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Age of Realism

The Unification
of Germany

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The mid-19th century saw turmoil in both Europe and North America. Europe was swept by a series of revolutions between 1848 and 1850, and soon thereafter a series of international wars erupted which changed the map of the continent.


First, Sardinia went to war against Austria (twice), leading to the eventual unification of Italy. France, England and Sardinia went to war against Russia, a campaign waged solely on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea.

Prussia waged war against Austria and then against France, leading to the unification of Germany and the establishment of a major new power on the continent. In the meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic, the southern states went to war with the north in an attempt to secede from the United States.

We concern ourselves here with one of these issues, namely the Unification of Germany. Between 1848 and 1871 the democratic and socialist movements would take a back seat in Europe as nationalism would take command and completely change the face of the continent. By 1871 Germany would not only be a united state but would have been established as a new and powerful empire.

Italy too would have achieved unification. France would have gone through the trials of the 2nd Republic, become a 2nd Empire and then, because of a catastrophic war with Germany which spurred yet another revolution, became a republic for the third time since 1792. Europe would never be the same again. Ultimately the nationalistic fervour that resulted from these turbulent years would inflame the continent and bring about the Great War of 1914.


The Congress of Vienna had retained the 39 states of Germany that Napoleon had created. Although the German princes had been ordered to bestow constitutions, few of them did. The result was continuous political agitation during the entire period from 1815 to 1848.

In Germany the growth of economic unity tended to overshadow all other development during those years. In 1815 no German state except Prussia showed signs of greatness. Although there were mineral resources, there was little industry and communications were bad. The economy was further disadvantaged by internal customs barriers, different coinage, weights and measures, and a multitude of legal systems.

Prussia alone was making economic strides in the form of road construction, trade treaties and industry. In 1818 her internal customs barriers were scrapped so that goods could be transported customs-free from one end of Prussia to the other. Her neighbours were then invited to join the union, and pressure was applied to those states which refused to do so.

In 1834 the ZOLLVEREIN was established and by 1852 most of the German states had joined which meant that Prussia rather than Austria had taken the lead in Germany. Moreover, with the further development of railways and industry, Prussia by 1840 had become a thoroughly modern and economically powerful state.

After 1840, with the young and dynamic Frederick William IV on the Prussian throne, liberal thought was growing rapidly, fuelled by expectations of great things from the monarch himself. The result was an attempt at an all-German Parliament in 1848. The movement foundered but that same year Frederick William offered an alternative to the "Vorparliament": namely the creation of a union of any German states which wished to join Prussia.

Many states took advantage of the offer. A constitution was drawn up, elections were held and a Parliament was established. At the critical moment, however, Frederick William bowed to opposition from Austria and abandoned the idea. At Olmutz in 1851, the old Confederation of the Rhine was revived and Austria was again the dominant power in Germany.

The events of 1848 had led many German leaders to realise the difficulty of uniting Germany because of the presence of Austria. When Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor of Prussia in 1852, his basic aim was for the Prussian domination of northern Germany. He was aware that German unification could probably not be achieved through diplomacy or parliamentary decision alone but possibly by the tried and tested means of warfare.


By the Treaty of London of 1852, two duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in northern Germany were ruled by the King of Denmark, with the proviso that Denmark was forbidden to annex either of the territories. In 1863 King Christian decided to annex Schleswig to Denmark on the pretext of its large Danish majority. The annexation caused an outcry in the German Bund because it meant the irrevocable loss of the minority German population within that duchy.

Because of the duchies' geographic and strategic position, Bismarck desired them for Prussia. He somehow managed to induce Austria to co-operate with him in upholding the Treaty of London. There were several reasons for Bismarck desiring to go to war in alliance with Austria against Denmark.

First, it would be a testing point for the strength of the new Prussian army. Furthermore, Prussia could not hope to fight Denmark alone, at least not without Austrian interference. To fight allied to Austria, on the other hand, would mean that when the war was over, the peace settlement could be used as an opportunity to pick a fight with Austria itself.

A joint Austro-Prussian ultimatum gave Denmark 48 hours to remove her troops from Schleswig and, since the time was too short to do so, war broke out. The Treaty of Vienna, signed after the war, put the Duchies under Prussian and Austrian governorship. The Convention of Gastein then gave Holstein to Austria to govern while Schleswig fell under Prussia.

Bismarck saw in the Schleswig-Holstein question an opportunity for war with Austria and he set about isolating that state. He already had Russian support because of the moral backing Prussia had given to Russia during the Polish uprising of 1863.

He gained the promise of neutrality from Louis Napoleon of France by offering territorial compensation in the event of a victory over Austria. He also gained the support of the new Italian government in return for the promise of Venetia in the event of an Austrian defeat.

Austria claimed that the future of the two duchies should be decided by the German Bund. Bismarck claimed that this was in contravention of the Convention of Gastein and retaliated by sending troops into Holstein.

He also brought a proposal into the German Diet to dissolve the German Bund and draw up a new constitution which would exclude Austria from German affairs. Austria regarded the challenge as the equivalent of an act of aggression and declared war on Prussia.

The war lasted only seven weeks and Austria was defeated. Prussia had mobilised quickly, had superior armaments and good railways with which to rush troops to the frontier. Furthermore, her alliance with Italy forced Austria to fight on two fronts. Austria, on the other hand, had been completely isolated and could look nowhere for support.

Bismarck nevertheless was anxious that the war did not escalate into a major European confrontation because of the upset in the balance of power. He was determined to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible and therefore could not allow the humiliation of Austria. Besides which, he did not want Austria to regard Germany as her permanent enemy. He also feared a future war with France, and needed Austria's neutrality in that eventuality.


The Treaty of Prague (August 1866) was therefore extremely lenient. Bismarck had, after all, gained what he had wanted: the expulsion of Austria from German affairs. Austria therefore lost no territory except for Venetia which went to Italy. There was no customary triumphal march through the streets of Vienna but Austria had to agree to the break-up of the old German Bund and would have no say in the subsequent re-organisation of Germany.

A new federal constitution was then created for the German territory north of the river Main. Prussia annexed Schleswig and Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel and Frankfurt. The south German states, however, were not forced into the North German Confederation but were left to form a confederation of their own.


Napoleon III of France had totally underestimated the power of the Prussian army. He had expected the war to last several years but it was over in seven weeks. Napoleon realised his mistake only when it was too late.

By failing to help Austria, he had succeeded in alienating both Austria and his own Catholic population, as well as helping to create a powerful and almost unified Germany on his own doorstep. He had to gain something from the war so as to restore some of his lost prestige. He therefore demanded his territorial compensation.

Bismarck did not immediately refuse Napoleon's claim but persuaded Benedetti, the French Foreign Minister, to place the claim in writing. Bismarck was then able to publish it and make Napoleon's intentions known to the whole world. Furthermore, since Napoleon's claim was for territories in the south German states, he succeeded in angering the South German Confederation whose members immediately allied themselves to Prussia.

Bismarck went a step further in the alienation of France. Napoleon sought Prussian support in a claim for a portion of Belgium. Again Bismarck persuaded Benedetti to place the claim in writing. Bismarck thereupon refused to support the French claim but kept the letter and published it in England and Belgium in 1870, immediately prior to the war, thus ensuring the anger of these two states against France and the guarantee of their neutrality in the forthcoming war.

By 1870 France was totally isolated. The Italians were unlikely to support her in a war against Prussia because French troops were in Rome, thus preventing the total unification of Italy. Austria had no desire for another war. In any case, France had not aided her in 1866, therefore Austria was hardly likely to aid France in a similar war.

Moreover, Bismarck's lenient treaty with Austria after the Austro-Prussian War ensured her neutrality in a future war against France. Russia, on the other hand, had no liking for France because the latter had fought against her in the Crimean War in 1854. Bismarck ensured the neutrality of both Britain and Belgium by publishing the French letter which laid claim to a part of Belgium.


It was the Spanish throne question which eventually caused the war. Due to a revolt in Spain, Queen Isabella was forced to abdicate, leaving the throne vacant. Leopold of Hohenzollern, a relative of the King of Prussia, was a foremost contender, and indeed was offered the throne.

The French, however, were in no way desirous of having an ally of Prussia on the Spanish throne as this would encircle France with Prussian territory. Benedetti held a series of meetings with William I in which he demanded the withdrawal of Leopold's candidature or face the threat of war. Leopold was therefore persuaded to withdraw.

Napoleon now despatched Foreign Minister Benedetti to the Prussian King to demand that the candidature never again be renewed. William refused but sent a customary telegram to Bismarck at Ems to inform him of the affair, with permission to publish it if he thought fit. Bismarck altered the wording of the telegram slightly to make it sound as if William had been insulted and Benedetti snubbed.

He then had the telegram published both in Prussia and in France. The Germans were delighted that their King had rebuffed the insults of the French. The French, on the other hand, were outraged that their Foreign Minister had been so insulted by the Germans. Napoleon found himself with no alternative to regain lost honour but to declare war on Prussia.

The German forces proved to be far superior to the French, who were badly commanded and armed with inferior weaponry. The war was quickly over. By September 1870 Napoleon III surrendered to the German army. In Paris a revolution proclaimed another republic (3rd Republic) but continued the war under siege until January 1871.

Bismarck, however, refused to sign a peace treaty until a new National Assembly had been elected which could enforce the treaty obligations. The conditions of the Treaty of Frankfurt were therefore accepted only in May 1871.

The treaty was particularly harsh on France. Alsace and Lorraine had to be surrendered to Germany. A war indemnity of 5 billion francs (R400m) had to be paid in three years and, until payment was made, a German army of occupation would remain in France.

As a consequence of the war, German unification was completed since the South German Confederation chose to become united with the north during the war. An empire was now proclaimed with William I as Emperor (2nd Reich), while Napoleon had the anguish of losing his empire in the midst of revolution and humiliation.

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