Germany’s history as a nation is a broad and difficult subject to tackle, but in a way that is often surprising. Germany as a unified entity is much younger than you might think, and the German Empire lasted for much less time than you may imagine. It only came into existence in 1871, well after Napoleon, and a mere 47 years before its dissolution in the First World War.
To fully understand the German Empire, and more generally the idea of a unified German state, we need to first look back a little further, to the Holy Roman Empire (and Napoleon!).
The Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was famously described by Voltaire in 1756 as “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” It is hard to disagree with him. By 1806, the HRE was wracked by internal conflict, and certainly as far from Roman as it gets, with barely a foothold left in Italy (Venetia).
It was barely even Roman Catholic, let alone Holy, considering that it had utterly failed to reign in the Protestant Reformation in Northern Germany a century and a half prior.
The rising military power of Protestant Prussia in opposition to Catholic Austrian authority within the Empire certainly didn’t help. And when, in 1806, Napoleon shattered the Austrian and then Austro-Russian armies at Ulm and Austerlitz, the prestige and legitimacy of the HRE as a state reached such a low that it could not continue.
The then-Emperor, Francis II Habsburg of Austria, abdicated on the 6th of August of that year, and his abdication marked the final end of the HRE as a political entity.
The historical crown of the Holy Roman Emperors. Interestingly, the sapphire at the top centre of the front plate is a replacement for a legendary gem whose brilliance and colour was, by all accounts, unique. That stone disappeared without cause or trace sometime after the 1300s.
The destruction of the HRE had been the first of the Napoleonic Wars: The War of the Third Coalition. In West Germany, Napoleon created a buffer state as a client of France called the Confederation of the Rhine, in order to protect France from invasion by powers further east.
Many of the battles of the Napoleonic Wars were fought in German territories, and many states fought on both sides at different points in time. Austria and Prussia were leading opponents to Napoleon at several points in time, although towards the latter stages they were subordinated by France.
The spread of Ideas
That points to another important factor in German and indeed European history: occupations of European states by Revolutionary French troops. Napoleon was not leading some old, traditional Empire. He was leading a state that had been completely overthrown with ideas of Nationalism and Liberalism and rule for the people and so on.
The soldiers fighting in his armies were not the sons of nobles and career warriors, but of farmers and tradesmen and common people – the people most stunned and excited by these ideas. And soldiers don’t just sit in their camps sharpening their bayonets between battles – they interact with the locals; especially at this point in history.
Imagine being told for just about the first time that rulers and the ruled should have the same rights before the law of the land. That state borders should be drawn based on the culture of the people within the state, rather than the property rights of its king. That all individuals should be free to pursue any life they are capable of pursuing. And imagine not only being told that, but also finding out that the world’s greatest military, cultural, and political power, France, actively practices those ideas on every level of society (mostly).
These things aren’t being proclaimed to you by some distant power figure you see for one speech every few years if you’re lucky; these ideas are being shared with you in an enthusiastic manner by someone just like you. Not only that, but laws and governments were being reformed based on the French model as quickly as Napoleon was conquering countries – which was very quickly.
The presence of French troops, legal practices, and government throughout Europe, and especially Germany, for the decade of the Napoleonic Wars sowed the seeds of nationalism and liberalism on a grand scale.
The Napoleonic Wars went on fiercely and intermittently for a further nine years after 1806, ending with the decisive defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. By the end, the puppet Confederation of the Rhine was of course disbanded, leaving a massive power vacuum in Germany.
The German Confederation
A contemporary illustration of the Congress of Vienna. Author unknown, 1814.
The two-year-long Congress of Vienna redrew the borders of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. The many independent German states, fearful of renewed domination by France in the future, organised a mutual defence pact including just about all of the former states of the HRE, notably excluding Switzerland.
This defensive organisation was termed the German Confederation, and despite its name, it is generally not regarded as having been a true state. It would be more accurate to think of it as somewhat analogous to today’s European Union or United Nations.
There was a central, semi-democratic parliament mostly composed of officials from the governments of member states. This body had little actual power though, and served mostly as a diplomatic tool to encourage cooperation between member states.
However, the German Confederation was mostly doomed as an effective political effort for one very clear reason: it included both the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia.
Despite the dissolution of the HRE, Austria still controlled the very large empire they’d accumulated under the direct jurisdiction of the Austrian (not Holy Roman) crown. In modern terms, this empire covered all of Austria, a good chunk of northeast Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Czechia, Slovakia, some of Romania, and a bit of northern Serbia (that bit of Serbia became very important around 1911). In short, Austria was still a great power. But so was Prussia.
The Prussian military was widely believed to be among the best in the world, and the rich Prussian territories sprawled across northern Germany all the way into what is now northeast Poland. While they had cooperated closely at some points during the Napoleonic Wars, their rivalry resumed quickly once the threat of France was dealt with.
The German Confederation was marked constantly by diplomatic and economic sparring between the two great powers, as each tried to corral the other German states into their respective spheres of influence.
The Prussian Lion circles the Austrian Elephant. Menzel, 1846.
Opposition to Liberalism and Nationalism
Napoleon’s defeat had meant the re-assertion of the traditional authority of privilege and nobility, with the Congress of Vienna having largely been aimed at containing Nationalism and Liberalism within France, and to prevent the formation of a powerful Nationalist movement in Germany or Italy.
This may seem counterintuitive, given that the “threat” of a nationalist movement would be the establishment of a strong, unified, and industrialised nation state in Germany or Italy, and it was largely German and Italian dignitaries who dominated the Congress. However, keep in mind that the individuals making these decisions were part of the established ruling class, whose legitimacy stemmed from tradition and privilege. Any Nationalist and especially any Liberal movement would surely aim to depose these individuals in particular.
Every effort was made to safeguard the power of the old monarchies, even at the expense of slowed industrialisation and inefficient militaries.
However, Prussia was not entirely on-board with this. While Prussia stood out throughout its history as an extraordinarily conservative state, it is also very much the source of the stereotypical image of the German as a hyper-efficient, militaristic, pragmatic, and almost automaton-like human being.
The Prussian nobility and monarchy was not content with the severe military defeats that Prussia had suffered in the wars against Napoleon, and sought to incorporate the strengths of the Revolutionary French state into their conservative, noble-dominated government. The result was striking, and still iconic today.
Prussia passed a series of reforms during this period that modernised and professionalised the military, heavily encouraged industry at the expense of the old medieval guilds, and broadened and improved education. They also narrowed the responsibilities and obligations of the local nobility (the Junkers) to focus their efforts on military matters, abolished serfdom to better motivate the population, and implemented universal male conscription.
These were among a host of other measures that preserved the power of the monarchy while dramatically increasing the strength of the state.
The Spring of Nations
Revolutionaries in Berlin in 1848. While the revolutions were almost entirely nationalistic, some wanted a unified empire while others wanted a unified republic. Hence, horizontal tricolour (monarchist) and vertical tricolour (republican, aligned like the tricolours of the French Revolution) are both present. Author unknown, circa 1848-50.
Meanwhile, despite every effort to stamp them out, the ideas mentioned earlier were fermenting. Eventually, the 1848 Revolutions, or the Spring of Nations, broke out in Europe. This was a massive wave of liberal and nationalistic revolutions that left their mark on just about every country in Europe today.
In Germany, it led to widespread calls for a unified state. A revolutionary parliament was established in Frankfurt to supersede the German Confederation, and a German Empire was declared.
The Frankfurt Parliament offered the crown of the newly-declared German Empire to the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV Hohenzollern, but he refused. Famously, he believed that the Frankfurt Parliament did not have the authority to offer such a thing, and stated that he would not accept “a crown from the gutter.”
This German Empire lasted barely a year, from 1848 to 1849, before Prussia’s military thoroughly crushed the revolutionaries. The German Confederation was reconstituted in 1851, but its authority was even smaller than it had been before, and Prussia was very interested in a unified Germany – a unified Germany established on Prussian terms, under Prussian leadership and Prussian administration, and preserving the power of Prussian nobility and monarchy.
This was at direct odds with Austria’s aim in re-establishing the Confederation, which was to prevent such a thing. As you might imagine, the post-revolutionary peace did not last very long.
A contemporary painting of the interior of the Frankfurt Parliament in June 1848. While the black red and yellow tricolour may seem familiar now, at the time it was a nationalist revolutionary symbol with its origins in a volunteer militia who fought against Napoleonic French occupation more than 30 years prior. Von Elliot, 1848.
The Brothers’ War
In 1864, Prussia and Austria collaborated in a war against Denmark to conquer the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, which is essentially the territory at the base of the Danish peninsula. They agreed to jointly administer the duchies, which lay adjacent to Prussia and very far from Austria.
By 1866, Prussian public opinion was strongly against what was seen as violations by Austria of the co-rulership agreement. The legendary Prussian foreign minister, the Count Otto von Bismarck, had orchestrated this alliance with Austria and war with Denmark with the specific intent of pushing Prussia and Austria into a war which Prussia was certain to win.
Count Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia and the German Empire and the engineer of the unification of Germany. Picture from 1890.
Central Europe in 1866
Much had changed and remained the same in wider Germany and the surrounding great powers. The North German states were strongly aligned with Prussia, while the South German states were strongly aligned with Austria.
In France, the Bourbon monarchy was restored after Napoleon, then deposed to be replaced by a more popular monarch, who was then deposed in the 1848 Revolutions to be replaced by a republic, which suffered a coup d’état by Napoleon III (nephew of the Napoleon), who proclaimed himself Emperor of France.
Napoleon III, while eager to acquire German territory along the Rhine river, was confident of a Prussian defeat in any potential war between Austria and Prussia, and so opted to remain neutral to be better able to enforce his demands on a weakened Prussia.
Russia was still furious with Austria over their actions around the Crimean War, and so would not intervene on the Austrian side. The United Kingdom was disinterested in the potential conflict, and so would not support either side.
Italy, which had largely remained a somewhat fractured collection of small and medium-sized states like Germany, had finally managed to fight off Bourbon rule and establish a nationalist monarchy – immediately recognised as a new great power. They were eager to acquire the Austrian province of Venetia, as Venetians were very much considered part of the Italian Nation. As a result, Italy agreed to an aggressive, short-term alliance with Prussia against Austria in 1866.
Thus, even before war broke out, it was clear that Austria would be fighting against two great powers with no support from anyone outside of Germany.
Austro-Prussian military situation
Prussia had an overwhelmingly superior military by 1866. The Austrian army was in many ways compromised for political reasons.
Units were constituted weeks away from soldiers’ homes so that whole military units would not join local uprisings, meritocracy was barely considered in promotions, units from different cultural groups did not cooperate well, the rigid power structure was unwilling or unable to implement modern military tactics, and reservists were not well-trained.
Additionally, the Prussian rail network was vastly more extensive than the Austrian, and the Prussian infantry was dramatically better equipped.
Overall, the Prussian army was better motivated, trained, equipped, supplied, and organised, with the ability to mobilise faster, and the ability to concentrate vast numbers of men at a single point of conflict incredibly quickly.
The Seven Weeks’ War
Tensions over the duchies and large troop movements on all sides resulted in Prussia declaring that prior agreements were void, and invading Holstein. The war was over quickly and decisively, lasting approximately seven weeks (as the alternative name implies).
The Italians fought on roughly even terms with the Austrians in the south, including suffering a decisive naval defeat against the Austrian navy. In the north though, the Prussians smashed Austria’s German allies with little resistance, culminating in their stunning victory at the Battle of Königgrätz (kuhh-nig-grehts) in modern Czechia.
The Battle of Königgrätz
In Königgrätz, the main northern Austrian army, supported by the army of Saxony, was dug into fortified positions with heavy, long-range artillery support. The Prussians were determined to attack and dislodge them from this position.
The Prussian artillery was notably shorter ranged than the Austrians’, and, due to logistical problems, the Prussian force at the outset of the battle was only a little more than half the size of the combined Austrian army. Despite this, by the time Prussian reinforcements arrived, well after the attack commenced in the morning, the Austrian and Saxon armies had been forced to retreat with grievous casualties after an incredible effort by the outnumbered Prussian infantry.
They had successfully forded a river under heavy fire, held out against dramatic numerical superiority, and destroyed the vast majority of Austrian units attempting to dislodge them. By the end of the battle, the Austrians had suffered some 44 000 casualties and 22 000 captured, for the loss of approximately 9000 Prussians killed and wounded. Though the war went on for some time after, the result was inevitable.
A Prussian veteran of Königgrätz, photographed at least three decades after the battle.
The North German Confederation
With the decisive defeat of Austria in the Austro-Prussian war (the war has a lot of different names), Prussia was more or less able to dictate the fate of Central Europe. The German Confederation was disbanded completely. Italy gained the province of Venetia that they’d been after. Austria was permanently ejected from all German politics, relinquishing all aspects of political and economic dominance over any other German states.
Prussia annexed several of Austria’s German war allies, but interestingly chose not to take any Austrian territory – this helped prevent further conflict between the two countries, and enabled them to ally with each other in future wars.
Most importantly, with Prussia now being the sole German great power, they were able to pursue their aims of unification. The first step in this process was the formation of the North German Confederation one year later, in 1867. Unlike the German Confederation, which had been reminiscent of the HRE in its ineffectuality, the North German Confederation was a true state, with a strong centralised government absolutely capable of enforcing the will of the center over the provinces.
While Prussia was only one of many constituent states, the permanent head of state was the Prussian monarch, and the government was very much built on the Prussian model. The North German Confederation more or less encompassed those states which had allied with Prussia in the war, and steps were immediately taken to unify the government and promote industrialisation.
The South German states, while not part of this Confederation, were firmly within the sphere and under the protection of the North German Confederation.
The Franco-Prussian War
At the end of the German Civil War (another name for the war between Prussia and Austria), Napoleon III of France, alarmed by the sudden and massive expansion of Prussian power, demanded certain strategic territories along the Rhine river (the traditional border between France and Germany) in order to ensure that France would be capable of defending herself against the newly emerged superstate of the North German Confederation.
When informed that he could expect an immediate declaration of war if he did not accept these demands, Bismarck reportedly responded to the French ambassador with the statement “Good, then it’s war!” France did not, in the end, opt to declare war at this time.
However, they would not remain so moderate.
The Spanish Succession
In Spain, trouble was brewing. The throne was vacant from 1868 onwards, leading to a crisis in governance. Suitable candidates were few and far between, and in 1870 the throne was offered to a distant Catholic cousin of King Wilhelm I of Prussia.
Leopold, Prince of Hohenzollern, the cousin in question. Date unknown, c. 1865.
When the offer was made public, France was terribly alarmed. A Hohenzollern on the throne of Spain could easily mean a two-front situation with the powerful North German Confederation to the east and an allied Spain to the south. The French demanded that this cousin’s candidacy be withdrawn, while the French public cried out in support of war.
To the surprise of many, Prussia accepted this demand. Impishly, the French government tried to squeeze further concessions from the Prussians: that no Hohenzollern candidate ever again be considered for the throne of Spain.
The French ambassador had to bypass the regular channels to make this demand, and the result was an informal conversation with the Prussian king, who was on holiday at a resort spa in one of Prussia’s newly conquered territories.
The impertinent nature of the demand, and the inappropriate way in which it was made meant that the king was quite justified in rejecting it, and taking mild offense with the ambassador.
He ordered a telegram be sent to Bismarck informing him of the exchange, and suggesting that perhaps an account of events could be released to the press in such a way as to bolster the Prussian diplomatic position. Bismarck characteristically made more than the best of this opportunity.
Wilhelm I Hohenzollern, King of Prussia (centre left), in Bad Ems c. 1870.
The Ems Telegram
The fact that the telegram gets a fancy name should tip you off that Bismarck did something big with it. Bismarck released a truthful version of the telegram, which had nonetheless been doctored to exclude the diplomatic niceties from both the French ambassador and the Prussian King.
To the wider German public, it seemed the French ambassador had terribly disrespected the King. To the French public it seemed that the Prussian King had insulted and dismissed out of hand the French ambassador, and, by extension, the French nation.
Matters were not helped by a French mistranslation implying that further communication with ambassador would be carried out through a low-ranking military officer, rather than through a high-ranking aide-de-camp as the German press release expressed. The result was that the French cabinet immediately voted for war with the North German Confederation.
Meanwhile, in Germany, public sentiment swung heavily in favour of Prussia and against France, with all significant states that had not yet joined the North German Confederation immediately pledging military allegiance to the Prussian cause (Austria being the natural exception).
There was a massive swelling of German nationalism – just as Bismarck had hoped a defensive war against France would cause. Austria had been favourable to an alliance with France against Prussia – provided the South German states stayed neutral or allied with France. That obviously did not happen.
In neutral Italy, people lined up at the Prussian embassy to volunteer against France. As France was the clear aggressor, there was no call in the UK or Russia to support France. This would, ultimately, be a war between Little Germany (without Austria) and France.
Franco-German military situation
French soldiers by a cannon. 23 July 1870.
France was not in so poor a situation as Austria had been in 1866 – indeed, it was the French military’s prowess that had provoked the sweeping and effective military reforms that shaped the Prussian army.
However, Prussia’s reforms had taken it well beyond France in terms of both fighting spirit or élan, organisational structure, logistics, and particularly conscription. Prussia could quickly field over a million men alone in wartime, whereas France could only practically field some 300 000 men.
France had been in the process of reforming their military to match the Prussians’, but the war came before the reforms were fully implemented. When war broke out, the Prussians had mobilised their reserve well before the French had even brought their entire standing force to the border.
Naturally, Prussia’s German allies were not quite as militarily adept, but they were placed under the effective Prussian central command, and so were able to integrate well. Further, the French cabinet’s vote for war was only followed by an actual declaration of war three days after, allowing the Germans ample time to mobilise, organise, and lay plans.
Finally, while the Prussians had a well worked-out campaign plan for any realistic scenario in which war is fought against France. France, on the other hand, had only worked out a defensive campaign plan some years prior, in case of a Prussian attack. They had no pre-planned idea of what they were going to do when it was France going on the offensive.
The French initially moved to occupy the German border town of Saarbrücken as a launching point for an invasion of Germany. As the name implies, the town is built on a bridge over the Saar river. However, the town was a poor invasion point, having little connection to the German railway and river networks.
Furthermore, the Germans had mobilised far quicker than the French had anticipated, and (accurate) reports of a large German army massing to the south prompted the French Army of the Rhine (the primary French fighting force) to retreat from the town.
They were soon forced out of their positions just behind the Saar river near the town of Spicheren (thanks in large part to poor French communication) and thereafter were entirely on the retreat.
Prussian troops charge French positions atop Rothenberg, near Spicheren. Röchling, 1890.
Encirclement at Metz
The German (and particularly Prussian) forces hounded the French retreat. While Prussian commanders tended to be overly aggressive, French commanders tended to be indecisive. This led to a series of engagements around the heavily fortified town of Metz, near the border.
The overall Prussian strategy was to push the French army into defensive positions within the town, so that the entire army could be trapped and placed under siege. They did this by repeatedly engaging the French along any other possible line of retreat, corralling the army into the town.
This required some extraordinary efforts from the Prussians, including the Battle of Mars-la-Tour, where 30 000 Prussians fought the entire 160 000-man Army of the Rhine in a successful attempt to block their passage away from Metz to the west.
At the end of that day’s fighting, the French general was under the impression that he’d been fighting against an equal force.
This was followed two days later by the Battle of Gravelotte. This was the largest battle of the war, where the Germans finally forced the Army of the Rhine to retreat into Metz with no remaining escape route.
The graveyard of St. Privat was perhaps the most hard-won part of the battlefield of Gravelotte for the Prussians. Here the surrender of the last French defenders (distinguishable by their red trousers) is pictured. De Neuville, 1881.
Disaster at Sedan
While the Army of the Rhine was suffering its disastrous string of defeats, Napoleon III had taken command of the newly constituted Army of Châlons – created the day before the noose was drawn tight around Metz at Gravelotte.
This 130 000-strong army was marched north towards Belgium, with the intention being to avoid the German forces then swing south to rescue the Army of the Rhine from the siege of Metz. However, the march was far, and fast, tiring the men out terribly.
Near Beaumont, far northwest of Metz, the French were surprised in their tents by a Prussian army and forced to retreat further northwest with 7500 casualties and many guns lost.
They chose to make their stand at the old fortress of Sedan. The French commanders, underestimating the German strength, believed that the outdated fortress and the hilly terrain surrounding it would provide them with a secure position for their men to rest, recuperate, and resupply. They were wrong.
The Prussian forces quickly surrounded the French positions and, through incredible weight in firepower, immediately began driving the French back into tighter and tighter areas.
A contemporary photograph of the fighting at La Moncelle, where the heaviest and most desperate combat of the battle took place.
French counterattacks and breakout attempts throughout the day all failed with heavy casualties. The remaining portion of the French forces outside the fortress was eventually forced into a nearby forest in complete disarray, where they were shelled non-stop until they surrendered en-masse to the first Prussian unit to enter the forest.
The French forces within Sedan itself, faced with overwhelming amounts of artillery fire and the loss of all positions outside the town, had no choice but to surrender as well.
104 000 men were captured, with the remainder all being killed or wounded. The surviving French military command was captured, including Napoleon III himself. Nearly half of the French military had been completely wiped out, with the other half trapped permanently at Metz. The war was decided in Germany’s favour.
Otto von Bismarck (left) escorting the captured French Emperor. Camphauzen, 1877.
The Fall of the Second French Empire
Prussia found itself in the bemusing position of having won too thoroughly. With Napoleon III’s capture along with every high-ranking French military commander not bottled up in Metz (and so unable to independently communicate with the French public), there was no one left to credibly sign a surrender document.
This was made much worse by the fact that on news of Napoleon III’s capture reaching Paris, a bloodless revolution ensued. A Government of National Defense was declared, which vowed to expel the Germans. The Germans promptly laid siege to Paris.
Meanwhile, the new French government tried to muster guerilla efforts and militia armies in the provinces. The Germans had not intended to actually have to occupy France, but they nonetheless marched about, defeating French efforts to muster armies first along the Loire river, then in Northern France, and finally in Eastern France.
Eventually, four months after German victory was completely assured with the battle of Sedan, armistice was signed.
The Prussian Army on parade. This is not unusual, except that the parade is being held in Paris, in 1871.
Alsace-Lorraine and the German Empire
French schoolchildren being instructed not to forget France’s territories lost to Germany, coloured in black on the map. The artist was originally from Metz, which was annexed as part of Alsace-Lorraine, and this painting was titled “The Black Stain”. The French really wanted it back. Bettanier, 1887.
Prussia conquered Alsace-Lorraine from France as a result of the war. If that name is at all familiar to you, it’s because the French were obsessed with getting that territory back ever after, and it’s frequently listed among the primary causes of the First World War.
Then the Germans (and particularly the Nazis) were obsessed with getting it back from the French after the First World War, leading to it often being listed among the primary causes of the Second World War.
More importantly, The South German states, in a wave of nationalistic public sentiment, elected to join the North German Confederation on 1 January 1871, shortly before the end of the war. A new constitution was drafted for the country, in which it was renamed the German Empire. The German nation was officially proclaimed at the captive palace of Versaille.
This is the German Empire the article is about. If the North German Confederation was a bit of a shock, the German Empire’s sudden inclusion of the South German states was a lightning strike. The German states had been rapidly industrialising since the mid-19th century, and, now combined, the economy of the German Empire was the third-largest in the world – exceeded only by the United States of America and the combined economy of the United Kingdom and all her overseas dominions.
That, and almost unquestionably the world’s strongest military – having just single-handedly utterly defeated and humiliated France, traditionally the greatest continental military power – meant that Germany was now a permanent, dominant player in European politics.
Bismarck puppeteering the emperors of Russia, Austria, and Germany. PUNCH, 1884.
The legacy of the Holy Roman Empire had been a fractured collection of tiny, squabbling states, whose public loyalty had been to individual princes. From 1806 to 1848, German nationalism grew, until it reached a boiling point with public, revolutionary demands for unification.
Prussia, despite crushing the revolutions, shifted their policy permanently towards establishing a German Nation. Under Bismarck’s guidance, a series of successful foreign policies were implemented. With the swelling of Prussian influence in 1866 against Austria, and the galvanisation of the German peoples against France in 1870, the objective of a unified German Empire under Prussian control was finally achieved in 1871.
The years ahead would not be easy for the new Empire, however, and diplomatic bungling on the part of its third Emperor led it squarely to its difficult position at the start of the First World War, 40 years later.