The German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) was the association of Central European states created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to serve as the successor to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which had been abolished in 1806. In 1848, revolutions by liberals and nationalists occurred in an attempt to establish a unified German state. Talks between the German states failed in 1848, and the confederation briefly dissolved but was re-established in 1850. Rivalry between the two dominant states, Austria and Prussia, over which state had the inherent right to rule German lands led to the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 and the collapse of the confederation. This resulted in the creation of the North German Confederation and a number of south German states, from 1866 to 1871, having no higher legal authority or political body above them for the first time since the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, though these states aligned with Austria until its defeat in 1867 and then followed Prussia.
The size and influence of the individual states varied greatly:
During the revolution of 1848/49 the German Confederation was inactive. It was revived in 1850 under Austrian presidency, but rivalry between Prussia and Austria grew more and more.
The Confederation was dissolved in 1866 after the Austro-Prussian War, and was 'succeeded' in 1866 by the Prussian-dominated North German Federation. Unlike the German Confederation, the North German Federation 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 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, and Liechtenstein.
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 in 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 at Waterloo 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 Prussian kingdom, 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.
Apart from Prussia, in Germany as a whole (or more precisely in the many German states), the progress of industrialism was retarded by political disunity, conflicts of interests between nobility and merchants, and the guild system, which discouraged competition and innovation. While this kept the middle class small, affording the old order a measure of stability not seen in France, Prussia's vulnerability to Napoleon's military proved to many perceptive intellects among the old order that a fragile, divided, and backward Germany could be easy prey for its cohesive and industrializing neighbor.
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.
The reforms laid the foundation for Prussia's future military might by professionalizing the military and decreeing universal military conscription. To industrialize within the framework of Prussian aristocratic institutions, land reforms ended the monopoly of the Junkers on landownership, thereby abolishing serfdom and many other feudal practices.
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 Junker) 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 fermenting 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.
The Vormärz era saw the rise of figures like August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Ludwig Uhland, Georg Herwegh, Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, Ludwig Börne and Bettina von Arnim. 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.
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 axles, 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." 1 It is necessary to add that, 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 workingmen.
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. But at least his regime was still standing.
On 18 May the Frankfurt Parliament 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".
The current countries whose territory were partly or entirely located inside the boundaries of German Confederation 1815–1866 are: