German travel & tourism Blog

The latest news from Germany is Wunderbar!

Will the real unification please stand up?

These days, the word ‘unification’ in association with Germany triggers images of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent rejoining of east with west. But the real unification of the whole nation of modern Germany took place over 120 years previously, as historian and guide Andrew Thomson explains.

Unlike France and England, Germany never became a unified nation in the Middle Ages. It was so large, had unclear boundaries, and included large states that were powers in their own right, like Bavaria, Saxony, Swabia and Prussia. When Napoleon defeated all these states in the early 1800s, the struggle to throw him out saw the development of strong nationalist feelings. At the time the idea of uniting all German speakers quickly gained currency, although conservatives, in power in most of the states, vetoed unification because their primary loyalty was to their own territory.

Then in 1848 the year of European revolution forced the pace, nearly leading to unification – were it not for an argument over who would be head of state. Wanting to follow Britain’s example of a stable constitutional monarchy, delegates offered the position to King Friedrich-Wilhelm IV of Prussia, given that Prussia accounted for 60 percent of the proposed nation’s population. But the latter indignantly refused. He was king of Prussia by divine process, and would not grubby his name by association with this new project!

After that, the whole project lost momentum – temporarily at least. At the time, Prussia was an economic giant with huge coal and iron reserves, large enough and wealthy enough to thrive as an independent nation-state. Its people put Prussian nationalism before German nationalism, though its liberals liked the idea of unification. It was an ambivalence personified in the figure of Otto van Bismarck, who became Prussian Chancellor in 1862.

Under Bismarck, Prussia won three wars in rapid succession: against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870/71. These victories paved the way for German unification, because although Bismarck’s heart was Prussian, he found himself calculating that Prussia’s interests might actually be better served in a bigger, unified Germany.

In a display of determined statesmanship, backed up with military force, he made unification a reality. Prussian liberals who scorned nationalism lauded him for making a united Germany a reality, and Prussian traditionalists were satisfied that their state played the leading role in the new nation.

Meanwhile the 1870 war with France made the smaller German states – fearful that France would occupy them again like in Napoleon’s time – rally around Prussia and defeat their old enemy together.

Eventually, unification was marked by a ceremony at Versailles in January 1871. And Prussia’s new ruler, Wilhelm I, who had succeeded the obdurate Friedrich-Wilhelm, agreed to become Emperor of the new Deutsches Reich.

This is adapted from Andrew’s e-book Germany, Just-Enough History©, available on Apple, Amazon, Google and Kobo (£7.99, €9.99, $9.99).

Share your comments