Modern World History

German Unification

Unification of Germany

The emergence of a unified German Empire in 1871 was one of the most significant developments of the 19th century European history. The emergence of this unified German empire opened a new chapter in European history and character of the European politics was completely transformed. The emergence of unified Germany was not the result of any sudden development but it was the culmination of a long process that continued for more than the decades and number of internal and external factors played important role in the process of unification. In the pre Napoleon era, Germany was a part of Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of Austria was the political head of this empire and Pope was the religious head. This empire consisted of Austria, Prussia and more than 300 smaller German states. Germany was just a geographical entity at the time of beginning of 19th century. The military campaigns of Napoleon initiated large-scale changes in Germany. He defeated the absolute monarchs of Austria and Prussia on number of occasions. Napoleon swept aside the feudal elements from Germany successfully and in this way his military successes weakened the foundation of all reactionary elements in Germany. Napoleon propagated the idea of French Revolution of 1789 in Germany. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity were in accordance with the urges and aspirations of common masses. These ideas left deep impact on the minds of German people. Napoleon initiated political and economic reforms in Germany. It initiated the process of economic growth and freed the common masses from the exploitation of the old order. The treaty of Pressburg (December 1805) imposed on Austria and Prussia after their defeat in the battle of Austerlitz also initiated a number of important changes in Germany. By this treaty the holy roman empire was dissolved and this gradually weakened the Austrian influence over other states of Germany.Napolean carried out territorial reorganization of Germany and more than 300 smaller states of Germany were amalgamated to form the Rhine Confederation of the States.

German Unification

This territorial reorganization carried out by Napoleon was one of his most important contributions to the cause of German unification. Napoleon developed new means of communication in German lands and new roads were constructed for the benefit of economy and fulfilling military objectives. This communication networks also contributed to the cause of German unification by bringing the people living in difficult areas closer. When the Napoleon’s rule turned despotic during later stages the spirit of German nationalism emerged and this German nationalism also contributed significantly in the process of German unification. In 1815 the German students established Burschenshaft organization to arouse and strengthen the spirit of nationalism among masses in Germany. This organization was aimed at highlighting the common elements of various German cultures and to inculcate the consciousness about the common heritage of whole of German land. The student organization was inspired by the liberal ideas of French Revolution and because of this it was against the hereditary despotic rule. In 1870 the German student organization organized popular demonstration at Wartburg to demand liberal administrative reforms. The popular reactions emerged in various parts of Germany simultaneously. But Metternich suppressed these demonstrations ruthlessly. The German philosophers like Harder, Fitche and Hegel etc. also played important role in the growth of popular awakening in Germany and prepared an intellectual environment for the cause of German unification. German historians and poets also contributed to the cause of German unification by highlighting the common elements of German culture and by retracing the roots of diverse regional cultures of Germany to one single point of origin.


Till the second decade of the 19th century each of German state levied customs and exercise duties as they pleased. Due to this trade and commerce of Germany remained weak. In 1819 Prussia settled customs pact with small state Schworjberg – Schwoshen and inaugurated custom union called Zollverein.By the end of 1834 all the German states except Austria became part of Zollverein.This resulted in economic unification in Germany and some extent subdued the local feeling and replaced it with wider and stronger element of German nationality. It proved to be an important step towards the political unification of German states. The economic policy of Zollverein sprouted from the concept of economic nationalism. The Prussian monarch Fredric William III stressed upon the expansion of railways because mutual exchange of things was expected to bring about unity in Germany. Austria failed to understand the importance of Zollverein in the beginning. The success of Zollverein and Austria’s estrangement from that customs union resulted in the abolition of political obstacles caused by the pressure of economic forces among the German states. The establishment of Zollverein paved the way for the political unification of Germany under the leadership of Prussia.

February Revolution of 1848

TFrench Revolution of February 1848 and Metternich’s downfall in Vienna resulted in uprisings in various states of Germany. The followers of nationalism and democracy started their struggle against despotic and reactionary rulers in various states such as Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Baden. Revolutionaries met with success in the beginning. Lawful monarchy was established in most of the German states. Constitutional rule and individual liberty were approved. In April 1848 in response to popular demands, the diet of the German confederation at Frankfurt decided to hold elections for a German National Assembly to devise a new federal government of the whole of Germany. Popular elections were held in which the liberals obtained a large majority. The new assembly met at Frankfurt in May 1848.The Assembly proclaimed a national German empire and proceeded with the work of drafting a constitution. It was assumed by the liberals that the new Germany would be a federation and that the central government would be monarchical and parliamentary. The parliament drafted the constitution of the federation in 1849 and decided to raise the ruler of Prussia to the glory of the German Emperor. But Frederick William IV declined the offer. He feared that other German states might feel jealous of him. So he refused the imperial crown. It shattered the hopes of liberalists and nationalists. Thus the work of the Frankfurt Assembly failed. The liberals protested and tried to dethrone princes and set up republics in various parts of Germany. But these were speedily suppressed by the Prussian troops. The collapse of the revolutionary movement of 1849 was a great disappointment to the liberals of Germany.

Bismarck and German unification

Bismarck was elected a member of the joint Prussian Diet and got an opportunity becoming a member of the National Assembly and the Constitutional Assembly. In 1851,the Emperor appointed Bismarck as a representative of Prussia for the Frankfurt assembly where he represented Prussia for eight years. He got awakened to the reality that the cooperation of Prussia and Austria was not possible, as Austria did not place Prussia on an equal footing. He learnt from his experience that Prussia could not become the sound foundation of Germany without defeating Austria. In 1859, Bismarck was sent to St. Petersburg as an ambassador. Bismarck wanted only specific kind of German unification under the leadership of Prussia by expelling Austria from the German Federation. He ensured that Prussia did not lose its entity on the altar of Germany’s unification. He was not prepared to sacrifice Prussia but desires to merge Germany into Prussia. After becoming the chancellor of Prussia, Bismarck carried forward his scheme of military reforms ruthlessly. He was convinced that the powers of Europe would never tolerate Germany’s unification because a powerful unified Germany might prove dangerous for the balance of power in Europe. Therefore he planned to increase the military strength of Prussia. When the liberal parliament did not pass the necessary legislations for implementing the reforms, he got the budget approved by the Upper House only and arranged the required money to execute the reforms. From 1862-1866 he got the budget approved by the upper house only. He gave top priority to the cause of the state even at the cost of neglecting the prevailing law. Refuting the ideals of liberalists, Bismarck said that Germany was looking towards the power of Prussia rather than her liberalism. The military reforms introduced by Bismarck transformed Prussian army into one of the most powerful armies of Europe. Bismarck used his diplomacy to isolate Austria and to ensure the neutrality of other major powers of Europe.

The creation of the German Empire by Bismarck’s blood and iron method, its autocratic constitution despite the establishment of universal male suffrage and its strong handed leadership first by the Iron Chancellor and then by Kaiser Wilhelm II guaranteed that the German Empire would be an enlarged Prussia. The German Empire possessed powerful army, a large energetic and disciplined population and rapidly growing industrial sector, a fervent and restless national spirit. Bismarck ruled over his creation as chancellor for almost 20 years. His first concern after the defeat of France and the declaration of the empire in 1870-71 was to complete the consolidation and nationalization of the German states and people. The law codes, the currencies and the military forces of the 25 lessor states were brought into conformity with those of Prussia. Banking and railroads were placed under control of the national government. The empire’s industry was protected against British competition by a high tariff. The French in Alsace-Lorraine, the Danes in Schleswig and more than 3 million poles in the eastern districts were pressured to give up their language and tradition.

Two other groups in Germany excited Bismarck’s suspicion and wrath were the Roman Catholics and socialists. Any German who had a foreign loyalty was intolerable to Bismarck. From 1872-1878 Bismarck waged a political power struggle with the Roman Catholics that came to be called the Kulturkampf (battle for civilization). The Jesuits were expelled, civil marriage was made compulsory and all education including that of Roman Catholic priests was brought under state control and largely secularized. When the Roman Catholic clergy and most of the laity that constituted approx. one third of the total German population resisted and rallied to the pope, hundreds of priests and six bishops were arrested. The Roman Catholic Centre party in the Reichstag became stronger and by 1878 Bismarck wanted its support for struggle against greater enemy Socialists. In 1878 upon the succession of more conciliatory pope, Leo XIII, Bismarck went to Canossa and had the most severe of the anti-Catholic legislation repealed. In the same year he began 12-year crusade against the internationally acclaimed socialists. He outlawed their publications, their organizations and meetings and drove them underground. In 1880s Bismarck sought to undercut the socialists appeal to the working class by setting up a comprehensive system of social insurance. His measures gave impetus to a trend toward state responsibility for social security. Bismarck’s foreign policy after 1871 was one of security and retrenchment. He maintained close military alliance with Austria- Hungary and cordial relations with Russia and Great Britain. In 1873 Bismarck formed the Three Emperor’s League among Germany, Austria- Hungary and Russia. When the interests of Austria- Hungary and Russia proved to be incompatible this league was replaced in 1879-82 by the Triple Alliance among Germany, Austria- Hungary and Italy. A separate reinsurance treaty of friendship and neutrality was made with Russia.

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