104 German Unification

24.4: German Unification

24.4.1: The German Confederation

The German Confederation was the loose association of 39 states created in 1815 to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries, which most historians have judged to be weak and ineffective as well as an obstacle to German nationalist aspirations.

Learning Objective

Diagram the political relations and structure of the German Confederation

Key Points

  • One of the major outcomes of the Congress of Vienna was the creation of German Confederation, a loose association of 39 states designed to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries.
  • It acted as a buffer between the powerful states of Austria and Prussia to preserve the Concert of Europe.
  • Most historians have judged the Confederation as weak and ineffective, as well as an obstacle to German nationalist aspirations.
  • Further efforts to improve the Confederation began in 1834 with the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein, to manage tariffs and economic policies.
  • It collapsed due to the rivalry between Prussia and Austria, warfare, the 1848 revolution, and the inability of the multiple members to compromise.
  • It was replaced by the North German Confederation in 1866.

Key Terms

A coalition of German states formed to manage tariffs and economic policies within their territories, formed during the German Confederation.
Rights of Man
A book by Thomas Paine, including 31 articles, that posits that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people. Using these points as a basis, it defends the French Revolution.
German dualism
A long-standing conflict and rivalry for supremacy between Prussia and Austria in Central Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. While wars were a part of the rivalry, it was also a race for prestige to be seen as the legitimate political force of the German-speaking peoples. The conflict first culminated in the Seven Years’ War.
Holy Roman Empire
A multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was the Kingdom of Germany, though it also came to include the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Italy, and numerous other territories.

The German Confederation (German: Deutscher Bund) was an association of 39 German states in Central Europe, created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries and to replace the former Holy Roman Empire. It acted as a buffer between the powerful states of Austria and Prussia. Britain approved of the confederation because London felt there was need for a stable, peaceful power in central Europe that could discourage aggressive moves by France or Russia. Most historians have judged the Confederation as weak and ineffective, as well as an obstacle to the creation of a German nation-state. It collapsed because of the rivalry between Prussia and Austria (known as German dualism), warfare, the 1848 revolution, and the inability of members to compromise. It was replaced by the North German Confederation in 1866.

In 1848, revolutions by liberals and nationalists were failed attempts to establish a unified German state. Talks between the German states failed in 1848, and the Confederation briefly dissolved but was reestablished in 1850. It decidedly fell apart only after the Prussian victory in the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866.

The dispute between the two dominant member states of the Confederation, Austria and Prussia, over which had the inherent right to rule German lands ended in favor of Prussia after the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866. This led to the creation of the North German Confederation under Prussian leadership in 1867. A number of South German states remained independent until they joined the North German Confederation, which was renamed the German Empire.


History and Structure of the Confederation

Between 1806 and 1815, Napoleon organized the German states into the Confederation of the Rhine, but this collapsed after his defeats in 1812 to 1815. The German Confederation had roughly the same boundaries as the Empire at the time of the French Revolution (less what is now Belgium). It also kept intact most of Confederation’s reconstituted member states and their boundaries. The member states, drastically reduced to 39 from more than 300 under the Holy Roman Empire, were recognized as fully sovereign. The members pledged themselves to mutual defense, and joint maintenance of the fortresses at Mainz, the city of Luxembourg, Rastatt, Ulm, and Landau.

The only organ of the Confederation was the Federal Assembly, consisting of the delegates of the states’ governments. There was no head of state; the Austrian delegate presided the Assembly but was not granted extra power. The Assembly met in Frankfurt.

The Confederation was enabled to accept and deploy ambassadors. It allowed ambassadors of the European powers to the Assembly, but rarely deployed ambassadors itself.

During the revolution of 1848-49, the Federal Assembly was inactive and transferred its powers to the revolutionary German Central Government of the Frankfurt National Assembly. After crushing the revolution and illegally disbanding the National Assembly, the Prussian King failed to create a German nation state by himself. The Federal Assembly was revived in 1850 on Austrian initiative, but only fully reinstalled only in the Summer of 1851.

Rivalry between Prussia and Austria grew substantially beginning in 1859. The Confederation was dissolved in 1866 after the Austro-Prussian War, and was succeeded in 1866 by the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation. Unlike the German Confederation, the North German Confederation was in fact a true state. Its territory comprised the parts of the German Confederation north of the river Main, plus Prussia’s eastern territories and the Duchy of Schleswig, but excluded Austria and the other southern German states.

Prussia’s influence was widened by the Franco-Prussian War resulting in the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles on January 18, 1871, which united the North German Federation with the southern German states. Constituent states of the former German Confederation became part of the German Empire in 1871, except Austria, Luxembourg, the Duchy of Limburg, and Liechtenstein.


Politics and Economy of the Confederation

Although the forces unleashed by the French Revolution were seemingly under control after the Vienna Congress, the conflict between conservative forces and liberal nationalists was only deferred. The era until the failed 1848 revolution when these tensions escalated is commonly referred to as Vormärz (“pre-March”), in reference to the outbreak of riots in March 1848.

This conflict pitted the forces of the old order against those inspired by the French Revolution and the Rights of Man. The sociological breakdown of the competition was roughly one side engaged mostly in commerce, trade, and industry, and the other side associated with landowning aristocracy or military aristocracy (the Junker) in Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria, and the conservative notables of the small princely states and city-states in Germany.

Meanwhile, demands for change from below had been stirring since the influence of the French Revolution. Throughout the German Confederation, Austrian influence was paramount, drawing the ire of the nationalist movements. Metternich considered nationalism, especially the nationalist youth movement, the most pressing danger: German nationalism might not only reject Austrian dominance of the Confederation, but also stimulate nationalist sentiment within the Austrian Empire itself. In a multinational multilingual state in which Slavs and Magyars outnumbered the Germans, the prospects of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Serb, or Croatian sentiment along with middle-class liberalism was certainly horrifying.

Further efforts to improve the Confederation began in 1834 with the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein. In 1834, the Prussian regime sought to stimulate wider trade advantages and industrialism by decree—a logical continuation of the program of Stein and Hardenberg less than two decades earlier. Historians have seen three Prussian goals: as a political tool to eliminate Austrian influence in Germany; as a way to improve the economies; and to strengthen Germany against potential French aggression while reducing the economic independence of smaller states.

Inadvertently, these reforms sparked the unification movement and augmented a middle class demanding further political rights, but at the time backwardness and Prussia’s fears of its stronger neighbors were greater concerns. The customs union opened up a common market, ended tariffs between states, and standardized weights, measures, and currencies within member states (excluding Austria), forming the basis of a proto-national economy.

The map shows that the present-day countries whose territory were partly or entirely located inside the boundaries of the German Confederation are Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland, Belgium, Italy, and Croatia.
German Confederation Map of the German Confederation, circa 1815, following the Congress of Vienna. The territory of the Austrian Empire and Kingdom of Prussia not within the confederation is shown in light green.



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