The Creation of a Nation-State: Bismarck’s Unification of Germany

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The historical development of Germany into a state controlled by the Nazis transcends the immediate history of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. We must look at long-term factors, things which began before the First World War, in the origins of the German nation-state through Bismarck’s efforts at unification of the fragments of the old Holy Roman Empire.

Double-headed eagle with coats of arms of individual states, the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Holy Roman Empire was a fragmented union of states, each of which had its flag depicted on the double-headed eagle symbol of the empire. (Image: Jost de Negker/Public domain)

The Collapse of the Old Empire

Compared to rest of Europe, Germany was a new nation-state. It was the last of the major European states to achieve nation-state status. Until 1871, Germany had been divided into dozens of small states. This was the old Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, which had existed for 900 years when it finally collapsed under Napoleonic pressure. This was also known as the old Reich, or the First Reich (Reich is the German term for empire). It was, as Voltaire pointed out, “neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire.” But that’s what it certainly was called, and the emperor was in Vienna.

That old empire collapsed in the first decade of the 19th century. It was not until 1871 that Germany was unified by Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Prussia. The united nation-state lacked common traditions; it lacked shared political norms. In fact, ‘German Central Europe’ is the term one ought to use—not ‘Germany’—until 1871. The question of who or what is German was still a relevant question in 1871 in a way that “Who’s French?” was not.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Creation of a Smaller Germany

When unification came in 1871, it was not the result of some sort of groundswell of grassroots nationalism on the part of the German people. Unification was delivered to Germany by Prussian military might.

Bismarck unified Germany under Prussian auspices through successful wars: against Denmark in 1864; against Austria in 1866, which excluded the Habsburgs, the traditional dynastic family of Germany; and then finally in 1870–71, with the defeat of France. This was a unification without territories that had traditionally been seen as part of the old Holy Roman Empire.

What Bismarck had achieved was the creation of a smaller Germany, Kleindeutschland, instead of a Grossdeutschland, a greater Germany. Even this ‘small Germany’ was a Germany that had never existed before, and this would be the Second Reich. Nobody called it the Second Reich at the time; nobody started talking about number of empires until the Nazis, who of course saw themselves as delivering Germany a Third Reich.

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The Forced Unification of Germany

Bismarck, in a way, forced unity on the Germans. There was no agreement. There was controversy about the flag; there was a controversy about any sort of national anthem. They couldn’t agree about the national holiday, like the Fourth of July. They didn’t use the day that Karl Wilhelm was proclaimed Emperor at the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles after the defeat of France because some of the German states didn’t want that.

Painting showing Bismarck and Napoleon III after the French surrender at Sedan.
The National Day of Unified Germany was decided to be the day on which Napoleon III was defeated at Sedan by Bismarck’s armies. (Image: Wilhelm Camphausen/Public domain)

So what would they do? What sort of holiday would they take? They looked around with all these different competing traditions from the different states. They finally decided on the day of victory over France. It was called Sedantag, after the Victory of Sedan, where Napoleon III was captured.

The Support for Unification

Unification had been supported by not so much the proverbial man and woman in the street, but by the commercial and industrial elites of Germany. They couldn’t compete with English or French goods, and there was no common currency, weights, or measures and so on. They wanted a united Germany.

Bismarck was perfectly happy with the united Germany, as long as it was under Prussian control. His task, as he saw it, was to deliver a Germany that would be based on traditional elites, monarchy, the army, bureaucracy—all supported by the old aristocracy. However, Bismarck was a realistic man in many ways. The age of mass politics had arrived, so the constitution he wrote for this Second Reich was one that had all the trappings of a real democracy.

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The Three Stresses of the New German State

This new state was beset by three very basic problems, or a set of cleavages or divisions in the society that needed to be confronted.
There was religious division. Germany was the home of the Protestant Reformation. Southern Germany was largely Catholic and northern Germany was largely Protestant.

There was regional division as well. These were old traditional loyalties, and they overlapped with religion to a great extent. Finally, there was a social division, a class division, between an increasingly organized industrial, blue-collar, working class and everybody else.

Germany was also in the midst of rapid industrialization. Industrialism did come fast. Though it did come very late, it was very thorough. These conditions created social tensions that were aggravated by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Common Questions about Bismarck’s Unification of Germany

Q: Before 1871, what was the political situation of Germany?

Until 1871, Germany had been divided into dozens of small states. This was the old Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, which had existed for 900 years until it finally collapsed under Napoleonic pressure.

Q: How did Bismarck unify and create a German state?

Bismarck unified Germany under Prussian auspices through successful wars: against Denmark in 1864; against Austria in 1866, which excluded the Habsburgs, the traditional dynastic family of Germany; and then finally in 1870–71, with the defeat of France.

Q: What were the things that the newly unified Germans could not agree on?

The different German states that were unified could not agree on many things. There was controversy about the flag; there was a controversy about any sort of national anthem. They couldn’t agree about the single national holiday, that celebrated this new nation.

Q: What were the three stresses or divisions in the new unified German state?

The new German state was beset by three basic problems. There was religious division. Southern Germany was primarily Catholic, northern Germany was largely Protestant. There was regional division as well, which overlapped with religion to a great extent. Finally, there was a class division, between an industrial, blue-collar, working class and everybody else.

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