What Was the Unification of Germany and When Did It Take Place?

History Hit

4 mins

18 Jan 1871

On 18 January 1871 Germany became a nation for the first time in history after a nationalistic war against France masterminded by the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck. The ceremony took place in the palace of Versailles outside Paris rather than in Berlin – and this overt symbol of militarism and conquest would foreshadow the first half of the next century as the new nation became a major power in Europe.

Proclamation of the German Empire, painted by Anton von Werner

Proclamation of the German Empire, painted by Anton von Werner. Otto von Bismarck is pictured centre in a grey tunic.

A motley collection of states

Before 1871 Germany had always been a motley collection of states – which shared little more than a common language. Custom, systems of rule and even religion varied wildly across these states – of which there had been more than 300 on the eve of the French Revolution, and the idea of unifying them was as distant and disparaged as a United States of Europe is today. Until Bismarck.

As the 19th century progressed, and particularly after several German states had played a role in defeating Napoleon, nationalism did become a genuinely popular movement. However, like support of the EU today it was mainly held by students and middle class liberal intellectuals who called upon Germans to unite based on shared language and a tenuous common history.

German states around 1789

The German states in 1789. They were then part – in name at least – of Charlemagne’s ancient Holy Roman Empire. Another Emperor – Napoleon – would finally dissolve this ancient group of states in 1806.

Few people took much notice beyond a few mildly nationalistic festivals, and the fact that the movement was confined to intellectuals was illustrated poignantly in the European revolutions of 1848, where a brief stab at a national German parliament quickly fizzled out and this attempted Reichstag never held much political power.

After this, it seemed that German unification was no nearer to happening than ever, and the Kings Princes and Dukes of the German states – who were opposed to unification for obvious reasons – generally retained their power.

The power of Prussia

The power balance of the German states was important, for if one was ever more powerful than the others put together, then it might attempt conquest of intimidation. By 1848 Prussia – a conservative and militaristic kingdom in the east of Germany – had been the strongest of the states for a century. However, it was restrained by the combined strength of the other states, and, more importantly, by the influence of the neighboring Austrian Empire, which would not allow any German state to have too much power and become a possible rival.

After the brief flirtation with revolution in 1848 the Austrians had restored order and the status quo, humiliating Prussia in the process. When the formidable statesman von Bismarck was appointed Minister-President of that country in 1862 his aims were revenge and the restoration of Prussia as a great European power. The first would come quickly.

One of statesman Otto von Bismarck’s most famous quotes – and he certainly acted upon it.

After effectively taking command of the country unconstitutionally he vastly improved the military for which Prussia would become famous, and managed to enlist the newly formed country of Italy to fight for him against their historic oppressor Austria.

The defeat of Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War

The war that followed in 1866 was a resounding Prussian victory which radically changed a European political landscape which had remained virtually the same since the defeat of Napoleon.

Many of Prussia’s rival states had joined Austria and been cowed and defeated, and the Empire then turned its attentions away from Germany in order to restore some of its severely battered prestige. The ethnic tensions that this move created would later kick-start World War One.

The battle of Konniggratz by Georg Bleibtreu (1866). The Prussian King Wilhelm I, Bismarck and General Moltke observe one of the largest battles in history up to that point. On 3 July 1866, about 180,000 Austrians and 200,000 Prussians faced each other. 1,500 guns were used.

Prussia, meanwhile, was able to form the other beaten states in North Germany into a coalition which was effectively the beginnings of a Prussian Empire. Bismarck had masterminded the whole business and now reigned supreme – and though not a natural nationalist he was now seeing the potential of a fully united Germany ruled by Prussia. This was a far cry from the heady dreams of the earlier intellectuals, but, as Bismarck famously said, unification would have to be achieved, if it was to be achieved, by “blood and iron.”

He knew, however, that he could not rule a united country dogged by infighting. The south remained unconquered and the north was only tenuously under his control. It would take a war against a foreign and historic enemy to unite Germany, and the one that he had in mind was particularly hated across Germany after Napoleon’s wars.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71

France was ruled at this point by the great man’s nephew, Napoleon III, who did not have his uncle’s brilliance or military skill. Through a series of clever diplomatic tactics Bismarck was able to provoke Napoleon into declaring war on Prussia, and this seemingly aggressive move on France’s part kept the other European powers such as Britain from joining her side.

A montage of the Franco-Prussian War

A montage of scenes from the Franco-Prussian War, which ended in defeat for France and annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine region by the newly formed Germany.

It also created a furious anti-French feeling across Germany, and when Bismarck moved Prussia’s armies into position, they were joined – for the first time in history – by men from every other German state. The following war was devastating for the French.

The large and well trained German armies won many victories – most notably at Sedan in September 1870, a defeat which persuaded Napoleon to resign and live out the last miserable year of his life in exile in England. The war did not end there however, and the French fought on without their Emperor. A few weeks after Sedan Paris was under siege, and the war only ended when it fell in late January 1871.

In the meantime, Bismarck had gathered the German generals princes and Kings at Versailles and proclaimed the new and ominously powerful country of Germany, changing the political landscape of Europe.