After the fall of Napoleon, Europe’s statesmen convened in Vienna in 1815 for the reorganisation of European affairs, under the leadership of the Austrian Prince Metternich. The political principles agreed upon at this Congress of Vienna included the restoration, legitimacy and solidarity of rulers for the repression of revolutionary and nationalist ideas.
The German Confederation (German: Deutscher Bund) was founded, a loose union of 39 states (35 ruling princes and 4 free cities) under Austrian leadership, with a Federal Diet (German: Bundestag) meeting in Frankfurt am Main. It was a loose coalition that failed to satisfy most nationalists. The member states largely went their own way, and Austria had its own interests.
In 1819 a student radical assassinated the reactionary playwright August von Kotzebue, who had scoffed at liberal student organisations. In one of the few major actions of the German Confederation, Prince Metternich called a conference that issued the repressive Carlsbad Decrees, designed to suppress liberal agitation against the conservative governments of the German states. The Decrees terminated the fast-fading nationalist fraternities (German: Burschenschaften), removed liberal university professors, and expanded the censorship of the press. The decrees began the “persecution of the demagogues”, which was directed against individuals who were accused of spreading revolutionary and nationalist ideas. Among the persecuted were the poet Ernst Moritz Arndt, the publisher Johann Joseph Görres and the “Father of Gymnastics” Ludwig Jahn.
In 1834 the Zollverein was established, a customs union between Prussia and most other German states, but excluding Austria. As industrialisation developed, the need for a unified German state with a uniform currency, legal system, and government became more and more obvious.
Main article: Revolutions of 1848 in the German states
Growing discontent with the political and social order imposed by the Congress of Vienna led to the outbreak, in 1848, of the March Revolution in the German states. In May the German National Assembly (the Frankfurt Parliament) met in Frankfurt to draw up a national German constitution.
But the 1848 revolution turned out to be unsuccessful: King Frederick William IV of Prussia refused the imperial crown, the Frankfurt parliament was dissolved, the ruling princes repressed the risings by military force, and the German Confederation was re-established by 1850. Many leaders went into exile, including a number who went to the United States and became a political force there.
The 1850s were a period of extreme political reaction. Dissent was vigorously suppressed, and many Germans emigrated to America following the collapse of the 1848 uprisings. Frederick William IV became extremely depressed and melancholic during this period, and was surrounded by men who advocated clericalism and absolute divine monarchy. The Prussian people once again lost interest in politics. Prussia not only expanded its territory but began to industrialize rapidly, while maintaining a strong agricultural base.
Bismarck takes charge (1862–1866)
In 1857, the Prussian king Frederick William IV suffered a stroke and his brother William served as regent until 1861 when he became King William I. Although conservative, William was very pragmatic. His most significant accomplishment was the naming of Otto von Bismarck as Prussian minister president in 1862. The cooperation of Bismarck, Defense Minister Albrecht von Roon, and Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke set the stage for the military victories over Denmark, Austria, and France, that led to the unification of Germany.
In 1863–64, disputes between Prussia and Denmark over Schleswig escalated, which was not part of the German Confederation, and which Danish nationalists wanted to incorporate into the Danish kingdom. The conflict led to the Second War of Schleswig in 1864. Prussia, joined by Austria, easily defeated Denmark and occupied Jutland. The Danes were forced to cede both the Duchy of Schleswig and the Duchy of Holstein to Austria and Prussia. The subsequent management of the two duchies led to tensions between Austria and Prussia. Austria wanted the duchies to become an independent entity within the German Confederation, while Prussia intended to annex them. The disagreement served as a pretext for the Seven Weeks War between Austria and Prussia, that broke out in June 1866. In July, the two armies clashed at Sadowa-Königgrätz (Bohemia) in an enormous battle involving half a million men. Prussian superior logistics and the modern breech-loading needle guns superioity over the slow muzzle-loading rifles of the Austrians, proved to be elementary for Prussia’s victory. The battle had also decided the struggle for hegemony in Germany and Bismarck was deliberately lenient with defeated Austria, that was to play only a subordinate role in future German affairs.
North German Federation, 1866–1871
Main article: North German Confederation
After the Seven Weeks War the German Confederation was dissolved and the North German Federation (German Norddeutscher Bund) was established under the leadership of Prussia. Austria was excluded and its immense influence over Germany finally came to an end. The North German Federation was a transitional organisation that existed from 1867 to 1871, between the dissolution of the German Confederation and the founding of the German Empire.
German Empire, 1871–1918
Weimar Republic, 1919–1933
Nazi Germany, 1933–1945
Germany during the Cold War, 1945–1990
Federal Republic of Germany, 1990–present
Biesinger, Joseph A. Germany: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present (2006)
Bithell, Jethro, ed. Germany: A Companion to German Studies (5th ed. 1955), 578pp; essays on German literature, music, philosophy, art and, especially, history. online edition
Bösch, Frank. Mass Media and Historical Change: Germany in International Perspective, 1400 to the Present (Berghahn, 2015). 212 pp. online review
Buse, Dieter K. ed. Modern Germany: An Encyclopedia of History, People, and Culture 1871–1990 (2 vol 1998)
Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947 (2006)
Detwiler, Donald S. Germany: A Short History (3rd ed. 1999) 341pp; online edition
Fulbrook, Mary (1990). A Concise History of Germany. Cambridge concise histories. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521-36836-0. This text has updated editions.
Gall, Lothar. Milestones – Setbacks – Sidetracks: The Path to Parliamentary Democracy in Germany, Historical Exhibition in the Deutscher Dom in Berlin (2003), exhibit catalog; heavily illustrated, 420pp; political history since 1800
Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany (1959–64); vol 1: The Reformation; vol 2: 1648–1840; vol 3: 1840–1945; standard scholarly survey
Maehl, William Harvey. Germany in Western Civilization (1979), 833pp; focus on politics and diplomacy
Ozment, Steven. A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People (2005), focus on cultural history
Raff, Diether. History of Germany from