Unification of Germany – Role of Bismarck, Events, Impact of German Unification

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: November 14th, 2023

The Unification of Germany was announced on 18th January 1871. The new German Empire was a part of the federal-dominated Prussia. and was ruled by William I. German Unification was announced at the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France. It was a major event in the history of Europe which had an adverse impact on European politics for decades.

Before its Unification, Germany was divided into several states ruled by various princes. However, with the advancement of concepts like enlightenment and nationalism in the 18th century, a demand for one nation started. The Unification of Germany was a result of the Franco-Prussian War and the contribution of Bismarck. Learn more about German Unification and the role of Otto Von Bismarck in the article below.

Unification of Germany

German Unification was achieved at a crucial point in history when many changes were taking place. The Unification of Germany was announced on 18th January 1871. The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France saw the princes from most of the German states assembled to accept King Wilhelm I of Prussia as the German Emperor during the Franco-Prussian War. Refer to the Unification of Germany PDF below to gain more insights.

Unification of Germany UPSC Notes

There existed a confederated realm of German princedoms with some adjacent lands. It dates back to the Treaty of Verdun of 843. There never existed a German sense of national identity. It only emerged towards the beginning of the 19th century. This event had a major effect on Europe’s politics for decades. The German Empire was officially unified and came to be dominated by the Prussian federalist structure.

Causes of German Unification

The Unification of Germany follows a long history that dates back thousands of years. To understand the concept, let’s revisit and trace the events leading to the Unification of Germany below.

Germany was more of a collection of small kingdoms than a country or an empire before the Unification. These empires came to be because of the Treaty of Verdun in 843. These kingdoms would comprise the basis of the Holy Roman Empire. However, there was no homogenous German identity until the 19th century.

  • This can be due to the autonomy of these princely states. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire did not directly rule them. So there was a lot of heterogeneity in these states.
  • This system that organized several smaller empires together under an emperor was called the practice of Kleinstaaterei. Kleinstaaterei is a German word and pejorative that translates to small states.
  • The onset of the Industrial Revolution brought improvements and advancements in transportation and communication. This brought the far-flung regions in contact.
  • The scenario truly changed during the Napoleonic Wars in 1806, when France defeated the Holy Roman Empire.
  • In 1815, a German Confederation was re-established after being defeated by France. This gave rise to the beginning of German nationalism.
  • A huge wave swept through the region at the beginning of the 19th century. The newfound feeling of belonging gave way to the need for the centralization of authority by these princely states, ultimately leading to Germany’s Unification.

Unification of Germany: Timeline

To understand the various events leading to the Unification of Germany, it is important to know the timeline of these events. Knowing this will lead to a better understanding of the context in which the decision was taken. Below, the German Unification timeline is briefly mentioned for enhanced knowledge.

Dates/Year Events Leading to German Unification
1 October 1863 Otto von Bismark became the Prime Minister of Prussia
21 October 1866 Seven Week War
1868 Congress of Princes
19 July 1870 Franco-Prussian War
18 January 1871 German Empire was officially formed under the leadership of William I
16 April 1871 Germany Adopted its Constitution

Rise of Nationalism in German Unification

As stated earlier, the country of Germany did not exist, but smaller kingdoms existed under their regional princes, united under the Holy Roman Empire. There was a lack of a homogenous sense of nationality. This, however, changed over time.

The Congress of Vienna (1815) introduced a new European political-diplomatic system that established a balance of power after the defeat in the Napoleonic Wars. A confederation of German states was set up under the leadership of the Austrian Empire.

  • The rise of Prussia made the countries of Austria and Prussia rivals. The Prussian Empire was the single German state that could match the power of the Austrian Empire.
  • The Zollverein was another important aspect that encouraged the Unification of Germany by creating a larger sense of economic Unification in 1834.
  • This idea of German Unification was opposed by the Austrian Empire, which saw it as a threat to its own power. However, Austria soon joined the Zollverein in 1853.

Role of Prussia in the Unification of Germany

German Unification was under the Prussian-dominated federalist structure. Prussia played a crucial role in the Unification of Germany in various ways. Let’s briefly explore the rise of Prussia in the German context.

The Congress of Vienna established a confederation of German states in 1815 under the leadership of the Austrian Empire. The Austrians strived to maintain their domination and influence over the German states. This caused them to suppress German nationalism in many forms.

  • They tried to put the German states against one another to discourage the feeling of unity among them. This practice of ‘Divide and Rule’ assured their subjugation. No single state could become powerful enough to dominate the others.
  • The state of Prussia attempted the Unification of the German states under its empire in the year 1848. However, this plan was foiled by other states that were supported by the Austrian Empire.
  • It was the appointment of Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck in 1873 that truly changed the landscape of the Unification of Germany.
  • Bismarck was a fiery and passionate patriot who wanted to transform the state of Prussia into a formidable world power and subsequently avenge the loss of Prussian nationalism to the Austrian empire.
  • To realize this dream, he introduced major reforms to the Prussian army which transformed it into one of the most disciplined and professional fighting forces in that specific part of the world.
  • The Seven Weeks War was fought in 1866. It saw Prussia causing heavy losses to the Austrian Empire and its German allies. This particular was so profound that it diminished and eventually removed Austrian interference in the matters of German states.
  • This allowed Prussia to set up the foundations of its own empire. However, Bismarck was a visionary who knew that this individual victory would not prove to be enough.
  • He knew that defeating an old enemy France would unite the remaining German states under the Prussian Empire.

The Berlin Revolution of 1848

The smallest States of Germany saw some persistent agitation going on from 1830 to 1848. The root causes of this agitation can be divided into two points; the Unification of Germany and the establishment of constitutional and liberal governments in the German states

  • The date of 27th March 1849 saw the Parliament of Frankfurt pass the Constitution of St. Paul’s Church. This offered the title of Kaiser (meaning Emperor) to the Prussian king Frederick William IV.
  • The Frankfurt Parliament managed to draft a constitution and reached an agreement on the Kleindeutsch (lesser Germany; German states without Austria).
  • The liberals failed to achieve the Unification they envisaged but they managed to gain some respite. They worked with the German princes over the constitutional issues that were present in abundance and collaborated with them regarding the reforms.
  • It was the failure of the Frankfurt Parliament which convinced the Germans to adopt a different methodology to realize their dream of a unified country.

It was eventually the Seven Weeks War in 1866 when Prussia delivered a heavy blow to the Austrian Empire and its German allies.

Congress of Princes 1868 (German Bund)

After their awakening in the Seven Weeks War of 1866, Austria chartered a Congress of German princes to go through the proposals for the reform of the German Confederation in 1868. Prussia was also invited to this Congress.

However, Bismarck won over the King of Prussia not to attend the conference. This caused Congress to end in failure. Had the Congress formed by Austria been successful then the Austrian influence in Germany would have prevailed.

Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was an important affair in the process of the Unification of Germany. It has been concisely explained in the points below:

  • Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, ruled over the country of France. However, Napoleon III lacked the political acumen and military skills that made France so powerful under Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • Napoleon III served to be the perfect target for Otto von Bismarck’s machinations to work toward a unified Germany.
  • Bismarck undertook a series of clever diplomatic maneuvers along with subtle provocations to poke at Napoleon III who officially declared war against Prussia.
  • The announcement of war was a seemingly aggressive move by the French which resulted in the rise of anti-French sentiments among the German states. The German support that Napoleon III had vanished now.
  • The Prussian Army marched towards the French border under the leadership of Bismarck in July of 1870. The Prussians were joined by the armies of the other German states.
  • This war proved to be devastating for France. Their most notable defeat was at Sedan in September 1870.
  • It was the last blow to Napoleon III’s military career and tendered his resignation as the Emperor to the French parliament and lived out the rest of his years in England.


Role of Bismarck in Unification of Germany

Otto Von Bismarck was the architect of the Unification of Germany. He was one of the most powerful figures from the state of Prussian who spearheaded the Unification of Germany under the Prussian empire. Role of Otto Von Bismarck in the Unification of Germany, his achievements and contributions have been listed below:

  • Also called the Iron Chancellor, his primary objective was to strengthen the position of Prussia in Europe.
  • Bismarck was a visionary who had several aims for the country: Unification of the north German states under Prussian control, Weakening Prussia’s main rival, Austria, by separating it from the German Federation, Making Berlin the centre of German affairs by taking the status away from Vienna, Strengthening the position of Wilhelm I, the King of Prussia.
  • Bismarck is known as the father of German Unification.
  • He was an excellent leader and military commander. He, along with King Wilhelm I, brought several military advancements to the Prussian army.
  • There was heavy taxation imposed on the population to meet this new military expense.
  • While the Prussian Parliament was against the funds being gathered through direct taxation, Bismarck collected money for military reforms through direct taxation.
  • These reforms included: an increase in army conscription from two to three years, the introduction of weapons such as the needle gun, and the introduction of new battle tactics.

Obstacles in the Process of Unification of Germany

German Unification was a successful undertaking. However, it was not without its fair share of obstacles. The process of Unification of Germany faced various challenges like there was a struggle between the middle class and the working class. The middle class wanted to see political change whereas the working classes wanted the focus to shift to social change.

There were also constant conflicts about the status of Germany. Opinions were split about whether Germany should be a monarchy or a republic. There were also conflicts regarding who should be the king.

One of the obstacles in the process of German Unification was also the inclusion of Austria. Some supported it whereas others vehemently opposed it.

Impact of Unification of Germany on Europe

The Unification of Germany was a watershed moment in European history. Its impact was left long after it was done and led to various important historical events. The significance of German Unification is discussed below:

  • The political scenario of the region saw a major change with the arrival of a new unified German nation into European politics. Other powers became cautious.
  • Unified Germany had a powerful army. This was reinstated by the fact that Prussia had successfully unified a group of quarrelling states in a short span of time.
  • There was some new conflict with the other European colonizing powers when the newly-formed German state began colonizing regions in Africa and Asia.
  • This conflict turned into animosity between the countries of Germany, Britain, France, and Russia, making them fight the First world war. Their defeat ended the German Empire through the Treaty of Versailles (1919).

Unification of Germany Map

For an enhanced understanding of how the Unification of Germany impacted the geographical boundaries, looking at the map is pertinent. The below image depicts the map after the German Unification. It will provide a visual representation of the various states that formed the nation of Germany.

Unification of Germany Map

Unification of Germany and Italy

In the 1800s, the ideas of enlightenment and nationalism were emerging all over Europe. The Unification of Germany and Italy was one of its biggest consequences. In the mid-1800s, various people started demanding democratic countries. Various scholars and philosophers turned their focus to politics. As more and more people started embracing the ideals of nationalism, revolts started happening against rulers. People demanded that they should be granted their own nations.

Due to this demand, events like the Unification of Germany and Italy took place. Earlier, neither of these countries existed as a whole. They were divided into many smaller states. There was often a struggle for autonomy. It finally resulted in Unification wherein the countries shared common religions, cultures, traditions, and languages.

Explain the Unification of Germany in Points

A short note is provided below mentioning the German Unification in points. A brief short note on the Unification of Germany is created using these points that summarize the whole event. Check out the German Unification summary in the points below.

  • At the end of the Napoleonic War, regions with German populations were distributed across 38 states, of which Prussia was the strongest.
  • In 1815, the German confederation was made, which included all 38 states as well as Austria.
  • In 1848, a wave of democracy struck the German Confederation, and they set out to unite themselves in the Frankfurt Assembly to frame the constitution for a united Germany.
  • However, due to the refusal of the Emperor of Prussia, such Unification couldn’t materialize.
  • In years to come, it was the blood and iron policy of Bismarck, who belonged to the Prussian aristocratic family.
  • This policy was that of war, and pursuing it, Prussia attacked France and thus dissolved the old confederation and formed a North German Confederation in 1866 comprising 22 states.
  • The Unification of Germany was eventually completed in 1870 due to the Franco-Prussian War, in which Louis Bonaparte was defeated.
  • Because of this Unification, William I became the king of Germany, and his swearing-in ceremony took place at Versailles, France.

Unification of Germany UPSC

The Unification of Germany is a relevant topic that is included under the subject of world History from the IAS exam preparation perspective. It is important that the candidates prepare the topic properly and commit these factoids to their memory. To ensure that all important sections are covered comprehensively, refer to the best UPSC Books like NCERT. Revise the Unification of Germany UPSC topic with the help of questions provided below.

Unification of Germany MCQs

Question: When did Prussia fight the Seven Weeks War? 1868, 1866, 1869, None of the above
Answer: 1866

Question: Who fought the Franco-Prussian Wars in 1870-71? (1) Napoleon III and Wilhelm I, (2) Napoleon Bonaparte and the North German Confederation, (3) Napoleon III and the North German Confederation (led by the Kingdom of Prussia), (4) None of the above
Answer: Napoleon III and the North German Confederation (led by the Kingdom of Prussia).

Question: Otto von Bismarck largely unified Germany by accumulating German territories under the flag of which German state? (A) Austria, (B) Bavaria, (C) Holstein, (D) Prussia
Answer: Prussia

Question: What war was the last step in Germany’s unification? (A) Crimean War, (B) Franco-Prussian War, (C) Napoleonic War, (D) Thirty Years War
Answer: Franco-Prussian War

Question: Prussia was eager to got to war with France in 1870 because it: (A) Hoped war with France would help Germany unite, (B) Hoped war with France would ruin France’s economy, (C) Wanted to control Spain, (D) Wanted to rule France
Answer: Hoped war with France would help Germany unite

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