• Prior to 1806, German-speaking Central Europe included more than 300 political entities, most of which were part of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • The common criticism of the precursor to modern Germany, the Holy Roman Empire (headed by Habsburg dynasty), was that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.


  • Directly by his constructive statesmanship, and indirectly by the results which opposition to his rule aroused, Napoleon contributed to the formation of united Germany and laid the foundation of German Empire.
  • Territorial reorganisation by Napoleon
    • He simplified the map of Germany by reduction of over two hundred independent states of Germany into 39 states which indirectly advanced the cause of German unity and nationality.
  • Abolition of the Holy Roman Empire of Napoleon:
    • Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and replaced it by a Confederation of States dependent upon France.
    • The Hapsburg House of Austria (which ruled the Holy Roman Empire) yielded up its historic claims to be the ruler of Germany; henceforth it was possible to conceive a Germany in which Austria had no place.
  • Reforms of Napoleon:
    • Napoleonic liberal reforms like religious toleration, freedom of press, equality before law etc. increased the hunger of self-governance.
  • Rise of German nationalism:
    • The shared experience of German-speaking Central Europe during the years of French hegemony contributed to a sense of common cause to remove the French invaders and reassert control over their own lands.
    • Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 disillusioned many Germans, princes and peasants alike.
    • Napoleon’s Continental System nearly ruined the Central European economy which disillusined many Germans.
    • From the German perspective, critical role played by Prussia in defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo and Leipzig offered a rallying point of pride and enthusiasm.


  • After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna reorganized Europe into spheres of influence, which, in some cases, suppressed the aspirations of the various nationalities, including the Germans and Italians.
  • Generally, an enlarged Prussia and the 38 other states consolidated from the reorganised territories of 1803 by Napoleon were confederated within the Austrian Empire’s sphere of influence.
  • The Congress established a loose German Confederation (1815–1866), headed by Austria, with a “Federal Diet” (called the Bundestag, an assembly of appointed leaders) that met in the city of Frankfurt.
  • In recognition of the imperial position traditionally held by the Habsburgs, the emperors of Austria became the titular presidents of this parliament and Prussia became Vice President. So, Austrian-Prussian dualism got established.
  • This Diet had two defects:
    • Its members were the representatives of the German princes, not of the people.
    • It had no machinery to enforce its decision.
  • Problematically, the built-in Austrian dominance failed to take into account Prussia’s 18th century emergence as a powerful state.


  • Initially conceived by the Prussian Finance Minister Bulow, as a Prussian customs union in 1818, Zollverein or German Customs Union was finally organised by the 1833 Zollverein treaties.
  • The Zollverein formally came into existence on 1 January 1834.
  • The Zollverein linked many Prussian and other German Princely territories. Over the ensuing more than thirty years, many other German states (except Austria) joined.
  • The Zollverein is considered as a key institution to unifying the German states under Prussia:
    • It helped to create a larger sense of economic unification among German states.
    • The Union helped to reduce protectionist barriers among the German states.
      • This was particularly important for the emerging industrial centers.
    • Prussia was the prime motivating force behind the creation of the customs union.
      • Austria was excluded from the Zollverein because of its highly protected industry and also because Metternich was against the idea as it was proposed by Prussia.
    • The Zollverein set the groundwork for the unification of Germany under Prussian guidance instead of Austria.


  • A successful revolution broke out in France in July 1830 against the autocratic rule of Charles X. The news of this revolution greatly inspired the patriots of Germany, who were cruelly crushed by Metternich with the help of the Carlsbad Decrees.
  1. The rulers of almost all states except Austria and Prussia were compelled to introduce liberal constitutions in their respective states.
  2. The Empire of Austria remained untouched by the influence of the revolution.
    • At that time the influence and power of Metternich was at its zenith.
    • He adopted strict and repressive measures to suppress the revolutions of the different states of Germany.
  3. As a whole, the effects of the July Revolution of 1830 were nullified in German states. The influence of Metternich remained unchallenged in Germany till 1848.


  • It was initially part of the Revolutions of 1848 that broke out in many European countries.
    • They were also inspired by street demonstrations of workers and artisans in Paris, France, in February 1848, which resulted in the abdication by King Louis Philippe of France and his going into exile in Britain. [Matternich had said: “When France catches cold, all Europe sneezes“]
  • The leading forces of the revolutionary March movement were mostly representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie.
  • The movement spread to all over Germany.
  • Surprised and overthrown by the strength of the movement many monarchs declared their willingness to install most of the basic democratic principles demanded.
    • Everywhere, up to the middle of March, new governments were established, dominated by moderately liberal representatives of the bourgeoisie and proclaiming programs of liberal reform.
    • Frederick William IV of Prussia was frightened into granting a constitution and his example was followed by Saxony, Hanover and Bavaria.
    • In Bavaria the events resulted in the abdication of the King.
  • About this time, Vienna rose in revolt.
    • The people put up armed resistance to the troops.
    • After the uprising of the workers in the suburbs and the ultimatum by the liberal bourgeoisie, the state leadership of the Habsburg regime decided to give in.
    • This resulted in the resignation of Metternich as chief minister to Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, and his going into exile in Britain.


  • During Revolutions of 1848, William IV of Prussia yielding to the liberal and nationalist impulses of the hour, promised to assume the leadership of the national movement for a united Germany.
    • It aroused great enthusiasm among German liberals.
    • They summoned a national preliminary parliament called Preliminary Parliament which met in March 1848 in Frankfurt and it called for the election of a national assembly which was duly held.
  • Frankfurt National Assembly or German National Assembly (May 1848–June 1849), elected by universal suffrage, met in Frankfurt on May 18.
  • Moderate liberals held a majority in the assembly. The liberal Heinrich Gagern was elected president of the parliament.
  • Its task was:
    • to draw up a constitution for a united Germany to replace the constitution of German Bund.
    • to create a unified Germany, characterised by constitutional monarchy.
  • The Frankfurt National Assembly spent much time debating various plans for a unified Germany, but it also had to decide on immediate practical problems, such as the nature of the executive power and Germany’s territorial extent.
  • By this time, Prussia’s Frederick William IV had lost all patience with the liberals and had turned increasingly toward ultraconservative advisers.
  • In Austria the emperor Ferdinand had abdicated in favour of his nephew Francis Joseph, who likewise relied on conservative ministers.
  • The Frankfurt National Assembly was finally able to adopt a proposed federal constitution (with constitutional monarchy and parliament government) for German states, excluding Austria, on March 28, 1849.
    • This document provided for universal suffrage, parliamentary government, and a hereditary emperor.
  • On April 3 the king received a deputation from the assembly that came to offer him the crown. The offer was refused (on the advice of Bismarck) because:
    • Frederick William was too deeply conservative to receive a German imperial crown from any hands except those of the other German princes. He did not like to receive crown from revolutionary assembly who were socially inferior and considered it as a “crown of shame”.
    • He felt that it might lead to war with Austria.
  • Prussia also rejected the proposed constitution. Many of the States refused to accept the constitution. This led to the floundering of the entire scheme and destruction of German Revolution.
  • Prussia had dismissed the Diet which was at work making a constitution. But Prussian King voluntarily gave the people a constitution, which though not democratic, secured to the Prussian people a share in the government.
  • German nation united under one banner presented significant questions.
    • There was no readily applicable definition for who the German people would be or how far the borders of a German nation would stretch.
    • There was also uncertainty as to who would best lead and defend “Germany”.
    • Different groups offered different solutions to this problem.
      • In the Kleindeutschland (“Lesser Germany“) solution, the German states would be united under the leadership of the Prussian Hohenzollerns which would exclude Austria;
      • In the Grossdeutschland (“Greater Germany“) solution, the German states would be united under the leadership of the Austrian Habsburgs.


  • Nationalists destroyed many illusions and prepared the way for more practical measures.
  • Austria could never honestly support nationalism in Germany, nor could the princes of German states, as it would endanger their own positions.
  • Failure of the Frankfort Parliament proved that no new Germany could be created by a popular movement undirected by princes.
  • Thus the pre-requisites of the German unification had been singled out:
    • German Confederation must be dissolved.
    • Austrian interference in German affairs must be prevented.
    • New adjustment of relations with princes effected.


  • She had stimulated national resistance to Napoleon and played important part in his defeat. (as explained earlier)
  • By her acquisition of Rhenish territories in 1815, she stood forth as the guardian of Germany against the hereditary enemy France.
  • Prussia was already head of Zollverein (explained earlier).
  • Prussia had granted a constitution and created a Parliament and had thereby stimulated the hopes of the Liberals. From Austria they had nothing to expect in that direction.


  • The Crimean war weakened Russia, the champion of absolutism in Europe and brought about an entanglement between her and Austria.
  • The rising star of Bonapartism in France was more friendly to national movement. The known sympathy of Napoleon III with the success of national cause everywhere was exploited by Prussia to the best advantage.


  • King Frederick William IV suffered a stroke in 1857 and could no longer rule. This led to his brother William becoming Prince Regent of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1858 and then king in 1861.
    • Unlike his brother, he had a mind of his own, which though not quick and brilliant, was solid and sound.
    • He was a strong believer of autocracy and believed in the destiny and mission of his country.
    • He had the gift to select good servants for the state and wisdom to repose full confidence in them.


  • William I was a true Hohenzollern in his belief and his belief that Prussia’s destiny depends on her army. So he wanted to reorganise army.
  • He appointed Von Moltke as chief of the Prussian General Staff, who was later to achieve fame as the greatest strategist of his time.
  • Conflict with Diet over army reform:
    • Prussian army reforms (especially how to pay for them) caused a constitutional crisis beginning in 1860 because both parliament (Diet) and William — via his minister of war — wanted control over the military budget.
    • As liberals who dominated the Prussian Diet, were determined to have constitutional reform before military.
    • A deadlock continued and Diet in 1862 refused to vote the necessary money for the army.
    • This developed into a constitutional conflict in which issue at the stake was whether the king or the Diet was to be the ultimate authority.
    • The King’s ministers could not convince legislators to pass the budget, and the King was unwilling to make concessions.
    • King Wilhelm I appointed Otto von Bismarck, a resolute adherent of the royal cause, to the position of Minister-President of Prussia in 1862. It proved to be the most momentous step King ever took. Bismarck resolved the crisis in favor of the war minister.
    • Bismarck’s conflict with the legislators intensified in the coming years but he rode rough shod over the constitution. He continued to levy and collect taxes without parliament grant and fully carried out military reform.
  • In 1863, the House of Deputies resolved that it could no longer come to terms with Bismarck; in response, the King dissolved the Diet, accusing it of trying to obtain unconstitutional control over the ministry, which, under the Constitution, was responsible solely to the king.

Bismarck then issued an edict restricting the freedom of the press.

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