The story of the unification of the German state in the latter half of the nineteenth century is only a part of the story of the decline of the Austrian Empire that began with the fall of the Holy Roman Empire during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars. The Austrian Empire that emerged after 1815 was hit again by revolutionary forces within its own territory during the insurrectionary wave that hit Europe in 1848. Furthermore, during Austria’s war with France and Italy in 1859, the process of Italian unification heralded German unification; as did the German revolutions of 1848 where the idea of a smaller German state, kleinedeutschland, led by Prussia had failed to become reality. After his appointment to the office of minister-president, Otto von Bismarck would use war with Germany’s neighbors to consolidate such a state dreamed of in 1848.
The first of such conflicts was a war with Denmark over the contested inheritance of the Danish crown and the German Duchies of Holstein and Schleswig which already held a precarious place in German national identity. While some of Schleswig’s population were ethnically Danish, the identities of the rest, along with all of Holstein, were German. Also throughout all of Germany people considered the two Duchies indistinguishable from one another.
The opposition to Danish rule over German lands whipped up a nationalist fervor as both Prussia and Austria, for different reasons, declared war on Denmark. After the Danish defeat these respective Duchies were shared between Austria and Prussia with Prussia receiving Schleswig and Austria administrating Holstein, but the real impact of the war with Denmark lay in the exercising of German nationalist imaginations who started to believe that Germany could be unified under Prussia. German Liberals were divided on the issue of whether a Prussian led Germany would hold up to their values of liberty, but other liberals argued that German unity should come first, and liberty later.
In 1866, Prussia and Austria went to war over the Duchy of Holstein when Prussian troops moved in to occupy Holstein and warned other German states that support for Austria was equivalent to a declaration of war. This provocation resulted in greater support for Austria among lesser states in the German Confederation that were fearful of Prussian expansion. Prussia responded by declaring the Confederation dissolved and demanding the lesser German states to demobilize their forces and join a new kleinedeutschland that Bismarck proposed. This demand was denied, and so Prussian forces moved to occupy the states of Saxony, Hanover, and Hesse-Kassel.
The resulting war with Austria was over quickly as the Prussians fought their way through Saxony and invaded Austria. Bismarck worked to consolidate these fast victories convincing Prussian generals and the King to accept peace proposals mediated by the French. In the end Prussia ceded a dominating position in Germany and the German Confederation of States was replaced with two federations, one in the North and one in the South. Austria’s power over Germany was significantly weakened.
By 1871 only Bavaria, Baden, Hess-Darmstadt, and Wurttemberg remained to check Prussian expansion as now Austria had turned away from involvement in German affairs to focus on new anxieties with Russia to the East. Meanwhile in Spain, a coup ousted monarch Queen Isabell and Spain’s provisional government sought to offer the throne to a member of the Prussian royal family, Prince Leopold Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, who was married to a Portuguese princess.
Bismarck pushed Leopold to accept the offer knowing that it would lead to a war with France. The resulting war saw a massive Prussian Victory as Napoleon III was captured in September at Sedan. Prussia’s war with France left the Southern German states caught in the middle as a new wave of German Nationalism and support for kleinedeutschland in the South. Apart from nationalist movements from the population, the governments of lesser German states were pressured into the Prussian fold with the realization that their independence came with economic and political isolation, as well as the danger of invasion by greater powers. After the Franco-Prussian War all of German was united under Kaiser William.
- Rapport, Michael. Nineteenth Century Europe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.
- Williamson, D.G. Bismarck and Germany, 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011.
- Steinberg, Jonathan. Bismarck: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Blanning, Tim. Frederick the Great: King of Prussia. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2016.
-  D.G. Williamson, Bismarck and Germany, 3rd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2011) Chapter 3.
-  Michael Rapport, Nineteenth Century Europe (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 184.
-  Ibid, 184.
-  Williamson, Bismarck and Germany, Chapter 3.
-  Ibid, Chapter 3.
-  Williamson. Bismarck and Germany, Chapter 6.
-  Ibid, Chapter 6.