North German Confederation Is Formed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the wake of the Seven Weeks’ War, the German states north of the Main River formed a confederation under the direction of Prussia. The confederation heralded a major step in the process of German unification, looking ahead to the creation of the German Empire in 1871.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of 1866, the German states were still organized as they had been at the Congress of Vienna of 1815, a loosely ordered group of sovereign states called the Germanic Confederation (Deutsche Bund). Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] However, tension was building between the two major states of the Confederation, Austria and Prussia, and war broke out between them in June of 1866. Prussia, led by Minister-President Otto von Bismarck, quickly demonstrated its military superiority at the Battle of Königgrätz (also called Sadowa). The war ended in late July, earning it the name Seven Weeks’ War, and a treaty was signed between the principals on August 23, 1866, the Peace of Prague. North German Confederation Germany;North German Confederation [kw]North German Confederation Is Formed (1866-1867) [kw]German Confederation Is Formed, North (1866-1867) [kw]Confederation Is Formed, North German (1866-1867) [kw]Formed, North German Confederation Is (1866-1867) North German Confederation Germany;North German Confederation [g]Germany;1866-1867: North German Confederation Is Formed[3910] [c]Government and politics;1866-1867: North German Confederation Is Formed[3910] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1866-1867: North German Confederation Is Formed[3910] Bismarck, Otto von William I (king of Prussia)

Under the new arrangement, the Habsburg Dynasty of Austria agreed to withdraw its power from the rest of the German states and allow them to be organized by the Hohenzollern Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen[Hohenzollern Sigmaringen] Dynasty of Prussia. The kingdom of Prussia itself annexed several formerly sovereign German states that had supported Austria in the Confederation, including Hanover Hanover , Hesse-Cassel Hesse-Cassel[Hesse Cassel] , Nassau Nassau , and the free city of Frankfurt am Main. Prussia also annexed the Danish duchies of Schleswig Schleswig and Holstein, Holstein where the Austro-Prussian conflict had begun. By 1867, all of the German states north of the Main River agreed to join Prussia in a new North German Confederation (Norddeutsche Bund). The three states south of the Main River, Baden Baden;and Prussia[Prussia] , Württemberg Württemberg;and Prussia[Prussia] , and Bavaria Bavaria;and Prussia[Prussia] , remained separate as buffers between the Prussian-dominated north and Austria.

Bismarck’s diplomatic and political maneuvering in founding the North German Confederation is generally conceded to have been brilliant, even by those who are critical of him. Internally, Bismarck manipulated nationalist and liberal political groups to bring them to his support. Many Germans of the middle classes had feared and hated him. His “blood and iron” policies, although authoritarian, had proven effective. Moreover, he supported the creation of a parliamentary body, the Reichstag, Germany;Reichstag to be elected by universal equal male suffrage, a position considered relatively liberal for its day. Similarly, he brilliantly worked with King William William I (king of Prussia) I of Prussia, organizing the constitution to have William named “president” of the new confederation, a stepping stone to having him later crowned German emperor.

Externally, Bismarck offered a relatively generous peace to Austria in return for its cooperation in Prussia’s unification plans for the rest of Germany. Dualistic tension between the Habsburgs of Austria and the Hohenzollerns of Prussia was nearly two centuries old. One of the major issues of the nineteenth century was whether Germany should be unified under the Habsburgs (including Austria) for a “Greater Germany,” or under the Hohenzollerns (excluding Austria) for a “Smaller Germany.” Bismarck’s settlement encouraged Austria to accept Prussia’s new role, and the two dynasties became close allies from 1866 through 1918. On the other hand, Bismarck effectively held the other powers, France, Great Britain, and Russia, aloof from the struggle.

Bismarck was particularly clever in manipulating Napoleon III Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Germany[Germany] . The French emperor was tantalized by Bismarck’s suggestion that France might receive compensation in Luxembourg and the Rhineland as Prussia expanded, but Bismarck never allowed Napoleon to do so. Eventually, in 1870, Bismarck tricked Napoleon Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] into declaring war on the North German Confederation, preparing the way for the German victories in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). When faced with the French “threat,” the three south German states of Baden Baden;and German Confederation[German Confederation] , Württemberg Württemberg;and German Confederation[German Confederation] , and Bavaria Bavaria;and German Confederation[German Confederation] enthusiastically joined with the North German Confederation, bringing the confederation to its end with the formation of the German Empire in 1871.

Bismarck’s plan for unity called for a much stronger union than the Germanic Confederation of 1815. Thus some historians have translated the German word Bund as “confederation” for the 1815 creation and as “federation” for the 1866 state. In the North German Confederation, King William I William I (king of Prussia) of Prussia held the executive authority as the “president.” Acting through the chancellor he had appointed as the chief executive officer of the state (Bismarck), the king-president had authority over foreign affairs and the administration of the state; the king also had direct authority over the military forces of all the states when the country was at war.

There was a kind of upper house, the Federal Council (Bundesrat), which was superficially similar to the Diet of the old Germanic Confederation, being composed of representatives from the twenty-two states. Each state had representation based on its size, so Prussia easily dominated the Council. The lower house Germany;Reichstag (Reichstag) was more-or-less freely elected, and it had significant legislative powers. However, Bismarck adjusted the constitution so that the Reichstag had few powers of the purse strings and therefore little influence over the executive branch of government. This constitutional system was transferred directly into the German Empire of 1871, merely changing the name of the “president” to “emperor.”


The constitution of the North German Confederation was much debated at the time, and it continued to show some signs of constitutional growth until its demise in the revolutions that closed World War I in 1918. It seems inaccurate and unfair, therefore, to dismiss it as “pseudo-constitutional absolutism,” as some historians have done. Nevertheless, it was clearly designed by Bismarck as a means to preserve the power of the traditional elites in a newly national Germany. Although it lasted only four years, the North German Confederation was a major step in the development of the modern German state with all its faults, and those who created it bear significant responsibility for setting the constitutional agenda for twentieth century Germany.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craig, Gordon A. The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. Although dealing with a longer time period, the centerpiece of this book is the struggle of civil-military relations in Prussia during the Bismarck period.
  • 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">Friedjung, Heinrich. The Struggle for Supremacy in Germany, 1859-1866. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966. An interpretation of German unification from an Austrian point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gall, Lothar. Bismarck: The White Revolutionary. Translated by J. A. Underwood. 2 vols. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990. A political biography from a post-World War II West German historian.
  • 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">Medlicott, W. N. Bismarck and Modern Germany. London: English Universities Press, 1965. A standard British political biography of Bismarck providing a balanced treatment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plfanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany. 3 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. The major study of Bismarck and Bismarckian Germany in English. Volume 1, first published in 1963 and revised and republished in 1990, deals with the North German Confederation.

German States Join to Form Customs Union

Prussian Revolution of 1848

Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President

Danish-Prussian War

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

Battle of Könniggrätz

Franco-Prussian War

Prussian Army Besieges Paris

Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany

German States Unite Within German Empire

Three Emperors’ League Is Formed

Germany Passes Anti-Socialist Law

Triple Alliance Is Formed

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Categories: History