Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Unification of Germany Part I

When it comes to the unification of major European states that were or were perceived by some as ‘nation-states’ one will most likely think of the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Germany. Some had an easier time achieving unification than others. In the United Kingdom, it was not especially difficult but achieving it occurred over a fairly long period of time. Wales was subdued by England, Ireland became a vassal of England (conquering the whole island took quite a while) and then there was Scotland. Ultimately, England and Scotland came together as a result of the English queen passing to her reward with no children of her own and England and Scotland came into personal union under King James I. Much later still, under Queen Anne, all three kingdoms became united under one government, though still not without some political and economic pressure being brought to bear. All of this came about over quite a stretch of centuries. The unification of Spain was, in a way, the most “natural” of them all, being finally achieved by the marriage of the King of Aragon and the Queen of Castile. Italy probably had the most difficult unification of all since large parts of the country were held by two originally non-Italian royal families, there was the Pope right in the middle of it all and those pushing for unification were divided between republicans and royalists. Then there was Germany.

Although not without a degree of ‘storm and stress’ the unification of Germany was surprisingly easy. There are many reasons why it could have been much, much more difficult. Like Italy there were powerful foreign countries which opposed German unification and there were differences in language (or at least dialect) from one region to another. Yet, unlike Italy, the area that became Germany was much more politically divided with three Free Cities, seven Principalities, five Duchies, six Grand Duchies and four Kingdoms. Nor was there religious unity. The large majority were Protestants (mostly Lutheran) but there was a sizeable minority of Catholics and a smaller Jewish minority as well. Germany also did not have any ancient history of unity to look back on for inspiration. Spain had the Visigoth Kingdom of Spain that existed prior to the Muslim conquest and Italy had Imperial Rome but the area that became Germany had never been firmly under one government at any point in history. The closest was the Holy Roman Empire but for the vast majority of time that it existed, actual central control was only temporary and for the most part the constituent states ruled themselves and bargained with the Emperor rather than submitting to his authority unconditionally. Besides which, though the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire would at times be claimed, the memory of the “First Reich” was a rather problematic one.

From the earliest days of the first steps toward unification a rivalry could be seen between the Austrian Empire (whose first Kaiser was the last Holy Roman Emperor) and the rising power of the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, it was Emperor Francis I of Austria who became the first President of the German Confederation undoubtedly because of his prestige as the last Holy Roman Emperor. Then, it was Prussia that pushed the customs union that united the German-speaking states economically in 1818. This was also when the black-red-gold flag first appeared as the colors of the German Confederation. Many mistakenly believe the flag only appeared during the revolutions of 1848. Austria, however, was at a bit of a disadvantage because of her own past success. The Napoleonic Wars helped give rise to nationalist movements in both Italy and Germany. The Germans, after being defeated and dominated by the French, shared a common enemy and were united in their common misfortune. Austria, however, was always seen as something somewhat different since the Hapsburg dominion included so many non-German peoples. The Austrian Empire was a major enough force that not as many felt the need to band together as people in the smaller German states did.

Tensions between Austria and Prussia long predated the movement for national unification and, from the very beginning, it was usually Austria that lost and Prussia that gained. In the days of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the unity was more symbolic than factual and especially toward the end, no one even pretended that the Emperor in Vienna actually ruled the Empire beyond the borders of Austria and Hungary. The Prussians had first challenged imperial authority simply by claiming royal status. First the local monarch became “King IN Prussia” and in a later concession “King OF Prussia” and at times Prussians and Austrians went to war such as during the conflict between Emperor Joseph II and King Frederick the Great of Prussia. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars gave them someone else to fight but the old tensions remained. Also as a result of Napoleon (whether by agreements with him or conflicts against him) each made gains but Prussia gained amongst the German people whereas Austrian gains were mostly amongst non-German peoples, mostly Italians and also some Slavs by gaining Tarnopol from Russia. This, combined with the already sizeable Magyar and Slavic populations within the Austrian Empire further served to set Austria apart from the rest of the German-speaking world. However, Hapsburg preeminence remained due to the size of the Austrian Empire and the historic legacy of the House of Hapsburg.

Early on, the movement for German unification (as in other countries) was largely led by liberals, the young, the professorial class and more radical republican revolutionaries. This was seen most dramatically in the revolutions of 1848 when liberal German nationalists rose up, under the black-red-gold flag, demanding a parliament, a constitution, universal male suffrage and the unification of all Germans under the leadership of the King of Prussia. The result was the short-lived Frankfurt Assembly of 1848-49 and the St Paul’s Church constitution which offered the German crown to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. However, the nationalists were far from being in control of the whole of the German-speaking states and the King of Prussia, who was somewhat more liberal than his predecessor and who had shown some favor to the goal of unification, refused to accept leadership of the movement, famously saying that he would not accept, “a crown from the gutter”. One sticking point was the reluctance of the King of Prussia to accept a state which would cut off the other German monarchs whose support the King wanted to have under a constitution that would restrict royal authority. He did, however, go along with some tentative steps toward unity of the German states outside of Austria but later abandoned the idea when Austrian opposition proved resolute. In the end, the 1848 revolutions were suppressed, the German princes reasserted control and the liberal nationalist drive for unification was put to rest but only for the time being.

Things began to change in a big way after the accession of King Wilhelm I of Prussia and the rise of Otto von Bismarck to political supremacy in Berlin. More conservative Prussians were coming around to the idea of German unification, provided it was under Prussian leadership. Considering that Prussia had a strong economy and, arguably, man-for-man the strongest army in Europe, that might not have seemed too tall an order. However, there were obstacles. One was the King himself. Wilhelm I was quite content being the King of Prussia who owed his throne to God and had no interest in becoming an Emperor of Germany who would owe his throne to a political agreement or elected assembly. Another problem was the Austrians whose emperors continued to serve as presidents of the German Confederation and who had the benefit of legitimacy when it came to pan-German leadership from their history as Holy Roman Emperors. Austria would be sure to resist any effort to unite Germany under Prussian leadership (just as Prussia would likely have resisted any similar effort under Austrian leadership). Another problem was the south German states which were more Catholic, closer to Austria and whose royal families owed their “royal” status to Napoleonic France and thus could be problematic for Prussia. There was also the “problem” of the House of Hohenzollern itself and how unification would be achieved and what sort of a united Germany it would be.

King Wilhelm I, a traditional, old-fashioned sort of monarch (God bless him) was certainly not keen on the idea of German unification. Bismarck was adamantly pushing for Prussia to take charge of the movement, but King Wilhelm I did not really want to be an Emperor. After all, the Austrian Emperor was “the” Emperor and Wilhelm I did not want to appear as a sort of ambitious usurper of the rank and title that had traditionally belonged to the House of Hapsburg and which was bound up in the memory of the very Catholic Holy Roman Empire. Crown Prince Friedrich, however, was another story. He greatly favored unification and was eager to be Emperor of Germany. However, while Bismarck shared this ambition, the sort of united Germany the Crown Prince wanted was definitely not the sort that Bismarck wanted. Crown Prince Friedrich and his wife the Princess Royal Victoria of Great Britain, were rather liberal compared to the Chancellor and wanted to reign over a united Germany that was a democratic, limited, constitutional monarchy similar to what existed in Victorian Britain. Bismarck thought this would be a disaster and would set the German princes against Prussia and lead to nothing but trouble. However, Bismarck pushed ahead with his plan, supported at times by the Crown Prince even as he urged the King to keep his son with his liberal ideas on a short leash.

To be concluded in Part II


  1. I'm liking this series. I've recently fallen back in adoration of the German Empire, and I would never pass a chance to learn more about it.

  2. I dislike the XIX unifications (althought i am a fan of Kaiser Bill II), because it was an absolute violation of the divine right of the kings to rule, in italy many royal houses lost their ancestral territories and in germany some had the same fate and another became petty vassals of the Emperor (since when a king has to submit to his equal?), also it meant the end of some absolutes monarchies and more of thousand years of independence.

    In the future, maybe you will be upset for what i am going to say, there should be an highly de-centralized German Empire with the monarchs recognizing an Haspburg Emperor of Germany like their nominal overlord but in practice being independent states, like the 1815 Germand Bund but more "Imperial", you may ask me, why not a Holy Roman Empire?, and i will tell why. Because the HRE, at least during the middle ages was considered to be the single nation in all the west and the pope was the chief of the emperor, even worse he claimed the right to depose and king apointed by god!, every king
    was saw by rome like his vassal and the pope wanted to be the political leader of west, and i don't want that...

    Hi from Argentina

  3. The disgraceful treatment of Kaiser Wilhelm II by the Americans and their British toadies has to go down in history as a typical example of republicans imposing their nightmarish system of government on an unwilling nation, and then being punished for it through the rise of (the elected leader) Hitler. I recently heard an associate of mine compare the Kaiser to Hitler - I am astounded that anybody could compare the great, compassionate and wise emperor to that fascist, anti-Semitic, militarist autocratic scumbag.

    If Germany wants to escape the endless cycle of tenuous democracy followed by totalitarian autocracy, the only solution is to return the Hohenzollerns to power again.

  4. A Germanic western Europe would be something to see indeed but I just wish that the Kaiser would have listened to Otto von Bismarck and not expanded his empire into Africa. He was warned but did not listen. Europe needs a Monarchy again and a new Austrian-hungarian Empire would be best.


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