were failed attempts to establish a unified German state. Talks between the German states failed in 1848, and the Confederation briefly dissolved but was reestablished in 1850. It decidedly fell apart only after the Prussian victory in the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866.

The dispute between the two dominant member states of the Confederation, Austria and Prussia, over which had the inherent right to rule German lands ended in favor of Prussia after the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866. This led to the creation of the North German Confederation under Prussian leadership in 1867. A number of South German states remained independent until they joined the North German Confederation, which was renamed the German Empire.

History and Structure of the Confederation

Between 1806 and 1815, Napoleon organized the German states into the Confederation of the Rhine, but this collapsed after his defeats in 1812 to 1815. The German Confederation had roughly the same boundaries as the Empire at the time of the French Revolution (less what is now Belgium). It also kept intact most of Confederation’s reconstituted member states and their boundaries. The member states, drastically reduced to 39 from more than 300 under the Holy Roman Empire, were recognized as fully sovereign. The members pledged themselves to mutual defense, and joint maintenance of the fortresses at Mainz, the city of Luxembourg, Rastatt, Ulm, and Landau.

The only organ of the Confederation was the Federal Assembly, consisting of the delegates of the states’ governments. There was no head of state; the Austrian delegate presided the Assembly but was not granted extra power. The Assembly met in Frankfurt.

The Confederation was enabled to accept and deploy ambassadors. It allowed ambassadors of the European powers to the Assembly, but rarely deployed ambassadors itself.

During the revolution of 1848-49, the Federal Assembly was inactive and transferred its powers to the revolutionary German Central Government of the Frankfurt National Assembly. After crushing the revolution and illegally disbanding the National Assembly, the Prussian King failed to create a German nation state by himself. The Federal Assembly was revived in 1850 on Austrian initiative, but only fully reinstalled only in the Summer of 1851.

Rivalry between Prussia and Austria grew substantially beginning in 1859. The Confederation was dissolved in 1866 after the Austro-Prussian War, and was succeeded in 1866 by the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation. Unlike the German Confederation, the North German Confederation was in fact a true state. Its territory comprised the parts of the German Confederation north of the river Main, plus Prussia’s eastern territories and the Duchy of Schleswig, but excluded Austria and the other southern German states.

Prussia’s influence was widened by the Franco-Prussian War resulting in the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles on January 18, 1871, which united the North German Federation with the southern German states. Constituent states of the former German Confederation became part of the German Empire in 1871, except Austria, Luxembourg, the Duchy of Limburg, and Liechtenstein.

Politics and Economy of the Confederation

Although the forces unleashed by the French Revolution were seemingly under control after the Vienna Congress, the conflict between conservative forces and liberal nationalists was only deferred. The era until the failed 1848 revolution when these tensions escalated is commonly referred to as Vormärz (“pre-March”), in reference to the outbreak of riots in March 1848.

This conflict pitted the forces of the old order against those inspired by the French Revolution and the Rights of Man. The sociological breakdown of the competition was roughly one side engaged mostly in commerce, trade, and industry, and the other side associated with landowning aristocracy or military aristocracy (the Junker) in Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria, and the conservative notables of the small princely states and city-states in Germany.

Meanwhile, demands for change from below had been stirring since the influence of the French Revolution. Throughout the German Confederation, Austrian influence was paramount, drawing the ire of the nationalist movements. Metternich considered nationalism, especially the nationalist youth movement, the most pressing danger: German nationalism might not only reject Austrian dominance of the Confederation, but also stimulate nationalist sentiment within the Austrian Empire itself. In a multinational multilingual state in which Slavs and Magyars outnumbered the Germans, the prospects of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Serb, or Croatian sentiment along with middle-class liberalism was certainly horrifying.

Further efforts to improve the Confederation began in 1834 with the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein. In 1834, the Prussian regime sought to stimulate wider trade advantages and industrialism by decree—a logical continuation of the program of Stein and Hardenberg less than two decades earlier. Historians have seen three Prussian goals: as a political tool to eliminate Austrian influence in Germany; as a way to improve the economies; and to strengthen Germany against potential French aggression while reducing the economic independence of smaller states.

Inadvertently, these reforms sparked the unification movement and augmented a middle class demanding further political rights, but at the time backwardness and Prussia’s fears of its stronger neighbors were greater concerns. The customs union opened up a common market, ended tariffs between states, and standardized weights, measures, and currencies within member states (excluding Austria), forming the basis of a proto-national economy.

The map shows that the present-day countries whose territory were partly or entirely located inside the boundaries of the German Confederation are Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland, Belgium, Italy, and Croatia.

German Confederation: Map of the German Confederation, circa 1815, following the Congress of Vienna. The territory of the Austrian Empire and Kingdom of Prussia not within the confederation is shown in light green.

Toward a German Identity

The surge of German nationalism, stimulated by the experience of Germans in the Napoleonic period, the development of a German cultural and artistic identity, and improved transportation through the region, moved Germany toward unification in the 19th century.

Learning Objectives

Break down the cultural aspects that lent themselves to a common German identity in the 19th century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The transition of German-speaking people throughout central Europe into a unified nation-state had been developing for some time through alliances formal and informal between princely rulers, as well as the gradual emergence of a German cultural identity.
  • The German identity is largely centered around the common German language, but at the turn of the 19th century, German intellectuals began to develop a sense of artistic and philosophical identity freed from the leadership of France during the Enlightenment.
  • Under the dominance of the Napoleonic French Empire (1804–1814), various justifications emerged to identify “Germany” as a single state.
  • The Burschenschaft student organizations and popular demonstrations, such as those held at Wartburg Castle in October 1817, contributed to a growing sense of unity among German speakers of Central Europe.
  • Historians regard the development of the German railway as the first indicator of a unified state.
  • As travel became easier, faster, and less expensive, Germans started to see unity in factors other than their language.

Key Terms

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: A German writer and statesman. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry written in a variety of meters and styles; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and color; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him exist.
  • Carlsbad Decrees: A set of reactionary restrictions introduced in the states of the German Confederation on September 20, 1819, after a conference held in the spa town of Carlsbad, Bohemia. They banned nationalist fraternities (“Burschenschaften”), removed liberal university professors, and expanded the censorship of the press. They were aimed to quell a growing sentiment for German unification.
  • Burschenschaften: One of the traditional student fraternities of Germany. They were founded in the 19th century as associations of university students inspired by liberal and nationalistic ideas. They were significantly involved in the March Revolution and the unification of Germany.

Unification of Germany

The unification of Germany into a politically and administratively integrated nation state officially occurred on January 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France. Princes of the German states gathered there to proclaim Wilhelm I of Prussia as German Emperor after the French capitulation in the Franco-Prussian War. Unofficially, the de facto transition of most of the German-speaking populations into a federated organization of states had been developing in fits and starts for some time through alliances formal and informal between princely rulers. Self-interests of the various parties hampered the process over nearly a century of autocratic experimentation beginning in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, which saw the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire (1806) and subsequent rise of German nationalism.

Unification exposed tensions caused by religious, linguistic, social, and cultural differences among the inhabitants of the new nation, suggesting that 1871 only represented one moment in the larger unification process. Given the mountainous terrains of much of the territory, it was inevitable that isolated peoples would develop cultural, educational, linguistic, and religious differences over such a long period. Germany of the 19th century enjoyed transportation and communications improvements that began uniting people and culture.

The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which included more than 500 independent states, was effectively dissolved when Emperor Francis II abdicated during the War of the Third Coalition in August 1806. Despite the legal, administrative, and political disruption associated with the end of the Empire, the people of the German-speaking areas of the old Empire had a common linguistic, cultural, and legal tradition further enhanced by their shared experience in the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars.

European liberalism offered an intellectual basis for unification by challenging dynastic and absolutist models of social and political organization; its German manifestation emphasized the importance of tradition, education, and linguistic unity of people in a geographic region. Economically, the creation of the Prussian Zollverein (customs union) in 1818 and its subsequent expansion to include other states of the German Confederation reduced competition between and within states. Emerging modes of transportation facilitated business and recreational travel, leading to contact and sometimes conflict among German speakers from throughout Central Europe.

German Cultural Identity

In the late 18th century, the sense of a German cultural identity began to emerge. Before 1750, the German upper classes looked to France for intellectual, cultural, and architectural leadership; French was the language of high society. By the mid-18th century the “Aufklärung” (The Enlightenment) had transformed German high culture in music, philosophy, science, and literature. Christian Wolff (1679–1754) was the pioneer as a writer who expounded the Enlightenment to German readers; he legitimized German as a philosophic language.

Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) broke new ground in philosophy and poetry as a leader of the Sturm und Drang movement of proto-Romanticism. Weimar Classicism was a cultural and literary movement based in Weimar that sought to establish a new humanism by synthesizing Romantic, Classical, and Enlightenment ideas. The movement, from 1772 until 1805, involved Herder as well as polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), a poet and historian. Herder argued that every folk had its own particular identity expressed in its language and culture. This legitimized the promotion of German language and culture and helped shape the development of German nationalism. Schiller’s plays expressed the restless spirit of his generation, depicting the hero’s struggle against social pressures and the force of destiny.

Rise of German Nationalism

Under the hegemony of the Napoleonic French Empire (1804–1814), popular German nationalism thrived in the reorganized German states. Due in part to the shared experience under French dominance, various justifications emerged to identify “Germany” as a single state. For the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte,

The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.

A common language may have been seen to serve as the basis of a nation, but as contemporary historians of 19th-century Germany noted, it took more than linguistic similarity to unify these several hundred polities. The experience of German-speaking Central Europe during the years of French hegemony contributed to a sense of common cause to remove the French invaders and reassert control over their own lands. The exigencies of Napoleon’s campaigns in Poland (1806–07), the Iberian Peninsula, western Germany, and his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 disillusioned many Germans, princes and peasants alike. Napoleon’s Continental System nearly ruined the Central European economy. The invasion of Russia included nearly 125,000 troops from German lands, and the loss of that army encouraged many Germans, both high- and low-born, to envision a Central Europe free of Napoleon’s influence.

The surge of German nationalism, stimulated by the experience of Germans in the Napoleonic period and initially allied with liberalism, shifted political, social, and cultural relationships within the German states during the beginning of the German Confederation. Figures like August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Ludwig Uhland, Georg Herwegh, Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, Ludwig Börne, and Bettina von Arnim rose in the Vormärz era. Father Friedrich Jahn’s gymnastic associations exposed middle-class German youth to nationalist and democratic ideas, which took the form of the nationalistic and liberal democratic college fraternities known as the Burschenschaften.

The Wartburg Festival in 1817 celebrated Martin Luther as a proto-German nationalist, linking Lutheranism to German nationalism, and helping arouse religious sentiments for the cause of German nationhood. The festival culminated in the burning of several books and other items that symbolized reactionary attitudes. One item was a book by August von Kotzebue, who was accused of spying for Russia in 1819 and then murdered by a theological student, Karl Ludwig Sand, who was executed for the crime. Sand belonged to a militant nationalist faction of the Burschenschaften. Metternich used the murder as a pretext to issue the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, which dissolved the Burschenschaften, cracked down on the liberal press, and seriously restricted academic freedom.

Metternich was able to harness conservative outrage at the assassination to consolidate legislation that would further limit the press and constrain the rising liberal and nationalist movements. Consequently, these decrees drove the Burschenschaften underground, restricted the publication of nationalist materials, expanded censorship of the press and private correspondence, and limited academic speech by prohibiting university professors from encouraging nationalist discussion.

Other Factors for Unification

By the early 19th century, German roads had deteriorated to an appalling extent. Travelers both foreign and local complained bitterly about the state of the Heerstraßen, the military roads previously maintained for the ease of moving troops. As German states ceased to be a military crossroads, however, the roads improved; the length of hard-surfaced roads in Prussia increased from 3,800 kilometers (2,400 mi) in 1816 to 16,600 kilometers (10,300 mi) in 1852. By 1835, Heinrich von Gagern wrote that roads were the “veins and arteries of the body politic…” and predicted that they would promote freedom, independence, and prosperity. As people moved around, they came into contact with others on trains, at hotels, in restaurants, and for some, at fashionable resorts such as the spa in Baden-Baden. Water transportation also improved.

As important as these improvements were, they could not compete with the impact of the railway. Historians of the Second Empire later regarded the railways as the first indicator of a unified state; the patriotic novelist, Wilhelm Raabe, wrote: “The German empire was founded with the construction of the first railway…” Rail travel changed how cities looked and how people traveled. Its impact reached throughout the social order, affecting everyone from the highest-born to the lowest. Although some of the outlying German provinces were not serviced by rail until the 1890s, the majority of the population, manufacturing centers, and production centers were linked to the rail network by 1865.

As travel became easier, faster, and less expensive, Germans started to see unity in factors other than language. The Brothers Grimm, who compiled a massive dictionary known as The Grimm, also assembled a compendium of folk tales and fables that highlighted the storytelling parallels between different regions. Karl Baedeker wrote guidebooks to different cities and regions of Central Europe, indicating places to stay, sites to visit, and giving a short history of castles, battlefields, famous buildings, and famous people. His guides also included distances, roads to avoid, and hiking paths to follow.

The words of August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben expressed not only the linguistic unity of the German people but also their geographic unity. Patriotic songs as “Die Wacht am Rhein” (“The Watch on the Rhine”) by Max Schneckenburger began to focus attention on geographic space, not limiting “German-ness” to a common language. Schneckenburger wrote “The Watch on the Rhine” in a specific patriotic response to French assertions that the Rhine was France’s “natural” eastern boundary.

Germania, a personification of the German nation, appears in Philipp Veit's fresco (1834–36). She is holding a shield with the coat of arms of the German Confederation. The shields on which she stands are the arms of the seven traditional Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. She is depicted as a robust woman with long, flowing, reddish-blonde hair and wearing armour. She holds the "Reichsschwert" (imperial sword) and the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire sits at her side.

Germania: Germania, a personification of the German nation, appears in Philipp Veit’s fresco (1834–36). She is holding a shield with the coat of arms of the German Confederation. The shields on which she stands are the arms of the seven traditional Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. She holds the “Reichsschwert” (imperial sword) and the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire sits at her side.

The German Revolutions of 1848

Growing discontent with the political and social order imposed by the Congress of Vienna led to the outbreak in 1848 of the March Revolution in the German states.

Learning Objectives

Connect the German Revolutions of 1848 to other revolutions happening throughout Europe

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • News of the 1848 Revolution in Paris quickly reached discontented bourgeois liberals, republicans, and more radical working-men.
  • The first revolutionary uprisings in Germany began in the state of Baden in March 1848 and within a few days, there were revolutionary uprisings in other states including Austria and Prussia.
  • On March 15, 1848, the subjects of Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia vented their long-repressed political aspirations in violent rioting in Berlin, while barricades were erected in the streets of Paris.
  • Friedrich Wilhelm gave in to the popular fury and promised a constitution, a parliament, and support for German unification, safeguarding his own rule and regime.
  • On May 18, the Frankfurt Assembly opened its first session with delegates from various German states, and after long and controversial debates, the assembly produced the so-called Frankfurt Constitution, which proclaimed a German Empire based on the principles of parliamentary democracy.
  • In the end, the 1848 revolutions turned out to be unsuccessful: King Frederick William IV of Prussia refused the imperial crown, the Frankfurt parliament was dissolved, the ruling princes repressed the risings by military force, and the German Confederation was re-established by 1850.
  • Many leaders went into exile, including a number who went to the United States and became a political force there.

Key Terms

  • Frankfurt Assembly: The first freely elected parliament for all of Germany, elected on May 1, 1848. The session was held from May 18, 1848, to May 31, 1849, in the Paulskirche at Frankfurt am Main. Its existence was both part of and the result of the “March Revolution” in the states of the German Confederation. After long and controversial debates, the assembly produced the so-called Frankfurt Constitution.
  • Zollverein: A coalition of German states formed to manage tariffs and economic policies within their territories. It was the first instance in history in which independent states had consummated a full economic union without the simultaneous creation of a political federation or union.
  • Forty-Eighters: Europeans who participated in or supported the revolutions of 1848 that swept Europe. Disappointed at the failure of the revolution to bring about the reform of the system of government in Germany or the Austrian Empire and sometimes on the government’s wanted list because of their involvement in the revolution, they gave up their old lives to try again abroad. Many emigrated to the United States, England, and Australia after the revolutions failed.

The revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the opening phase of which was also called the March Revolution, were initially part of the Revolutions of 1848 that broke out in many European countries. They were a series of loosely coordinated protests and rebellions in the states of the German Confederation, including the Austrian Empire. The revolutions, which stressed pan-Germanism, demonstrated popular discontent with the traditional, largely autocratic political structure of the 39 independent states of the Confederation that inherited the German territory of the former Holy Roman Empire. They demonstrated the popular desire for the Zollverein movement.

The middle-class elements were committed to liberal principles while the working class sought radical improvements to their working and living conditions. As the middle class and working class components of the Revolution split, the conservative aristocracy defeated it. Liberals were forced into exile to escape political persecution, where they became known as Forty-Eighters. Many immigrated to the United States, settling from Wisconsin to Texas.

Unrest Spreads

The groundwork of the 1848 uprising in Germany was laid long beforehand. The Hambacher Fest of 1832, for instance, reflected growing unrest in the face of heavy taxation and political censorship. The Hambacher Fest is noteworthy for the republicans adopting the black-red-gold colors (used on today’s national flag of Germany) as a symbol of the republican movement and of unity among the German-speaking people.

Activism for liberal reform spread through many of the German states, each of which had distinct revolutions. They were also inspired by street demonstrations of workers and artisans in Paris, France, from February 22-24, 1848, which resulted in the abdication by King Louis Philippe of France and his exile in Britain. In France the revolution of 1848 became known as the February Revolution.

The revolutions spread across Europe; they erupted in Austria and Germany, beginning with the large demonstrations on March 13, 1848, in Vienna. This resulted in the resignation of Prince von Metternich as chief minister to Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, and his exile in Britain. Because of the date of the Vienna demonstrations, the revolutions in Germany are usually called the March Revolution.

Fearing the fate of Louis-Philippe of France, some monarchs in Germany accepted some of the demands of the revolutionaries, at least temporarily. In the south and west, large popular assemblies and mass demonstrations took place. They demanded freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, written constitutions, arming of the people, and a parliament.

Uprisings: Austria and Prussia

In 1848, Austria was the predominant German state. It was considered the successor to the Holy Roman Empire, which had been dissolved by Napoleon in 1806, and was not resurrected by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. German Austrian chancellor Metternich had dominated Austrian politics from 1815 until 1848.

On March 13, 1848, university students mounted a large street demonstration in Vienna, and it was covered by the press across the German-speaking states. Following the important but relatively minor demonstrations against Lola Montez in Bavaria on February 9, 1848, the first major revolt of 1848 in German lands occurred in Vienna on March 13, 1848. The student demonstrators demanded a constitution and a constituent assembly elected by universal male suffrage.

Emperor Ferdinand and his chief adviser Metternich directed troops to crush the demonstration. When demonstrators moved to the streets near the palace, the troops fired on the students, killing several. The new working class of Vienna joined the student demonstrations, developing an armed insurrection. The Diet of Lower Austria demanded Metternich’s resignation. With no forces rallying to Metternich’s defense, Ferdinand reluctantly complied and dismissed him. The former chancellor went into exile in London.

In Prussia, in March 1848, crowds of people gathered in Berlin to present their demands in an “address to the king.” King Frederick William IV, taken by surprise, yielded verbally to all the demonstrators’ demands, including parliamentary elections, a constitution, and freedom of the press. He promised that “Prussia was to be merged forthwith into Germany.”

On March 13, the army charged people returning from a meeting in the Tiergarten; they left one person dead and many injured. On March 18, a large demonstration occurred; when two shots were fired, the people feared that some of the 20,000 soldiers would be used against them. They erected barricades, fighting started, and a battle took place until troops were ordered 13 hours later to retreat, leaving hundreds dead. Afterwards, Frederick William attempted to reassure the public that he would proceed with reorganizing his government. The king also approved arming the citizens.

Starting on May 18, 1848, the Frankfurt Assembly worked to find ways to unite the various German states and write a constitution. The Assembly was unable to pass resolutions and dissolved into endless debate. After long and controversial discussions, the assembly produced the so-called Frankfurt Constitution, which proclaimed a German Empire based on the principles of parliamentary democracy. This constitution fulfilled the main demands of the liberal and nationalist movements of the Vormärz and provided a foundation of basic rights, both of which stood in opposition to Metternich’s system of Restoration. The parliament also proposed a constitutional monarchy headed by a hereditary emperor (Kaiser).

King Frederick William IV of Prussia unilaterally imposed a monarchist constitution to undercut the democratic forces. This constitution took effect on December 5, 1848. On December 5, 1848, the revolutionary Assembly was dissolved and replaced with the bicameral legislature allowed under the monarchist Constitution. Otto von Bismarck was elected to the first congress elected under the new monarchical constitution.

Other uprising occurred in Baden, the Palatinate, Saxony, the Rhineland, and Bavaria.

A painting of the uprising in Berlin 1848. It shows several people atop battle-worn barricades holding a tattered German flag.

Revolutions of 1848: Origin of the Flag of Germany: Cheering revolutionaries in Berlin, on March 19, 1848.

Failures of the Revolutions

By late 1848, the Prussian aristocrats including Otto von Bismarck and generals had regained power in Berlin. They were not defeated permanently during the incidents of March, but had only retreated temporarily. General von Wrangel led the troops who recaptured Berlin for the old powers, and King Frederick William IV of Prussia immediately rejoined the old forces. In November, the king dissolved the new Prussian parliament and put forth a constitution of his own based upon the work of the assembly, yet maintaining the ultimate authority of the king.

The achievements of the revolutionaries of March 1848 were reversed in all of the German states and by 1851, the Basic Rights from the Frankfurt Assembly had also been abolished nearly everywhere. In the end, the revolution fizzled because of the divisions between the various factions in Frankfurt, the calculating caution of the liberals, the failure of the left to marshal popular support and the overwhelming superiority of the monarchist forces.

The Revolution of 1848 failed in its attempt to unify the German-speaking states because the Frankfurt Assembly reflected the many different interests of the German ruling classes. Its members were unable to form coalitions and push for specific goals. The first conflict arose over the goals of the assembly. The moderate liberals wanted to draft a constitution to present to the monarchs, whereas the smaller group of radical members wanted the assembly to declare itself as a law-giving parliament. They were unable to overcome this fundamental division, and did not take any definitive action toward unification or the introduction of democratic rules. The assembly declined into debate. While the French revolution drew on an existing nation state, the democratic and liberal forces in Germany of 1848 were confronted with the need to build a nation state and a constitutional at the same time, which overtaxed them.

Otto von Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian War

In the 1860s, Otto von Bismarck, then Minister President of Prussia, provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, aligning the smaller German states behind Prussia in its defeat of France. In 1871 he unified Germany into a nation-state, forming the German Empire.

Learning Objectives

Clarify Bismarck’s intentions with respect to the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • King William I appointed Otto von Bismarck as the new Minister President of Prussia in 1862.
  • The Prussian victory in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 enabled him to create the North German Confederation which excluded Austria from the federation’s affairs and ended the previous German Confederation.
  • After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the German princes proclaimed the founding of the German Empire in 1871 at Versailles, uniting all scattered parts of Germany except Austria.
  • Victory in the Franco-Prussian War proved the capstone of the nationalist issue, rallying the other German states into unity.
  • Some historians argue that Bismarck deliberately provoked a French attack to draw the southern German states—Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria, and Hesse-Darmstadt—into an alliance with the North German Confederation dominated by Prussia, while others contend that Bismarck did not plan anything and merely exploited the circumstances as they unfolded.
  • Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations, and alliances, Bismarck used his diplomatic skills to maintain Germany’s position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.

Key Terms

  • North German Confederation: A confederation of 22 previously independent states of northern Germany with nearly 30 million inhabitants, formed after Prussia left the German Confederation with allies. It was the first modern German nation state and the basis for the later German Empire (1871–1918) when several south German states such as Bavaria joined.
  • Junker: A noble honorific, meaning “young nobleman.” The term became popularly used as a reference for the landed nobility (particularly of the east) that controlled almost all of the land and government, or by extension the Prussian estate owners regardless of noble status. With the formation of the German Empire in 1871, this dominated the central German government and the Prussian military. The term is often contrasted with the elites of the western and southern states in Germany, such as the city-republic of Hamburg, which had no nobility.
  • Kulturkampf: Refers to power struggles between emerging constitutional and democratic nation states and the Roman Catholic Church over the place and role of religion in modern polity, usually in connection with secularization campaigns.
  • realpolitik: Politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. The term is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian.

Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. In the 1860s he engineered a series of wars that unified the German states, significantly and deliberately excluding Austria, into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. With that accomplished by 1871, he skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to maintain Germany’s position in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace.

In 1862, King Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, a position he would hold until 1890 (except for a short break in 1873). He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, aligning the smaller German states behind Prussia in its defeat of France. In 1871 he formed the German Empire with himself as Chancellor while retaining control of Prussia. His diplomacy of realpolitik and powerful rule at home gained him the nickname the “Iron Chancellor.” German unification and its rapid economic growth was the foundation to his foreign policy. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when it was demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations, and alliances, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain Germany’s position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.

A master of complex politics at home, Bismarck created the first welfare state in the modern world, with the goal of gaining working-class support that might otherwise have gone to his Socialist enemies. In the 1870s he allied himself with the Liberals (who were low-tariff and anti-Catholic) and fought the Catholic Church in what was called the Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”). He lost that battle as the Catholics responded by forming a powerful Centre party and using universal male suffrage to gain a bloc of seats. Bismarck then reversed himself, ended the Kulturkampf, broke with the Liberals, imposed protective tariffs, and formed a political alliance with the Centre Party to fight the Socialists.

Bismarck—a Junker himself—was strong-willed, outspoken, and sometimes judged overbearing, but he could also be polite, charming, and witty. Occasionally he displayed a violent temper, and he kept his power by melodramatically threatening resignation time and again, which cowed Wilhelm I. He possessed not only a long-term national and international vision but also the short-term ability to juggle complex developments. As the leader of what historians call “revolutionary conservatism,” Bismarck became a hero to German nationalists; they built many monuments honoring the founder of the new Reich. Many historians praise him as a visionary who was instrumental in uniting Germany and, once that had been accomplished, kept the peace in Europe through adroit diplomacy.

Franco-Prussian War and Creation of the German Empire

Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866, a war that ended the German Confederation and resulted in the creation of the North German Confederation, increased already existing tensions with France. The Emperor of France, Napoleon III, tried to gain territory for France (in Belgium and on the left bank of the Rhine) as compensation for not joining the war against Prussia and was disappointed by the surprisingly quick outcome of the war. The conflict was caused by Prussian ambitions to extend German unification and French fears of the shift in the European balance of power that would result if the Prussians succeeded. Some historians argue that Bismarck deliberately provoked a French attack to draw the southern German states—Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt—into an alliance with the North German Confederation dominated by Prussia, while others contend that Bismarck did not plan anything and merely exploited the circumstances as they unfolded.

A suitable pretext for war arose in 1870 when the German Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was offered the Spanish throne, vacant since a revolution in 1868. France pressured Leopold into withdrawing his candidacy. Not content with this, Paris demanded that Wilhelm, as head of the House of Hohenzollern, assure that no Hohenzollern would ever seek the Spanish crown again. To provoke France into declaring war with Prussia, Bismarck published the Ems Dispatch, a carefully edited version of a conversation between King Wilhelm and the French ambassador to Prussia, Count Benedetti. This conversation had been edited so that each nation felt its ambassador had been slighted and ridiculed, thus inflaming popular sentiment on both sides in favor of war.

France mobilized and declared war on July 19. The German states saw France as the aggressor, and—swept up by nationalism and patriotic zeal—they rallied to Prussia’s side and provided troops. A series of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France, culminating in the Siege of Metz and the Battle of Sedan, saw Napoleon III captured and the army of the Second Empire decisively defeated. A Government of National Defense declared the Third Republic in Paris on September 4 and continued the war for another five months; the German forces fought and defeated new French armies in northern France. Following the Siege of Paris, the capital fell on January 28, 1871, and then a revolutionary uprising called the Paris Commune seized power in the capital and held it for two months until it was bloodily suppressed by the regular French army at the end of May 1871.

Bismarck acted immediately to secure the unification of Germany. He negotiated with representatives of the southern German states, offering special concessions if they agreed to unification. The negotiations succeeded; patriotic sentiment overwhelmed what opposition remained. While the war was in its final phase, Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor on January 18, 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles. The new German Empire was a federation; each of its 25 constituent states (kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free cities) retained some autonomy. The King of Prussia, as German Emperor, was not sovereign over the entirety of Germany; he was only primus inter pares, or first among equals.

Victory in the Franco-Prussian War proved the capstone of the nationalist issue. In the first half of the 1860s, Austria and Prussia both contended to speak for the German states; both maintained they could support German interests abroad and protect German interests at home. After the victory over Austria in 1866, Prussia began internally asserting its authority to speak for the German states and defend German interests, while Austria began directing more of its attention to possessions in the Balkans. The victory over France in 1871 expanded Prussian hegemony in the German states to the international level. With the proclamation of Wilhelm as Kaiser, Prussia assumed the leadership of the new empire. The southern states became officially incorporated into a unified Germany at the Treaty of Versailles of 1871 (signed February 26, 1871; later ratified in the Treaty of Frankfurt of May 10, 1871), which formally ended the war.

Under the Treaty of Frankfurt, France relinquished most of its traditionally German regions (Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine); paid an indemnity, calculated (on the basis of population) as the precise equivalent of the indemnity that Napoleon Bonaparte imposed on Prussia in 1807; and accepted German administration of Paris and most of northern France, with “German troops to be withdrawn stage by stage with each installment of the indemnity payment.”

18 January 1871: The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. A large group of men, in formal military uniforms, gathered to proclaim the German Empire. Bismarck appears in white. The Grand Duke of Baden stands beside Wilhelm, leading the cheers. Crown Prince Friedrich, later Friedrich III, stands on his father's right. Painting by Anton von Werner.

The Unification of Germany: The German Empire: 18 January 1871: The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. Otto von Bismarck appears in white in the center. The Grand Duke of Baden stands beside Wilhelm I, proclaimed here as German Emperor, leading the cheers. Crown Prince Friedrich, later Friedrich III, stands on his father’s right. Painting by Anton von Werner.

The German Empire

After the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the German princes proclaimed the founding of the German Empire in 1871 at Versailles, uniting all scattered parts of Germany except Austria.

Learning Objectives

Examine the structure of the newly formed German Empire and the role of the Kaiser

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • On December 10, 1870, the North German Confederation Reichstag renamed the Confederation as the German Empire and gave the title of German Emperor to William I, the King of Prussia.
  • Following the unification of Germany, Bismarck’s foreign policy as Chancellor of Germany under Emperor William I secured Germany’s position as a great nation by forging alliances, isolating France by diplomatic means, and avoiding war.
  • On the domestic front Bismarck tried to stem the rise of socialism by anti-socialist laws, combined with an introduction of health care and social security.
  • In 1888, the young and ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm II became emperor and dismissed Bismarck as Chancellor, moving Germany on a different course.
  • Under Wilhelm II, Germany, like other European powers, took an imperialistic course, leading to friction with neighboring countries.
  • Wilhelm II promoted active colonization of Africa and Asia for those areas that were not already colonies of other European powers; his administration of the colonies was notoriously brutal.
  • The Kaiser’s approach in Europe eventually led to the assassination of the Austrian-Hungarian crown prince, sparking World War I.

Key Terms

  • Otto von Bismarck: A conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. In the 1860s he engineered a series of wars that unified the German states, significantly and deliberately excluding Austria, into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. With that accomplished by 1871, he skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to maintain Germany’s position in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace.
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II: The last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from June 1888 to November 1918. He dismissed the Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in 1890 and launched Germany on a bellicose “New Course” in foreign affairs that culminated in his support for Austria-Hungary in the crisis of July 1914 that led in a matter of days to the First World War.
  • Reichstag: The Parliament of Germany from 1871 to 1918. It shared legislative powers with the Bundesrat, the Imperial Council of the reigning princes of the German States. It had no formal right to appoint or dismiss governments, but by contemporary standards it was considered a highly modern and progressive parliament. All German men over 25 years of age were eligible to vote, and members of were elected by general, universal, and secret suffrage.

The German Empire (officially Deutsches Reich) was the historical German nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918, when Germany became a federal republic (the Weimar Republic).

The German Empire consisted of 26 constituent territories, most ruled by royal families. This included four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies (six before 1876), seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. Although the Kingdom of Prussia contained most of the Empire’s population and territory, it eventually played a relatively lesser role in politics. As Dwyer (2005) points out, Prussia’s “political and cultural influence had diminished considerably” by the 1890s, after the era of Bismarck’s leadership.

After Germany was united by Otto von Bismarck into the “German Reich,” he dominated German politics until 1890 as Chancellor. Bismarck tried to foster alliances in Europe to contain France and consolidate Germany’s influence in Europe. Bismarck’s post-1871 foreign policy was conservative and sought to preserve the balance of power in Europe. British historian Eric Hobsbawm concludes that he “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [devoting] himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers.” His chief concern was that France would plot revenge after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. As the French lacked the strength to defeat Germany by themselves, they sought an alliance with Russia that would trap Germany between the two in a war (as would ultimately happen in 1914). Bismarck wanted to prevent this at all costs and maintain friendly relations with the Russians, and thereby formed an alliance with them and Austria-Hungary. The League of Three Emperors was signed in 1872 by Russia, Austria, and Germany. It stated that republicanism and socialism were common enemies and that the three powers would discuss any matters concerning foreign policy.

Bismarck’s domestic policies played an important role in forging the authoritarian political culture of the new Empire. Less preoccupied by continental power politics following unification in 1871, Germany’s semi-parliamentary government carried out a relatively smooth economic and political revolution from above that pushed them along the way to becoming the world’s leading industrial power of the time.

Bismarck’s “revolutionary conservatism” was a conservative state-building strategy designed to make ordinary Germans—not just the Junker elite—more loyal to state and emperor. His strategy was to grant social rights to enhance the integration of a hierarchical society, forge a bond between workers and the state to strengthen the latter, maintain traditional relations of authority between social and status groups, and provide a countervailing power against the modernist forces of liberalism and socialism. He created the modern welfare state in Germany in the 1880s, with an introduction of health care and social security, and enacted universal male suffrage in the new German Empire in 1871. He became a great hero to German conservatives, who erected many monuments to his memory and tried to emulate his policies.

At the same time Bismarck tried to reduce the political influence of the emancipated Catholic minority in the Kulturkampf, literally “culture struggle.” The Catholics only grew stronger, forming the Center (Zentrum) Party. Germany grew rapidly in industrial and economic power, matching Britain by 1900. Its highly professional army was the best in the world, but the navy could never catch up with Britain’s Royal Navy.

In 1888, the young and ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm II became emperor. He could not abide advice, least of all from the most experienced politician and diplomat in Europe, so he fired Bismarck. The Kaiser opposed Bismarck’s careful foreign policy and wanted Germany to pursue colonialist policies as Britain and France had been doing for decades, as well as build a navy that could match the British. The Kaiser promoted active colonization of Africa and Asia for those areas that were not already colonies of other European powers; his record was notoriously brutal and set the stage for genocide. In what became known as the “First Genocide of the Twentieth-Century,” between 1904 and 1907, the German colonial government in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) ordered the annihilation of the local Herero and Namaqua peoples as a punitive measure for an uprising against German colonial rule, killing over 100,000 people. The Kaiser took a mostly unilateral approach in Europe with the Austro-Hungarian Empire as its main ally, and an arms race with Britain eventually led to the assassination of the Austrian-Hungarian crown prince sparked World War I.

After four years of warfare in which approximately two million German soldiers were killed, a general armistice ended the fighting on November 11, and German troops returned home. In the German Revolution (November 1918), Emperor Wilhelm II and all German ruling princes abdicated their positions and responsibilities, marking the beginning of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s new political leadership signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

A political cartoon depicting a chess game between Bismarck and the Catholic Pope.

The Kulturkampf: Tensions between Germany and the Catholic Church hierarchy are depicted in a chess game between Bismarck and Pope Pius IX. Cartoon from 1875.

Political Structure

On December 10, 1870, the North German Confederation Reichstag renamed the Confederation as the German Empire and gave the title of German Emperor to William I, the King of Prussia. The new constitution (Constitution of the German Confederation) and the title Emperor came into effect on January 1, 1871. During the Siege of Paris on January 18, 1871, William accepted to be proclaimed Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

The second German Constitution was adopted by the Reichstag on April 14, 1871, and proclaimed by the Emperor on April 16. It was substantially based upon Bismarck’s North German Constitution. The political system remained the same. The empire had a parliament called the Reichstag, which was elected by universal male suffrage. However, the original constituencies drawn in 1871 were never redrawn to reflect the growth of urban areas. As a result, by the time of the great expansion of German cities in the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century, rural areas were grossly over-represented.

Legislation also required the consent of the Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the 27 states. Executive power was vested in the emperor, or Kaiser, who was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him. The emperor was given extensive powers by the constitution. He alone appointed and dismissed the chancellor (which in practice was used by the emperor to rule the empire through him), was supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces, final arbiter of all foreign affairs, and could disband the Reichstag to call for new elections. Officially, the chancellor was a one-man cabinet and was responsible for the conduct of all state affairs; in practice, the State Secretaries (bureaucratic top officials in charge of such fields as finance, war, foreign affairs, etc.) acted as unofficial portfolio ministers. The Reichstag had the power to pass, amend, or reject bills and initiate legislation. However, as mentioned above, in practice the real power was vested in the emperor, who exercised it through his chancellor.

Although nominally a federal empire and league of equals, in practice the empire was dominated by the largest and most powerful state, Prussia. It stretched across the northern two-thirds of the new Reich, and contained three-fifths of its population. The imperial crown was hereditary in the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling house of Prussia. With the exception of the years 1872–1873 and 1892–1894, the chancellor was always simultaneously the prime minister of Prussia. With 17 out of 58 votes in the Bundesrat, Berlin needed only a few votes from the small states to exercise effective control.

The other states retained their own governments, but had only limited aspects of sovereignty. For example, both postage stamps and currency were issued for the empire as a whole.