The German Confederation (German: Deutscher Bund) was an association of 39 German states in Central Europe, created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries and to replace the former Holy Roman Empire, which had been dissolved in 1806. Most historians have judged the Confederation to have been weak and ineffective, as well as an obstacle to the creation of a German nation-state.
The Confederation collapsed due to the rivalry between the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire, warfare in the several European revolutions of 1848, the 1848–1849 German revolution, and the inability of the multiple members to compromise. In 1848, revolutions by liberals and nationalists were a failed attempt to establish a unified German state with a progressive liberal constitution under the Frankfurt Convention. Talks between the German states failed in 1848, and the Confederation briefly dissolved, but was re-established shortly after, in 1850.
The Confederation fell apart after the Prussian victory in the Seven Weeks' War over Austria in 1866. The dispute over which had the inherent right to rule German lands ended in favour of Prussia, leading to the creation of the North German Confederation under Prussian leadership in 1867. A number of South German states remained independent until they joined the North German Confederation, which was renamed and proclaimed as the "German Empire" in 1871 for the now unified Germany with the Prussian king as emperor (Kaiser) after the victory over French Emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
The War of the Third Coalition lasted from about 1803 to 1806. Following defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz by the French under Napoleon in December 1805, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II abdicated, and the Empire was dissolved on 6 August 1806. The resulting Treaty of Pressburg established the Confederation of the Rhine in July 1806, joining together sixteen of France's allies among the German states (including Bavaria and Württemberg). After the Battle of Jena–Auerstedt of October 1806 in the War of the Fourth Coalition, various other German states, including Saxony and Westphalia, also joined the Confederation. Only Austria, Prussia, Danish Holstein, Swedish Pomerania, and the French-occupied Principality of Erfurt stayed outside the Confederation of the Rhine. These nations would later join in the War of the Sixth Coalition from 1812 to 1814.
The Confederation was formally created by a second treaty, the Final Act of the Ministerial Conference to Complete and Consolidate the Organization of the German Confederation. This treaty was not concluded and signed by the parties until 15 May 1820. States joined the German Confederation by becoming parties to the second treaty. The states designated for inclusion in the Confederation in the 1815 treaty were:
When the 1820 treaty was concluded, the following states were also included:
In 1839, as compensation for the loss of the province of Luxemburg to Belgium, the Duchy of Limburg (held by the Netherlands) was created and it was a member of the German Confederation until its dissolution in 1866. The city of Maastricht was not included in the Confederation.
The German Confederation ended as a result of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 between Austrian Empire and its allies on one side and the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies on the other. In the Prague peace treaty, on 23 August 1866, Austria had to accept that the Confederation was considered to be dissolved. The following day, the remaining member states confirmed the dissolution. The treaty allowed Prussia to create a new Bundesverhältnis (a new kind of federation) in the North of Germany. The South German states were proposed to create a South German Confederation but this did not come into existence.
Prussia and its allies created the North German Confederation in 1867. Because of French intervention it had to exclude, besides Austria, the South German states Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt. During November 1870, the four southern states joined the North German Confederation by treaty.
The North German Confederation Reichstag and Bundesrat accepted to rename the North German Confederation as the German Empire and give the title of German Emperor to the King of Prussia. The new constitution of the state, the Constitution of the German Confederation, introduced the new name (in spite of its title) and title on 1 January 1871.
The strength of the mobilized German Federal Army was projected to total 303,484 men in 1835, with the individual states providing the following figures:
|State||Area [km²]||Population||Matriculation class[A 1]
(proportion of total [%])
|Annual expenditures (in Austrian Gulden)
|Austrian Empire[A 2]||197,573[A 3]||10,086,900[A 3]||31.44||9,432|
|Kingdom of Prussia[A 4]||185,496[A 3]||[A 3]9,957,000||26.52||7,956|
|Kingdom of Bavaria||76,258||4,120,000||11.8||3,540|
|Kingdom of Württemberg||19,504||1,547,400||4.63||1,389|
|Kingdom of Saxony||14,993||1,480,000||3.98||1,194|
|Kingdom of Hannover||38,452||1,549,000||4.33||1,299|
|Grand Duchy of Baden||15,269||1,175,000||3.31||993|
|Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt||7,680||720,000||2.05||615|
|Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin||13,304||455,000||1.19||357|
|Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz||2,929||85,000||0.24||72|
|Grand Duchy of Oldenburg||6,420||250,000||0.73||219|
|Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar||3,593||233,814||0.67||201|
|Grand Duchy of Luxemburg (with Limburg)||2,586||259,500||0.40||120|
|Duchy of Anhalt-Dessau||840||57,629||0.19||57|
|Duchy of Anhalt-Cöthen[A 5]||727||36,000||0.10||30|
|Duchy of Anhalt-Bernburg[A 6]||780||43,325||0.12||36|
|Duchy of Brunswick||3,690||245,783||0.69||20|
|Duchy of Holstein and Saxe-Lauenburg[A 7]||9,580||450.000||0.12||35|
|Duchy of Nassau||4,700||360,000||1.00||300|
|Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg||1.287||114,048||0.33||99|
|Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha[A 8]||2,688||156,639||0.37||111|
|Duchy of Saxe-Hildburghausen[A 9]||0||0||0||0|
|Duchy of Sachsen-Meiningen||2,293||136,000||0.38||114|
|Principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen||236||17,000||0.05||15|
|Principality of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen||906||42,341||1.40||420|
|Principality of Lippe-Detmold||1,133||77,500||0.23||69|
|Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe||536||23,128||0.07||21|
|Principality of Liechtenstein||159||5,800||0.02||6|
|Principality of Reuß elder line||316||24,500||0.07||21|
|Principality of Reuß younger line||826||59,000||0.17||51|
|Principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt||940||60,000||0.18||54|
|Principality of Waldeck||1,121||56,000||0.17||51|
|Principality of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen||862||51,767||0.15||45|
|Landgraviate of Hessen-Homburg[A 10]||275||23,000||0.07||21|
|Free City of Lübeck||298||45,600||0.13||39|
|Free City of Hamburg||410||154,000||0.43||129|
|Free City of Bremen||256||52,000||0.16||48|
|Free City of Frankfurt||101||54,000||0.16||48|
Despite its name and intention, the German Confederation was not entirely populated by Germans; many people of other ethnic groups lived within its borders:
Between 1806 and 1815, Napoleon organized the German states, aside from Prussia and Austrian, into the Confederation of the Rhine, but this collapsed after his defeats in 1812 to 1815. The German Confederation had roughly the same boundaries as the Empire at the time of the French Revolution (less what is now Belgium). It also kept intact most of Confederation's reconstituted member states and their boundaries. The member states, drastically reduced to 39 from more than 300 (see Kleinstaaterei) under the Holy Roman Empire, were recognized as fully sovereign. The members pledged themselves to mutual defense, and joint maintenance of the fortresses at Mainz, the city of Luxembourg, Rastatt, Ulm, and Landau.
The only organ of the Confederation was the Federal Assembly (officially Bundesversammlung, often called Bundestag), which consisted of the delegates of the states' governments. There was no head of state, but the Austrian delegate presided over the Assembly (according to the Bundesakte). Austria did not have extra powers, but consequently the Austrian delegate was called Präsidialgesandther and Austria the Präsidialmacht (presiding power). The Assembly met in Frankfurt.
The Confederation was enabled to accept and deploy ambassadors. It allowed ambassadors of the European powers to the Assembly, but rarely deployed ambassadors itself.
During the revolution of 1848/49 the Federal Assembly was inactive. It transferred its powers to the Provisorische Zentralgewalt, the revolutionary German Central Government of the Frankfurt National Assembly. After crushing the revolution and illegally disbanding the National Assembly, the Prussian King failed to create a German nation state by himself. The Federal Assembly was revived in 1850 on Austrian initiative, but only fully reinstalled in the Summer of 1851.
Rivalry between Prussia and Austria grew more and more, especially after 1859. The Confederation was dissolved in 1866 after the Austro-Prussian War, and was succeeded in 1866 by the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation. Unlike the German Confederation, the North German Confederation was in fact a true state. Its territory comprised the parts of the German Confederation north of the river Main, plus Prussia's eastern territories and the Duchy of Schleswig, but excluded Austria and the other southern German states.
Prussia's influence was widened by the Franco-Prussian War resulting in the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles on 18 January 1871, which united the North German Federation with the southern German states. All the constituent states of the former German Confederation became part of the Kaiserreich in 1871, except Austria, Luxembourg, the Duchy of Limburg, and Liechtenstein.
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The late 18th century was a period of political, economic, intellectual, and cultural reforms, the Enlightenment (represented by figures such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Adam Smith), but also involving early Romanticism, and climaxing with the French Revolution, where freedom of the individual and nation was asserted against privilege and custom. Representing a great variety of types and theories, they were largely a response to the disintegration of previous cultural patterns, coupled with new patterns of production, specifically the rise of industrial capitalism.
However, the defeat of Napoleon enabled conservative and reactionary regimes such as those of the Kingdom of Prussia, the Austrian Empire, and Tsarist Russia to survive, laying the groundwork for the Congress of Vienna and the alliance that strove to oppose radical demands for change ushered in by the French Revolution. The Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 aimed to restore Europe (as far as possible) to its pre-war conditions by combating both liberalism and nationalism and by creating barriers around France. With Austria's position on the continent now intact and ostensibly secure under its reactionary premier Klemens von Metternich, the Habsburg empire would serve as a barrier to contain the emergence of Italian and German nation-states as well, in addition to containing France. But this reactionary balance of power, aimed at blocking German and Italian nationalism on the continent, was precarious.
After Napoleon's final defeat in 1815, the surviving member states of the defunct Holy Roman Empire joined to form the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund)—a rather loose organization, especially because the two great rivals, the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia, each feared domination by the other.
In Prussia the Hohenzollern rulers forged a centralized state. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia was a socially and institutionally backward state, grounded in the virtues of its established military aristocracy (the Junkers), stratified by rigid hierarchical lines. After 1815, Prussia's defeats by Napoleonic France highlighted the need for administrative, economic, and social reforms to improve the efficiency of the bureaucracy and encourage practical merit-based education. Inspired by the Napoleonic organization of German and Italian principalities, the reforms of Karl August von Hardenberg and Count Stein were conservative, enacted to preserve aristocratic privilege while modernizing institutions.
Outside Prussia, industrialization progressed slowly, and was held back because of political disunity, conflicts of interest between the nobility and merchants, and the continued existence of the guild system, which discouraged competition and innovation. While this kept the middle class at bay, affording the old order a measure of stability not seen in France, Prussia's vulnerability to Napoleon's military proved to many among the old order that a fragile, divided, and traditionalist Germany would be easy prey for its cohesive and industrializing neighbor.
The reforms laid the foundation for Prussia's future military might by professionalizing the military and decreeing universal military conscription. In order to industrialize Prussia, working within the framework provided by the old aristocratic institutions, land reforms were enacted to break the monopoly of the Junkers on land ownership, thereby also abolishing, among other things, the feudal practice of serfdom.
Although the forces unleashed by the French Revolution were seemingly under control after the Vienna Congress, the conflict between conservative forces and liberal nationalists was only deferred at best. The era until the failed 1848 revolution, in which these tensions built up, is commonly referred to as Vormärz ("pre-March"), in reference to the outbreak of riots in March 1848.
This conflict pitted the forces of the old order against those inspired by the French Revolution and the Rights of Man. The sociological breakdown of the competition was, roughly, one side engaged mostly in commerce, trade, and industry, and the other side associated with landowning aristocracy or military aristocracy (the Junkers) in Prussia, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria, and the conservative notables of the small princely states and city-states in Germany.
Meanwhile, demands for change from below had been fomenting since the influence of the French Revolution. Throughout the German Confederation, Austrian influence was paramount, drawing the ire of the nationalist movements. Metternich considered nationalism, especially the nationalist youth movement, the most pressing danger: German nationalism might not only repudiate Austrian dominance of the Confederation, but also stimulate nationalist sentiment within the Austrian Empire itself. In a multi-national polyglot state in which Slavs and Magyars outnumbered the Germans, the prospects of Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish, Serb, or Croatian sentiment along with middle class liberalism was certainly horrifying.
Figures like August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Ludwig Uhland, Georg Herwegh, Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, Ludwig Börne, and Bettina von Arnim rose in the Vormärz era. Father Friedrich Jahn's gymnastic associations exposed middle class German youth to nationalist and democratic ideas, which took the form of the nationalistic and liberal democratic college fraternities known as the Burschenschaften. The Wartburg Festival in 1817 celebrated Martin Luther as a proto-German nationalist, linking Lutheranism to German nationalism, and helping arouse religious sentiments for the cause of German nationhood. The festival culminated in the burning of several books and other items that symbolized reactionary attitudes. One item was a book by August von Kotzebue. In 1819, Kotzebue was accused of spying for Russia, and then murdered by a theological student, Karl Ludwig Sand, who was executed for the crime. Sand belonged to a militant nationalist faction of the Burschenschaften. Metternich used the murder as a pretext to issue the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, which dissolved the Burschenschaften, cracked down on the liberal press, and seriously restricted academic freedom.
German artists and intellectuals, heavily influenced by the French Revolution, turned to Romanticism. At the universities, high-powered professors developed international reputations, especially in the humanities led by history and philology, which brought a new historical perspective to the study of political history, theology, philosophy, language, and literature. With Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in philosophy, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) in theology and Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) in history, the University of Berlin, founded in 1810, became the world's leading university. Von Ranke, for example, professionalized history and set the world standard for historiography. By the 1830s, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology had emerged with world class science, led by Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in natural science and Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855) in mathematics. Young intellectuals often turned to politics, but their support for the failed Revolution of 1848 forced many into exile.
The population of the German Confederation (excluding Austria) grew 60% from 1815 to 1865, from 21,000,000 to 34,000,000. The era saw the demographic transition take place in Germany. It was a transition from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth and death rates as the country developed from a pre-industrial to a modernized agriculture and supported a fast-growing industrialized urban economic system. In previous centuries, the shortage of land meant that not everyone could marry, and marriages took place after age 25. The high birthrate was offset by a very high rate of infant mortality, plus periodic epidemics and harvest failures. After 1815, increased agricultural productivity met a larger food supply, and a decline in famines, epidemics, and malnutrition. This allowed couples to marry earlier, and have more children. Arranged marriages became uncommon as young people were now allowed to choose their own marriage partners, subject to a veto by the parents. The upper and middle classes began to practice birth control, and a little later so too did the peasants. The population in 1800 was heavily rural, with only 8% of the people living in communities of 5,000 to 100,000 and another 2% living in cities of more than 100,000.
In a heavily agrarian society, land ownership played a central role. Germany's nobles, especially those in the East called Junkers, dominated not only the localities, but also the Prussian court, and especially the Prussian army. Increasingly after 1815, a centralized Prussian government based in Berlin took over the powers of the nobles, which in terms of control over the peasantry had been almost absolute. They retained control of the judicial system on their estates until 1848, as well as control of hunting and game laws. They paid no land tax until 1861 and kept their police authority until 1872, and controlled church affairs into the early 20th century. To help the nobility avoid indebtedness, Berlin set up a credit institution to provide capital loans in 1809, and extended the loan network to peasants in 1849. When the German Empire was established in 1871, the nobility controlled the army and the Navy, the bureaucracy, and the royal court; they generally set governmental policies.
Peasants continued to center their lives in the village, where they were members of a corporate body and helped manage community resources and monitor community life. In the East, they were serfs who were bound prominently to parcels of land. In most of Germany, farming was handled by tenant farmers who paid rents and obligatory services to the landlord, who was typically a nobleman. Peasant leaders supervised the fields and ditches and grazing rights, maintained public order and morals, and supported a village court which handled minor offenses. Inside the family the patriarch made all the decisions, and tried to arrange advantageous marriages for his children. Much of the villages' communal life centered around church services and holy days. In Prussia, the peasants drew lots to choose conscripts required by the army. The noblemen handled external relationships and politics for the villages under their control, and were not typically involved in daily activities or decisions.
After 1815, the urban population grew rapidly, due primarily to the influx of young people from the rural areas. Berlin grew from 172,000 people in 1800, to 826,000 in 1870; Hamburg grew from 130,000 to 290,000; Munich from 40,000 to 269,000; Breslau (now Wrocław) from 60,000 to 208,000; Dresden from 60,000 to 177,000; Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) from 55,000 to 112,000. Offsetting this growth, there was extensive emigration, especially to the United States. Emigration totaled 480,000 in the 1840s, 1,200,000 in the 1850s, and 780,000 in the 1860s.
Further efforts to improve the confederation began in 1834 with the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein. In 1834, the Prussian regime sought to stimulate wider trade advantages and industrialism by decree—a logical continuation of the program of Stein and Hardenberg less than two decades earlier. Historians have seen three Prussian goals: as a political tool to eliminate Austrian influence in Germany; as a way to improve the economies; and to strengthen Germany against potential French aggression while reducing the economic independence of smaller states.
Inadvertently, these reforms sparked the unification movement and augmented a middle class demanding further political rights, but at the time backwardness and Prussia's fears of its stronger neighbors were greater concerns. The customs union opened up a common market, ended tariffs between states, and standardized weights, measures, and currencies within member states (excluding Austria), forming the basis of a proto-national economy.
By 1842 the Zollverein included most German states. Within the next twenty years the output of German furnaces increased fourfold. Coal production grew rapidly as well. In turn, German industry (especially the works established by the Krupp family) introduced the steel gun, cast-steel axle, and a breech-loading rifle, exemplifying Germany's successful application of technology to weaponry. Germany's security was greatly enhanced, leaving the Prussian state and the landowning aristocracy secure from outside threat. German manufacturers also produced heavily for the civilian sector. No longer would Britain supply half of Germany's needs for manufactured goods, as it did beforehand. However, by developing a strong industrial base, the Prussian state strengthened the middle class and thus the nationalist movement. Economic integration, especially increased national consciousness among the German states, made political unity a far likelier scenario. Germany finally began exhibiting all the features of a proto-nation.
The crucial factor enabling Prussia's conservative regime to survive the Vormärz era was a rough coalition between leading sectors of the landed upper class and the emerging commercial and manufacturing interests. Marx and Engels, in their analysis of the abortive 1848 Revolutions, defined such a coalition: "a commercial and industrial class which is too weak and dependent to take power and rule in its own right and which therefore throws itself into the arms of the landed aristocracy and the royal bureaucracy, exchanging the right to rule for the right to make money." Even if the commercial and industrial element is weak, it must be strong enough (or soon become strong enough) to become worthy of co-optation, and the French Revolution terrified enough perceptive elements of Prussia's Junkers for the state to be sufficiently accommodating.
While relative stability was maintained until 1848, with enough bourgeois elements still content to exchange the "right to rule for the right to make money", the landed upper class found its economic base sinking. While the Zollverein brought economic progress and helped to keep the bourgeoisie at bay for a while, it increased the ranks of the middle class swiftly—the very social base for the nationalism and liberalism that the Prussian state sought to stem.
The Zollverein was a move toward economic integration, modern industrial capitalism, and the victory of centralism over localism, quickly bringing to an end the era of guilds in the small German princely states. This led to the 1844 revolt of the Silesian Weavers, who saw their livelihood destroyed by the flood of new manufactures.
The Zollverein also weakened Austrian domination of the Confederation as economic unity increased the desire for political unity and nationalism.
News of the 1848 Revolution in Paris quickly reached discontented bourgeois liberals, republicans and more radical working-men. The first revolutionary uprisings in Germany began in the state of Baden in March 1848. Within a few days, there were revolutionary uprisings in other states including Austria, and finally in Prussia. On 15 March 1848, the subjects of Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia vented their long-repressed political aspirations in violent rioting in Berlin, while barricades were erected in the streets of Paris. King Louis-Philippe of France fled to Great Britain. Friedrich Wilhelm gave in to the popular fury, and promised a constitution, a parliament, and support for German unification, safeguarding his own rule and regime.
On 18 May, the Frankfurt Parliament (Frankfurt Assembly) opened its first session, with delegates from various German states. It was immediately divided between those favoring a kleindeutsche (small German) or grossdeutsche (greater German) solution. The former favored offering the imperial crown to Prussia. The latter favored the Habsburg crown in Vienna, which would integrate Austria proper and Bohemia (but not Hungary) into the new Germany.
From May to December, the Assembly eloquently debated academic topics while conservatives swiftly moved against the reformers. As in Austria and Russia, this middle-class assertion increased authoritarian and reactionary sentiments among the landed upper class, whose economic position was declining. They turned to political levers to preserve their rule. As the Prussian army proved loyal, and the peasants were uninterested, Friedrich Wilhelm regained his confidence. The Assembly issued its Declaration of the Rights of the German people, a constitution was drawn up (excluding Austria, which openly rejected the Assembly), and the leadership of the Reich was offered to Friedrich Wilhelm, who refused to "pick up a crown from the gutter". Thousands of middle class liberals fled abroad, especially to the United States.
In 1849, Friedrich Wilhelm proposed his own constitution. His document concentrated real power in the hands of the King and the upper classes, and called for a confederation of North German states—the Erfurt Union. Austria and Russia, fearing a strong, Prussian-dominated Germany, responded by pressuring Saxony and Hanover to withdraw, and forced Prussia to abandon the scheme in a treaty dubbed the "humiliation of Olmütz".
A new generation of statesmen responded to popular demands for national unity for their own ends, continuing Prussia's tradition of autocracy and reform from above. Germany found an able leader to accomplish the seemingly paradoxical task of conservative modernization. Bismarck was appointed by Wilhelm I of Prussia (the future Kaiser Wilhelm I) to circumvent the liberals in the Landtag of Prussia, who resisted Wilhelm's autocratic militarism. Bismarck told the Diet, "The great questions of the day are not decided by speeches and majority votes ... but by blood and iron"—that is, by warfare and industrial might. Prussia already had a great army; it was now augmented by rapid growth of economic power.
Gradually, Bismarck won over the middle class, reacting to the revolutionary sentiments expressed in 1848 by providing them with the economic opportunities for which the urban middle sectors had been fighting.
The current countries whose territory were partly or entirely located inside the boundaries of German Confederation 1815–1866 are:
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