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The Unification of Germany: Summary, Timeline & Events

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  1. 0:07 Unification of Germany
  2. 0:30 Background
  3. 1:29 Bismarck and Early Nationalism
  4. 2:46 Seven Weeks' War
  5. 4:28 Franco-Prussian War and Unification
  6. 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the unification of Germany in the 1860s and 1870s, largely accomplished through the statecraft of the Chancellor of Prussia and later Germany, Otto von Bismarck.

Unification of Germany

When people think of Germany, people often think of the same things: beer, sausage, lederhosen, perhaps even soccer. In other words, they tend to think of Germany as one, homogenous country. This, however, couldn't be further from the truth. Indeed, as few as 150 years ago, modern Germany did not exist at all, and it took the advent of German nationalism and Germany's first great statesman to make it happen.

Background

The common criticism of the precursor to modern Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, was that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Indeed, though Germany as we know it today was nominally united under an imperial crown for almost a millennium, in reality the German lands were composed of approximately 300 individual principalities and city-states that largely operated in independence of one another.

Though certain powers dominated different parts of the German lands throughout the Holy Roman Empire's history, it was not until the 17th century that early modern Germany's two greatest powers, Prussia and Austria, began to expand and incorporate more and more German territory under their respective flags. In the early 19th century, Napoleon's conquest of the German lands ended the Holy Roman Empire. After Napoleon's defeat, the German states created the loosely-associated German Confederation in 1815, containing all territories of the former Empire with majority German speakers. Power within the Confederation was dominated by Prussia and Austria.

Bismarck and Early Nationalism

The creation of the German Confederation in 1815 was largely in reaction to the growing sense of German nationalism, which had not existed in Europe prior to the 19th century. While strains of nationalism certainly existed before the turn of the century, it was France's conquest of the German lands in the first decade of the 19th century that first fully aroused German nationalists into proposing a unified, German state. Indeed, J.G. Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation, given in Berlin in 1808, called on Germans to unite under their common language and traditions.

Perhaps no other statesmen was in such a fine position to make this dream a reality as the Chancellor of Prussia during the mid-19th century, Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck was a fervent German nationalist who wanted a German nation, but specifically one dominated by his Prussia. As a result, once appointed, Chancellor Bismarck set out to strengthen and improve the Prussian army and gain international allies that would help Prussia on its way to unifying Germany.

After gaining the Chancellorship in 1862, Bismarck began improving Prussia's diplomatic position to ensure Prussia's dominance over Austria. In 1863, when Russia experienced a revolt in its Polish territory, Bismarck and Prussia supported Russia in its violent suppression of the rebellion. This endeared Prussia to Russia, who was traditionally an ally of Prussia's German rival, Austria.

Seven Weeks' War

The neutralization of Russian interest in German affairs came in handy just a few shorts year later. After Bismarck encouraged the uprising of German nationalists in Schleswig and Holstein and wrested the two territories from Denmark in the 1864 Danish War, Prussia turned its eyes on Austria. Austria had joined the Danish War in the hopes of supplanting Prussia as the defender of German nationalists, but only succeeded in becoming entwined in the defense of territory, which was far away from its home in South Central Europe.

Indeed, after the Danish War, Austria and Prussia were considered joint defenders of Schleswig and Holstein, and in order for Austria to defend the two principalities it had to cross Prussian territory. Prussia denied Austria the right to do so, and when the rest of the Confederation supported Austria, Bismarck declared the Confederation defunct, declared war on Austria and invaded other Northern German lands.

The ensuing conflict lasted only seven weeks, and Prussia defeated Austria resoundingly, due in part to both diplomacy and military superiority. Indeed, Prussia possessed a better trained and better equipped army than the Austrians, but it was Prussia's neutralization of Austria's potential allies of Russia (due to Prussian help in the Polish rebellion) and France (due to Prussia's promises of territory) that really made Prussia advantageous. Additionally, Prussia guaranteed the new Kingdom of Italy the Austrian-controlled territory of Venice, and in doing so, gained a strategic ally south of Austria.

After defeating Austria, Bismarck was strategically lenient with the Austrians, as his plans for a pan-German nation might be hurt if he dealt too severely with a German state. Instead, he merely annexed Schleswig, Holstein and other German land to Prussia and unified North Germany into a new confederation, thereby shutting Austria nearly entirely out of regional power.

Franco-Prussian War and Unification

With Austria neutralized, the final obstacle to Prussia's unification of Germany was France. France still controlled territory on the border of the new, Prussian-dominated German Confederation, which Prussia considered German. Moreover, France was equally ambitious to expand eastward into German lands and simultaneously was worried about the growth of Prussian power at its doorstep. To provoke war, Bismarck released the now famous Ems Telegram, which appeared to insult the French ambassador and France itself.

Outraged, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia in the summer of 1870. This would prove a grave mistake for the French. After only six weeks, the better supplied and well-organized Prussian military had defeated the French and captured its main army, including Napoleon III, at Sedan. After a siege of Paris, the Prussians marched into the French capital in January 1871 victorious.

The war did more for Prussia than simply gain the territory it considered German, mainly Alsace and Lorraine. In the buildup to the war, the Southern German states outside the confederation asked to join the Confederation out of fear of French attack. With all this territory now in Prussian control and its borders secure, Bismarck declared the German Empire in 1871, crowning the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, as Kaiser of Germany. The ceremony took place in Versailles, the traditional seat of French power, further humiliating France.

Lesson Summary

The unification of Germany hinged upon two things: the development and spread of German nationalism in the 19th century and the brilliant statecraft and diplomacy of Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, without Bismarck's keen maneuvers to neutralize Austria's traditional allies prior to exerting Prussian power in the German lands, Prussian dominance, and the subsequent unification of Germany, might never have even got off the ground. But as accomplished a diplomat and leader as Bismarck was, his efforts would likely not have succeeded if not for the growth of German nationalism and a sense that the lands of Central Europe all shared common and distinct traditions, values and language.

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