This week in history: The unification of Germany

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 7 2015 10:15 a.m. MDT

Otto Von Bismark (Shutterstock) Otto Von Bismark (Shutterstock)

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.

For centuries, a cornerstone of French policy had been to play one German state off another, and the most powerful nation in Europe would not look kindly upon the creation of a massive, powerful neighbor next door. Bismarck knew that before unification could be achieved, France must be humbled.

In the wake of the 1866 war, Prussia created a new North German Confederation, an important step in unification as it brought many German states under direct Prussian authority. Manufacturing a diplomatic crisis over the successor to the Spanish throne, Bismarck was able to engineer a war between the North German Confederation and the Second French Empire under Napoleon III.

Historian Alistair Horne wrote in “The Fall of Paris: the Siege and the Commune, 1870-71”: “On July 28, 1870, Louis-Napoleon rode forth in command of his armies ... with not a single Army corps at full strength. As he passed through Metz ... to an 18-year-old (and future World War I general) called Ferdinad Foch, he gave the impression 'of a man utterly worn out.'”

Indeed, Napoleon III did not have the military gifts of his famous uncle and namesake. The French armies were soon routed or besieged, and Napoleon himself fell into the hands of the Germans. As the German army began the siege of Paris, Bismarck, King Wilhelm I and representatives throughout the German states met just outside of the French capital.

Eyck wrote: “The 18th of January is the birthday of the Prussian kingdom ... Thus the 18th of January became the day when Wilhelm I, king of Prussia was proclaimed German emperor. The proclamation was read by Bismarck in the Salle des Glaces (the Hall of Mirrors) in Louis XIV's palace in Versailles. It was the proudest day of his life. He could say that he had directed every step which had led to this goal.”

The creation of the German empire, or the Second Reich, would have significant consequences throughout Europe for decades. The new nation soon became an economic and military powerhouse, challenging the positions of Britain, France and Russia. The destabilization it brought to the political order of Europe was one of the chief causes of World War I.

At the end of the first World War in 1919, a defeated Germany was forced to sign the hated Treaty of Versailles in the exact room where the Second Reich had been proclaimed 48 years earlier. It was a move calculated by the victors to humiliate.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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