Nationalism: state-building in Germany (Part 1)

Nationalism: state-building in Germany (Part 1)


  • Prior to 1806, German-speaking Central Europe included more than 300 political entities, most of which were part of the Holy Roman Empire or the extensive Habsburg hereditary dominions.
  • The common criticism of the precursor to modern Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, was that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Indeed, though Germany as we know it today was nominally united under an imperial crown for almost a millennium, in reality the German lands were composed of approximately 300 individual principalities and city-states that largely operated in independence of one another. They ranged in size from the small and complex territories of the princely family branches to sizable, well-defined territories such as the Kingdoms of Bavaria and Prussia.
  • Their governance varied: they included free imperial cities, also of different sizes; ecclesiastical territories, also of varying sizes and influence; and dynastic states.
  • These lands (or parts of them — both the Habsburg domains and Hohenzollern Prussia also included territories outside the Empire structures) made up the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, which at times included more than 1,000 entities.
  • Since the 15th century, the Empire’s Prince-electors had chosen successive heads of the House of Habsburg to hold the title of Holy Roman Emperor. Among the German-speaking states, the Holy Roman Empire administrative and legal mechanisms provided a venue to resolve disputes between peasants and landlords, between jurisdictions, and within jurisdictions.

Germany in Napoleonic System

  • The War of the Second Coalition (1799–1802) resulted in the defeat of the imperial and allied forces by Napoleon Bonaparte. The treaties of Luneville (1801) and Amiens (1802) and the German Mediatization (major territorial restructuring) of 1803 transferred large portions of the Holy Roman Empire to the dynastic states and secularized ecclesiastical territories. Most of the imperial cities disappeared from the political and legal landscape, and the populations living in these territories acquired new allegiances to dukes and kings.
  • In 1806, after a successful invasion of Prussia and the defeat of Prussia and Russia at the joint battles of Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon dictated the Treaty of Pressburg, in which the Emperor dissolved the Holy Roman Empire.

Rise of Nationalism in Napoleonic System

  • Under the hegemony of the French Empire (1804–1814), popular German nationalism thrived in the reorganized German states. Due in part to the shared experience, albeit under French dominance, various justifications emerged to identify “Germany” as a single state.
  • The surge of German nationalism, stimulated by the experience of Germans in the Napoleonic period. One can detect its roots in the experience of Germans in the Napoleonic period.  Napoleon simplified the map of Germany by reduction of 250 states into 39 states which indirectly advanced the cause of German nationality. Napoleon did it for crating French Satellite in Germany but it served the cause of German unification later.
  • A common language may have been seen to serve as the basis of a nation, but it took more than linguistic similarity to unify these several hundred polities.
  • The experience of German-speaking Central Europe during the years of French hegemony contributed to a sense of common cause to remove the French invaders and reassert control over their own lands.
  • The exigencies of Napoleon’s campaigns in Poland (1806–07), the Iberian Peninsula, western Germany, and his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 disillusioned many Germans, princes and peasants alike. The invasion of Russia included nearly 125,000 troops from German lands, and the loss of that army encouraged many Germans, both high- and low-born, to envision a Central Europe free of Napoleon’s influence. The creation of such student militias as the Lutzow Free Corps exemplified this tendency
  • Napoleon’s Continental System nearly ruined the Central European economy.
  • The debacle in Russia loosened the French grip on the German princes. In 1813, Napoleon mounted a campaign in the German states to bring them back into the French orbit; the subsequent War of Liberation culminated in the great Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of Nations. In October 1813, ferocious fighting made it the largest European land battle of the 19th century. The engagement resulted in a decisive victory for the Coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden, and it ended French power east of the Rhine.
  • During the brief Napoleonic restoration known as the 100 Days of 1815, forces of the Seventh Coalition, including an Anglo-Allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army under the command of Blücher, were victorious at Waterloo (18 June 1815). The critical role played by Blücher’s troops helped to turn the tide of combat against the French. From the German perspective, the actions of Blücher’s troops at Waterloo, and the combined efforts at Leipzig, offered a rallying point of pride and enthusiasm.

Reorganization of Central Europe and the rise of German dualism after Congress of Vienna

  • After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna established a new European political-diplomatic system based on the balance of power. This system reorganized Europe into spheres of influence, which, in some cases, suppressed the aspirations of the various nationalities, including the Germans and Italians.
  • Generally, an enlarged Prussia and the 38 other states consolidated from the mediatized territories of 1803 were confederated within the Austrian Empire’s sphere of influence. The Congress established a loose German Confederation (1815–1866), headed by Austria, with a “Federal Diet” (called the Bundestag, an assembly of appointed leaders) that met in the city of Frankfurt. In recognition of the imperial position traditionally held by the Habsburgs, the emperors of Austria became the titular presidents of this parliament and Prussia became Vice President. So, Austrian-Prussian dualism got established.
  • This Diet had two defects: (a) Its members were the representatives of the German princes, not of the people (b) It had no machinery to enforce its decision.
  • Problematically, the built-in Austrian dominance failed to take into account Prussia’s 18th century emergence in Imperial politics. Ever since the Prince-Elector of Brandenburg had made himself King in Prussia at the beginning of that century, their domains had steadily increased through war and inheritance. Prussia’s consolidated strength became especially apparent during the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War under Frederick the Great.

Carlsbad Decrees (1819)

  • The Carlsbad Decrees were a set of reactionary restrictions introduced in the states of the German Confederation by resolution of the Bundestag  on 20 September 1819 after a conference held in Carlsbad, Bohemia.
  • The occasion of the meeting was the desire of the Austrian foreign minister Metternich, to take advantage of the consternation caused by recent revolutionary outrages—especially the murder of the conservative dramatist August Kotzebue by Karl Sand, a member of a radical student organization—to persuade the German governments to combine for the suppression of liberal and nationalistic tendencies within their states. Metternich was able to harness conservative outrage at the assassination to consolidate legislation that would further limit the press and constrain the rising liberal and nationalist movements.
  • The conference agreed to Metternich’s urgent disciplinary measures. He proposed that
  1. the Diet of the German Confederation (Bund) should be asked to institute uniform censorship of all periodical publications;
  2. the recently formed Burschenschaften (nationalist student clubs) should be disbanded and the faculties of schools and universities be placed under supervisory curators; and
  3. a central investigating commission, armed with inquisitional powers, should be set up with powers to ferret out conspiratorial organizations.
  • These decrees were agreed upon by the representatives of the German states on Sept. 20, 1819.
  • The repressive and reactionary Carlsbad Decrees were enforced with varying severity in the German states over the next decade. Although they were temporarily successful in suppressing liberal political activities, they failed in the long run to stifle German nationalism or to curtail liberal developments in the states.

Economic collaboration: the customs union (Zollverein)

  • Another institution key to unifying the German states, the Zollverein or German Customs Union, helped to create a larger sense of economic unification. Initially conceived by the Prussian Finance Minister Bulow, as a Prussian customs union in 1818, it was finally organised by the 1833 Zollverein treaties. The Zollverein formally came into existence on 1 January 1834. The Zollverein linked the many Prussian and other German Princely territories. Over the ensuing more than thirty years, many other German states (except Austria) joined.
  • The Union helped to reduce protectionist barriers among the German states, especially improving the transport of raw materials and finished goods, making it both easier to move goods across territorial borders and less costly to buy, transport, and sell raw materials. This was particularly important for the emerging industrial centers, most of which were located in the Rhineland, the Saar, and the Ruhr valleys.
  • Prussia was the prime motivating force behind the creation of the customs union. Austria was excluded from the Zollverein because of its highly protected industry and also because Prince von Metternich was against the idea as it was proposed by Prussia.

Role of Zollverein  in the unification of Germany

  • The Zollverein set the groundwork for the unification of Germany under Prussian guidance in stead of Austria. It is said that the Zollverein may have been instrumental in bringing about Prussia’s economic preeminence in Germany which finally led to political unity of Germany.
  • The impact of the Zollverein on German unification may have been more incidental. As it constituted the main feature of Berlin’s “German policy” for many years, Prussian ministers and other government officials became accustomed to think in terms of Germany as a whole and to look beyond specifically Prussian benefits when looking for a consensus across Germany.
  • Contrary View: This traditional view is disputed by many historians who contend that far from allowing Prussia to increase its political influence over the smaller states, the custom union may have had the contrary effect: many governments using the increased revenue brought by the custom union to try to consolidate their independence. The smaller states entered the custom union for purely fiscal reasons, and as the events of 1866 were to demonstrate, membership in the Zollverein did not in the least lead to any form of political commitment toward Berlin, as many states remained suspicious of Prussia and generally pro-Austrian.
  • The Zollverein may not even have been instrumental in bringing about Prussia’s economic preeminence in Germany. They argue that nothing seems to indicate that industrial investments increased decisively during the period in Prussia, or that the custom union played a significant role in reducing the dominance of agriculture in the kingdom’s economy.


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