The Unification of Germany

The dream of the Unification of Germany into one single nation-state finally came true on 18 January 1871 at the Palace of Versailles in France. Many factors contributed to the realization of this dream, which was the desire of many 19th-century Germans, and it took decades of preparation to make it a reality. Since 843 there had been no single German empire or state, and the German-speaking population of central Europe lived in several German states. During the 19th century, along with the rest of the nationalist movements in Europe, German nationalism emerged and matured. Perhaps its starting point is located immediately after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the contribution of the German states to the defeat of Napoleon. A clear demand for the unification of Germany was first expressed by the German people during the revolutions of 1848 in the German states, Austria and Prussia (for more here and here). But the person who would finally manage to unite Germany was Otto von Bismarck (for more here). Through a series of intelligent diplomatic maneuvers and wars, this Prussian chancellor with the iron first completed the unification of Germany in 1871. In this article the German unification will be discussed step by step.

18 January 1871: The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. 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.
18 January 1871: The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. 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 (1).

The Roots of the German Unification

Before referring to the first step of the geographical unification of Germany, some events of the European 19th century should be described very briefly. Initially, after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon in 1806, about 40 German-speaking states emerged. As mentioned, the starting point of the rise of German nationalism is located in the period of the final fall of Napoleon. In the Battle of Leipzig, for example, in October 1813, many Germans from Bavaria, Saxony, Austria, Prussia and other German-speaking regions fought against Napoleon. In this way a common German national feeling began to emerge. Still, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (for more here), at which Europe was reorganized after the Napoleonic Wars, many nationalist demands of the peoples of Europe were ignored. Among them was the demand for the establishment of a united German state, a demand characteristic of "Pan-Germanism". The German Confederation was founded instead as an attempt to replace the Holy Roman Empire.


One institution that was key to unifying the German states was the Germans Customs Union, or Zollverein. The Zollverein was founded in 1818 by the Prussian Finance Minister and helped to create a larger sense of economic German unification. Gradually all German states became members of this union except Austria. More intensively than ever, the demand for the unification of Germany was expressed by the supporters of Liberalism and Nationalism during the period of the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe. One of the main statements of liberalism of that period was the existence of nation states. The demand for unification was one of the main topics of discussion at the Frankfurt National Assembly in March 1848. Unfortunately, the creation of a German nation-state was not achieved, because Prussia carried through its own political intentions and because of the Prussian-Austrian conflict over the leadership of the German nation. Finally, Bismarck's rise to power in 1862, and in particular to the chancellery, was perhaps the most important development towards German unification. Bismarck's unwavering conviction was the creation of a unified German state under Prussian rule and not under Austrian rule. Therefore, he carefully planned his moves to this direction (Lindemann, 2012/2014).

Germania, wall fresco, St. Pauls Church, Frankfurt am Main, designed to cover the organ during the Frankfurt Assembly/Parliament, 1848-49.
Germania, wall fresco, St. Pauls Church, Frankfurt am Main, designed to cover the organ during the Frankfurt Assembly/Parliament, 1848-49 (2).

First Step: War Against Denmark

To get the German states to unify, Bismarck quickly understood that he needed a single, outside enemy on whom he would declare war and rally all Germans together against. His first victim was Denmark, as he presumed upon the Schleswig-Holstein question. This was where, in November 1863, the Danish king signed a new constitution which applied to the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg, as parts of the Danish Kingdom. The German Confederation saw this act as a violation of the London Protocol of 1852, which emphasized the status of the Kingdom of Denmark as distinct from the three duchies. Holstein and Lauenburg were mainly German, while Schleswig had a significant Danish population. Diplomatic attempts to have the new constitution repealed collapsed, and fighting between Prussians, Austrians and Danes began in February 1864. The Danes were no match for the combined Prussian and Austrian forces. This resulted in victory for the Germans, and the two countries won control of Schleswig and Holstein in the concluding peace of Vienna, signed in October 1864. Prussia annexed Schleswig and Austria Holstein (Holt, 1917).


Second Step: War Against Austria

The second of Bismarck's victims was Austria. In 1866, Bismarck created a diplomatic environment in which Austria declared war on Prussia. The dramatic prelude to the war occurred in Frankfurt, where the two powers claimed to speak for all the German states in the parliament. The mobilization of armed forces began in May. Italy joined the conflict against Austria, as an ally of Prussia. Italians hoped to gain Venice from Austria in case of a Prussian victory. Bavaria, Württemberg, the grand duchies of Baden and Hesse, Saxony, and Nassau acted against the war within the German Confederation. The Prussian war cabinet understood that it had no supporters among the German states against the Habsburgs and understood that Prussia's only ally abroad was Italy. Opposition to Bismarck’s strong-arm tactics rose among the German states. They realized that they would benefit from a unified state and opposed war between Prussia and Austria.

Although several German states initially sided with Austria, they stepped aside. The Austrian army therefore faced the technologically superior Prussian army with support only from Saxony. Complicating the situation for Austria, they had to split its forces to face also Italy. The battle of Königgrätz in July 1866 was a decisive victory for Prussia and forced the Austrians to end the war. The possibility of establishing a German state without Austria was more probable than ever.

Bismarck and his tactics were fully effective. Prussia annexed Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau, and the city of Frankfurt. Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria signed separate treaties bringing them into Prussia's sphere of influence. Austria, and most of its allies, was excluded from the German Confederation, now North German Confederation. Through military victory, Prussia, under Bismarck's influence, had overcome Austria's active resistance to the idea of a unified Germany (Sheehan, 1989).

Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870 by  Wilhelm Camphausen in 1878.
Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870 by Wilhelm Camphausen in 1878 (3).

Third Step: War Against France

As referred to above, Bismarck only needed one external enemy, who would declar war on the Germans. With skillful manipulation of European politics, Bismarck created a situation in which France would play the role of the aggressor, while Prussia would play that of the protector of German rights and liberties. Prussia was clearly alone among the German states in being capable of protecting all of them from potential interference or aggression. In 1866, most mid-sized German states had opposed Prussia, but by 1870 these states had signed mutually protective alliances with Prussia. If a European state declared war on one of their members, then all would come to the defense of the attacked state.


The opportunity that Bismarck was looking for was given to him through a problem that arose regarding the succession of the Spanish throne. During Napoleon's talks with Wilhelm, Bismarck, through diplomatic tricks, made France feel offended by the attitude of the Prussian king. The French public demanded war.


Napoleon III hoped that Austria, Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria would join in a war of revenge against Prussia, but France engaged in a war against all of the German states without any allies of its own. The speed of Prussian mobilization astonished the French. Utilizing their efficient railroads, Prussian troops were delivered to battle areas well rested and prepared to fight, whereas French troops had to march for considerable distances to reach combat zones. After a number of battles, the Prussians defeated the French armies and advanced on Paris. They captured Napoleon III and took an entire army as prisoners at Sedan on September 1st, 1870.


On January 18th, 1871, Prussian Wilhelm was proclaimed Kaiser (Emperor in German) in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. According to the treaty of Frankfurt, France lost Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine, and paid an indemnity to the Germans. Bismarck became a national hero (Berstein and Milza, 1992/1997).

The unified German Empire after the three consecutive wars of Bismarck. The map shows its individual states and the provinces of Prussia.
The unified German Empire after the three consecutive wars of Bismarck. The map shows its individual states and the provinces of Prussia (4).

Conclusion: Forging an Empire

Bismarck proved that through diplomatic maneuvering, a skillful leader could create an environment in which a rival state would declare war first, thus forcing states allied with the apparent "victim" of external aggression to come to the leader's aid.


Victory in the Franco-Prussian War was the capstone of the issue of nationalism. In the first half of the 1860s, Austria and Prussia both maintained they could support German interests abroad and at home. After the victory over Austria in 1866, Prussia began internally asserting its authority to speak for the German states. The French defeat of 1871 expanded Prussian hegemony in the German states to an international level. With the proclamation of Wilhelm as Kaiser, Prussia assumed the leadership of the new German Empire. The southern states became officially incorporated into a unified Germany at the treaties of Versailles and Frankfurt. Bismarck had led the transformation of Germany from a loose confederation into a federal nation state and Empire. However, Einheit (unity in German) was achieved at the expense of Freiheit (freedom in German) (Wawro, 2003). The German Empire may not have had the liberal and democratic regime that the German Liberals hoped for in the mid-19th century, but it was now a single nation state. Of course, Prussian rule over unified Germany also came at a great cost, as seven million German-speaking Austrians were left out of Germany because of Bismarck's diplomacy. To this day, Germany and Austria may be two different countries because of Bismarck.


Image Sources

  1. Werner, A. (1885). The proclamation of the German Empire. [Painting]. Bismarck Museum, Friedrichsruh, Germany. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_v_Werner_-_Kaiserproklamation_am_18_Januar_1871_(3._Fassung_1885).jpg

  2. Veit, p. (1848). Germania, wall fresco, St. Pauls Church, Frankfurt am Main. [Painting]. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Image_Germania_(painting).jpg

  3. Camphausen, W. (1878). Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870 [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BismarckundNapoleonIII.jpg

  4. The Map of Imperial Germany (1871-1918). [Map]. Retrieved from: https://kids.kiddle.co/Image:Map-deutsches-kaiserreich.png

References

  • Lindemann, A. S. (2014). A History of Modern Europe - From 1815 to the Present. (G. Christidis Trans.). Athens: Kritiki. (Original work published 2012). pp. 162-166.

  • Holt, A. W. (1917). The History of Europe from 1862–1914: From the Accession of Bismarck to the Outbreak of the Great War. New York: MacMillan. p. 75.

  • Sheehan, J. (1989). German History 1770–1866. Oxford History of Modern Europe. Oxford, Oxford University Press. p. 910.

  • Berstein, S. & Milza, P. (1997). History of Europe, the European Agreement and the Europe of Nations 1815-1919, (A. K. Dimitrakopoulos, Trans.). Athens: Alexandria (Original work published 1992). pp. 130-141.

  • Wawro, G. (2003). The Franco-Prussian War, The German Conquest of France in 1870–1871. Cambridge University Press. p. 302.

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Miltos Spiratos

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