The Wars of German Unification (1805-1871)

The Germanic states of what is commonly referred to as Germany today were not unified as one state after the Napoleonic wars. The vast areas west of the Danube were mostly individual states with their own government and proud autonomy, in the north and south of central Europe. The status had been the same during the Holy Roman Empire and would remain the same until the Confederation of Germany was formed.

Complications would arise after the defeat of the Austrians under Francis II, when his army lost the war against Napoleon I in 1805, and was forced to concede several German states to France which became Napoleons  Confederation of the Rhine, a puppet state of Napoleons First French Empire.

As Napoleon’s Army became weaker and with the final surrender of France at the end of the Seventh and final War of the Coalitions, the map of central Europe would change through several complicated associations, between Austria and the Bavarian-Prussian states and the Russian Empire of Nicholas I.


The Wars of German Unification (1805-1871)

The Wars of German Unification (1805-1871)

Also Read: Britain and Europe in the 19th Century

The end of the Napoleonic wars and the abdication of the Austrian Emperor Francis II bringing with it an end to the Holy Roman Empire, would mean that many smaller states would maintain their own autonomy, which they were very proud of. Their weakness however, lay in their inability to adequately defend themselves from the Major Powers.


Austria and the German States

Austria had always been a single and uncomplicated State, with part of its territory bordering the German states as well as Poland and other states in North-eastern Europe. The German states were partly in the old Holy Roman Empire and partly outside it. Prussia too was a large state with part centrally located and part Eastern European territory, namely East Prussia.

During the period of the Confederation of the Rhine, citizens of the smaller German states would refuse to deal with or speak French so German became  the predominant language. These states after French domination, were divided by Religion, economics and politics.

During and after the Congress of Vienna in Austria, the German states had their autonomy assured by the Concert of Europe, ensuring that no single power in Europe would become all domineering, thus a balance of power was installed.

Klemens von Metternich the Austrian diplomat, was instrumental in ensuring the balance of power was maintained. The Vienna Congress would give Prussia the Rhine land, whilst Austria gained territory in Northern Italy but lost any territories in the Netherlands.

The German Confederation was formed and lead by the confederation President and the Emperor of Austria, where some borders were in Prussia, but not all of Prussia and some were also in Russia. The German Confederation would not by intent, be considered another Holy Roman Empire, under a different name.

The German Confederation was a fairly loose association, but not as strong as Russia and France. Prussia was keen on German state unification for the smaller German speaking states, as a means of protection to prevent a repeat of Napoleons aggression. Prussia being the largest state would be in charge, creating The Zollverein, a centralized trade and commerce network between it and the smaller states before unification.

This was not just for the purposes of trading networks, with the removal of trading tariffs, a standardized currency, and the influence of Prussia, the bigger or greater state was its aim, with Prussia at that time, the biggest state. Austria was excluded in the Zollverein, as this might create an economic imbalance on the larger Prussian state.

Throughout the nineteenth century liberal ideas were spreading throughout Europe, which included the removal of the monarchies from political governance, a democratic autonomous government, democratic political representation, and freedom of speech.

In Austria von Metternich repressed these reforms, through restrictions and prosecution. The conservative measures by von Metternich, were reacted to by the population with riots in several state capitals in 1848. Von Metternich’s restrictions were soon removed in Austria, but he was forced to resign his position and fled to England.

In Prussia, Prince Wilhelm used cannon shot to quell the riots, he would be nicknamed the ‘Prince of Grapeshot’ by the citizens. Prussian Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV, agreed grudgingly to the formation of a parliament to assist him with legislation. The liberals in parliament promoted these changes by advocating that such legislation could only be implemented effectively through the unification of the German states.

The resistance to restrictions implemented by von Metternich would die down by 1849, but the calls for a unified state would carry on.  The titles for a unified state ranged from a Klein (small) Deutschland and on reflection a Gross (Greater)Deutschland. The variations were based on the Northern Sates and Austrian parts of Germany (Gross - Larger) which spoke German and the non-Austrian States which did not, (Klein).

The idea of a unified state with a shared linguistic and cultural collective Nationalism, would be better served under a single state, for homogenously grounded states like Italy and Germany, this made sense, unlike Austria and Russia which were ethnically and linguistically diverse. Examples such as the Hungarians breaking away from Austria in 1848, made  the Austrians more opposed to a unified Germany as they would not be in charge.

Austria was not the only state to disagree, both France and Russia were concerned for a unified German state, Austria tried to use Russian pressure on Prussia not to unify the (Klein) German states. Austria’s association with Russia ended, when they refused to help Russia during the Crimean War in 1854.

Austria was defeated by France and Sardinia, thus losing its territory in Northern Italy. Prussia also grew economically whilst Austria was weakening, Prussia used its natural resources, such as coal and iron to strengthen its economic base and was able to export these during the collective Zollverein agreement.

In 1861 Friedrich Wilhelm died and was succeeded by his brother, Wilhelm I. He (the Prince of Grapeshot), appointed Otto van Bismarck as the First Minister-President of Prussia. Bismarck was a shrewd and ironed willed politician. His first policies were to unify the German Northern states and exclude Austria. He would enhance the prestige of the Prussian king and strengthen the Prussian Military.

The first conflict broke out in 1864, when the Danish king Christian IX, declared the Northern German states of Schleswig and Holstein as Danish states. Holstein was part of the German Confederation. Both states had German speaking citizens and were part of the Zollverein Agreement. Prussia and Austria declared war on the Danish king, the encounter lasted a day, with Prussia receiving Schleswig and Austria Holstein. Austria was not happy with the outcome as Holstein was part of the Zollverein, forcing Austria to go through Prussia to reach Holstein.

Bismarck knew that conditions of Austria having to access Holstein through Prussia would lead to war between the two nations. He needed to isolate Austria to avoid a war, by making a defensive pact with the kingdom of Italy, for this purpose, he offered the province of Benito near northern Italy, taken from Austria.

The Austrians would respond by indicating a willingness to mediate, von Bismarck retorted that Austria was treating Prussia as enemies and refused to mediate. In reaction, France and Russia wanted the two states to be kept neutral to avoid another war.

Prussian troops marched into Holstein in June 1866. Austria declared war and was supported by other Confederation states against Prussia. Prussia received support from the Italian states who mobilized on their border, declaring war five days later.

Another short conflict ensued which Prussia won within two months, Prussian modern weaponry gave them the edge during the battle over the Austrians. The Austrians faired better against the Italians, but with their losses against Prussia, Austria soon ended the conflict.

Prussia having won, annexed all the northern states, not all of whom ere initially in the Confederation, but were a now included as part of Prussia, and the German Confederation. Austria was forced to concede Benito, a small state along the North Eastern coastline, but because the war was not lost with Italy, conceded this to France who in turn gave Benito back to Italy !

France having seen Prussia’s steady rise, had been concerned previously about the German Confederation, and did not anticipate Prussia’s sudden position of Strength. In 1870, Price Leopold, Wilhelm’s cousin, was offered the vacant Spanish crown. France objected as the French monarch Napoleon III did not want Northern Confederation powers with Prussia to gain the Spanish as an ally. He sent a telegram to Leopold urging him to decline the Spanish crown, Wilhelm answered directly to Napoleon, stating that he would review and refer back to France.

Through political game playing, Wilhelm sent the telegram to von Bismarck who edited the contents and published his version, to make it look like a rebuttal of Napoleon III’s objection. This made France look weak. France having received the response, declared war on Prussia.


The Franco-Prussian War(1870-71)

Having declared war, France was seen as the aggressor, Wilhelm and von Bismarck would receive the support of the Confederation Southern states. The stronger German Confederation states crossed the French border, heading for Paris, French forces were weaker in number than their Confederation enemies, they were pushed back and defeated, the result was the encirclement and siege of Paris. Napoleon and the French Congress did not surrender immediately, Paris remained surrounded and under siege, although the French army tried to relieve the Prussian ring around Paris without success.

Several months would pass without a resolution, Paris suffering shortages of food and other amenities. The Prussian and Confederation forces tightened their encirclement allowing no relief for the city’s occupants, Parisians resorted to consuming horses, cats and dogs. A French counter revolution would also occur within France, supposedly on the lines of the 1789 Revolution, but this was half hearted with an attitude of if not, why not.

The mini revolution did however destabilize Napoleon III reign, which ushered in the Third French Republic. When von Bismarck threatened to bring up heavy siege artillery on Paris, Napoleon gave in and surrendered to von Bismarck on 18th of Jan 1871. Napoleon would have to pay a reparation to Von Bismarck and Wilhelm, with the small provinces of Alsace and Lorraine on the German border ceded to Germany.

At the Treaty of Versailles, France officially signed the surrender, ending French military dominance in Europe. It was also  the venue where Wilhelm I was crowned Emperor of the new German Empire during the signing of the treaty, the official act of Unification of the German Confederation, the united Empire of Germany. Von Bismarck in true ‘Iron Chancellor’ fashion, which would become his nick name, conceded no territories to France at Versailles.

The extent of Germany as an Empire was based on the smaller Confederation states that could not protect themselves before unification, essentially being under the control of the larger and more powerful Prussian state, except for the tiny state of Liechtenstein.

It is certain that Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf - culture struggle, and its application, was all part of the greater German state. He viewed the world from a more forward thinking unified policy, small autonomous states were completely outdated. German Empire nationalism, pride and power would be transmitted by Otto von Bismarck via his new realpolitik, stronger state economic and diplomatic power without a separate democratic structure and system, a one politician state at one level and a monarch on the other.

Modern industrialization and technology, political restructuring as mentioned in the new parliament, by the liberal politicians, a parliament that was grudgingly instituted by the 1st Prussian monarch Wilhelm IV, had indicated that unification was necessary in the future.

The old German Northern and Southern Confederation states were religiously different. The protestant Lutheran church was prominent, especially in Bismarck’s view and policy, the Southern states were mostly Catholic. The power of the Catholic church in government was the key issue in the Kulturkampf in Bismarck’s view of unified Germany.

He had Catholic Bishops arrested on mass and Catholic institutions silenced, but the Catholic church ultimately persevered. The move was not to replace the religious structure with the protestant church, but to remove the church from political power and influence.

A new Austro-Hungarian alliance was formed with the German Empire, brokered by von Bismarck, also gaining some African colonies. The German Empire would grow in strength, industrially, Germany literally changed overnight in 1877, becoming a very powerful state with overseas colonies.

In 1884, von Bismarck called a conference of several close European nations governments in Berlin to discuss the carving up of Africa amongst the Major European powers. Von Bismarck at this time had long been setting up agreements with many states in Europe, but deliberately excluded France from such negotiations, with the intent of isolating Paris in central Europe.

Germany’s population would increase exponentially alongside sustained industrial power and prosperity. France too would also see an industrial and economic boom during the 1870’s.



The balance of power in Europe would change after 1815, over 30 years. The old kingdoms of Austria, Russia and France would no longer be able to control politics and progression to suit the old status quo’s. The Unification of the German states would be a positive one from the outset but would become destructive in a literal repeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s French First Empire. The monarchs in Europe still held sway right to the end of the 19th century and into the early twentieth century. As for Britain, they preferred to stay out of European mainland politics after the Crimean War, concentrating more on its colonial empire.

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