Home / Industrial Revolution and Nationalism 1702 - 1906 / Nationalism and the Germans 1848-1870

Nationalism and the Germans 1848-1870

DESPITE THE development of democracy in some parts of the world, several of the most important nations established in the nineteenth century went in a different direction and among them was Germany. In the early part of the century, the Germans lived in a number of small states and two large ones Prussia and Austria. France was at least partly responsible for this, for it had long been her policy to keep the Germans weak and divided. Napoleon, too, had followed this policy when they came under his rule, but he had given some of them practical governments and a good system of laws called the Napoleonic Code.

Many Germans had been influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution. At the same time, they were becoming more and more nationalistic; they felt that all Germans belonged together in one large, united nation. This feeling increased when they fell under the rule of the French. Only by uniting into one nation could they be strong enough to rule themselves.

After the French Revolution of 1848, the German liberals broke out in open rebellion. They, too, wanted a constitutional monarchy. Joined by the radicals, who wanted a republic, they threw up barricades in the streets of Berlin, acting so swiftly that King Frederick William of Prussia was taken by surprise. When he went out on the balcony of his palace to talk to the people, they refused to listen until he had removed his hat as a sign of respect. Trying to calm them, he promised them a constitution.

The revolutions of 1848 gave the liberals control of the smaller German states. As the first step toward unification, these states elected representatives to an assembly at Frankfurt. Some members of the assembly were in favour of a republic similar to that of the United States. The majority wanted a king at the head of their national government and they asked Frederick William of Prussia to accept the title of German Emperor. He refused. Not that he did not want to be emperor but he feared that it would mean war with Austria, which would not be included in the new German nation.

The king’s refusal put an end to the whole project. The disappointed members of the assembly simply gave up and went home. The liberals lacked the power to carry out their ideas and the revolution of 1848 failed. Conservatives again took control of the various German states and many of the discouraged liberal leaders emigrated to the United States.


The Germans still wanted a united nation. Some of the advantages of unity were already clear, for almost all the German states belonged to a free-trade union, a block of states which allowed trading among themselves without payment of import taxes. This had improved business, had increased trade, mining, industry and had bound the states closer together with a network of railroads and telegraph lines. Now the Germans wanted the advantages of political and military union as well. The conservatives, too, favoured unification, but they believed it could be accomplished only through the use of military force.


Otto von Bismarck, the prime minister of the king of Prussia, shared this view. Born of noble parents, he had opposed the revolutions of 1848 and he thought the king had weakened himself by granting the people a constitution. He had no faith in democracy; any nation controlled by the people was hopelessly headed for socialism and total ruin. The best form of government was one in which a strong king and his ministers governed the people for their own good. Bismarck believed it was the will of God that Prussia should create a united Germany and that he, as prime minister, had been chosen by God to bring it about, whether the people wanted it or not.

The first thing that had to be done was to strengthen the already powerful Prussian army. The king agreed, but the lower house of parliament turned down his request for money for thirty-nine new regiments. Bismarck, who had little respect for parliaments, advised the king to organize the new regiments, approval or no approval. The army was strengthened and made more efficient. It was provided with a new type of gun, the “needle gun,” which could be loaded through the breech‚ the back end of the barrel, instead of through the muzzle, the front end. The needle gun could fire four bullets during the time it took to load and fire the old fashioned muzzle-loader just once.

After spending several years improving the army, Bismarck felt ready for the next step — war against Austria. There could be no unified Germany without the two most powerful German states, Prussia and Austria, but neither was likely to sacrifice its independence to a strong central government. Actually, Bismarck intended to make Prussia the real power of the new nation, with the king Prussia ruling over all of Germany. Austria would never consent to join such union, nor would she allow the Prussians to form such a union without her. Therefore, war was necessary. At the same time the Prussians, including the king, might object to attacking other Germans. Bismarck not only had to start a war, he had to do it in such a way that Prussia would appear to be merely defending itself.


Bismarck carefully watched for his opportunity and he found it in the famous Schleswig-Holstein affair. Schleswig and Holstein, two provinces in the southern part of the Danish peninsula, had been taken into the kingdom of Denmark in 1863. To do this, the Danish king had broken the terms of an international treaty. Many Germans lived in these provinces and it was not too difficult for Bismarck to persuade Austria to join him in a war against Denmark. The two German states quickly defeated Denmark and agreed to rule over the two provinces together.

Bismarck then cleverly managed to quarrel with Austria over the future of the provinces. When he sent troops to drive the Austrians out, Austria had to choose between giving up her claim to the provinces or making war on Prussia. She chose to make war and the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 came about just as Bismarck had planned it.

The smaller German states took sides with Austria. They wanted the united Germany to be liberal and they did not want to be ruled by Bismarck, who was far too conservative to suit them. Italy joined on the side of Prussia, because the Italians wanted to invade and take over the Austrian-controlled province of Venetia. The French had long opposed a united Germany, because they did not want a powerful nation on their northern border, but they remained neutral, probably because they expected Austria to win.

As it turned out, Prussia won so quickly that the war came to be known as the “Seven Week’s War.” All Europe was amazed and frightened by the might of the Prussian army. “The needle gun is king,” reported the London Times. Prussia also had the benefit of the brilliant leadership of Helmuth von Moltke, one of the world’s great generals. Von Moltke had spent years planning the war. No detail escaped him. For example, he had measured every Austrian bridge that might be destroyed to halt his advance. When the fighting began, his armies carried his emergency bridges that could be fitted together in a few hours. After the war, Austria remained an independent power, but Prussia was free to go ahead with her plan to unite all the rest of the German states. The southern states of Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hess-Darmstadt were allowed to remain independent. As part of the war settlement, Bismarck enlarged Prussia by including within her borders the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, Nassau and the city of Frankfurt. Thus Prussia became the largest of the German states — so large, in fact, that she possessed two-thirds of both the land area and the population of Germany.

Bismarck then went about the business of forming the North German Confederation. It united the giant state of Prussia with twenty-one small states, with Prussia ruling over them all. Bismarck directed the writing of a constitution that took into consideration three important factors. The first was that Prussia was in a natural position of leadership. The second was that the independence of each state must be respected. The third was that there existed a growing belief in liberal ideas throughout Germany.

The new constitution recognized Prussian leadership by making the king of Prussia the head of the new government. It recognized the independence of the states by allowing their rulers to appoint deputies who represented the states in the upper law-making body, the Bundesrat. It recognized the liberals of Germany by creating a lower house called the Reichstag, whose members were to be elected by all adult males.

The people of Europe were surprised that the conservative Bismarck would grant the government of greater Germany a constitution. Years later, Bismarck explained that the purpose of the constitution was to keep the liberals and radicals quiet. He wanted them to believe that greater Germany would be a democracy.

Actually, Bismarck and the Prussian king had nothing but contempt for democracy. The victory of the North in the American Civil War had given encouragement to the forms of democracy throughout Western Europe and the people were demanding political reforms. Bismarck allowed his people to vote — but he was careful to keep firm control of the country.

The Germans soon discovered that their new government was far from democratic. It was, in fact, a government with most of the power resting in the hands of the Prussian king and his ministers. This was so because Prussia still had its own government, with a king at its head. The king was also the head of the central government. He commanded its armies, dealt with other countries and had the authority to make treaties. In practice, the king of Prussia also had control of the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.


He personally appointed the seventeen deputies who represented Prussia and he could influence enough deputies from the smaller states to win the support of the majority. No bill could pass without his consent. It was true that he did not have control of the lower house, the Reichstag, whose members were elected by popular vote. The Reichstag was very week. It could not propose new laws, but only consider those recommended by the king and his ministers.

Bismarck’s plan for the unification of Germany was not yet complete. The German people were divided into three parts: the North German Confederation, Austria and the four smaller states in the south — Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt. The people of the small states were liberal and did not like the government of the confederation. Most of them were Catholics, while the Germans in the confederation were mostly Protestants.

Although Bismarck knew the small southern states wanted to remain independent, he was determined to get them into the confederation. He tried to gain their good will by encouraging more free trade between them and Prussia. He signed a treaty promising to defend them if they were attacked by France. Bismarck then sought a way to pick a quarrel with Napoleon III, so that France might be tempted to declare war. The south German states would naturally be frightened and just as naturally their fear would drive them into joining the confederation.

It so happened that Napoleon III was also looking for an excuse for war; he believed that a few victories would be just the thing to restore him to popular favour. Both he and Bismarck found it convenient to quarrel when Spanish rebels invited a German prince to take the throne of Spain. The French said they had been insulted and declared war on Germany on July 19th, 1870.

Once again the Prussians quickly crushed the enemy. As Bismarck had hoped, the south German states consented to join the confederation. It was further agreed that the confederation should be called the German Empire and that the King of Prussia should be known as the German Emperor. Bismarck had at last united the German people in one great nation, the most powerful in Europe. It was a Victory for nationalism and non-democratic government; it made power and might seem more glorious than liberty and democracy.

Check Also


Dictators in Germany and Italy Challenge Democracies

Dictators came to power in many European countries during the twenty years following World War I. …

Translate »