German Unification


The post Cold War reunification of Germany in 1990 seemed such a natural consequence of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet power in Eastern Europe that it is easy to forget that Germany had a fairly brief life span as a unified nation-state. Germany only unified as recently as 1871, when Wilhelm I became the leader of the German Empire following the Franco-Prussian War. Nor was it by any means inevitable that the more than 100 independent German principalities, kingdoms, free cities, and archbishoprics would coalesce under Prussian leadership into a unified, modern, national political entity. Although those living in the states that became part of the German Empire largely shared a common linguistic (German) and religious (Protestant) bond, the borders of the new empire included millions who identified neither with German language and culture (French, Danes, and Poles) nor with the dominant religion (Catholics and Jews). Moreover, the creation of the German Empire necessitated that various political and socio-economic interests either were suppressed or incorporated into the broader national structure. And finally, the "makers" of Germany had to contend with foreign powers, especially Russia, France, and the Austrian Empire, all of whom had much to gain and lose with the emergence of a new central European power, necessitating the use of both skillful diplomacy and military aggression. The numerable challenges to German unification meant that, as one prominent historian of Germany observed, the making of Germany was only slightly less difficult than the making of Germans.


  1. Students will be able to explain the sources of German nationalism—including cultural, intellectual, religious, political, and social—and to describe the tensions between nationalism as cultural or linguistic "sameness," e.g., "German," and nationalism as defined by loyalty to a national political institution, e.g., "Germany."
  2. Students will analyze the creation of the German Empire as constructed "from above" by Prussian leadership through political institutions, economic interest, diplomacy, and war and the consequences of this for political, religious, and nationalistic opponents of German unification.
  3. Students will examine the co-option of traditional political factions such as liberals and conservatives by German unifiers and the emergence of new political groups as various national minority parties, including the Catholic Center Party and the Social Democrats, as a result of unification.

I. The "Spirit" of German Nationalism: Richard Wagner and the Ring Cycle Operas

Richard Wagner (1813–83) is one of the most controversial composers of the nineteenth century. His talent and place as one of the great romantic composers is often overshadowed by his virulent anti-Semitism, having claimed that Jews were "the evil conscience of our modern civilization." He was also an ardent German nationalist. The Ring Cycle operas, perhaps his greatest works, were composed and first staged in 1876, shortly after Germany unified. They were intended to develop a mythic national history for the new empire, which had no actual political history on which to construct a national identity. Early in his career, Wagner identified with the socialist movement and supported the Revolution of 1848 in Germany. Following the 1848 upheavals, Wagner penned his essay, "Art and Revolution," in which he argued that the task of the artist is to effect political change through artistic expression. The career and music of Richard Wagner offer a unique interdisciplinary approach to the romantic aspect of German nationalism. The full text of Wagner's essay is available online.

A. The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth

Wagner personally oversaw the design and construction of the theater located in the small Bavarian village of Bayreuth, the Festspielhaus, which opened in 1870 and where the Ring Cycle operas were first performed. The Bavarian king, Ludwig II, who was one of the last German princes to agree to join the Prussian-dominated German Empire, provided the majority of the funds for its construction.

Convinced that opera and music developed a spirit of nationalism, Wagner rejected the traditional design of theaters in which the nobility and wealthy sat in the loge boxes facing each other rather than the stage. He instead created a seating plan by which all seats faced the stage directly.

A comparison of the two types of theaters can be demonstrated by showing the traditional floor plan of the Vienna opera house and contrasting it with Wagner's Festspielhaus.

B. The Ring of the Nibelung or Ring Cycle Operas

Although today, the four parts of the Ring Cycle operas, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walkur (The Valkyries), Sigfried, and Götterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods), are performed as separate pieces, Wagner composed them as part of a single piece and insisted that they be performed on successive nights. The operas are based on an ancient German myth, and Wagner hoped that the retelling of this myth in modern operatic form would foster a spirit of German nationalism.

The first part, Das Rheingold, opens with three Rhine Maidens guarding the Rhine Gold, and the last part, Götterdammerung, concludes with the same Rhine Maidens. Thus Wagner emphasizes that German identity is tied with geographical boundaries, in this case, the Rhine River.

The overture to Das Rheingold sets the stage for the audience. The theater is in complete darkness as a long, sustained E-flat is played. Slowly, the music builds on the E-flat as the lights are slowly turned up on the setting, which shows the three Rhine Maidens swimming in the river. Wagner hoped that by the time the overture reached its crescendo, the music would have suitably "unified" the audience. Music scholars have also argued that the sustained E-flat not only represents the depths of Rhine River, but because Wagner was a Social Darwinist, the note represents creation itself; the music "evolves" from one simple note, and therefore Wagner's intention was that Germany itself, in spite of its newness, was an organic entity, existing in spirit, long before it was created politically. For a discussion of the tonal elements of Das Rhinegold and their significance, see The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, available online by subscription (free trial is offered).

Activity and Assignment

Play the overture to Das Rhinegold, which is approximately 5 minutes long. Ask students to close their eyes and imagine sitting in a darkened Festspielhaus in 1876, the night of the opera's premiere. As the music builds, display a picture of the opening scene. For a writing assignment, ask students to write a review of the piece, including comments on its political connotations for a newspaper affiliated with one of the major German political groups (see section IV).

II. German Unification Before 1870

Economic success, political failure, and diplomatic tension marked the idea of a unified Germany in the period after the Napoleonic Wars. Prussian merchants, with the support of the Prussian crown, established the customs and trade union known as the Zollverein in 1834. The Zollverein freed trade between most of the German states, with the exception of Austria. Industrialists and merchants thus brought liberal politics into German nationalism. During the Revolution of 1848, liberals met in the Frankfurt Assembly and drafted a constitution modeled on the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789. The assembly offered to share power under a constitutional monarchy and offered the crown of a unified Germany to Frederick William IV of Prussia. The Revolution of 1848 brought some liberal reforms to Prussia, such as the ability of the parliament to obstruct certain forms of taxation. However, the Prussian leadership, which was thoroughly conservative, rejected the Frankfurt constitution, preferring reform and unification directed from above. Austria's resistance to attempts to unify Germany under Prussian leadership further obstructed unification. One of the major questions concerning German unification centered on this Prussian-Austrian rivalry, which was both diplomatic and cultural. Supporters of Grossdeutsch, or Greater Germany, insisted that Prussians and Austrians with a common language naturally should be part of one nation. However, proponents of Kleindeutsch, Lesser Germany, argued that Austria should be excluded from unification due to dynastic rivalry between the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs and the cultural differences between a mostly Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria.

A. Bismarck and German Conservatism

Any story of German unification must include Otto von Bismarck (1815–98). Bismarck, a member of Prussia's Junker class, the conservative nobility who served the Prussian state as officers in the military or as governmental bureaucrats, was completely devoted to the Prussian crown, God, and German unification. He rejected liberal politics and constitutionalism in favor of unification "from above" through military force and diplomatic scheming. Bismarck's policies, especially the buildup of the Prussian army, led to conflict with the liberal-dominated Lower House of the Prussian parliament, which resisted his proposals to pay for the increase in military expenditures with new taxes until Bismarck and the crown agreed to lasting constitutional reform. Bismarck's response to the Lower House was his famous "iron and blood" speech. This is considered the basis for Bismarck's policy of Realpolitik. Unlike liberalism or conservatism, Realpolitik essentially rejected ideology in favor of the most efficacious political or diplomatic response, be it liberal or conservative.

Writing Assignment

Comparing and contrasting Wagner's views of nationalism in "Art and Revolution" with Bismarck's speech to the Prussian Lower House, what are the strengths and weaknesses of each view? Why did Wagner's cultural/mythical nationalism yield to Bismarck's policy of Realpolitik?

III. The Wars of German Unification

Bismarck's path to unification came through diplomacy and war. In 1864 Bismarck trumped up charges against the Danish government for their treatment of Germans living in the Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein. Prussia's defeat of Denmark and annexation of Schleswig-Holstein set Prussia on a collision course with Austria for dominance of central Europe. Following the defeat of the Austrian Empire in 1866, the German states allied with Prussia, with the notable exception of Catholic Bavaria, forming the North German Confederation. In his first two wars, Bismarck balanced Russian and French concerns over the growing power of Prussia. In the former, Bismarck manipulated long-standing Russian mistrust of Austria to form an alliance. With France, Bismarck benefited from Emperor Napoleon III's failed campaign in Mexico, which distracted the French from European affairs. This was only temporary, however, and the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870. The French defeat at the Battle of Sedan and annexation of Alsace-Lorraine brought Bavaria into the German Confederation, and William I became the first monarch of the German Empire.

IV. Germany After 1870

The new empire functioned largely as a federation, with Prussia as the dominant state. The king of Prussia as emperor and Bismarck as chancellor had complete authority over foreign affairs and the army. While Bismarck provided some liberal concessions, such as universal male suffrage, the constitution of the Empire ensured Prussian and aristocratic dominance in the legislature. Members of the Upper House of the parliament, the Bundesrat, were appointed by the princes of the individual German states and were therefore beholden to the monarchs. The Lower House, the Reichstag, was popularly elected but could not introduce legislation and could only veto the budget, something they were usually unwilling to do. Prussia, of course, received the greatest number of seats in both houses.

Politically, the conservative order tried to limit the influence of liberal politics by making minor concessions to liberals. However, in 1876 the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), a Marxist party of workers, was formed. At first Bismarck outlawed the SPD, but dissatisfaction with unification in Germany's cities, where workers sometimes viewed the German state as a tool of capitalism, proved that socialism was to become a significant force in post-unification German politics. By 1914, the SPD's 3 million members made it the largest party in Germany.

Bismarck was also confronted with problems from religious minorities in Germany, especially from Catholics and Jews. Catholics comprised almost 40 percent of unified Germany's population, with most of them concentrated along the Rhine River and in Bavaria. Although many Catholics sympathized with conservative politics, Bismarck viewed Roman Catholicism, with its purported loyalty to a Roman pontiff, as a potential weakness to the German state. His Kulturkampf, or "struggle for civilization," was an attack on the power of the Catholic Church in Germany. In response, Catholics organized themselves into the Catholic Center Party, which was in an advantageous position to earn concessions from liberals and conservatives (and eventually socialists) trying to build political coalitions. German politicians also targeted Jews as disloyal outsiders, although most of Germany's Jewish population voted for mainstream liberal or conservative politicians preferring assimilation into the political system rather than organizing into a separate political party.

Finally, Germany was not entirely German. The Wars of Unification resulted in the annexation of large populations of non-German speakers, such as Danes in Schleswig and French in Alsace-Lorraine. In addition, a large part of Poland had been part of Prussia since the eighteenth century. For the most part, these Polish-speaking Catholics did not assimilate into German culture, and Bismarck often dealt with the Poles in a brutal manner, eventually expelling large numbers of Poles and Polish Jews in 1885. The Polish members of the Reichstag, like the French and Danish members, organized into their own voting bloc to protest Germany's policies toward national minorities. In a speech to the Prussian parliament, Bismarck declared that Germany's interests in Poland necessitated such harsh measures.


Divide students into the following groups and debate the "Polish Question." Groups can be overlapped, e.g., Catholics can also be Polish, German, or French, etc. Further complexity can be created by identifying some as Wagnerian-style romantic nationalists and others as Bismarck-like realpolitik nationalists.








Urban middle class
Rural farmer

V. Conclusion

The unification of Germany fundamentally altered the delicate "balance of powers" established by the Congress of Vienna with the creation of a large, wealthy, and powerful nation-state in central Europe. Moreover, it is a useful case study for the broader concept of "nationalism" as a historical agent. While some, such as Wagner, viewed the nation as an organic and natural entity, drawing together peoples with similar linguistic and cultural heritages, others considered the nation as a political institution to be constructed by political authority. Often, these two views of nationhood were in agreement. However, central Europe's heterogeneous population meant that creating any "natural" type of Germany would be virtually impossible. As a result, Germany after unification was forced to modify and adapt its political situation to accommodate dissenting political opinions and national and religious minorities. Sometimes, as with the case of German Catholics, this was a relatively benign process; the case of Poland, however, shows a different side of German unification.

Additional Resources

Applegate, Celia. A Nation of Provincials: The German Idea of Heimat. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
A broad investigation into the problem of creating a German national identity outside of Prussia.

Blackbourn, David. The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany, 1780-1918. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
An overview of nineteenth-century German history, including unification and related religious, regional, and ethnic tensions.

Harvey, David Allen. Constructing Class and Nationality in Alsace, 1830-1945. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001.
Demonstrates the impact of German unification on the ethnically French region of Alsace.

Kuhne, Thomas. "Imagined Regions: The Construction of Traditional, Democratic, and Other Identities." In James Retallack, ed., Saxony in German History: Culture, Society, and Politics, 1830-1933. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
This essay, and the others in this collection, focuses on Saxony, demonstrating how multiple groups of non-German ethnicities interacted in the era of unification.

Smith, Helmut Walser, ed. Protestants, Catholics and Jews in Germany, 1800-1914. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1991.

———. German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, and Politics, 1870-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Smith focuses on German unification and religion.