Nationalism: state-building in Germany- Part I

Nationalism: state-building in Germany- Part I


  • Prior to 1806, German-speaking Central Europe included more than 300 political entities, most of which were part of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • The common criticism of the precursor to modern Germany, the Holy Roman Empire (headed by Habsburg dynasty), 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 (of Hohenzollern dynasty).
    • Their governance also varied: they included free imperial cities; ecclesiastical territories; and dynastic states.

Contribution of Napoleon in the cause of German unification

  • Directly by his constructive statesmanship, and indirectly by the results which opposition to his rule aroused, Napoleon contributed to the formation of united Germany and laid the foundation of German Empire.
  • Territorial reorganisation by Napoleon
    • In the first place, Napoleon reorganised the German state system by an extensive redistribution of territorial power.
    • He abolished many free sovereign German cities.
    • He simplified the map of Germany by reduction of over two hundred independent states of Germany into 39 states which indirectly advanced the cause of German unity and nationality.
    • Napoleon did it for creating French Satellite in Germany but it served the cause of German unification later.
  • Abolition of the Holy Roman Empire of Napoleon:
    • Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and replaced it by a Confederation of States dependent upon France.
    • In 1806, after a successful invasion of Prussia and the defeat of Prussia, Napoleon dictated the Treaty of Pressburg, in which the Emperor dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and replaced it by a Confederation of States dependent upon France.
    • The Holy Roman Empire had long been a mere obsolete survival, but its dissolution involved an irreparable breach with the past; it meant that the new German kingdom would be built upon a clean slate.
    • The Hapsburg House of Austria (which ruled the Holy Roman Empire) yielded up its historic claims to be the ruler of Germany; henceforth it was possible to conceive a Germany in which Austria had no place.
  • Reforms of Napoleon:
    • Napoleonic liberal reforms like religious toleration, freedom of press, equality before law etc. increased the hunger of self governance.
  • Rise of German nationalism:
    • The shared 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 War of liberation against Napoleon differed fundamentally from all other wars waged by Germany. It was not provoked by the Government intent upon world-aggrandizement, it was rising of people in arms to free itself from French domination. This nationalism helped in German unification.
    • Napoleon’s 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.
    • Napoleon’s Continental System nearly ruined the Central European economy which disillusined many Germans.
    • The debacle of Napoleon in Russia loosened the French grip on the German princes.
    • From the German perspective, critical role played by Prussia in defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo and Leipzig offered a rallying point of pride and enthusiasm.

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 reorganised territories of 1803 by Napoleon 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:
    • Its members were the representatives of the German princes, not of the people.
    • It had no machinery to enforce its decision.
  • Problematically, the built-in Austrian dominance failed to take into account Prussia’s 18th century emergence as a powerful state.

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
    • the Diet of the German Confederation (Bund) should be asked to institute uniform censorship of all periodical publications;
    • the recently formed Burschenschaften (nationalist student clubs) should be disbanded and the faculties of schools and universities be placed under supervisory curators; and
    • 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.

Role of the customs union (Zollverein) in unification of Germany under Prussia

  • Initially conceived by the Prussian Finance Minister Bulow, as a Prussian customs union in 1818, Zollverein or German Customs Union was finally organised by the 1833 Zollverein treaties.
  • The Zollverein formally came into existence on 1 January 1834.
  • The Zollverein linked many Prussian and other German Princely territories. Over the ensuing more than thirty years, many other German states (except Austria) joined.
  • The Zollverein is considered as a key institution to unifying the German states under Prussia:
    • It helped to create a larger sense of economic unification among German states.
    • 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 Metternich was against the idea as it was proposed by Prussia.
    • 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 in 1871.
    • 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.
      • Many historians 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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