Germany in the 19th Century


Germany, as a country, did not exist until 1871.  Before then, the area that would become Germany consisted of a number of independent states varying in size and power, ranging from kingdoms and grand duchies to principalities, cities and ecclesiastical states.  The first half of the nineteenth century, before the American Civil War, was a very turbulent time for this area of Europe.

Before 1806, the various German states were part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Each state was under its own ruler.  This empire had been established before 1000, and the Habsburgs had held the title of Holy Roman Emperor almost continuously since the middle of the 15th century.  The Habsburgs were also the rulers of Austria.  However, the amount of control exercised by the emperors had varied.  Constant struggles with the papacy and the rulers of the member states, the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the rise of Prussia as a major power had left the Habsburgs with little power over the Holy Roman Empire.  By 1800, it was little more than a title.  The number of German states had also declined throughout the centuries.  There had once been hundreds of states, but through the deaths of royal lines, annexation and conquest, the number had been reduced to around 300 by 1800.

At this time, Europe was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.  With their central location, the German states frequently felt the ravages of war.  Prussia and the other German states remained neutral or allied with France at the start of the century while Austria was usually at war with France.  In 1803, after defeating Austria, Napoleon gave land to the larger German states.  This was partly to punish Austria and partly to compensate the German states for the land France took around the Rhine River.  Most of the lands given to the German states were small, sovereign German states, a number of which were cities or ecclesiastical states.  They underwent secularization and mediatization and were absorbed by their neighbors.  This drastically cut down on the number of sovereign German states.

In 1806, Prussia felt threatened by France and went to war, but was soundly beaten at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt.  As punishment, Napoleon took land away from Prussia and created the Kingdom of Westphalia and gave it to his brother.  He also took away the Polish lands from Prussia and created the Duchy of Warsaw and gave it to another ally, the King of Saxony.  To win further favor with the larger German states, he elevated the titles of their rulers and gave them more land.  In exchange, he created the Confederation of the Rhine, which allied the German states with France and required them to provide France with soldiers.  With the creation of the Confederation, there was no need for the Holy Roman Empire, and Napoleon forced the Habsburgs to give up that title, ending the empire that some traced back to Charlemagne.

After the creation of the Confederation, almost all the German states joined, except for Prussia, Austria, and two minor states.  As members of the Confederation, the German states were exposed to the ideas of the French Revolution in varying degrees.  The nobility lost some of their privileges, while new rights and freedoms, such as freedom of the press and freedom of religion, were granted.  New French ideas about government and bureaucracy were also implemented.  There were attempts to create a more capitalist economy or bring about a constitution or parliamentary monarchy, but that was met with more resistance and never materialized.  This was the first time the Germans were exposed to these kinds of ideas, and they would form the basis for the reform movement in the German states for the next few decades.

In the meantime, Prussia began adopt new ideas as well.  Horrified by its quick defeat, Prussia decided to modernize.  It created a national guard and began compulsory military service.  The officer corps changed from the exclusive reserve of the nobles to a corps open to anyone who had the education and talents.  Promotions would be based on merit.  Serfdom was abolished, land ownership was opened to all, and many of the class specific privileges were abolished.  Other reforms were made throughout society.

In 1813, after Napoleons defeat in Russia, Prussia decided it was ready to fight Napoleon once more.  It allied with Austria and Russia and went to war.  At the Battle of Leipzig in October, where Germans fought on both sides, Napoleon was soundly defeated.  Some members of the Confederation of the Rhine deserted Napoleon before the battle, and the Confederation fell apart after the battle.  The Kingdom of Westphalia was dissolved and the lands returned to their previous rulers.  Prussia continued to play an important role in the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

In 1814 and 1815, Europe met at the Congress of Vienna to settle Europe after years of war.  Many of the territorial gains made by the forty odd remaining German states during the wars were kept.  The Duchy of Warsaw was broken up and the pieces given to Russia and Prussia.  Poland disappeared as a sovereign state once more.  Prussia also took a large portion of the Kingdom of Saxony.  It may have been punishment for Saxony not abandoning Napoleon quickly enough.  Prussia also received Swedish Pomerania.  The German Confederation was also created, which was to promote trade and provide for the common defense of the German states.  A diet was created for members to vote on matters.

People in the German states looked forward to this new era as a time to instill human freedoms and the idea of representative government in German society.  Special privileges for classes would disappear.  This was also the start of German nationalism, and the idea that there should be a unified German state.

However, Prussia and Austria remained the two most powerful German states, and their leaders wanted Europe to return as close as possible to its pre-Napoleon self.  They feared how the new liberal ideas of the French Revolution could undermine their absolute authority.  Rulers in all the German states feared nationalism because it meant losing their power to a single state.  This was especially feared by Austria, for its empire was made up of many different ethnic groups.  Nationalism would promote the break-up of the empire.  Other groups in the various German states feared reform and change because of the possibility of them losing their privileges and power.  This included guilds and artisans, nobles, those who lived in towns and religious hardliners.  As a warning to the states that might try to go against the wishes of the others, common defense included military action against states whose realms were considered to be in disorder.

Because of this, reform in the German states moved ahead slowly or not at all.  A limited representative government or constitution would be enacted and freedoms granted in some states, but then they would be taken away or negated when rulers felt their power was threatened.  Sometimes it was because of pressure from neighboring states, but at other times it was because of the supposed unruliness of the people or because of outside events.  The 1830 Revolution in France ruined many of the political reforms made in the previous decade.

Despite the resistance of rulers and groups of people to reform and change, society was still changing.  Some of the changes were because of reforms enacted by the rulers.  Most of the reforms were related to the different groups of people within the states and the economy.  Other transformations occurred because of the changing times and the Industrial Revolution.  The economy was deregulated and the guilds and towns lost many of their special privileges.  This led to a more capitalist economy.  The nobles lost many of their privileges as well, and had to learn to live in a more capitalist society without serfdom.  Land ownership was opened to all classes and serfdom abolished, giving rural people the ability to own land, move around, or take up new employment.  Because this was the time of the Industrial Revolution, new industries were created and others grew or became more mechanized.  This led to the decline of some, small-scale industries that had taken place in the home or small shops.  Factories led to the growth of towns and cities and the creation of a new urban worker.  There was a fear of industry and mechanization in some states, and attempts were made to slow its growth, but it forged ahead anyway.  The evolving economy led to the growth of the middle class, an educated class that was well off enough to participate in politics, if given the chance.  Farming techniques improved, leading to more land under cultivation and greater agricultural output.  This led to a larger, healthier population.  However, these changes were not standard across all the states.  States enacted different reforms at different times, and some were more open to change than others.

In 1834, the German Customs Union, the Zollverein, was created.  This promoted trade by easing the problems caused by the different taxes and customs paid at the many borders goods passed through.  It also standardized the three different currencies used in the German states.  Austria was left out, which allowed Prussia to forge closer ties to the other German states.  The German states also began to invest more in road networks, canals, and in building railroads.

With all of these seemingly positive changes, there were still problems.  Some serfs, in exchange for their freedom, had to compensate their former owners with land.  Some farmers were forced to survive on too little land.  Some artisans lost their jobs to factories and industrialization.  Towns had a new urban working class, an influx of population and all the ills that went with it.  This led to increased immigration from the German states, with many of the immigrants going to the United States to start a new life.  Immigration increased in the 1840ís with an economic downturn and several years of bad harvests.

In 1848, Europe was swept by revolution.  The ideas of the American and French Revolutions, simmering for decades, combined with the bad economy of the 1840ís, led to a revolution in Sicily in January 1848.  The revolution soon spread to France, where the king was forced to abdicate, and then to the German states.  Members of the middle class started to demand reform and the urban working class joined in.  The combined forces of these two groups frightened the German rulers into granting the desired freedoms and forming parliaments and writing constitutions.  Government official were replaced with more liberal ones.  In Frankfurt, a German National Assembly was formed to discuss a national German parliament and a unified Germany.

Everything seemed to be going well, but the Revolution was to be short lived.  Many rural people paid little attention to the Revolution.  Those people and groups who had come to power in 1848 began to fight amongst themselves, arguing over what direction they should go in next.  The German National Assembly was ignored by the German rulers.  After biding their time, the rulers and their like-minded officials took back control.  Parliaments were dissolved and constitutions were thrown out or re-written to ensure the absolute power of the ruler.  Military force was used to put down those who resisted.  Prussia regained control within its own borders quickly and then used its power and military to put down the revolution in other states and return them to the old order.  In 1849, the Assembly in Frankfurt offered the crown of a unified German state that was to be a constitutional monarchy to King Frederick William IV of Prussia.  He declined and the assembly fell apart.  Some revolutionaries met the German states with force in an attempt to continue the revolution, but they were ultimately defeated in all states and their leaders were arrested or forced to flee.  By 1851, almost all of the gains made in 1848 had been reversed.

During this period of instability, Prussia had attempted to increase its power.  In response to Denmarkís attempts to increase its control over the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, Prussia invaded them and drove out the Danish troops.  The area had a large German population and Holstein was part of the German Confederation.  But both duchies had been more closely tied to Denmark than to the German states.  Other European powers intervened, and in the end Prussia was forced to back down.  Denmark was willing to give up Holstein to keep Schleswig, but Prussia wanted both to stay together.  Prussia had also tried to dissolve the German Confederation and create its own organization of German states.  Austria would have been excluded.  This too was given up after pressure from Austria and Russia, and when some of the larger German states sided with Austria.  Prussia backed down and rejoined the German Confederation again, but was able to keep Austria out of the Zollverein.

The 1850ís were a period of continued growth for the German states.  Prussia continued to grow in power and influence, leaving Austria further behind.  The economies of the German states continued to grow and reform continued to occur, though at a slow pace and only from above.  As 1860 approached, Prussia continued to eye Schleswig-Holstein and its relationship with Austria continued to deteriorate.  In the mid 1860ís, Prussia would start to move in the direction of a unified Germany, leading to the creation of the German Empire in 1871 under King William I of Prussia.

Return to Main Page