Important steps to german unification

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Napoleon's conquests destroyed the Holy Roman Empire (1806) and unified many western German states in his Confederation of the Rhine.
An upsurge of German national consciousness was led by intellectuals, such as Johann Fichte, the Grimm brothers and Ludwig van Beethoven, during the Napoleonic Wars to unite and oppose foreign rule.
German nationalists united to defeat the French. The Battle of Leipzig, also called the Battle of Nations, was regarded as a united German victory against Napoleon. Prussia gained popular support as the powerful German state which had compromised the least with Napoleon and the French. Prussia gained much territory especially in the Rhineland as a result of the Napoleonic Wars.
The German Confederation was formed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 consisting of 38 states including German-speaking Austria. The Confederation was dominated Austria led by Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich. Metternich who designed the Confederation to limit the growth of German nationalism which he regarded as ultimately destructive to the multi-national Austrian Empire.
Demonstrations by the Burschenschaften (nationalist student groups) culminated with the Wartburg Festival in October, 1817, to celebrate Luther's Reformation and the united German victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig (the Battle of Nations). These student groups threatened Metternich's anti-liberal, anti-nationalist order.
The German Diet, the legislature of the German Confederation, passed Metternich's Karlsbad Decrees to suppress nationalism in 1819. Nationalist demonstrations were banned and the student groups, the Burschenschaften, were suppressed. Metternich and the Austrian Empire clearly opposed any effort at the unification of Germany.
The "Zollverein" (a tariff union of German states led by Prussia and excluding Austria) was formed, 1818-1844. The Zollverein brought increasing trade and communication among the many German states. It also made Prussia the leader in this movement encouraging national cooperation while Austria blocked such cooperation.
The growth of industrialism caused the growth of the middle class and nationalism, intensifying after 1840 in the German states. The middle class could see that industrialization and the economy would benefit from cooperation and unification that widened the sources of raw materials, built railroads to improve transportation, and expanded markets.
The ouster of Metternich during the Revolt of 1848 weakened Austrian control over the German Confederation. The revolt intensified German nationalism and weakened the Austrian Empire by raising the consciousness of its own subject nationalities.
The Frankfurt Assembly with delegates from most of the states of the German Confederation attempted a German union with Frederick William IV, the King of Prussia, at its head. The Prussian-dominated Erfurt Union was formed in 1849 and excluded Austria. King Frederick William IV rejected the liberal constitution and was also intimidated by threats from Austria and Russia opposing unification. After initially accepting the crown of united Germany, Frederick William IV then withdrew. 
After threats from both Austria and Russia and believing the Prussian army too weak, Frederick William IV rejected the liberal constitution and crown of united Germany. This defeat, known as the "humiliation of  Olmütz", caused many liberals, including the major leaders of the movement, to flee the German states. The leadership of the nationalist movement passed into more conservative, more pragmatic hands.
The ascension of Prince William to power (He became Regent in 1857 and King in 1861) brought a monarch to the throne who favored Prussian strength and opposition to Austrian dominance.
The successes of the Italians in their defeat of Austria in 1859-1860 encouraged the growth of German nationalism. It also increased support for the "Kleindeutsch" faction that supported Prussian leadership of the nationalist movement over that of Austria, the "Grossdeutsch" faction.
The Prussian army was reformed beginning in 1860 bringing new strength and confidence in that nation's military.
Otto von Bismarck was made Chancellor of Prussia in 1862.  (He would serve until 1890.): Bismarck's goal was to create at united German Empire with the King of Prussia as its Emperor (Kaiser).
Bismarck dismissed the members of the Prussian lower house, the "Landtag" in 1863 in a conflict over finances and army reforms. Using the strength of the nation as the core issue, Bismarck strengthened he Prussian monarchy and weakened the democratically-elected Landtag in the process.
Bismarck backed Russia by remaining neutral during the Polish revolt of 1863. In return, he secured later Russian backing for German unification. Russia was still bitter toward Austria because Austria had failed come to Russia's aid during the Crimean War, 1854-56. Russia felt that Austria owed a debt for the aid of the Russian army during the Revolution of 1848.
Austria and Prussia defeated Denmark in 1864 in a war to secure the provinces of Schleswig-Holstein for the German confederation. According to the settlement, Schleswig and Holstein were to be ruled jointly by Prussia and Austria. The war unified liberals and conservatives on the issue of German nationalism.
In 1865, Bismarck secured the neutrality of Napoleon III in case of any dispute between Prussia and Austria. Bismarck made vague promises of territory along the Rhine and in Belgium if France were to help settle a possible dispute between Prussia and Austria.
Arguments over the joint governing of Schleswig and Holstein brought war between Prussia and Austria in 1866. The Austrian army was weakened because many of the ethnic minorities refused to fight over an issue of German nationalism. Prussia defeated Austria in the "Seven Weeks War" or Austro-Prussian War of 1866. The Treaty of Prague that ended this German civil war pushed Austria out of the German unification movement and made Austria neutral in any future war between Prussia and France.
The new North German Confederation was formed uniting all of the northern German states under Prussian domination. The four large southern German states still remained sovereign and independent.
A growing fear of France brought a military alliance between Prussia and the southern German states of Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg, and Hesse-Darmstadt. In the case of an aggressive attack from France, the southern German states and Prussia would unite and place their armies under Prussian control.
Bismarck used the fear of French strength to secure British support through a promise of neutrality in the case of a war between Prussia and France in 1867.
The formation of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 further weakened Austria. Hungary had the power to make decisions on warfare and had gained the right to refuse to fight in any war for German nationalism or territory.
In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. (See the Franco-Prussian War.) The French declaration of war invoked the German alliance and the southern German states united with Prussia against France. This Prussian-led alliance of German states fought and decisively defeated France easily with the war lasting less than 6 months.
The German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18, 1871. King William I (Wilhelm I in German) of Prussia became first "Kaiser" (Emperor) of the united German Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire at the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, recognizing over 300 independent states. Brandenburg was relatively small and only of some importance.

By the start of the French Revolution in 1789, many of the German states had consolidated and Prussia (Brandenburg) had grown greatly in size and strength.

Napoleon's conquests consolidated several German states and created the Confederation of the Rhine.

The Congress of Vienna created the German Confederation, 38 independent states loosely bound together and dominated by Austria.

The combined armies of Prussia and Austria easily defeated Denmark in 1864 and added the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein to the German Confederation.

Prussia defeated Austria in the "Seven Weeks' War" of 1866. Prussia formed the North German Confederation and Austria was eliminated from the national unification movement.

Prussia unified with the south German states and defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

United Germany as it looks today.

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