On Jan. 18, 1871, Germany proclaimed itself an empire after a series of wars of unification. German unification had been the dream of many Germans for centuries, and was finally achieved by Otto von Bismarck, Prussia's iron chancellor.
Prior to unification, Germany had never been a single nation state in its long history. Beginning in the middle ages, the Holy Roman Empire encompassed most of modern-day Germany, though its borders often extended much further. At various times, the empire also claimed regions in northern Italy, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and the low countries. Far from acting as a nation state, however, the Holy Roman Empire functioned more like a medieval United Nations, where individual German kingdoms, principalities and cities often had far more power in their localities than the emperors did.
By the dawn of the 19th century, the Holy Roman Empire encompassed more than one thousand of these individual polities, or subordinate states. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte disbanded the empire to more easily govern the German states. His intervention saw many small states gobbled up by larger ones, and in the end he created something called the Confederation of the Rhine. Encompassing what was now only 39 states, the Confederation acted as France's puppet. The last Roman emperor, Francis II of the House Habsburg-Lorraine, abdicated but maintained his lands in Austria and elsewhere, styling himself emperor of Austria.
With Napoleon's defeat, the Confederation of the Rhine was replaced with the German Confederation by the victors. The two most powerful German states were now Austria in the south, which had a large empire outside of Germany, and Prussia in the north. The new confederation had just as little power as the Holy Roman Empire did, though it addressed economic issues between the German states and provided a neutral buffer between the potentially hostile Austria and Prussia.
Many Germans, however, wanted a united German state. This was largely the dream of German liberals, who also wanted parliaments and constitutions, which limited royal authority. This often put them at odds with kings and emperors. The chance for the liberals to create a united Germany first came in 1848, when a revolution in France soon swept throughout the continent, setting many German cities ablaze. The Revolutions of 1848 ultimately led to the creation of a National Assembly in Frankfurt to explore the idea of German unity.
Monarchs throughout Germany looked skeptically at events in Frankfurt, and when the assembly members voted to create a German state that excluded Austria, they decided to offer the imperial crown to Frederick Wilhelm IV, the king of Prussia.
In “Bismarck and the German Empire,” historian Erich Eyck wrote: “It was now up to Frederick Wilhelm to fulfill the ardent desire of the German nation for unity by accepting the imperial crown. Wilhelm was not the man who the historic hour demanded. He detested election by a parliament, a crown offered by representatives of the people. That was revolution, and he hated the revolution ... So he declined the crown on the grounds that he would accept it only if offered unanimously by the German princes.”
He later wrote famously that he would never accept a crown “from the gutter.”
Still, the hopes of the German people for unity did not die, and soon von Bismarck, chancellor to the king of Prussia, decided that if German unity was inevitable, it must come from the top down rather than the bottom up. And just as important, the new emperor must be the king of Prussia.
Serving the new king of Prussia, Wilhelm I, Bismarck orchestrated a series of wars in the German states in order to empower Prussia and make unity under its leadership certain. In 1864 Prussia allied with Austria and won a war against Denmark over the territories of Schleswig and Holstein. Then, in 1866, Prussia went to war with Austria, its German rival, and soundly won the battle. The road was open to German unification. All of the German princes recognized Prussia's power. There was one problem left, however: France.
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