Unification of Germany (1815-1871)

Unification of Germany:

The credit for the growth of nationalism in Germany goes to Napoleon. His rule in Germany proved to be a blessing in disguise. It is noteworthy that prior to French Revolution Germany was politically the most disunited European country having 300 states. Napoleon paved the way for national unity by creating a ‘confederation of the Rhine‘ in 1806 in which the German states were included, Prussia and Austria being excluded.

After the downfall of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo (1815), the people of Germany hoped that the diplomats of the Congress of Vienna would recognize the national unity of Germany and that they would adopt some effective measures in this context. But on the contrary, the confederation of the Rhine was abolished by the Vienna Settlement. It was replaced by the establishment of the German confederation of thirty-nine states. The Vienna Congress put Germany under the dominance of Austria as a powerless federal state and Austria was dominated by its reactionary Prime Minister, Metternich.

In August 1819, Metternich called a meeting of the leading German states at Carlsbad. There he secured a series of decrees, called Carlsbad Decrees, for the suppression of liberalism throughout the confederation. The whole educational system of Germany was placed under police supervision; the press was subjected to rigid censorship. Finally, a commission was set up at Mainz for the investigation of Secret Societies. The Carlsbad Decrees were the high watermark of Austrian influence in Germany.

Two movements arose which greatly helped the transformation of German States. One was Zollverein and the other was Pan-Germanism. Until the beginning of the 19th century, different tariff systems were in operations in Germany. Under these circumstances, commerce could not flourish and industries could not expand. In 1818 Prussia abolished all internal customs and established free trade. She also established, little by little, a customs union or Zollverein in 1834 which by 1842 included all the German states except Austria. It created a real national unity in economic matters when Germany was politically disunited.

The patriots of German states were deeply inspired by the successful revolution of 1848 in France. The political life of Austria could not remain untouched by the influence of this revolution. Metternich had to resign and he fled to England. The downfall of Metternich was the signal of the end of a system as well as an era of reactionary principles. The people of German states also revolted against the autocratic and reactionary administration of their respective rulers. A fierce revolt took place in Berlin, the capital of Prussia, on March 13, 1848. Under the utmost pressure of the liberal revolutionaries the ruler of Prussia, William IV also agreed to give a liberal constitution after some clashes between his army and the people. He also promised to assume the leadership of the national movement for united Germany.

In May 1848, the German nationalists convened a national parliament with a view to establishing a federation of all Germany and its meeting was held in Frankfurt. The main function of this parliament was to frame a constitution for Germany. The Assembly adopted in December 1848 a Declaration of the Fundamental Rights of the German people. Ultimately, 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. Because of his timid nature, wavering policy, haughtiness and love for conventions, Frederick tumbled the thrown. It shattered the hopes of liberalists and nationalists.

But things took a different turn when, after the death of Frederick William, his brother ascended the throne of Prussia as Kaiser William I. The new king appointed Otto Von Bismarck, a resolute supporter of the monarchy, as his Prime Minister and thereby opened a new chapter in German history. Bismarck fully approved of the king’s plan of army reforms. He held that it was Prussia’s mission to unify Germany and this could be accomplished only by means of war, i.e., by a policy of blood and iron. So, the army was reorganized and improved to play its effective role in the three wars which followed the unification of Germany.

With this improved army, Bismarck encouraged the German population of Schleswig and Holstein to revolt against their ruler Denmark. In 1864, Bismarck joined hands with Austria against Denmark. Denmark was defeated and two Duchies were jointly occupied by Austria and Prussian. By the convention of Gastein in August 1865, Prussia took Schleswig to administer, Austria took Holstein to administer, but the future fate of the Duchies remained a joint responsibility. This degree of Partition left the partnership most uneasy and left ample gap for war with Austria.

Bismarck’s next target was Austria. Prussia decisively defeated Austria in the battle of Sadowa or Koniggratz (1866). The treaty of Prague was concluded between Prussia and Austria on August 23, 1866. According to this treaty, the German Confederation was dissolved after the war and the whole of northern Germany got unified under the domination of Prussia. Prussia gained control of Schleswig and Holstein as well. Bismarck promised the province of Venice to Italy and kept her out of the war. Austria was forced to give Venice to Italy, ending the Austrian control in Italy. He also promised territorial compensation to Napoleon III of France and kept it out of the war. He had already secured Russia’s support by helping them in suppressing a revolt in Russian controlled Poland.

The states of the south were yet to join the union. There were two obstacles in the way of this union. First, the Southern States were jealous of Prussia and were averse to entering a confederation in which Prussia dominated. Second, there was the opposition on the part of France which viewed the rise of the new Prussian power with ill-conceived jealousy. Bismarck’s policy was to overcome these obstacles by a deliberately provoked war against France. He wanted to wage a national war so as to create a national cause that would bind together all the German states- northern as well as southern- in a common bond. This opportunity came in 1869 on the question of succession to the throne of Spain.

The differences between Prussia and France led to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) for which Bismarck was eagerly waiting. French armies were finally defeated in the battle of Sedan (1870). The war came to an end with the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871). The main provisions of the treaty were-

  • King of Prussia was accepted as the ruler of Germany and the Southern State of Germany was to be part of the German Federal Empire.
  • France had to concede the regions of Strassberg, Meize, Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.
  • France was compelled to pay 20 crore pounds as war indemnity within a period of three years. German troops were allowed to stay on the soil of France until the indemnity was paid.

In this way, Bismarck completed the great work of the unification of Germany with his farsightedness, ability and diplomacy. He proved that the problems of the country could be solved only by blood and iron.


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