German unification was a historical process that took place in the second half of the 19th century and ended with the creation of the German Empire in January 1871. Before unification, there were 39 different states on that territory, the Austrian Empire and Prussia. standing out for their importance.
The idea of bringing all these territories together under the same state gained strength at the turn of the century. Various causes have contributed to this, from ideological, with the emergence of German nationalist romanticism, to economic and strategic, such as the dispute between Austria and Prussia for supremacy in Central Europe.
Unification was achieved through weapons. There were three wars that expanded Prussian territory and led to the creation of the Empire. Austria and France suffered the most because they were forced to give up some territories and, in addition, their political power was reduced.
The result of unification was the emergence of a new great power. The empire tried to gain colonies in Africa, clashing with the British and French. Along with other circumstances, this led to the creation of several international alliances that lasted until the outbreak of World War I.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the idea of unifying all the territories that had belonged to the Holy German Empire under the same state began to predominate. The Congress of Vienna, held in 1815, had not satisfied the nationalist demands for this purpose.
Prior to unification, Germany was divided into 39 different states. The most prominent, both politically, economically and militarily, were the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia.
The two protagonists of the unification process were the Prussian king, William I, and his chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck. Both began to maneuver to achieve the goal of a united Germany and that it became the great power of the center of the continent.
Otto Von Bismarck
One of the most important figures in European history in the second half of the eighteenth century was Otto Von Bismarck, nicknamed the Iron Chancellor. Not only for his role in German unification, but also for being the architect of the Armed Peace, a system of alliances that maintained a tense balance for decades.
Bismarck was born in 1815 and ruled for almost thirty years. Conservative, the politician was first Minister of the King of Prussia and later Minister of the Emperor of Germany. During the unification process he led the three wars that led to the formation of the German Empire.
The chancellor was also the ideologue of the military reform that Guillermo I. In order to achieve it, established a true dictatorship, giving up parliament between 1862 and 1866. With the taxes set by the king, Bismarck managed to turn his country into a a power capable of successfully confronting the Austrians and the French.
Romanticism and nationalism
At the ideological level, German unification was preceded by the emergence of German romanticism, more precisely that related to nationalism. This conjunction stated that the legitimacy of the state comes from the homogeneity of its inhabitants.
This type of nationalism based the existence of a state on issues such as language, culture, religion and the customs of its inhabitants. This ideological current had an important reflection in culture, from music to philosophy, through literature.
In Prussia, this nationalist sentiment had been strengthened during the war against Napoleon’s troops. Thus arose the concept of “volkssturm”, which meant “the condition of being a nation” in the sense of being a people.
Between 1815 and 1948, this romantic nationalism had a liberal character, with strong intellectual roots. Philosophers like Hegel and Fichte, poets like Heine or storytellers like the Brothers Grimm stood out. However, the failed revolution of 1848 failed the liberal project.
Beginning in 1848, nationalist groups began political campaigns to encourage the unification of Germany into a single state. Bismarck and William I shared this desire, but from an authoritarian rather than a liberal point of view.
The victorious powers in the war against Napoleon met at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to reorganize the continent and its borders. The resulting agreement saw the creation of the German Confederation, which brought together 39 German states that had been part of the Holy German Empire.
This confederation was under the presidency of the House of Austria and did not satisfy the growing German nationalism. The Diet, a kind of Parliament, was made up of delegates appointed by the governments of each state, who continued to retain their sovereignty.
When the German Revolution of 1848 broke out, with great popular repercussions, it became clear that the union would come sooner or later. The question was who would lead it, Prussia or Austria.
This rivalry could be seen even in the functioning of the Confederation. Agreements and unity of action were possible only when Prussia and Austria agreed, which eventually led to the seven-week war.
The victory of Prussia meant the end of the German Confederation and its replacement, in 1867, with the Confederation of North Germany.
Customs Union or Zollverein
The only area in which most German states agreed was the economic one. At the suggestion of Prussia, the Customs Union was created in 1834. Also known as Zollverein, it was a free trade area in northern Germany.
Beginning in 1852, Zollverein was extended to the rest of the German states, except Austria. This market allowed the region to develop industrially, as well as the increased influence of the bourgeoisie and the growth of the working class.
The failure of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848
Within the so-called bourgeois revolutions, there were two outbreaks in Germany: in 1830 and 1840. However, their failure put an end to the demand to bring a more democratic system to the region, consolidating absolutism.
Part of this failure was due to the alliance that the German bourgeoisie established with the aristocracy, because they feared the triumph of the workers’ and democratic movements.
Even so, the influence of the revolutionaries was noticed in the question of a possible unification. The Liberals defended the creation of a federal state, led by an emperor. Meanwhile, Democrats have bet on a centralized state.
In addition, there were two other sensitivities: those who preferred a Little Germany without Austria and those who supported a Great Germany with Austria as an integral part.
The rivalry between Prussia and Austria
The differences between Prussia and the Austrian Empire were due to the attempt of both powers to control the unification process and, above all, to the power once it took place.
The Prussians, under William I and Bismarck as prime minister, sought to create a united Germany under Prussian hegemony.
The iron chancellor was the one who stated that the unification was justified by a state reason. This reason allowed, according to Bismarck, to use any measure to achieve it, regardless of cost.
In the confrontation with Austria, the Prussian tactic was to isolate its rival with the support of France. At the same time, he diplomatically isolated Russia so that it could not help the Austrians.
On the other hand, Prussia devoted its efforts to overtaking Austria militarily, preparing for the time of the inevitable war. In the end, it was just a matter of waiting for the pretext to start hostilities.
German unification, as befits the country’s policy, was conservative and authoritarian. In addition to the aristocracy and the landed nobility, he received the support of the industrial nobility.
The new state was governed under a monarchical and federal system, called the Second Reich. His first emperor was William I. With this, Prussian supremacy was established within the German Empire.
The German union was decided by the Prussian elites, although they had the support of a large part of the population. People were not consulted and in some areas were forced to change their religion and language.
Made with war
The creation of the German Empire was by no means a peaceful process. In order to unify the German states, three wars developed. Peace did not come until unification took effect.
As mentioned above, it took three wars for German unification to take place. Each of them marks a different stage in the process.
These warlike confrontations served Prussia to expand its territory, especially in Austria and France. The protagonist of these wars was Otto Von Bismarck, who designed the strategy, political and military, for his country to control the unified territory.
The War of the Duchies
The first conflict between Austria and Prussia was against Denmark: the War of the Duchy. The reason for the conflict, developed in 1864, was the struggle for control of two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein.
The history of this war dates back to 1863, when the German Confederation staged a protest against the King of Denmark’s attempt to annex the German-controlled Duchy of Schleswig.
Under an agreement signed in 1852, Schleswig had been united with Holstein, another duchy belonging to the German Confederation. Bismarck persuaded the Austrian monarch to defend this agreement, and on January 16, 1864, they issued an ultimatum to Denmark to abandon its purpose.
The war ended with the victory of Prussia and Austria. The Duchy of Schleswig came under Prussian rule, while Holstein came under Austria.
However, Bismarck took advantage of Zollverein’s commercial appeal to impose his influence on Holstein as well. Its justification was the right of peoples to self-determination, by which the desire of the inhabitants to join Prussia had to be respected.
The Austro-Prussian War
Chancellor Bismarck continued his strategy of establishing Prussian supremacy over the Austrians. Thus, he managed to persuade Napoleon III to declare his neutrality in the face of a possible confrontation and allied with Victor Manuel II.
After realizing this, he declared war on Austria. His intention was to remove some territories and, for this, he prepared himself by considerably stimulating his industrial and military development.
Within weeks, Prussian troops had defeated their enemies. The final battle took place in 1866 in Sadowa. After the victory, Prussia and Austria signed the Peace of Prague, which allowed Prussian territorial expansion.
On the other hand, Austria resigned definitively to become part of a future unified Germany and accepted the dissolution of the German Confederation.
The Franco-Prussian War
The last stage of unification and the last war pitted Prussia against one of its traditional enemies: France.
The reason for the conflict was the request of the Spanish nobility that Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern, the cousin of the King of Prussia, accept the crown of Spain, vacant at that time. France, fearing to be between two countries dominated by the Prussian nobility, opposed this possibility.
Shortly afterwards, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, claiming that William I had despised the French ambassador by refusing to receive him at his palace.
The Prussians, anticipating events, had already mobilized 500,000 men and had overwhelmingly defeated the French in several battles. Napoleon III himself had been taken prisoner during the war.
The treaty between the two rivals was signed at Sedan on September 2, 1870. The defeat provoked a great insurrection in Paris, where the Third French Republic was declared.
The new republican government tried to continue the fight against the Prussians, but they advanced unstoppably until the occupation of Paris. France had no choice but to sign a new treaty, this time in Frankfurt. This agreement, approved in May 1871, established the cession to Prussia of Alsace and Lorraine.
With the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, Prussia, hereinafter referred to as Germany, the unification was completed. The next step was the founding of the German Empire on January 18, 1871.
The Prussian monarch, William I, was appointed emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, which was considered a humiliation for France. Bismarck, in turn, served as chancellor.
The newly created empire took the form of a confederation, endowed with a Constitution. It had two governing chambers, the Bundesrat, made up of representatives of all states, and the Reichstag, elected by universal suffrage.
The birth of a great power
Germany has experienced a period of economic and demographic growth that has made it one of the main European powers.
This led him to start competing in the race to colonize African and Asian territories, competing with the United Kingdom. The tensions caused by this were one of the causes of the First World War.
Within the Empire, the government promoted a cultural campaign to homogenize the states that were part of the new nation.
Among the effects of this cultural unification were the elimination of non-German languages from education and public life, as well as the obligation for the non-German population to abandon their own customs or otherwise leave the territory.
Formation of the Triple Alliance
Bismarck began a diplomatic effort to strengthen his country’s position against the rest of the European powers. To do this, he promoted the creation of international alliances to counter the danger of new wars on the continent.
In this way, he negotiated with Austria and Italy the formation of a coalition, called the Triple Alliance. Initially, the agreement between these countries was to provide military support in the event of a conflict with France. Later, when the French signed their own alliances, it spread to Britain and Russia.
In addition, the chancellor increased military spending to strengthen his army. This period, known as the Armed Forces, culminated years later in World War I.