In this article, I want to walk you through the Unification of Germany for UPSC, World History UPSC Notes.

Nationalism in Europe

The early modern state was coercive machinery designed to make war and to extract resources from society. Yet at the end of the eighteenth century, this machinery came to be radically transformed. Or rather, the ‘state’ was combined with a ‘nation’ forming a compound noun – the ‘nation-state’ – which was organized differently and pursued different goals. A nation, in contrast to a state, constitutes a community of people joined by a shared identity and by common social practices. Communities of various kinds have always existed, but they now became, for the first time, a political concern. As a new breed of nationalist leaders came to argue, the nation should take over the state and make use of its institutional structures to further the nation’s ends. In one country after another, the nationalists were successful in these aims. The nation added an interior life to the state, we might perhaps say; the nation was a soul added to the body of the early modern state machinery.

The Thirty Years’ War, fought throughout central Europe from 1618–1648 between Protestants and Catholics, laid the legal foundation for the nation-state. The war involved many nations of Europe, including many small German states, the Austrian Empire, Sweden, France, and Spain. Despite a brutal war, the Catholics were unable to overturn Protestantism. The treaty that ended the war, called the Peace of Westphalia, decreed that the sovereign ruler of a state had power over all elements of both the nation and the state, including religion. Thus, the modern idea of a sovereign state was born.

In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the rise of nationalism as the basic principle of nation-state got worldwide acceptance. The rise of the modern nation-state in England in which nationalism became coequal with the idea of individual liberties and popular participation in public affairs, the American Revolution 1776 and the French Revolution 1789, gave strength to the concept of nation-state fortified with the spirit and philosophy of nationalism.

Napoleon Bonaparte, however, transformed nationalist sentiments into an expansionist ideology and used his citizen’s army to score victory after victory in Europe and the Middle East. Ultimately, however, he was defeated in 1815 by the forces of nationalism he had helped to awaken.’

The unification of Germany (1864-71) gave further strength to the concept of nationalism as the hallmark of the state. The philosophical foundations of the nation-state received tremendous strength from the ideas of Hegel (1770-1831), the German philosopher.

Unification of Germany

Nationalism is a feeling of unity among a group of people. There are many factors that can contribute to the shared unity. For example, a common language, culture, ethnicity, history, religion, or belief system, as well as other factors, can form this bond. In the early 1800s, about 300 German states existed in central Europe. They had formed a loose union together. The leaders of the different regions held most of the power. Many people in these German states, though, felt a shared identity with each other. By 1871, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, the smaller states formed a single nation called Germany.

Germany before 1815

The Vienna Settlement with regard to Germany was hopelessly disappointing from the point of view of German Liberals and patriots.

They had been hoping for a unified Germany but instead, they got a German Confederation of 39 States. Provision was made for a Federal Diet which was to be presided over by Austria.

The ruler of every state was sovereign within his territory and no wonder the sense of self-preservation forced him to oppose the unification of the country and all those liberal movements which were liable to help the cause of German unification.

In addition to Austria, there were other non-German elements in the Federal Diet. Hanover, which was under England, was included in the German Confederation and given representation. The Duchy of Holstein which was under the King of Denmark was also included in the German Confederation and likewise given representation. These foreign elements could not be expected to throw in their weight in the cause of German unity. The Federal Diet was practically given no power over the various States constituting the German Confederation. Austria was the arbiter of the fate of Germany.

During the early nineteenth century, Prussia and Austria were rivals, this is because Prussia was the only German state that could match the power and influence of the Austrian Empire. They were comparable in terms of size, population, and wealth. Austria opposed the idea of German unification as it saw this as a threat to its own empire. Although they were a minority, there was a significant percentage of German-speakers in the empire. If they broke away to join a unified Germany, Austria would be smaller and weaker.

Unification of Germany

Austria Weakened

In such a scenario Austria weakened due to two main reasons. Austria had lost key allies and was losing influence in Europe.

  • Austria had refused to help Russia in its war against France and Britain (the Crimean War, 1854-56) and lost a major ally as a result.
  • Austria was defeated in a war against the French and northern Italian states. As a result, it had been forced to surrender some territories.

Prussia started to reckon within Europe

Prussia had become the most industrialized state in Germany. She was now a force to be reckoned within Europe.

  • Prussia was producing more key resources such as coal and iron than Austria and it had surged ahead of its rival in building road and rail networks to help promote trade.
  • Prussia had successfully set up an economic alliance (Zollverein) with other German states that made trade between states easier and more profitable.

Zollverein- an invincible force of Unification

When such was the state of affairs in Germany, certain forces helped indirectly the unification of the country. A reference may be made in this connection to the Zollverein or the Customs’ Union. Before 1818, each district in Prussia had its own customs and there were as many as 67 tariff areas in Prussia alone.

These areas stood in the way of trade and unity and consequently, Prussia could not compete with Great Britain. On account of the long line of customs houses, there was a lot of smuggling. In 1818, the Tariff Reforms Law was passed.

  • All raw materials were to be imported free.
  • A duty of 10 percent was to be levied on manufactured goods and 20 percent on “colonial” goods.
  • All internal custom duties were abolished.

The result of the reform of 1818 was that Prussia became a free trade area. Internal trade increased and the revenue of the State also showed a rise.

The law of 1818 applied to Prussia alone, but in course of time many other German States joined Prussia. In 1819, Schwarzburg-Sondershausen joined the Union. In 1822, Weimar Gotha, Merchlenburg-Schwerin, Schaumburg-Lippe, Rudolstadt and Hamburg also joined.

By 1837, most of the States had joined the Zollverein. Whenever the treaties expired they were renewed. Only Hanover, Oldenburg, Mecklenburg, and the Hanse towns remained outside the Zollverein. The main terms of entry into the Zollverein were complete free trade between State and State, the uniform tariff on all frontiers, and net proceeds to be divided in proportion to the population of the States concerned.

To begin with, Austria was completely indifferent to the Zollverein. Metternich did not attach any importance to commerce and consequently ignored the activities of the Zollverein. However, after the overthrow of Metternich in 1848, Austria made a determined effort to join the Zollverein. Prussia resisted the same and was successful. In 1853, a treaty was entered into between the Zollverein and Austria by which certain concessions were given mutually.

The Berlin Revolution of 1848

From 1830 to 1848, there was going on persistent agitation in the smallest States of Germany. The object of the agitation was two-fold, viz., the unification of Germany and the establishment of constitutional and liberal governments in the States. In 1847, a meeting was held and a liberal program was adopted. Agitation was to be carried on for the cancellation of the Carlsbad Decrees. Religious toleration, freedom of the press, and trial by jury were to be guaranteed. Representative Assemblies were to be set up in every State.

As far as Prussia was concerned, there was some trouble in Berlin in March and the King gave a liberal constitution. There was a dash between the people and the troops and ultimately the King of Prussia had to remove the troops from the capital. He also promised to become the leader “of a free and new-born German nation.” It was also decided to call a national parliament to frame a constitution.

It was decided at that meeting to set up a legislature of two houses and one executive head of the Federal Government of Germany.

The details were to be filled up by a Constituent Assembly of Germany to which representatives were to come from all over the country on the basis of one member for 50,000 of the population. This was done and the popular assembly met at Frankfurt.

The Frankfurt Parliament –

The Frankfurt Parliament consisted of about 300 members at the beginning but later on, its membership rose to about 550. The only work done by the Frankfurt Parliament within the first six months was the appointment of a central executive.

Archduke John was selected as the Imperial Vicar of the provisional government. By the Christmas of 1848, the fundamental rights of the people of Germany were agreed upon. Some of those rights were civil and religious equality, freedom of the press, trial by jury, the abolition of special privileges, etc.

There were two schools of thought with regard to the inclusion or exclusion of Austria from Germany.

  • Little Germans- insisted on excluding Austria.
  • Great Germans- in favor of the inclusion of Austria.

Ultimately, the former won, and Austria was excluded. Provision was made for a hereditary king and a German Confederation. The throne of Germany was offered by the Frankfurt Parliament to Frederick William IV of Prussia on 28 March 1849 but the same was rejected on 3 April 1849 Many factors were responsible for his decision.

  • He believed in the Divine Right of Kings and was not prepared to accept the constitution framed by the Frankfurt Parliament.
  • He was temperamentally conservative and was not in sympathy with the aspirations of the Frankfurt Parliament.
  • He was not prepared to be “a serf of the revolution”.
  • He was not prepared to accept “the crown of shame” out of the “gutter”. He might have accepted the throne if the same had been offered to him by the princes, but he refused to accept the same from the people.

Probably, the real reason was that the King of Prussia was not prepared to fight against Austria. By this time, Austria had recovered herself and if the King of Prussia had accepted the throne offered to him by the Frankfurt Parliament, he would certainly have come into conflict with Austria. That would have meant war and the King of Prussia felt that he was not equal to the task.

The failure of the Frankfurt Parliament convinced the Germans that some other method had to be followed to bring about the unification of the country.

Although the King of Prussia refused the throne offered by the Frankfurt Parliament, he tried to unite the German States under his leadership in another way. His minister, Radowitz prepared the draft of a constitution which was to be the basis of the union. Prussia was to be the president of a college of princes and Austria was to be excluded from it.

In March 1850, a German Parliament met at Erfurt However, Schwarzenberg, and the new Chancellor of Austria was determined to establish the Austrian hold over Germany and consequently was not prepared to allow the activities of the King of Prussia to continue. The King of Prussia was forced to surrender by the convention of Olmutz. He agreed to dissolve the “union” and the German Confederation of 1815 was restored.

The policy of Blood & Iron: William I & Bismarck Combination

Frederick William IV became insane in 1857 and his brother, William I, became the Regent. On the death of Frederick William IV in 1861, he became the King of Prussia.

The humiliation of Prussia at the hands of Austria had convinced William I that if Germany was to be liberated, that could be done only if Prussia came to have a very big army. In 1849, he had observed thus “Whoever wishes to rule Germany must conquer it and that cannot be done by phrases.”

It was in these circumstances that Bismarck was appointed the Minister-President of Prussia in 1862. He gave the following assurance to William I “I will rather perish with the king than forsake Your Majesty in the contest with a parliamentary government.”

Bismarck was a “bully and an absolutist.” He had no faith in parliamentary institutions. He believed in autocracy and military force.

The Master Plan

The man who did most to unite the German states was Otto Von Bismarck. He was the Prussian Chancellor and his main goal was to strengthen even further the position of Prussia in Europe. His primary aims were to:

  • Unify the north German states under Prussian control
  • Weaken Prussia’s main rival, Austria, by removing it from the Bund
  • Make Berlin the center of German affairs – not Vienna
  • Strengthen the position of the King of Prussia, William I, to counter the demands for reform from the Liberals in the Prussian parliament (the Reichstag).
Army Reforms

Bismarck wanted to build up Prussia’s army in case his unification plans led to war. To do this he needed money. The Prussian parliament refused to allow money to be raised for Bismarck’s military reforms.

Bismarck ignored the Reichstag and simply collected the money for army reforms through general taxation. He never bothered to obtain permission from the Reichstag.

Congress of Princes 1868 (German Bund)

In 1868, Austria summoned a Congress of the German prince to consider proposals “for the reform of the German Confederation” Prussia was also invited. If the move of Austria had been successful, the Austrian influence in Germany would have continued. Bismarck prevailed upon the King of Prussia not to attend the conference and the latter ended in failure.

Isolating Austria

Bismarck knew Austria was a major obstacle to unification. To succeed in his aims war seemed inevitable. Before he fought the powerful Austrian empire, however, he needed to weaken its position in Europe.

  • Prussia refused to help Poland when it rebelled against Russian control. Bismarck then formed a powerful alliance with Russia.
  • Bismarck then formed another key alliance with France. In a meeting with Napoleon III, he promised to support France in its plans to invade and control Belgium.
  • Bismarck also struck a deal with Italy. Italy promised to help Prussia in any war against Austria, providing Austria were the aggressor and Italy gained Venezia in return.

Schleswig-Holstein 1864 – 65 and the Seven Weeks War

German states annexed by Prussia 1866

German states annexed by Prussia 1866

Bismarck got his excuse for a war against Austria during a territorial dispute over two small German states, Schleswig and Holstein. These were under the control of Denmark but not technically a part of it.

  • In 1863, the King of Denmark declared Schleswig and Holstein to be a part of Denmark.
  • In 1864, Prussia and Austria teamed up and declared war on Denmark. They won easily.
  • Bismarck then engineered a treaty with Austria (the Treaty of Gastein) which he knew was unlikely to work. Prussia was to control Schleswig and Austria would control Holstein. This treaty was designed to provoke since Austrians would have to go through a hostile Prussia to reach Holstein.
  • The Austrians tried to use their influence in the German Bund to pressure Prussia to address the Schleswig-Holstein issue.
  • The Bund backed Austria in the dispute over Schleswig-Holstein.
  • In response, Prussia said that the Bund was invalid, declared war on Austria, and invaded the German states of Hanover, Hesse, and Saxony.
  • The Austrians were quickly defeated by the Prussian army during the Seven Weeks War, with the help of Italy.
The Treaty of Prague

North German Confederation 1867 – 1871

German empire 1867 - 1871

Bismarck’s plan to isolate Austria was working. As a result of the Seven Weeks War:

  • Prussia kept all the territories it had captured.
  • A North German Confederation was set up under the control of Prussia.
  • A federal Diet (parliament) was established for the states in this North German Confederation. The Diet would be elected and each state could keep its own laws and customs.
  • The southern German states formed their own independent confederation.
  • Austria promised to stay out of German affairs.
  • Austria paid compensation to Prussia but did not lose land to it. Prussia did not want to weaken Austria too much since it might be a useful ally in the future against Prussia’s enemies.

Isolating France

With Austria weakened, Bismarck now turned his attention to the other great stumbling block to unification – the French. France had watched Prussia’s growing power with alarm. As he had with Austria, Bismarck tried to weaken France as much as possible before the war started.

  • Officially, Russia was an ally of France but Bismarck used diplomacy to make sure Russia stayed out of the upcoming war.
  • Bismarck also made sure Italy stayed neutral and wouldn’t fight for France.
  • Bismarck gambled that the British would stay out of the war since it didn’t want France to become any more powerful than it already was.

Franco Prussian war 1870 – 71

Bismarck found his excuse for war when Spain offered its vacant crown to a relative of the Prussian King, William I.

  • France was outraged since it didn’t want Prussia to become more powerful. The French insisted King William makes his relative refuse the crown. King William refused to guarantee this.
  • Bismarck used the King’s refusal as a way to provoke the French. He published a heavily edited and provocative telegram, known as The Ems Telegram, of the King’s refusal, making it seem he had insulted the French ambassador. The French Emperor, responding to fury from the French press and public, declared war on Prussia.

In the Franco-Prussian war, France was heavily defeated and its ruler, Napoleon III, was overthrown by a French rebellion.

Unification achieved: German Empire 1871.

german empire

In the build-up to war, the southern confederate German states voluntarily joined the Prussiancontrolled Northern German Confederation. Germany was now unified.

The Treaty of Frankfurt

As a result of the Franco-Prussian war, France lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine on its border with Germany. It also had to pay Germany £200 million in compensation. A new imperial constitution was set up within the now unified German states, with William I as Emperor (Kaiser) and Prussia firmly in control.

Summary – Bismarck’s Contribution to Unification

  • Economic co-operation meant that unification may have happened eventually anyway, but Bismarck made sure that it happened.
  • He made sure that the army reforms took place.
  • He successfully isolated other countries by making them look like aggressors.
  • He made Prussia appear to be the defender of the German states and protector of their rights.

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