The Unification of Germany is a relatively recent set of events. In the mid nineteenth century Germany was a collection of smaller states that were linked as a German confederation. This confederation was dominated by Austria, which as a large imperial power was politically and economically superior to the smaller Germanic states. In the 1860’s the dominance of Austria was challenged by Prussia and the process of unification and codification of German law began. These events have been interpreted rather differently by historians.
The process of German unification, in chronological order:
- A gradual process of economic interdependence from the early stages of the Industrial Revolution through to the mid 19th century saw the Germanic states move towards economic unification. For example, the growth of the railway network in Germany led to easier access to different resources across the confederation. This helped to stimulate economic growth and meant that economic prosperity was increasingly reliant upon strong links between different member states of the German confederation. This led to the introduction of the Zollverin customs union, an agreement amongst the German states to have preferential customs policies for member states. This economic union excluded Austria, illustrating a growing German sense of identify and a lesser dependency upon the largest of the Germanic states. Economically the Zollverin system was a precursor to full German unification.
- Schleswig-Holstein. Schleswig and Holstein are two German duchies that were under Danish rule. However Holstein’s population was largely German speaking and Schleswig’s was a broad mix of Germans and Danes. In the 1840’s the Danes attempted to claim Schleswig and Holstein as being part of Denmark, rather than them remaining as semi-independent duchies. This resulted in uproar from German nationalists and demands for the two duchies to be fully incorporated into the German Confederation. In 1848, this had led to a brief war for control of the two duchies. The resulting Treaty of London stated that upon the accession to the Danish throne of the Prince, Christian, the duchies would remain under Danish rule but not be incorporated into the nation state of Denmark. Upon his accession in 1863, Christian formally incorporated Schleswig and Holstein into the Danish state: breaking the terms of the Treaty of London. Again this led to an outcry amongst German nationalists and the German Confederation mobilised an army and invaded the duchies. War with Denmark resulted in a victory for the Germanic Confederation and the acquisition of Schleswig and Holstein. It is the manner in which the duchies were dealt with after the war of 1864 that took Germany one step closer to unification. Following the victory it was agreed that Austria would manage the duchy of Holstein and that Prussia would be in charge of the day to day running of Schleswig. The two major German powers clashed many times over the manner in which the duchies were to be administered. Historians still debate whether the German chancellor, Bismarck, deliberately set out to provoke Austria. Either way, the result was a political division within the German Confederation with Austria and Prussia now fighting for dominance of the Germanic states.
- Austrian-Prussian War. In 1866 further arguments about the administration of Schleswig-Holstein led to war breaking out between Austria and Prussia. This war lasted 7 weeks and resulted in Prussian victory over the Austrians. In beating the Austrians on the battlefield the Prussians assumed the role of senior Germanic state. This led to a clearer division between Austrian and German interests and forced the smaller states to align themselves alongside the Prussians, with whom they shared more economic ties due to the aforementioned Zollverin customs agreement. The result was a division between Austria to the south and those tied to Prussia in the north, making unification of the northern confederation under Prussia more likely.
- The Franco-Prussian War. Between 1866 and 1870 relations between Prussia and France worsened. In 1870, frustrated by the Prussian attitude to the issue of candidacy for the vacant throne of Spain, France declared war on Prussia. The resulting Prussian victory was both swift and decisive. It resulted in the removal from power of the French Emperor, Napoleon III and led to a wave of Germanic Nationalism sweeping through the whole of the German Confederation. Following victory over France in January of 1871, Prussia was able to persuade her partners within the German confederation that unification was desirable. As a result, Wilhelm of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany on January 18th 1871. The Second German Reich was born.