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The Factors in the Process of German Unification

Germany was the last of the great European powers to achieve political unity. In 1815, 39 independent German states stretched north and south from the Baltic Sea to the Alps, and east and west from the Rhine River to Russia. Political rivals Austria and Prussia were the most powerful of these German states. By 1871, however, the German states-excluding Austria and Switzerland-had united into a single nation.

The Congress of Vienna had created the German Confederation in 1815 as a buffer against future French expansion. This first major step toward German unity established closer economic ties between the German states and helped pave the way for greater political union.

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The German Confederation loosely tied together with the numerous German states with a diet sitting at Frankfurt. Austria dominated the confederation. Its position as head of the diet eventually brought it into conflict with Prussia. Neither Austria nor the smaller German states wanted to see a united Germany. Austria feared economic competition, while the smaller states feared domination by Prussia.

The largest of the German states, Prussia, had a well-organized government and a strong economy. Political power in Prussia lay in the hands of aristocratic landowners called Junkers, but rising business classes demanded a share of political power. To reduce trade barriers among German lands, the Prussian Junkers called for a Zollverein or economic union. Formed in 1834, the Zollverein reduced tariffs and other trade barriers between most of the 39 states, resulting in lower and more uniform prices of goods throughout the confederation. The Zollverein also standardized systems of currency, weights, and measures and strengthened the business classes.

By forming a close economic union, Prussia won an important political victory over Austria. Just as Sardinia led Italy toward unification, Prussia now directed events that would eventually unite Germany.

In the German states, popular demonstrations and uprisings (Feb.–March 1848) led to the dismissal of unpopular ministers and the calling of a national parliament to draft a constitution for a united Germany. While the constitution was debated at length, rulers of the German states were able to recover their authority. By 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament and the provisional government it established had collapsed and the old order was restored.

In 1861, William I became King of Prussia, succeeding his brother Frederick William IV. Believing that Prussia could establish its position of leadership in Germany only with a powerful military force, William planned to expand the army. But liberal German nationalists feared the Junkers’ control of the army. As a result, their representatives in the Prussian assembly overwhelmingly defeated new taxes to support a larger army.

Frustrated by the defeat, the king appointed as his new prime minister a man who shared his views in army reconstruction. The man was Otto von Bismarck. A Junker himself, Bismarck had served in the Prussian assembly and as ambassador to Russia and France. A brilliant negotiator, Bismarck embraced the policy of real politick, the right of the state to pursue its own advantage by any means, including war and the repudiation of treaties.

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In September 1862, Bismarck defied the finance committee of the Prussian assembly. He declared that the great issues of the times would not be decided “by speeches and majority decisions…but by blood and iron.” When the Lower House refused to approve the new army budget, Bismarck pushed the program through by simply collecting the necessary taxes without authorization.

Bismarck manipulated events and took advantage of opportunities more skillfully than any other European statesman of the time. Furthermore, he was willing to use the power of the Prussian army to attain the goals. In the seven years before the establishment of the German Empire, three wars were fought: the Danish War of 1864 over the issue of Schleswig-Holstein, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Each war laid the foundation for the next, and the three combined were important factors leading to the outbreak of general war in Europe in 1914.

By inheritance, the Danish king ruled the territories of Schleswig and Holstein. Schleswig’s population was part German and part Danish; Holstein’s was entirely German. When King Christian IX proclaimed Schleswig a Danish province in 1863, Germans in both territories appealed to the larger German states for support.

Bismarck persuaded Austria to join Prussia in declaring war against Denmark in 1864. Prussia and Austria won the war and forced Denmark out of the disputed provinces. By mutual agreement, Prussia took control of Schleswig, and Austria took over the administration of Holstein. This arrangement strained the relationship between these rival powers.

The war accomplished two of Bismarck’s objectives. First, it made Europe aware of Prussia’s military might and influence. Second, the tension resulting from the war settlement gave Bismarck the excuse he wanted for going to war with Austria.

The war between Austria and Prussia (The seven Weeks War) began on June 16, 1866, and ended in a Prussian victory seven weeks later. The treaty ending the war gave Holstein to Prussia and Venetia to Italy. The treaty called for a “new organization of Germany without the participation of Austria.

Prussia now took control of northern Germany. For the first time, the eastern and western parts of the Prussian kingdom were joined. In 1867, the remaining states in the north joined the North German Confederation, which Prussia dominated completely.

The southern German states, which were largely Catholic, remained outside the new German confederation. Most of them feared Protestant Prussia’s military strength and its control of Germany. However, Bismarck felt certain that he could win their support if they faced a threat from outside Germany. He felt his best chance was to provoke a war with France.

During a crisis involving Spain, the French ambassador met with the Prussian king. Bismarck deliberately gave German newspapers a misleading account of the two men’s conversations. Bismarck made it sound as if the two men had insulted each other. Soon public opinion on both countries demanded war. The fighting began on July 19, 1870. Because they were more anti-French than anti-Prussian, the southern German states allied with Prussia. With the easy defeat of the French, Bismarck gained support from all the German states for the unification of Germany under Prussian rule.

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On January 18, 1871, at the conquered French palace of Versailles, King William I of Prussia was crowned kaiser, or emperor, of the newly formed German empire. The new empire united 25 German states into one federal union. To Germany, the empire was known as the Second Reich, Bismarck became the new nation’s first prime minister.

The Southern German states were largely Catholic. These German Catholics, now a minority within the new German empire, took steps to strengthen their position. They formed the Center Party, which drew most of its support from the South German states. The Center Party’s aims ran contrary to Bismarck’s intention to centralize government power. In his efforts to reduce the influence of the Catholics, Bismarck took advantage of the doubts created by the First Vatican Council’s 1870 declaration that the pope was infallible in matters of faith and morals. A sizable group of Germans, known as the “Old Catholics, did not accept papal infallibility. Bismarck played them off against the papal supporters.

Members of the Jesuit order were expelled from Germany, and the German Empire broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican. In 1873 and 1874, the German government issued decrees requiring anyone holding a clerical office to be a native German who had attended a German school. All clerical appointments were subject to state approval. Catholic bishops who opposed these decrees were arrested or expelled.

Bismarck called his policy by the grandiose name of Kulturkampf, or “struggle for civilization,” and found support for it among German liberals. The anticlerical campaign included the secularization of education, a limitation of ecclesiastical authority, and dispossession of religious orders. Liberals agreed to an extension of police power to act against recalcitrant clergy. The rule of law guaranteed by the new German constitution had little meaning.

Even so, persecution only strengthened Catholic resistance. The Center Party increased its representation in the Reichstag. After 1878, Bismarck halted the Kulturkampf and turned his attention to countering the growth in power of the Social Democratic Party.

Prior to unification, Germany was not a great industrial nation. Primarily agricultural, the German states lagged far behind Great Britain in the production of textiles, coal, iron and steel. Knowing that Germany’s position as a major political and military power depended on a strong economy, Bismarck encouraged efforts to expand the nation’s industry. By the mid-1800s, advances in many areas began to transform Germany’s economy.

The establishment of the Zollverein (economic union) had already encouraged economic growth and spurred efforts to improve transportation. After unification, investment capital from Great Britain, France, and Belgium helped to modernize production and establish a mechanized factory system.

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The development of deep-pit coal mining in the province along the Rhine and the opening of new coal mines in the Saar made available large reserves of cheap fuel for the new plants. Cities grew rapidly. Many young men and women streamed in from the villages to work in the new factories. As a result, at the end of the 1800s, Germany finally became a major industrial power.

The economic changes sweeping Germany conferred on at least some of its people the highest standard of living in Europe. The middle class and the business leaders benefited enormously from the rapid industrialization of the country. But every improvement in factory machinery resulted in lower wages and higher unemployment for many German workers. They lived in crowded, filthy tenements and toiled long hours under dangerous conditions.

Poor wages, long workdays, and job uncertainty made German workers receptive to a more hopeful vision for the future. They looked forward to a democratic social order in which they no longer would be exploited. To help bring about this new order in Germany, Ferdinand Lassale, a writer and labour leader, founded the Universal German Workingmen’s Association in 1863. Although he called himself a socialist and a disciple of Karl Marx, did not preach revolution. Whereas Marx called for the workers of the world to revolt against capitalism, Lassalle advocated mass political action to change the system.

Lasalle was a national celebrity who knew Bismarck and lectured him on the worker’s plight. However, he did not live long enough to finish the fight, for he was killed in a duel in 1864. The party he founded grew slowly until it merged with the Social Democratic party in 1875 and became a major political force.

Bismarck believed that the socialist party was out to destroy the German Empire. He, therefore, set out to crush its organization. Bismarck’s efforts met with temporary success but his reform efforts did not go far enough. Ultimately, the legislature sided with the Social Democratic Party which marked the beginning of the end for Bismarck’s political career.

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The Factors in the Process of German Unification. (2021, Feb 18). Retrieved December 6, 2022, from