The unification of Germany took place on January 18, 1871, when Otto von Bismarck, the Minister-President of Prussia, managed to unify a number of independent German states into a nation-state, and thus create the German Empire, from which all of the states since that time bearing the name of Germany descend. Much debate concentrates on whether or not Bismarck, the so-called "Iron Chancellor", had a master-plan to unify Germany — or whether he aimed simply to expand the power of Prussia.
Before the French revolution of 1789, Germany was made up of more than 300 political entities ranging in size from free cities to sizable kingdoms like Prussia. These German states were part of the Holy Roman Empire, made up of more than 1,000 entities, with the Austrian monarch holding the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte when he invaded Germany and defeated Prussia at the battle of Jena in 1806. German nationalism was an outgrowth of the political reorganization implemented by Napoleon and of the subsequent war of liberation waged by the Germans against the French. After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna established a reactionary balance of power system that reorganized Europe into spheres of influence and suppressed the aspirations of the various nationalities. An enlarged Prussia and 38 other consolidated German states were reconstituted within the Austrian Empire's sphere of influence. A loose German Confederation (1815-1866), headed by Austria, was created with a "Diet" (leader-assembly) that met in the city of Frankfurt.
Several key factors played a role in uniting the 39 previously independent states into a unified Germany under the control of the Prussian Minister-President Otto von Bismarck. The move toward unification began many years before 1871 with a rise in German nationalism, initially allied with liberalism. The Revolutions of 1848 — a time in which Europe faced severe economic depression — disrupted plans by the German Confederation to possibly unify. It became increasingly clear that the Austrian Empire would inhibit any drive to unify a German nation-state. German unification was one of the major objectives during the widespread revolutions of 1848-49, when representatives of the German states met in Frankfurt and drafted a constitution creating a federal union with a national parliament to be elected by universal male suffrage. In April 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament offered the title of Kaiser (Emperor) to the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The Prussian king, fearing the opposition of the other German princes and the military intervention of Austria and Russia, lacked the resolve to accept this popular mandate. Thus, the Frankfurt Parliament ended in failure for the German liberals.
In the early 1860s political conflict about army reforms (and how to pay for them) caused a constitutional crisis in Prussia. The Prussian king, Wilhelm I, appointed Bismarck as Minister-President of Prussia in 1862, when Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was the chief of the Prussian general staff and Albrecht von Roon was the Prussian minister of war. The convergence of these three strategists occurred at a time when relations among the Great Powers--Great Britain, France, Austria and Russia--had been shattered by the Crimean War of 1854-55 and the Italian War of 1859. In the midst of this disarray, the European balance of power was restructured with the creation of the German Empire as the dominant power in Europe.Bismarck hoped he could resolve the constitutional crisis and establish Prussia as the leading German power through foreign triumphs, ultimately leading to a conservative, Prussian-dominated German state. This was achieved by his diplomacy, by Roon's reorganization of the army, and by Moltke's military strategy.
On September 30, 1862, Bismarck made a speech to the Budget Committee of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, at the end of which "One of Bismarck's most famous utterances is also one of the most imperfectly recorded."
The idea of the foundation of a German nation-state in the spirit of Pan-Germanism rapidly shifted from its liberal and democratic character in 1848 to accommodate Bismarck's authoritarian Realpolitik. Bismarck achieved German unity largely through three military successes: the Second War of Schleswig (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Although Germany's opponents declared these wars, military events established a belief of the German people that they needed a strong, united nation.
The Danish November Constitution, signed on November 18, 1863 by King Christian IX of Denmark, declared Schleswig a part of Denmark. The German Confederation saw this act as a violation of the London Protocol of 1852, which emphasized the separate status of Denmark, Schleswig and Holstein. Diplomatic attempts to have the November Constitution repealed proved futile, and fighting commenced when Prussia crossed the border into Schleswig on February 1, 1864. The Second Schleswig War resulted in victory for the combined armies of Prussia and Austria and the two countries won control of Schleswig and Holstein in the following peace settlement.
In 1866, in concert with the newly-formed Italy, Bismarck created an environment in which Austria declared the Austro-Prussian War (also known as the Seven Weeks' War or German Civil War). A decisive one-day victory at the Battle of Königgrätz allowed Prussia to annex some territory and allowed Bismarck to exclude long-time rival Austria and most of its allies from the now-defunct German Confederation when forming the North German Confederation with the states that had supported Prussia. This war also resulted in the end of Austrian dominance of the German states.
The new North German Confederation became the direct precursor to the 1871 empire. The four German states south of the Main River (Baden, Wuerttemberg, Bavaria and Austria) remained independent, but made military alliances with Prussia. In 1867, the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, his power greatly weakened by this defeat, had to give equal status to his Hungarian holdings, creating the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Austria was never again a power in Germany.
Bismarck had overcome Austria's active resistance to the idea of a unified Germany through military victory, but however much his policy lessened Austria's influence over the German states, it also splintered the spirit of pan-German unity, as some German states had allied with Austria. Since this decreased the sense of German nationalism, nationalists saw advantages in yet another war to rally the German states together in the face of a definitive external enemy. Further, to complete the unification of Germany Bismarck knew that he needed to overcome the opposition of Napoleon III and the Second French Empire. He accomplished both of these goals through the Franco-Prussian War.
In 1870 Bismarck encouraged a Hohenzollern prince to accept the throne of Spain. The Spanish regency had previously offered this post to three other European princes, each of whom Napoleon III (as regional power-broker) had rejected. The public remained unaware of the proposed Hohenzollern monarchy, and a successful installment of a Hohernzollern king in Spain would mean that the two countries on either side of France both had kings of German descent. When the issue leaked, France expressed outrage, and the minister of foreign affairs, Agenor, duc de Gramont, wrote a sharply formulated ultimatum rejection, stating that if any Prussian prince should accept the crown of Spain, the French government would respond. Although the prince withdrew as a candidate, Bismarck used the Ems Dispatch, which he released to the press with slight but meaning-changing alterations, to goad the French into the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon III hoped to divide the German Confederation as Napoleon I of France did. But France stood against the North German Confederation and its South German allies, without the participation of Austria. The 1866 treaty came into effect: all German states united militarily to fight France. After several battles, the Germans defeated the main French armies and captured the French emperor in the Battle of Sedan on September 1, 1870. Bismarck used the prevailing nationalist mood to formalise the setting up of a new constitutional dispensation for Germany.
Yet the new French Third Republic continued to fight. During the Siege of Paris (September 1870 to January 1871) the North German Confederation, supported by the allies from southern Germany, formed the German Empire. On January 18, 1871, exactly 170 years after the founding of the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Princes and senior military commanders proclaimed William "German Emperor" in the Hall of Mirrors of the French Palace of Versailles.The location held special significance because of the number of paintings which showed annexations of German regions by France. Under the peace treaty, France gave up almost all of its traditionally German regions: Alsace and the German-speaking part of Lorraine, which Louis XIV had annexed in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697).
The Franco-Prussian war had affirmed Bismarck and Prussia as the leaders of a unified German state. The southern states became officially incorporated into a unified Germany at the Treaty of Versailles of 1871 (26 February 1871; later ratified in the Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871), which ended the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck, as the first chancellor of a unified Germany, had led the transformation of Germany from a loose confederation to a federal nation state.
The German Empire included 25 states, three of them Hanseatic cities. It realized the Kleindeutsche Lösung, ("Lesser German Solution"), since Austria had been excluded, as opposed to a Großdeutsche Lösung or "Greater German Solution", which would have included Austria.
Bismarck himself prepared in broad outline the 1866 North German Constitution, which became the 1871 Constitution of the German Empire with some adjustments. Germany acquired some democratic features: notably the Reichstag, which — in contrast to the parliament of Prussia — represented citizens on the basis of elections by direct and equal male suffrage by all males who had attained the age of 25. This made the Reichstag the most democratic parliament in Europe. However, legislation also required the consent of the Bundesrat, the federal council of deputies from the states, in which Prussia had a large influence. Behind a constitutional façade, Prussia thus exercised predominant influence in both bodies, and with executive power vested in the Prussian King as Kaiser, who appointed the federal chancellor — Otto von Bismarck. The chancellor was accountable solely to and served entirely at the discretion of the Emperor. Officially, the chancellor functioned as a one-man cabinet and was responsible for the conduct of all state affairs; in practice, the State Secretaries (bureaucratic top officials in charge of such fields as finance, war, foreign affairs, etc) acted as unofficial portfolio ministers. With the exception of the years 1872–1873 and 1892–1894, the chancellor was always simultaneously the prime minister of the imperial dynasty's hegemonic home-kingdom, Prussia. The Reichstag had the power to pass, amend or reject bills, but could not initiate legislation. The power of initiating legislation rested with the chancellor. One problem with this constitution was that it was designed for certain types of people to hold the position of chancellor and king. The constitution failed to consider the scenario of a powerful king and a chancellor who is a figurehead.
While the other states retained their own governments, the military forces of the smaller states came under Prussian control. The military of the larger states (such as the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Saxony) underwent coordination along Prussian principles, with the federal government controlling them in wartime. Although authoritarian in many respects, the empire permitted the development of political parties.
The Kulturkampf that followed (1872-1878) — not a political conflict in the sense of a culture war — involved a struggle over language and education. Bismarck as chancellor tried without much success to limit the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and of its party-political arm, the Catholic Centre Party in schools and education and language-related policies. A policy of Germanization of non-German people of the empire's population, including the Polish and Danish minorities started with German language schools (Germanization).
The Kingdom of Prussia, the largest of the constituent states, covered some 60% of the territory of the German Empire. Before becoming integrated as Provinces of Prussia, several of these states had gained sovereignty following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, or had emerged as sovereign states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
The evolution of the German Empire exhibits some parallels to developments in Italy and Japan. Compared to Bismarck, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour in Italy used diplomacy and declarations of war to achieve his objectives: he allied with France before attacking Austria, securing the unification of Italy (except for the Papal States and Austrian Venice) by 1861 as a kingdom under the Piedmontese dynasty. In the interests of Piedmont-Sardinia, Cavour, hostile to the more revolutionary romantic nationalism of liberal republicans such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, sought to unify Italy along conservative lines.
Japan followed a similar course of conservative modernization after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration (1868) to 1918. Japan set up a commission in 1882 to study various governmental structures throughout the world; Bismarck's Germany particularly impressed the Commissioners, who issued a constitution in 1889 featuring a premiership with powers analogous to Bismarck's position as chancellor, and with a cabinet responsible to the emperor alone.
One common factor in the social anatomy of these governments involved the retention of a very substantial share in political power by landed elites — in Germany's case the Prussian Junkers — due to the absence of a revolutionary breakthrough by the middle classes, or by peasants in combination with urban workers.