An evaluation of the reasons for the growth of nationalism in Germany, 1815-1850 Issues Covered

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An evaluation of the reasons for the growth of nationalism in Germany, 1815-1850

Issues Covered;

  • Political nationalism - The German Confederation, French Revolution/Napoleonic wars (military weakness of individual states), student societies, 1848 revolution

  • Cultural nationalism – language, literature, music and customs

  • Economic nationalism – Zollverein, industrialisation, urbanisation and railway development


Before 1806 Germany was divided into over 200 separate independent states (J. Kerr) grouped loosely together as the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). This had existed for hundreds of years.

The French wars (1792-1815) saw much of Europe and Germany dominated for a generation by the French Emperor Napoleon. In 1806 he decided to replace the HRE with a new 38 (J. Kerr) member grouping in Germany called the ‘Confederation of the Rhine’.
In 1815 Napoleon was defeated and the victors (Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia) reorganised Germany again. They gave network of states a new name, ‘The German Confederation’ (The Bund). They also returned to power many of the old rulers Napoleon had replaced with his own people.


  • In pairs try to create written definitions of the following terms;

    • Nationalism

    • Liberalism

    • Revolution

    • Constitution

The French Revolution 1789

(Political Nationalism Background pre 1815)

  • The French revolution encouraged the rise of ‘liberalism’ (i.e. governments that are representative of the people.)

  • The people of France called for liberty and equality as they demanded the expulsion of their autocratic leader, the King of France. This acted as an inspiration to those across the German states who wished to also see the expulsion of their autocratic state leaders. In their place they desired a more liberal, and representative, government.

Analysis Box: Summarise how the above factors led to a growth of nationalism?

Napoleon’s Defeat 1815 and Military Weaknesses

(Political Nationalism Background)

  • European nations developed and maintained large armies as a result of the Napoleonic wars. National consciousness was aroused throughout Europe as people struggled to free themselves from French domination. The German states realised their weaknesses as individual states and their tremendous strength when working as one unit to combat a common enemy.

  • In 1840 similar fears swept through the German states that France was about to invade. This led to widespread patriotic protests which would not have taken place a generation earlier when support for nationalism was much weaker. The invasion never took place but a permanent reminder of the affair is the patriotic song ‘The Watch on the Rhine’.

Analysis Box: Summarise how the above factors led to a growth of nationalism?

The German Confederation (Bund) 1815

Political Nationalism

Following the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, the German Confederation was created. It stated:

Rule Two: ‘The independence of individual states should be maintained.’

Rule Three: ‘Austria shall preside in the Diet (Parliament) of the Confederation.’ (This was because Austria was traditionally the most powerful state. The Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, was therefore also the President of the Bund. Austria was against unification as it threatened her royal dynasty and Empire.)
The above suggests that the Bund did not represent a move towards German unity. However, its birth contradicted its aims as people were unhappy that their nationalist desires had been denied. They were especially angry because their individual rulers had previously encouraged nationalism in order to fight off French invaders led by Napoleon.

  • See handout: The German Confederation, 1815

Analysis Box: Summarise how the above factors led to a growth of nationalism?

Overview: Political Nationalism

  • In the years initially following 1815, support for political nationalism in Germany was very small- it was limited to small groups of radical students from a middle class background known as the Burschenshaften. They were often encouraged by their lecturers who made speeches reflecting their motto, ‘Honour, Freedom, Fatherland’.

  • Repressive laws were issued by the Austrian Chancellor Metternich in 1819 called the Carlsbad Decrees which banned student societies and censored newspapers. The following year the power of the Diet was increased so that soldiers could be ordered to stop the spread of new ideas in any of the German states. Nonetheless the growth of nationalism continued with the emergence of the student societies of the 1830s which were far more radical in their outlook.

  • The growth of nationalism culminated in the revolutions of 1848. For the first time an all-German Parliament (The Frankfurt Parliament) met to create a united Germany. It consisted mainly of Liberals and Nationalists. Despite its eventual defeat the following year by the forces of Austria and Prussia, the setting up of this Parliament was a clear sign that support for unification was growing.

  • For more detailed notes on the 1848 revolution see Appendix A.

Analysis Box: Summarise how the above factors led to a growth of nationalism?

Cultural nationalism

Language, literature, music and customs

Even before 1815 a new-found interest in German history and culture was developing amongst the educated and artistic elite. Cultural nationalism was a reawakening of interest in the country’s heritage and as such it helped to stimulate the desire for unification. It made people proud of Germany’s history and of the achievements of her famous rulers, writers, men of religion, artists, musicians etc.

  • See handout: Origins and impact of Cultural Nationalism in Germany

Textbook Work

  1. Was language an important factor in the growth of German Nationalism? If so, why? Pgs 82-83

  2. In your own words explain Johann Fichte’s interpretation of the importance of language as a unifying factor. P83

  3. Where were nationalist feelings first expressed following 1815? P.85

  4. Give detailed examples of German literature that encouraged the growth of nationalism. P85

  5. Assess the impact of nationalism on the ordinary German. This should be a very detailed answer. Pgs 85-86

Analysis Box: Summarise how the above factors led to a growth of nationalism?

Economic Nationalism

Zollverein, industrialisation, urbanisation, railways
Note: In 1815 Prussia was given more land in the centre and west of Germany as a reward for fighting Napoleon. The result was that Prussia became the biggest ‘German’ state and in hindsight it is possible to see the beginning of the rivalry between Austria and Prussia.

  1. Explain how Germany’s economic standing in the early 1800s increased nationalism in the German states. Pgs 83-84

  2. How important was population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation as a cause of the growth of nationalism? Pgs 86-87

  3. What section of society were most in favour of economic nationalism? P87

  4. What was the Zollverein? P88

  5. Why was the exclusion of Austria from the Zollverein significant to German nationalists? (Think back to what you have already learned)

  6. Explain in detail the link between the development of the railway in the German states and German nationalism. P88-89

  7. Explain how Prussia, as the creator of the Zollverein, inadvertently contributed to economic nationalism? P88-89

Analysis Box: Summarise how the above factors led to a growth of nationalism?

Matthews categorised the growth of Nationalism in terms of the following factors:

  • Economic Nationalism

  • Cultural Nationalism

  • Political Nationalism

Economic Nationalism
William Carr, “Certainly Prussia was not thinking in terms of political unification when it founded the Customs Union.”
William Carr has called the Zollverein, “The mighty lever of German Unification.”
William Carr, “Railways were of great political significance. They helped to break down provincial barriers, brought town and country nearer together and underlined the need for national unification.”
Andrina Stiles, “The Zollverein was a force for unity in the 1840s and therefore a focal point for nationalist sentiments.”
David Thomson, “No social and political order could have remained unaffected by so immense an increase in humanity.”
Andrina Stiles, “The Zollverein was a force for unity in the 1840s and therefore a focal point for national sentiments.”
The Austrian decision not to participate in the Zollverein initially left her isolated. Metternich stated, “Austria is on the point of seeing herself to a certain extent excluded from the rest of Germany...and treated as a foreign country.”
Cultural Nationalism
Ian Mitchell, “Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds.”
Andrina Stiles, “Even in 1815 there were tens of thousands of people, especially among the young, the educated, and the middle and upper classes, who felt passionately that Germans deserved to have a fatherland in the same way that the English and the French already had.”
Fichte described ‘Germany’ as the Fatherland where all people spoke the same language and sang the same songs.’
Fichte, “Whenever, a separate language is found there is also a separate nation which has the right to manage its affairs independently and rule itself.”
Golo Mann wrote that most Germans ‘seldom looked up from the plough’. He doubted the influence of artists that most Germans knew nothing about.
Matthews calls ‘common language’ the “hallmark of a nation state.”
Political Nationalism
AJP Taylor, “Frankfurt suffered from too much experience rather than too little; too much calculation, too much foresight, too many elaborate combinations, too much statesmanship.”

Thinking Task

Homework Task

  • See Appendix B


  • The German population increased by 50% between 1815 and 1855, while the Prussian population grew by 70%

  • Roads were built rapidly after 1815 to link Berlin to the new Prussian territories in the west. By 1850 over 5,000 km of railway track were laid and the beginning of a network were established.

  • By 1836 the Zollverein included 25 of the 39 states and had a free trade area which included 25 million people.

Past Paper Questions
2001: Assess the importance of economic factors in the growth of nationalism in Germany during the period 1815-1850.
2004: Why did nationalism grow in Germany between 1815 and 1850?
2009: How important were economic factors in the growth of national feeling in Germany during the period 1815-1850?
2011: How important were cultural factors in the growth of national feeling in Germany between 1815 and 1850?

Appendix A: 1848 Revolutions
The 1848 revolutions can be seen as the pinnacle moment in the growth of nationalism, particularly political nationalism, which led to the revolutions. After the fall of Metternich in 1848 there were a series of demonstrations in Berlin (capital of Prussia). King Fredrick William of Prussia hated the violence and feared the demonstrators. He gave into their demands and granted a constitution, agreed to an elected assembly, and promised to unite Prussia in Germany.
“Today I have taken the old German colours. Prussia henceforth merges into Germany.”
It seemed at this point, that Prussia was in poll position for taking the lead as the leader of a united Germany. In many German states the old rulers had fallen from power. The German Confederation had crumbled along with Metternich falling from power in Austria. Austria at this point was also distracted by revolutions going on within her own Empire.
574 delegates met in Frankfurt to agree on the mechanism for election to a national Constituent Assembly. The Frankfurt parliament would be tasked with drawing up the rules of government – or constitution – for a united Germany.
Why did the Frankfurt Parliament fail?
There were two key reasons showing why the revolution of 1848 failed:

  1. Internal problems – arguments in the Frankfurt Parliament

  2. External problems – enemies of the Frankfurt parliament



In Spring of 1848 Frederick William seemed keen but by March 1849 he had refused the crown of 'Germany' (a crown of shame)


      • Middle class happy to get rid of old system but not when riots attacked their property.

      • Working classes wanted the revolution to help their living and working conditions. They didn't think those changes would be likely in a parliament controlled by the middle class who were often also their employers!

      • Over 80% of the delegates at the parliament had university qualifications and their interest lay with unification rather than social reform.

Big Germany – Grossdeutschland (including Austria)

Small Germany – Kleindeutschland (excluding Austria)
Some argued that if Austria were allowed in then the Austrian Empire would mean that there would be many 'foreigners' allowed in – not just Austrians but other nationalities too.



          • By 1849 old rulers of the German states had recovered their political power.

          • They still had armies unlike the Frankfurt parliament who had no real political power and no army to protect it.


    • Frederick William had organised the 'Erfurt Union' which was an assembly of German princes under Prussian control. However, by 1850, when Austria had recovered, the German Princes who had felt 'bullied' now joined Austria.

    • In 1850 Austria persuaded most of the old rulers to renew the German Confederation. New Chancellor of Austria, Schwarzenberg, stated,”We shall not let ourselves be thrown out of Germany.”

    • Hesse-Cassel(one of the states in the Erfurt Union) asked for help to put down a small revolution:

      • Austria sent troops (claimed right to do this because of restored German Confederation)

      • Prussia sent troops (claimed right to do this because it was leader of the Erfurt Union)

      • At the last minute Prussia backed down and a meeting was arranged at Olmutz.

    • 'Humiliation of Olmutz'

      • Prussia had to agree to cancellation of Erfurt Union

      • Prussia had to promise never again to challenge Austria's power

      • Old German Confederation reinstated

Appendix B: Advanced Historiography
Read the extract from Matthews and answer the following questions.

  1. Matthews calls ‘common language’ the “hallmark of a nation state”. Why do you think ‘common language’ was so important to the growth of nationalism?

  2. Look at the extract from Matthews’ work. What one factor does he highlight as perhaps more significant than any other?

  3. What areas of history did German academics highlight as important in generating a sense of national pride?

  4. What other cultural factors instilled a sense of national pride in the ‘German’ people.

Paired Exercise

Which factors would you consider as more important in contributing to the growth of nationalist feeling in the German states, 1815-50?

In the boxes below you should note your conclusions. Make sure you explain the reason for your decision.




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