German States Unite Within German Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the wake of three successful wars that solidified Prussia’s status as a great European power, the German states were unified under the dominance of Prussia into the German Empire. The empire, a strong military and economic entity in central Europe, altered the traditional European balance of power and revolutionized European trade and diplomacy.

Summary of Event

On January 18, 1871, the rulers of the various German states assembled in the Hall of Mirrors of the ancient palace of French kings at Versailles Versailles for a momentous event. Otto von Bismarck, minister-president of Prussia, was about to proclaim the formation of the Second German Empire with his king, William I of Prussia, as its emperor. Bismarck’s proclamation fulfilled the dreams cherished in the hearts of many Germans for more than a half century, a dream of uniting the German states into a powerful nation. Germany;unification of Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and German unification[German unification] William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and German unification[German unification] [kw]German States Unite Within German Empire (Jan. 18, 1871) [kw]States Unite Within German Empire, German (Jan. 18, 1871) [kw]Unite Within German Empire, German States (Jan. 18, 1871) [kw]German Empire, German States Unite Within (Jan. 18, 1871) [kw]Empire, German States Unite Within German (Jan. 18, 1871) Germany;unification of Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and German unification[German unification] William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and German unification[German unification] [g]Germany;Jan. 18, 1871: German States Unite Within German Empire[4520] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 18, 1871: German States Unite Within German Empire[4520] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 18, 1871: German States Unite Within German Empire[4520] Beust, Friedrich von

When Napoleon I’s Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Germany[Germany] armies had occupied many of the German states in 1804-1806, he had organized most of those outside Austria and Prussia into the Confederation of the Rhine Rhine, Confederation of the with himself as its “Protector.” The French troops who occupied the German states introduced to the Germans the political ideals of constitutionalism, parliamentarianism, the natural rights of man, and nationalism. Bonaparte’s oppressive policies toward the Germans and the arrogant behavior of the French troops awoke the spirit of German nationalism, especially among young Germans.

Initially German nationalism took a Romantic form. Its proponents—the most vocal of whom were the students and faculties of German universities—argued that every human ethnic group possessed unique characteristics. These characteristics, they said, had to develop free of any outside interference. Only then could the ethnic group make its contribution to the progress of the human race. This Romantic nationalism in Germany was inextricably intertwined with liberal political views. The young Germans who championed these ideas wanted to establish a national state that would include all ethnic Germans ruled by a constitution and a parliament based on universal manhood suffrage.

With the defeat of Napoleon Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Germany[Germany] at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, nationalists and liberals in the German states expected their dreams of a united Germany to be realized. Instead, the leaders of the great powers of Europe created the Germanic Confederation, a loose union of thirty-nine German states, dominated by Austria and Prussia. Neither the confederation nor any of its members had elected legislative bodies or constitutions. The states that composed the confederation maintained their own armies, erected tariff Tariffs;German barriers against one another, coined their own money, and passed their own laws. The hereditary aristocracies in all of the states continued to enjoy special privileges before the law. The failure of the great powers to create a unified, liberal German state frustrated the dreams of German nationalists and liberals and turned them on a course of revolutionary activity that culminated in the Prussian Revolution of 1848.

Despite press censorship Censorship;German and restrictions on German professors, liberal and nationalist ideas continued to spread between 1815 and 1848. The nationalists found allies among the German bourgeoisie during the 1830’s because of the tariff Tariffs;German barriers erected by the governments of the small states. Such tariffs greatly hindered economic and industrial development. In 1834, economic concerns forced seventeen of the German states to join the Prussians in creating the Zollverein (German customs union), a customs union which expedited economic development among its members. The bourgeoisie joined the faculties and students at the German universities to furnish the leadership for the Prussian revolution.

In 1848, several factors, chief among them frustrated nationalism and liberalism, contributed to the outbreak of revolutions in most of the European states. The revolutionaries overthrew autocratic governments from Hungary to France and from Italy to Germany, and they proceeded to create new national states based on liberal political ideas. After the overthrow of aristocratic governments in the German states, most of the new governments sent delegates to a meeting charged with writing a constitution for a united German nation. The delegates convened the Frankfurt parliament on May 18, 1848, and debated the exact form and extent of the new nation for more than a year. By March, 1849, the parliament had drafted the constitution for a united Germany. A delegation from the parliament offered the throne of this German empire to Frederick William IV of Prussia on April 3, 1849. Frederick William Frederick III declined, however, saying he would accept such a crown only from the aristocratic rulers of the German states. Dejected, the representatives went back to Frankfurt, and the parliament dissolved some months later. Liberal and nationalist Germans found their dreams once again unrealized.

The Unification of Germany





During the 1850’s, the chances for a united Germany seemed more remote than ever. Reactionary governments were firmly established in the German states, which were too jealous of their privileges to contemplate national unification. The situation began to change toward the end of the decade when the new Prussian regent, William I, came into conflict with the Prussian parliament.

Hoping to break the stalemate, William appointed Otto von Bismarck as minister-president of Prussia in 1862. Bismarck had little regard for liberalism or parliamentarianism and was a Prussian patriot rather than a German nationalist. Nevertheless, he embarked on aggressive new foreign and domestic policies that resulted in the unification of the German states in an empire similar to that envisioned by the members of the Frankfurt parliament.

Proclamation of William I (on platform) as emperor of Germany at Versailles.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Bismarck embarked on the course that led to German unification by defying the Prussian parliament and disregarding the constitution. He collected taxes for the expansion and reequipment of the Prussian army Army, Prussian;expansion of without the approval of parliament. He used the expanded army to win a victory over Denmark in the Danish-Prussian War (1864), when the Danish king tried to annex a member state of the German Confederation. The victory made Bismarck a hero in Prussia and throughout the German states. Two years later, he led Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] , this time against the Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I.

According to many historians, Bismarck had maneuvered the Austrian government into a position in which it was forced to declare war against Prussia. Immediately before the war, Bismarck had made sure that no other nation would intervene on Austria’s behalf in the struggle. He signed an alliance with the Italians, received assurances from the Russians that they would remain neutral, and convinced Emperor Napoleon III that France would gain territory along the Rhine River in the international conference that would follow the war.

The Seven Weeks’ War Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] resulted in a defeat for the Austrians. At the conclusion of hostilities, Bismarck secured a quick and mild peace with the Austrian government, now led by Friedrich von Beust Beust, Friedrich von , to prevent Napoleon III from playing a role in the peace proceedings. Bismarck then organized twenty-two of the German states into a new political entity called the North German North German Confederation Confederation. The constitution of the new state established a national parliament elected by universal manhood suffrage, with executive power exercised by a president in the person of the Prussian king, William. Bismarck became the chancellor of the new state.

The south German states joined with the Austrians in forming the South German Confederation, essentially a continuation of the old German Confederation in a diminished form. Beust, the Austrian foreign minister, spent the next five years trying to prevent Bismarck from incorporating the south German states into the North German Confederation. Napoleon III Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and German unification[German unification] , embittered by what he considered to be a betrayal by Bismarck, joined Beust Beust, Friedrich von in opposing further Prussian expansion. If Bismarck did set out to unify the German states under Prussian leadership in 1862, he must have realized after 1866 that his goals could not be achieved without a war with France.

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];and Spanish succession[Spanish succession] immediate cause of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 was a dispute over the Spanish throne in 1866-1870. Members of the Spanish government invited Leopold von Hohenzollern Hohenzollern, Leopold von to become their new monarch. Leopold, a relative of William of Prussia, was not acceptable to Napoleon III, who forced Leopold’s withdrawal as a candidate for the Spanish throne. In 1870, the Spanish again invited Leopold to become their king. Napoleon III Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and German unification[German unification] demanded that William withdraw his relative’s candidacy and promise that never again would a Hohenzollern become a candidate for the Spanish throne. William’s reply was not satisfactory to Napoleon III, who declared war against Prussia. Some historians maintain that Bismarck engineered the affair in such a way that Napoleon III had no choice but to declare war. However true this thesis may be, the Franco-Prussian War was the final step in the unification of Germany.

The Prussian army Army, Prussian;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] defeated the French forces and besieged Paris. Through diplomatic and military pressure, Bismarck forced the princes of the south German states to become members of the North German North German Confederation Confederation. Bismarck made his famous proclamation of the formation of the Second German Empire during an outburst of patriotic enthusiasm in the German states that accompanied the defeat of the French. The new empire adopted the constitution and form of the North German Confederation, the only difference being that the executive powers were vested in the hands of a hereditary emperor, William I of Prussia.


With the formation of the German Empire, all the German states were finally unified under a central authority. Territories that had traditionally been rivals or at best temporary allies became incorporated into a single entity that incorporated significant military and economic resources. In a relatively brief period of time, Europe’s balance of power had shifted dramatically. The German Empire would continue to exist as the dominant force in central Europe until it entered World War I in 1914.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, William. The Origins of the Wars of German Unification. London: Longman, 1991. Examines the multitudinous causes of the series of wars that led to the formation of the German Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuchtwanger, Edgar. Bismarck. London: Routledge, 2002. Concise biography, reassessing Bismarck’s historical significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hargreaves, David. Bismarck and German Unification. Houndmills, England: Macmillan, 1991. Shows the importance of Bismarck’s own personality in determining the nature of the new nation he created.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lerman, Katharine Anne. Bismarck. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. One of the titles in the Profiles in Power series, this book focuses on Bismarck’s exercise of power as a crucial means of understanding his personality and statecraft.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany: The Period of Unification, 1815-1871. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. Surveys the events leading to the formation of the German Empire and Bismarck’s role in shaping those events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sellman, Roger Raymond. Bismarck and the Unification of Germany. London: Methuen, 1973. A concise account of the formation of the Second Reich based on secondary sources and designed for college courses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, William. The Second Reich: Germany, 1871-1918. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The most recent history of the Second German Empire, based on the latest scholarship.

Organization of the German Confederation

German States Join to Form Customs Union

Prussian Revolution of 1848

Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President

Danish-Prussian War

North German Confederation Is Formed

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

Franco-Prussian War

Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany

Three Emperors’ League Is Formed

Triple Alliance Is Formed

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Friedrich von Beust; Otto von Bismarck; Francis Joseph I; Napoleon III. Germany;unification of Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and German unification[German unification] William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and German unification[German unification]

Categories: History