European History

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The Unification of Germany 1864-1871

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Central Questions:

1815 Creation of the German Confederation under the presidency of Austria. Prussia and Austria were the two most powerful German states. Traditionally Austria was recognised as the most important. There was a strong popular movement for unification but neither Austria nor Prussia was prepared to allow it happen.
1834 Inter-state trade barriers removed with the setting up of the “Zollverein”. Austria excluded from this organisation. This economic agreement helped to increase the momentum towards unification. Railways brought the German states within hours of one another and economic development made Germany one of the leading industrial powers of the time.
1848 An attempt to set up a unified Germany failed when the King of Prussia refused to accept the title of German Emperor. Most Germans preferred a loose confederation under the control of the traditionally strongest German power, Austria.
1862 As a result of a political crisis in Prussia over the length of military service, Bismarck was appointed Minister President of Prussia. His main objective was to make Prussia and not Austria the dominant power in Germany.
1864 An Austrian-Prussian invasion of Schleswig-Holstein led to the end of Danish control of these provinces. Prussia gained a lot of support especially among German nationalists who wanted to see these provinces come under German control.

Relations between Austria and Prussia broke down over the control of Schleswig- Holstein. However the real issue was which of the two powers were going to be the dominant force in Germany. Bismarck provoked quarrels with the Austrians.

Bismarck secured Italian support and French neutrality. Prussian troops occupied Holstein and the “Seven Weeks War” broke out between Prussia and Austria. Most of the other German states were deeply suspicious of Prussian militarism and sided with Austria, e.g. Saxony, Hanover, Bavaria.

Austria was decisively defeated at the battle of Sadowa (Koniggratz). As a result of the Treaty of Prague (August), Austria was now excluded from German affairs but importantly Bismarck had made sure that Austria lost no land.
The German Confederation was dissolved and a North German Confederation was formed. It contained all German states north of the Main River. Effectively it was controlled by Prussia.

While the southern states e.g. Baden, Bavaria remained independent; they had military alliances with Prussia. The main stumbling block to further unification was France ruled by Napoleon III. There was a growing recognition in France that the emergence of a united Germany under Prussia was an unacceptable threat to French supremacy in Europe. Relations between Prussia and France soon deteriorated over the vacant Spanish throne.


After a coup in Spain, Queen Isabella was forced to abdicate. A formal offer of the Spanish throne was made to Leopold of Hohenzollern- Sigmaringen, a member of the Catholic branch of the Prussian royal family.

France was very alarmed at this development and the possibility of a German king of Spain. Prince Leopold declined the offer after considerable French pressure.

However the French foreign minister Duc de Gramont insisted on a Prussian guarantee that the candidacy would not be renewed. King William refused to give this guarantee to the French ambassador at Ems.

Bismarck released a version of the discussions to the press that gave the impression that the French Ambassador had been insulted by the Prussian king, the famous “Ems Telegram”. The French were outraged by the telegram and two days later, declared war on Prussia.

The Franco - Prussian War

July Bismarck used the outburst of patriotism caused by the war to complete German unity as the southern states joined the war against France. Most of Europe expected the French to win. However the Prussian troops were superbly led by General von Moltke, and possessed superior artillery.
September 130,000 French troops under General MacMahon and the French Emperor Napoleon III were captured at Sedan. A republic was proclaimed in Paris.

The French suffer another serious defeat when 180,000 French troops under Marshal Bazaine surrendered at Metz. The Prussians now laid siege to Paris. The leader of the new French government Leon Gambetta escaped from Paris in a balloon and continued to organise resistance to the Prussians.

Parisians suffered starvation, bombardments and disease. Citizens were forced to eat horses, cats, dogs and even rats. Balloons and pigeon post provided the only contact with the outside.

January 18 The King of Prussia was crowned the German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, outside Paris. German unification was now complete. Paris was captured eight days later. Over 40,000 people died during the siege.
February The French surrendered. About 200,000 troops were killed in total during the war.

The Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the war. The French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed. A war indemnity of 5 Billion marks imposed.

Paris refused to disarm and the Commune of Paris was formed. The French troops loyal to the government began the second siege of Paris. After the cruel suppression of the commune, peace returned to France.

Reasons for the defeat of France

Results of the War

Primary Source

The Ems Telegram

The Ems telegram (a report of the King's meeting with the French Ambassador) was sent to Bismarck by the foreign office official accompanying William. Note the King's irritation and his fateful recommendation that the matter be made public:

“His Majesty the King has written to me (namely, Heimlich Abe ken, of the Foreign office)

"Count Benedictine (the French ambassador) intercepted me on the promenade and ended by demanding of me in a very importunate manner that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself in perpetuity never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns renewed their candidature. I rejected this demand somewhat sternly as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind [for ever and ever]. Naturally I told him that I had not yet received any news and since he had been better informed via Paris and Madrid than I was, he must surely see that my government was not concerned in the matter."

[The King, on the advice of one of his ministers] "decided in view of the above-mentioned demands not to receive Count Benedetti any more, but to have him informed by an adjutant that His Majesty had now received from [Leopold] confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already had from Paris and had nothing further to say to the ambassador. His Majesty suggests to Your Excellency that Benedetti's new demand and its rejection might well be communicated both to our ambassadors and to the Press."

The edited version Bismarck released to the press without first informing the French government was clearly designed to goad the French to war by the almost contemptuous tone the telegram inferred the King had adopted toward the ambassador.
Its effect, as Bismarck noted, was like "a red rag to the Gallic bull."

"After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their candidature.

His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador."

Germany map

Recommended Reading:

Robert K. Massie: Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the coming of the Great War.

D.G. Williamson: Bismarck and Germany 1862-1890

Michael Sturmer: The German Empire

This is a private website dedicated to the War.

This is a website with a lot of links about the war

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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11 November, 2013