Organization of the German Confederation

The German Confederation replaced the medieval Holy Roman Empire, which had been dissolved by its last emperor in 1806, with a new federal organization of thirty-nine small and medium-sized German states under the leadership of Prussia and Austria.

Summary of Event

Napoleon I’s defeat at Leipzig Leipzig, Battle of (1813) in October, 1813, by the joint forces of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Bavaria Bavaria enabled the people of central Europe to look forward, for the first time in twenty years, to the prospect of peace and independence from French domination. This prospect spawned a multiplicity of plans as to how to reorganize politically the area in central Europe that had formerly constituted the Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire . One of the most indefatigable proposers was Freiherr vom Stein, the author of many reforms that modernized the Prussian state in 1807-1808. Germany;confederation of
Stein, Freiherr vom
[p]Metternich;and German Confederation[German Confederation]
[kw]Organization of the German Confederation (June 8-9, 1815)
[kw]German Confederation, Organization of the (June 8-9, 1815)
[kw]German Confederation, Organization of the (June 8-9, 1815)
Germany;confederation of
Stein, Freiherr vom
[p]Metternich;and German Confederation[German Confederation]
[g]Germany;June 8-9, 1815: Organization of the German Confederation[0810]
[g]Austria;June 8-9, 1815: Organization of the German Confederation[0810]
[c]Government and politics;June 8-9, 1815: Organization of the German Confederation[0810]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;June 8-9, 1815: Organization of the German Confederation[0810]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 8-9, 1815: Organization of the German Confederation[0810]
Francis II (Holy Roman Emperor)
Frederick William III

Dismissed from office in Prussia in 1808 at the behest of Napoleon, Stein had then attached himself to the czar and helped put together the alliances that eventually led to Napoleon’s defeat. As early as 1812, Stein advanced a plan that envisaged organizing Germany into two parts, one in the north under the leadership of Prussia and one in the south under the leadership of Austria. Such a plan met with opposition from Hanover Hanover;and Prussia[Prussia] , which objected to being dominated by Prussia; because the ruler of Hanover happened also to be the king of Great Britain, a major partner in the victorious alliance against Napoleon, Stein’s first plan went nowhere.

In 1813, Stein came up with another proposal. He suggested that there be three German states, Prussia, Austria, and a Germany comprising all the rest of the German states but ruled Francis II (Holy Roman Emperor) by Austria’s Emperor Francis II. This proposal was rejected by Metternich, acting for Austria. Such a plan, Metternich believed, would lead the smaller states to seek alliance with a rejuvenated France, whereas Metternich hoped to create a stable institution in Germany that would defend against any further French aggression. Moreover, all the smaller states in Germany were insistent on the preservation of their sovereignty, conferred on them with the 1813 dissolution of Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine Rhine, Confederation of the .

In 1814, the major allies against the French (Russia, Britain, Austria, Prussia) decided that Germany should be organized into a confederation whose members would be the ruling princes of the lesser German states—those, that is, that had survived Napoleon’s compression of the more than three hundred petty principalities that had existed prior to 1789. Stein proposed that the confederation have a federal assembly made up of representatives of the constituent states. The confederation would be responsible for such common matters as foreign policy, defense, and the operation of a common legal system. A directory (executive committee) composed of representatives of Austria, Prussia, Bavaria Bavaria , and Hanover Hanover (the four largest German powers) would provide direction for the confederation. This plan, with some modifications, was laid before the German Committee consisting of representatives of Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Hanover, and Württemberg. Württemberg

Before negotiations could proceed, however, the question of a future organization of the German states fell victim to great-power politics. Czar Alexander I Alexander I
[p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and Germany[Germany] , conscious of the central role played by Russia in the defeat of Napoleon, wanted to acquire portions of Poland he did not already control in order to create a new kingdom of Poland with himself as its ruler. In order to do this, he would need to acquire some Polish Poland;and Russia[Russia]
Russia;and Poland[Poland] territories belonging to Prussia and Austria. In the end, he sacrificed getting Polish Austria (the province Galicia of Galicia) and settled for less than all of Polish Prussia. To get anything at all from Prussia meant compensating it with something else: An easy offer was the kingdom of Saxony, whose ruler had obstinately supported Napoleon to the bitter end.

Both Britain and Austria wanted to curb Russia’s expansion into Europe. In this endeavor, they won the support of the restored Bourbon monarchy of France. As a compromise, Prussia received only half of Saxony (the kingdom’s now abject ruler was able to keep half for himself) but was given an assortment of lands in western Germany that before 1789 had been a medley of tiny principalities, some of them ruled by archbishops. These had been converted into a single kingdom by Napoleon, to be ruled by one of his brothers, and now were available for reassignment. Some of the larger of these small principalities were returned to their old rulers, but the bulk of the area went to Prussia, even though they had no territorial connection with the existing kingdom of Prussia. Some other minor territories were redistributed, chiefly between Bavaria Bavaria and Austria.

After these territorial distributions had been made, it became possible to return to the question of how to organize the thirty-four German states, as well as four free cities—Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck, and Frankfurt—whose independence was negotiated by Stein. Metternich made common cause with the smaller states, which insisted upon the preservation of their sovereignty. This meant that only a federation, with very limited powers, could be imposed from above.

The German Confederation that finally emerged from the German Committee was a loose federation. Its objective was “the preservation of the external and internal security of Germany and of the independence and inviolability of the individual German states.” All states pledged to protect one another from invasion if any land invaded belonged to the old empire or the new confederation. This pledge excluded Austria’s Polish, Hungarian, and Italian lands, as well as Prussia’s provinces of East Prussia, West Prussia, and Posen. Three foreign monarchs were also parties to the confederation by virtue of their conjoint status as rulers of German states: the British king George III George III
[p]George III[George 03];and German Confederation[German Confederation] (king of Hanover), the Danish king Frederick VI Frederick VI
[p]Frederick VI[Frederick 06];and German Confederation[German Confederation] (duke of Holstein), and king William I William I (king of Netherlands)
[p]William I (king of Netherlands)[William 01 (king of Netherlands)];and German Confederation[German Confederation] of the Netherlands (grand duke of Luxembourg).

Members were not to make war on one another, nor were they to enforce their claims by violence. Instead, they were to appeal to the Confederal Assembly for an impartial decision. They could make individual alliances, but in time of war they were forbidden to take part in unilateral negotiations or truces and they could not make separate peace settlements. These provisions were clearly intended to prevent a repeat of the Napoleonic experience, when the French emperor had played off one small German state against another.

The German Confederation, 1815

The business of the German Confederation was to be managed by the Confederal Assembly, which would meet at Frankfurt and over which Austria was to preside. There were to be two kinds of procedure: the Select Council and the Plenary Council. Routine concerns were to be handled by the Select Council, in which the eleven larger states each had one vote and the remaining twenty-eight states were divided into six curias each with one vote; decisions were to be made by a simple majority vote. The Plenary Council was to decide constitutional and religious questions, and a two-thirds majority was required for any proposal to pass. Major changes demanded unanimity.

The Confederal Assembly was granted extensive powers: It could make war and peace, maintain a federal army, make treaties, exchange ambassadors, and regulate commerce. Without an effective administrative structure, however, it had no means of enforcing its decisions. All member states were to provide representative constitutions, but few complied with this provision; the most notable to do so were Baden Baden and Württemberg. Württemberg

The German Federal Act was signed on June 8, 1815. It was incorporated into the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna the following day, June 9, 1815, thereby gaining recognition under international law. In this way, the constitution of the German Confederation was placed under the official guarantee of the signatory powers.


Although Metternich did not dictate the details of the constitution of the German Confederation, it served his purposes well: A buffer state between Austria and France had been established. Since the Confederal Assembly represented the states and not the people, he could rely on the conservatism of the majority of the states, governed by monarchs primarily concerned with maintaining their sovereignty. For the Habsburg Dynasty it was a more efficient arrangement than the old empire; Habsburg security had been increased without additional expense.

Moreover, despite the ambitions of many German intellectuals, it was clear that the vast majority of the German people still saw themselves as subjects of their local ruler rather than as citizens of a national state. Before a national state could be established, Germany needed to develop as an economic unit; the confederation provided a stable, if immovable, political structure within which that economic development could take place.

Further Reading

  • Hertz, Frederick. The German Public Mind in the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Eric Northcott and edited by Frank Eyck. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1975. Contains a chapter, “The German Bund,” with a focus on the assorted proposals by Stein and others that preceded the Federal Act.
  • Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany. 3 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964. Written by the most eminent of the émigré historians of the 1930’s, this large work includes the chapter “The Wars of Liberation and the Peace Settlement of Vienna.” Holborn describes the roles played by the lesser German states in the shape of the postwar territorial and political arrangements.
  • John, Michael. “The Napoleonic Legacy and Problems of Restoration in Central Europe: The German Confederation.” In Napoleon’s Legacy: Problems of Government in Restoration Europe, edited by David Laven and Lucy Riall. New York: Berg, 2000. Discusses the German Confederation as a part of Napoleon’s legacy to Europe.
  • Nipperdey, Thomas. Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck. Translated by Daniel Nolan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. This book, by one of the most admired German scholars of the post-World War II period, chronicles in the fullest detail the extraordinarily complex negotiations that preceded agreement on the Federal Act. For those who want all the details.
  • Sagarra, Eda. An Introduction to Nineteenth Century Germany. Harlow, England: Longman, 1980. Contains a succinct summary of how the German Confederation came about.
  • Sheehan, James J. German History, 1770-1886. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. Part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe series. This American scholar treats the German Confederation as part of “Restoration Politics.” The events that led to the confederation are described against the background of great-power relationships.

Congress of Vienna

German States Join to Form Customs Union

Swiss Confederation Is Formed

Danish-Prussian War

North German Confederation Is Formed

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

German States Unite Within German Empire

First Hague Peace Conference

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Stein, Freiherr vom
[p]Metternich;and German Confederation[German Confederation]