The Era of Reaction and Nation Building

After the crushing of the Revolution of 1848/49 the nationalist movement was suppressed and democratic rights revoked. In most of the German states censorship and political persecution increased in the wake of what came to be known as the “Federal Reaction Resolution” of 23 August 1851, which legitimized the elimination of a number of liberal achievements. On that day the princes also nullified the “Fundamental Rights of the German People” that had been passed by the Assembly at the Frankfurt Paulskirche in 1848. The fight for supremacy in the German Confederation determined the politics of the powerful states of Austria and Prussia. For many years their dualism stood in the way of the founding of a national state. It was only after the Prussian victories in the “unification wars” against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866 and France in 1870/71 that the German Empire could be founded (Reichsgründung), on 18 January 1871, which large sectors of the German population had been longing for.

Germany undergoing transition

During the Revolution of 1848/49 new constitutions had been passed, or in the case of Prussia been imposed, in almost all of the German states, and yet most of these constitutions gave the elected representatives of the people hardly any say in political matters. In Prussia, Austria and many other German states the liberal achievements from the revolutionary period were revoked, the civil service purged, and police surveillance and repression intensified. Under the pressure of the reaction, many democrats emigrated to France, Great Britain, Switzerland or the United States. Other champions of the Revolution became disillusioned and withdrew from political life, turning their energies to economic success in their private lives.

The industrial middle classes benefited from a liberalisation in commerce after 1850. At the same time developments in transportation, including the expansion of the railway network and build-up of steam navigation, made a decisive impact on economic growth. Transport capacity and distribution of goods increased rapidly, with parallel growth in the iron and steel industry, mining and mechanical engineering. Industrial production gained in importance and new factories induced masses of people from the rural areas to move to the upcoming industrial centres. Unemployment and pre-industrial mass misery from the first half of the 19th century, known as “pauperism”, disappeared. At the same time new social classes emerged as the industrialisation of Germany took hold. Urban craftsmen and unskilled itinerant workers from the countryside formed a previously unknown factory proletariat that began increasingly in the 1860s to improve the catastrophic working and living conditions with the help of the upcoming labour movement. On the other hand, between 1850 and 1870 some two million Germans sought their fortunes by emigrating, especially overseas.

Bismarck’s Political Rise

Poverty and uncertainty about the future left the labour force with little room for thoughts about a national state, which despite the failure of the Revolution of 1848/49 had remained alive among the German population. At the end of the 1850s the German national movement gained new momentum through the example of the surprising successes of the Italian unification movement. The so-called “Schiller celebrations” that took place in 1859 venerated the great writer of Weimar classicism as a symbol of national liberty. In the same year liberals and moderate democrats formed the “German National Association”. Its members advocated the unification of the empire in the form of the “Lesser German solution”, which excluded Austria, as a process to be led “from the top down”. The decisive impulse for the sought-after unification of the empire came through Prussia’s willingness to advance the cause of the national state. Wilhelm I, regent since 1858 for his mentally obscured brother, Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, joined forces with Minister President Otto von Bismarck to put the question of nationality on the political agenda. Bismarck had come to office in the wake of a conflict between the Prussian King and the Prussian Diet on matters concerning the army and the constitution. That same year Bismarck laid down his position on the national question clearly in a speech: “The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”

On route to forming the German Empire

In 1864 the Second Schleswig War broke out over the question of the affiliation of the Duchy of Schleswig, which the Danish government wanted to integrate into the Danish state. Bismarck succeeded in getting Austria to join the Prussian side. After the defeat of Denmark, Schleswig came under the control of Prussia, while Holstein was administered by Austria. However, the “war booty” soon led to a conflict between Prussia and Austria that only superficially had to do with Schleswig and Holstein. The Austro-Prussian War, or German War, of 1866 between Prussia and Austria was the last and decisive struggle of the two great powers for supremacy in Germany.

Bismarck recognized the revolutionary impetus of the national idea and sought to exploit it. He advanced the process of unification by expanding the power of Prussia and establishing Prussian hegemony in Germany. The Prussian defeat of Austria in the Battle of Königgrätz was followed by the Prussian annexion of states allied with Austria: the Kingdom of Hanover, the Electorate of Hessen, the Duchy of Nassau and the Free City of Frankfurt. Bismarck deposed the ruling princes without regard to the principle of the legitimacy of dynasties, long cherished by conservatives. The Austrian Empire recognized the dissolution of the German Confederation, which had come into being in 1815. All German states north of the Main line were incorporated into the newly formed North German Confederation under Prussian dominion. Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hessen-Darmstadt entered into close, mutually protective alliances with the North German Confederation. Austria was thus completely excluded from the process of German unification.

After the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 the French became increasingly fearful that the new Prussian-German confederation would gain too much power in Central Europe. For Bismarck, on the other hand, a military confrontation with arch-enemy France offered the opportunity to complete national unification under Prussian leadership. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 developed from the very beginning into the “German national war”. The proclamation of Kaiser Wilhelm I in Versailles on 18 January 1871 became embedded in German consciousness as the actual act of founding the German Empire. The majority of the German population saw in it the fulfilment of their longing for a German nation.

Arnulf Scriba, 6. September 2014
Translated by Stephen Locke