Unification of Germany

  • Since 9th century, German states were bound together in a loose political entity known as the Holy Roman Empire.
  • There were hundreds of small states which were under the holy empire. After the fall of Holy Roman Empire in 1806 which was followed by Vienna congress, the question of unification of Germany was raised.
Unification of Germany

Obstacles to Unification

  • Dominant obstacles in the way of German unification were as under :
    • Religious, political, social and economic disparities among German states,
    • Austria’s interference in German problems,
    • Military weakness of most of the German states ,
    • Lack of awakening among the masses, and
    • Interest of foreign powers in German affairs.
  • For example, France was interested in the Roman Catholics of Southern Germany. England had interest in Hanover because the Elector of Hanover, was made ruler of England in 1714. Austria adopted a policy to thwart national unity in Germany so that the Hapsburg Dynasty might dominate.

Factor for slow progress of unification

  • Between 1815 and 1850, the progress of germany’s unification was slow. The following reasons can be attributed for it.
    • Germany had to castaway physical and mental weariness caused by the wars fought against Napoleon.
    • Germany was seething with political disparities. Reactionaries wanted to establish a German empire under the dominance of the Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria. The reformists wanted to organise Germany under the aegis of Prussia, and some others were dreaming of the merger of all states in a federal republic.
    • Metternich adopted a reactionary policy to keep control over Germany.

Causes of German Unification


  • Initially in various states under Prussia, there were many custom areas which were a great stumbling block in flourishing of trade. Prussia had thus remained much behind England in trade and commerce. In 1818, on the initiative of Prussia, a customs union or Zollverein was established consisting of neighbouring states based on the free trade.
  • These Zollverein provided the viable material required for the unification of Germany. It was for the first time that Germany became fiscal and a commercial unit. It helped in uniting Germany in the bonds of mutual economic interests.

Bismarck’s Policy of Blood and Iron

  • Like Italy, the unification of Germany did not take place by popular revolts and mass agitations. Bismarck was the chief architect of German unification. Since the political approach had failed, Bismarck adopted a policy of “blood and Iron” for his plans of unifying Germany.
  • Bismarck was an intelligent politician who had the skill to manipulate political situations and make things to work in his way. By this, Bismarck succeeded in going to war, and defeating all the countries that stood in the way of a united Germany under Prussian rule.

Foreign Policy of Bismarck

  • In the unification of Italy, the diplomacy of foreign policy of Cavour played a pivotal role. But Prussia at that time was a strong state and thus had not to look at foreign states for unification of Germany.
  • The neutrality of foreign powers was enough for Prussia to ensure the unification of Germany. Bismarck diplomatically isolated Austria and concluded favorable treaties with France and Czar of Russia. This proved to be the master stroke of Bismarck’s foreign policy.


  • War with Denmark, Austria and France helped to consolidate territories of Germany into a strongest single state.

Revolution of 1848

  • The Prussian army was one of the most powerful armies of the times. The emergence of Prussia as a strong power coincided with the waves of nationalism. The tide of nationalism led to several revolts, important among them was that of 1848, when the rioters in Berlin forced the Prussian king, Frederick William IV, to call a constitutional convention. The king called a convention to draw the liberal constitution for the kingdom but refused to become a constitutional monarch hence the revolts remained a failure in 1848.

Process of Unification

  • The credit for the growth of nationalism in Germany goes to Napoleon and his rule proved a rule in disguise as he created the Confederation of Rhine which consisted of 30 states. Napoleon had won much of the German area. The 1815 Settlement via the Congress of Vienna led to a formation of loose grouping called the German Confederation and put Germany under the dominance of Austria.
  • This German Confederation was dominated by the two largest states viz. Austro-Hungarian Empire and Prussia. The state of Prussia had several advantages that eventually helped it to forge a strong German state. The population of Prussia was of mainly German speaking, thus the waves of Nationalism actually united Prussia while the Austria-Hungary was tore apart by the ethnic groups.
  • Napoleon was responsible for the interest of intellectuals in German unification because his domination of Germans at will during Napoleonic wars brought wave of nationalistic reaction. This interest was also heightened by the shame of the Germans inability to drive out the French. Most of the states, particularly Prussia remained firmly opposed to Napoleon.
  • In 1864, Bismarck formed an alliance between Prussia and Austria. He declared a war on Denmark and quickly won the two border provinces of Schleswig and Holstein, thus infusing national pride among the Prussians. The other sections of Germany also gave support for unification of the Germany and for Prussia as head of a unified Germany.
  • After the 1864 victory, Prussia governed Schleswig, while Austria controlled Holstein. But, Bismarck wanted to anyhow curtail Austria and win the Holstein so he stirred up border conflicts with Austria. The border conflicts led to Austria to declare a war on Prussia in 1866, which is now known as Seven Weeks War.
  • The Kingdom of Italy participated in the war with Prussia, because Austria held Venetia and other smaller territories wanted by Italy to complete the process of Italian unification. In return for Italian aid against Austria, Bismarck agreed not to make a separate peace until Italy had obtained Venetia.
  • The war resulted in a decisive victory of Prussians over Austria. The Austria lost Venetia to Italy and some other territories including Holstein were taken over by Prussia.
  • In 1867, the remaining states of the north joined a North German Confederation, which Prussia dominated completely. By this time, only a few states of south were independent of Germany.
  • The Franco-Prussian War was manufactured by Bismarck. The most important battle in this war was the Battle of Sedan in which there was a quick Prussian victory and 80,000 men from France including the French Emperor Napoleon III himself were taken as prisoners. Paris did not fall and resisted Prussians for four months but finally hunger forced them to surrender. This was the final phase of the unification of Germany. This marked the completion of German unification. It would not be an exaggeration to say that after the battle “Europe has lost a Mistress (France) and had gained a Master (Germany)”.

Italian and German Unification: A Comparison


  • In both the cases many challenges were similar. Some of them are as follows:
    • Both were divided into many states which were keeping them politically fragmented.
    • In both the cases Austria was the dominant foreign power in the way of process of unification.
    • Award of Congress of Vienna was another roadblock in the way of unification because any attempt for unification was a direct challenge to the order created by the Vienna Congress. Till the time Metternich was in office Vienna order was maintained successfully with only minor adjustments. But after the fall of Metternich and resentment of Russia towards Austria for not supporting her in Crimean war, it created a scenario in which Vienna order could be challenged successfully.
    • Role of Napoleon was also similar in both the cases. With him came the French Revolutionary ideas and when his rule turned despotic , spirit of nationalism emerged in these areas which later were responsible for the success of unification processes in these countries .
    • In both the countries, cultural forces and philosophers played their part by highlighting common elements present in the different parts of the country. Their writings and speeches appealed to the emotions of the masses and worked towards bounding masses in thread of nationalism.
    • In both the cases , one big state took the lead in the unification process. For Italy that state was Piedmont- Sardinia and for Germany that state was Prussia.
    • In both the cases Chief executive played the most prominent role. In case of Italy it was Count Cavour and for Germany it was Otto von Bismarck .
    • In both the cases 1848 revolution failed to bring desired result and leaders of both countries learned from this failed experience which was later used by them for successfully uniting their countries. Both the processes, completed simultaneously with the defeat of France in 1870.


  • In Italy the problem was more intensive since it was an underdeveloped region and resources with the Piedmont were less compared with what Prussia commanded.
  • Presence of the Pope in middle of Italy was also a serious challenge for the cause of Italian unification. Italy also had more diverse culture in different parts of the country which had its disadvantages during unification process.
  • Methods adopted for the unification process were also quite different. Plebiscite and mass revolutions were largely used for uniting Italy but Prussia used wars to unite Germany.
  • Outlook of the process was also quite different. During Italian unification process, liberal and progressive methods were used (plebiscite and mass revolutions) but doctrine of blood and iron was used for German unification.
  • Role played by their kings were also a major difference. During German unification process, Prussian king played less active role but during Italian process king Victor Emmanuel II played much active role. When Cavour was not ready to accept the ground realities after the truce of Villafranca it was Victor Emmanuel who acted pragmatically and stopped Cavour from continuing aggressive designs.
  • Another difference is the number of stages and time span. Italian process took eleven years to complete and had five different stages whereas German process took five years to complete and had two major stages.
  • Outcome of these processes were also quite different. Italy remained weak and largely ineffective to influence the course of international developments whereas Germany emerged as the most powerful nation of the Continental Europe.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments