German Confederation

The German Confederation (German: Deutscher Bund, German pronunciation: [ˌdɔɪ̯t͡ʃɐ ˈbʊnt] (listen)) was an association of 39 predominantly German-speaking sovereign states in Central Europe.[1] It was created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as a replacement of the former Holy Roman Empire, which had been dissolved in 1806.[2]

German Confederation
Deutscher Bund
The German Confederation in 1815
States part of the German Confederation, 1815—66
Common languages
Catholic, Protestant
Head of the Präsidialmacht Austria 
Francis I
Ferdinand I
Franz Joseph I
LegislatureFederal Convention
6 August 1806
17 March 1813
18 October 1813
 Constitution adopted
8 June 1815
13 March 1848
29 November 1850
14 June 1866
23 August 1866
18 August 1866
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Holy Roman Empire
Confederation of the Rhine
Kingdom of Prussia (territories in HRE until 1806 or listed below only)
Lauenburg-Bütow (Province of Pomerania)
Draheim (Province of Pomerania)
Province of Limburg (1815–1839)
Austrian Empire (territories in HRE until 1806 or listed below only)
Duchy of Oświęcim (after 1818)
Duchy of Zator (after 1818)
German Empire (1848–1849)
German Empire (1848–1849)
Duchy of Oświęcim (after 1850)
Duchy of Zator (after 1850)
Following dissolution:
North German Confederation
Austrian Empire as a whole
Kingdom of Bavaria
Kingdom of Württemberg
Grand Duchy of Baden
Duchy of Limburg (1839–1867)
Gr. Duchy of Luxembourg
Principality of Liechtenstein
Grand Duchy of Hesse

The Confederation had only one organ, the Federal Convention (also Federal Assembly or Confederate Diet). The Convention consisted of the representatives of the member states. The most important issues had to be decided on unanimously. The Convention was presided over by the representative of Austria. This was a formality, however, as the Confederation did not have a head of state, since it was not a state.

The Confederation, on the one hand, was a strong alliance between its member states because federal law was superior to state law (the decisions of the Federal Convention were binding for the member states).[3] Additionally, the Confederation had been established for eternity and was impossible to dissolve (legally), with no member states being able to leave it and no new member being able join without universal consent in the Federal Convention. On the other hand, the Confederation was weakened by its very structure and member states, partly because most important decisions in the Federal Convention required unanimity and the purpose of the Confederation was limited to only security matters.[4] On top of that, the functioning of the Confederation depended on the cooperation of the two most populous member states, Austria and Prussia which in reality were often in opposition.

The German revolutions of 1848–1849, motivated by liberal, democratic, socialist, and nationalist sentiments, attempted to transform the Confederation into a unified German federal state with a liberal constitution (usually called the Frankfurt Constitution in English). The Federal Convention was dissolved on 12 July 1848, but was re-established in 1850 after the revolution was crushed by Austria, Prussia, and other states.[5]

The Confederation was finally dissolved after the victory of the Kingdom of Prussia in the Seven Weeks' War over the Austrian Empire in 1866. The dispute over which had the inherent right to rule German lands ended in favour of Prussia, leading to the creation of the North German Confederation under Prussian leadership in 1867, to which the eastern portions of the Kingdom of Prussia were added. A number of South German states remained independent until they joined the North German Confederation, which was renamed and proclaimed as the "German Empire" in 1871, as the unified Germany (aside from Austria) with the Prussian king as emperor (Kaiser) after the victory over French Emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Frontispiece of the Acts of the Congress of Vienna.
Chart: functioning of the German Confederation

Most historians have judged the Confederation to have been weak and ineffective, as well as an obstacle to the creation of a German nation-state.[6] This weakness was part of its design, as the European Great Powers, including Prussia and especially Austria, did not want it to become a nation-state. However, the Confederation was not a 'loose' tie between the German states, as it was impossible to leave the Confederation, and as Confederation law stood above the law of the aligned states. The constitutional weakness of the Confederation lay in the principle of unanimity in the Diet and the limits of the Confederation's scope: it was essentially a military alliance to defend Germany against external attacks and internal riots. Ironically, the War of 1866 proved its ineffectiveness, as it was unable to combine the federal troops in order to fight the Prussian secession.[7]



The War of the Third Coalition lasted from about 1803 to 1806. Following defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz by the French under Napoleon in December 1805, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II abdicated, and the Empire was dissolved on 6 August 1806. The resulting Treaty of Pressburg established the Confederation of the Rhine in July 1806, joining sixteen of France's allies among the German states (including Bavaria and Württemberg). After the Battle of Jena–Auerstedt of October 1806 in the War of the Fourth Coalition, various other German states, including Saxony and Westphalia, also joined the Confederation. Only Austria, Prussia, Danish Holstein, Swedish Pomerania, and the French-occupied Principality of Erfurt stayed outside the Confederation of the Rhine. The War of the Sixth Coalition from 1812 to winter 1814 saw the defeat of Napoleon and the liberation of Germany. In June 1814, the famous German patriot Heinrich vom Stein created the Central Managing Authority for Germany (Zentralverwaltungsbehörde) in Frankfurt to replace the defunct Confederation of the Rhine. However, plenipotentiaries gathered at the Congress of Vienna were determined to create a weaker union of German states than envisaged by Stein.


The German Confederation was created by the 9th Act of the Congress of Vienna on 8 June 1815 after being alluded to in Article 6 of the 1814 Treaty of Paris, ending the War of the Sixth Coalition.[8]

The Confederation was formally created by a second treaty, the Final Act of the Ministerial Conference to Complete and Consolidate the Organization of the German Confederation. This treaty was not concluded and signed by the parties until 15 May 1820. States joined the German Confederation by becoming parties to the second treaty. The states designated for inclusion in the Confederation were:

Flag Member State Notes
Anhalt-Bernburg Inherited by the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau in 1863
Anhalt-Köthen Inherited by the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau in 1847; merged with Anhalt-Dessau in 1853
Austrian Empire Only a part that included the Crown of BohemiaBohemia, Moravia and Austrian Silesia – and Austrian lands – Austria, Carinthia, Carniola, the Littoral except Istria; the Duchies of Auschwitz and Zator, part of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, were also members in 1818-1850
Hanover Annexed by Prussia 20 September 1866
Electorate of Hesse Also known as Hesse-Kassel; annexed by Prussia 20 September 1866
Grand Duchy of Hesse Also known as Hesse-Darmstadt
Hesse-Homburg Joined in 1817; inherited by the grand-duke of Hesse-Darmstadt in March 1866; annexed by Prussia 20 September 1866
Hohenzollern-Hechingen Became part of Prussia in 1850
Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen Became part of Prussia in 1850
Holstein Held by Danish kings in personal union since 15th century as a fief of the Holy Roman Empire; on 28 November 1863, the Federal Assembly removed the Danish delegate pending resolution of the succession issue and the naming of a new delegate from a government recognized by the Assembly; Denmark subsequently ceded it and Sleswig jointly to Austria and Prussia on 30 October 1864 as a result of the Second Schleswig War; the duchy technically remained in the Confederation pending final resolution of its status; Sleswig did not become a member in the short time between this war and the dissolution of the Confederation; both duchies were annexed by Prussia on 24 December 1866
Limburg With the Dutch King being the Duke
Luxembourg With the Dutch King being the Grand Duke
Nassau Annexed by Prussia 20 September 1866
Prussia The Province of Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Posen were only federal territory in 1848–1850
Reuss, elder line
Reuss, junior line
Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld Became Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1826
Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg Partitioned and became Saxe-Altenburg in 1826
Saxe-Hildburghausen Duchy partitioned and ruler became Duke of Saxe-Altenburg in 1826
Saxe-Lauenburg Held by Denmark since 1815; by the Treaty of Vienna (1864), King Christian IX of Denmark abdicated as duke of Saxe-Lauenburg and ceded the duchy to Prussia and Austria;[9] In September 1865 William I of Prussia acceded as duke in personal union, following the Gastein Convention and a vote of the Estates of Lauenburg[9]
Waldeck and Pyrmont
Frankfurt Annexed by Prussia 20 September 1866

In 1839, as compensation for the loss of part of the province of Luxemburg to Belgium, the Duchy of Limburg was created and became a member of the German Confederation (held by the Netherlands jointly with Luxembourg) until the dissolution of 1866. In 1867 the duchy was declared to be an "integral part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands". The cities of Maastricht and Venlo were not included in the Confederation.

Monarchs of the member states of the German Confederation (with the exception of the Prussian king) meeting at Frankfurt in 1863

The Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia were the largest and by far the most powerful members of the Confederation. Large parts of both countries were not included in the Confederation, because they had not been part of the former Holy Roman Empire, nor were the greater parts of their armed forces been incorporated in the federal army. Austria and Prussia each had one vote in the Federal Assembly.

Six other major states had one vote each in the Federal Assembly: the Kingdom of Bavaria, the Kingdom of Saxony, the Kingdom of Württemberg, the Electorate of Hesse, the Grand Duchy of Baden, and the Grand Duchy of Hesse.

Three foreign monarchs ruled member states: the King of Denmark as Duke of Holstein and Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg; the King of the Netherlands as Grand Duke of Luxembourg and (from 1839) Duke of Limburg; and the King of the United Kingdom (until 1837) as King of Hanover were members of the German Confederation. Each of them had a vote in the Federal Assembly. At its foundation in 1815, four member states were ruled by foreign monarchs, as the King of Denmark was Duke of both Holstein and Saxe-Lauenburg.

The four free cities of Bremen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Lübeck shared one vote in the Federal Assembly.

The 23 remaining states (at its formation in 1815) shared five votes in the Federal Assembly:

  • Saxe-Weimar, Saxe-Meiningen, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Saxe-Hildburghausen (5 states)
  • Brunswick and Nassau (2 states)
  • Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz (2 states)
  • Oldenburg, Anhalt-Dessau, Anhalt-Bernburg, Anhalt-Köthen, Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt and Schwarzburg-Sondershausen (6 states)
  • Hohenzollern-Hechingen, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Liechtenstein, Reuss (Elder Branch), Reuss (Younger Branch), Schaumburg-Lippe, Lippe and Waldeck (8 states)

There were therefore 17 votes in the Federal Assembly.



The rules of the Confederation provided for three different types of military interventions:[10]

  • the federal war (Bundeskrieg) against an external enemy who attacks federal territory,
  • the federal execution (Bundesexekution) against the government of a member state that violates federal law,
  • the federal intervention (Bundesintervention) supporting a government that is under pressure of a popular uprising.

Other military conflicts were foreign to the confederation (bundesfremd). An example is Austria's oppression of the uprising in Northern Italy in 1848 and 1849, as these Austrian territories lay outside of the confederation's borders.

During the existence of the Confederation, there was only one federal war: the war against Denmark beginning with the Schleswig-Holstein uprising in 1848 (the First Schleswig War). The conflict became a federal war when the Bundestag demanded from Denmark to withdraw its troops from Schleswig (April 12th) and recognized the revolutionary of Schleswig-Holstein (April 22th). The confederation was transformed into the German Empire of 1848. Prussia was de facto the most important member state conducting the war for Germany.[11]

There are several examples for federal executions and especially federal interventions. In 1863, the Confederation ordered a federal execution against the duke of Holstein (the Danish king). Federal troops occupied Holstein which was a member state. After this, Austria and Prussia declared war on Denmark, the Second Schleswig War (or Deutsch-Dänischer Krieg in German). As Schleswig and Denmark were no member states, this war was foreign to the Confederation. The Confederation took no part in this war.

A federal intervention confronted for example the raid of the revolutionaries in Baden in April 1848.

In June 1866, the Federal Convention decided to takes measures against Prussia. This decision was technically not a federal execution for a lack of time to observe the actual procedure. Prussia had violated, according to the majority of the convention, federal law by sending its troops to Holstein. The decision led to the war in summer 1866 that ended with the dissolution of the confederation (known as Seven Weeks War or by other names).

Armed forces

The German Federal Army (Deutsches Bundesheer) was supposed to collectively defend the German Confederation from external enemies, primarily France. Successive laws passed by the Confederate Diet set the form and function of the army, as well as contribution limits of the member states. The Diet had the power to declare war and was responsible for appointing a supreme commander of the army and commanders of the individual army corps. This made mobilization extremely slow and added a political dimension to the army. In addition, the Diet oversaw the construction and maintenance of several German Federal Fortresses and collected funds annually from the member states for this purpose.

Projections of army strength were published in 1835, but the work of forming the Army Corps did not commence until 1840 as a consequence of the Rhine Crisis. Money for the fortresses were determined by an act of the Confederate Diet in that year. By 1846, Luxemburg still had not formed its own contingent, and Prussia was rebuffed for offering to supply 1,450 men to garrison the Luxemburg fortress that should have been supplied by Waldeck and the two Lippes. In that same year, it was decided that a common symbol for the Federal Army should be the old Imperial two-headed eagle, but without crown, scepter, or sword, as any of those devices encroached on the individual sovereignty of the states. King Frederick William IV of Prussia was among those who derided the "disarmed imperial eagle" as a national symbol.[12]

The German Federal Army was divided into ten Army Corps (later expanded to include a Reserve Corps). However, the Army Corps were not exclusive to the German Confederation but composed from the national armies of the member states, and did not include all of the armed forces of a state. For example, Prussia's army consisted of nine Army Corps but contributed only three to the German Federal Army.

The strength of the mobilized German Federal Army was projected to total 303,484 men in 1835 and 391,634 men in 1860, with the individual states providing the following figures:[13]

State Area [km2] Population[A 1] Matriculation class[A 2]
(proportion of total)
Annual expenditures
(in Austrian Gulden)
Army Corps Troop Totals[A 3]
Austrian Empire[A 4][A 5] 197,573[A 5] 10,086,90031.44%9,432,000I, II, III158,037
Kingdom of Prussia[A 6][A 5] 185,496[A 5] 9,957,00026.52%7,956,000IV, V, VI133,769
Kingdom of Bavaria76,2584,120,00011.8%3,540,000VII59,334
Kingdom of Hannover38,4521,549,0004.33%1,299,000X (1st Div., part)21,757
Kingdom of Württemberg19,5041,547,4004.63%1,389,000VIII (1st Div.)23,259
Kingdom of Saxony14,9931,480,0003.98%1,194,000IX (1st Div.)20,000
Grand Duchy of Baden15,2691,175,0003.31%993,000VIII (2nd Div.)16,667
Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt7,680720,0002.05%615,000VIII (3rd Div., part)10,325
Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin13,304455,0001.19%357,000X (2nd Div., part)5,967
Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz2,92985,0000.24%72,000X (2nd Div., part)1,197
Grand Duchy of Oldenburg6,420250,0000.73%219,000X (2nd Div., part)3,740
Grand Duchy of Luxemburg (with the Duchy of Limburg)2,586259,5000.40%120,000IX (2nd Div., part)2,706
Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar3,593233,8140.67%201,000Reserve (part)3,350
Electoral Hesse9,581629,0001.88%564,000IX (2nd Div., part)9,466
Duchy of Anhalt-Dessau84057,6290.19%57,000Reserve (part)1,422
Duchy of Anhalt-Cöthen[A 7]72736,0000.10%30,000Reserve (part)325[A 8]
Duchy of Anhalt-Bernburg[A 9]78043,3250.12%36,000Reserve (part)616
Duchy of Brunswick3,690245,7830.69%20,000X (1st Div., part)3,493
Duchies of Holstein and Saxe-Lauenburg[A 10]9,580450,0000.12%35,000X (2nd Div., part)6,000
Duchy of Nassau4,700360,0001.00%300,000IX (2nd Div., part)6,109
Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg1,287114,0480.33%99,000Reserve (part)1,638
Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha[A 11]2,688156,6390.37%111,000Reserve (part)1,860
Duchy of Saxe-Hildburghausen[A 12]000%0Reserve (part)0[A 13]
Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen2,293136,0000.38%114,000Reserve (part)1,918
Principality of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen90642,3411.40%420,000VIII (3rd Div., part)356[A 14]
Principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen23617,0000.05%15,000VIII (3rd Div., part)155
Principality of Lippe-Detmold1,13377,5000.23%69,000Reserve (part)1,202
Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe53623,1280.07%21,000Reserve (part)350
Principality of Liechtenstein1595,8000.02%6,000Reserve (part)91
Principality of Reuß elder line31624,5000.07%21,000Reserve (part)1,241
Principality of Reuß younger line82659,0000.17%51,000Reserve (part)see Reuß elder line
Principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt94060,0000.18%54,000Reserve (part)899
Principality of Waldeck1,12156,0000.17%51,000Reserve (part)866
Principality of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen86251,7670.15%45,000Reserve (part)751
Landgraviate of Hessen-Homburg[A 15]27523,0000.07%21,000Reserve (part)333
Free City of Lübeck29845,6000.13%39,000X (2nd Div., part)669
Free City of Hamburg410154,0000.43%129,000X (2nd Div., part)2,163
Free City of Bremen25652,0000.16%48,000X (2nd Div., part)748
Free City of Frankfurt10154,0000.16%48,000Reserve (part)1,119
  1. For the year 1835.
  2. The matriculation class determined the percentage of expenditures for 1835.
  3. For the year 1860.
  4. Not included Hungary, Transylvania, Galicia (but with Auschwitz and Zator), Dalmatia, Slavonia, Croatia and upper Italian lands apart from Trieste.
  5. federal share.
  6. Without East Prussia, West Prussia, and Posen.
  7. Inherited by the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau in 1847 and formally merged in 1853.
  8. Figures for 1835; merged with Anhalt-Dessau army in 1847.
  9. Merged with Anhalt-Dessau in 1863.
  10. Troops were attached to the Danish army until 1864, as the King of Denmark was also Duke of both lands.
  11. Gotha passed to Saxe-Coburg in 1826.
  12. Partitioned between Saxe-Coburg and Saxe-Meiningen in 1826.
  13. No figures reported before partition.
  14. Figures for 1835; merged with Prussian army in 1850.
  15. Merged with Grand Ducal Hesse in 1866.

Situation in history

Between 1806 and 1815, Napoleon organized the German states, aside from Prussia and Austria, into the Confederation of the Rhine, but this collapsed after his defeats in 1812 to 1815. The German Confederation had roughly the same boundaries as the Empire at the time of the French Revolution (less what is now Belgium). It also kept intact most of Confederation's reconstituted member states and their boundaries. The member states, drastically reduced to 39 from more than 300 (see Kleinstaaterei) under the Holy Roman Empire, were recognized as fully sovereign. The members pledged themselves to mutual defense, and joint maintenance of the fortresses at Mainz, the city of Luxembourg, Rastatt, Ulm, and Landau.

The only organ of the Confederation was the Federal Assembly (officially Bundesversammlung, often called Bundestag), which consisted of the delegates of the states' governments. There was no head of state, but the Austrian delegate presided over the Assembly (according to the Bundesakte). Austria did not have extra powers, but consequently the Austrian delegate was called Präsidialgesandther and Austria the Präsidialmacht (presiding power). The Assembly met in Frankfurt.

The Confederation was enabled to accept and deploy ambassadors. It allowed ambassadors of the European powers to the Assembly, but rarely deployed ambassadors itself.

During the revolution of 1848/49 the Federal Assembly was inactive. It transferred its powers to the Provisorische Zentralgewalt, the revolutionary German Central Government of the Frankfurt National Assembly. After crushing the revolution and illegally disbanding the National Assembly, the Prussian King failed to create a German nation state by himself. The Federal Assembly was revived in 1850 on Austrian initiative, but only fully reinstalled in the Summer of 1851.

Rivalry between Prussia and Austria grew more and more, especially after 1859. The Confederation was dissolved in 1866 after the Austro-Prussian War, and was succeeded in 1866 by the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation. Unlike the German Confederation, the North German Confederation 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 other 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, the Duchy of Limburg, and Liechtenstein.

Impact of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasions

Austrian chancellor and foreign minister Klemens von Metternich dominated the German Confederation from 1815 until 1848.

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 with 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. 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 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 Kingdom of Prussia, each feared domination by the other.

In Prussia the Hohenzollern rulers forged a centralized state. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia, grounded in the virtues of its established military aristocracy (the Junkers) and stratified by rigid hierarchical lines, had been surpassed militarily and economically by France. After 1807, 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 Prussian Reform Movement led by Karl August von Hardenberg and Count Stein was conservative, enacted to preserve aristocratic privilege while modernizing institutions.

Outside Prussia, industrialization progressed slowly, and was held back because of political disunity, conflicts of interest between the nobility and merchants, and the continued existence of the guild system, which discouraged competition and innovation. While this kept the middle class at bay, affording the old order a measure of stability not seen in France, Prussia's vulnerability to Napoleon's military proved to many among the old order that a fragile, divided, and traditionalist Germany would be easy prey for its cohesive and industrializing neighbor.

The reforms laid the foundation for Prussia's future military might by professionalizing the military and decreeing universal military conscription. In order to industrialize Prussia, working within the framework provided by the old aristocratic institutions, land reforms were enacted to break the monopoly of the Junkers on land ownership, thereby also abolishing, among other things, the feudal practice of serfdom.

Romanticism, nationalism, and liberalism in the Vormärz era

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 breakdown of the competition was, roughly, the emerging capitalist bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie (engaged mostly in commerce, trade, and industry), and the growing (and increasingly radicalized) industrial working class; and the other side associated with landowning aristocracy or military aristocracy (the Junkers) 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 fomenting due to 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 to the monarchist landed aristocracy.

Figures like August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Ludwig Uhland, Georg Herwegh, Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, Ludwig Börne, and Bettina von Arnim rose in the Vormärz era. 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.[14]

High culture

The University of Berlin in 1850

German artists and intellectuals, heavily influenced by the French Revolution, turned to Romanticism. At the universities, high-powered professors developed international reputations, especially in the humanities led by history and philology, which brought a new historical perspective to the study of political history, theology, philosophy, language, and literature. With Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in philosophy, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) in theology and Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) in history, the University of Berlin, founded in 1810, became the world's leading university. Von Ranke, for example, professionalized history and set the world standard for historiography. By the 1830s, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology had emerged with world class science, led by Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in natural science and Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855) in mathematics. Young intellectuals often turned to politics, but their support for the failed Revolution of 1848 forced many into exile.[15]


Demographic transition

The population of the German Confederation (excluding Austria) grew 60% from 1815 to 1865, from 21,000,000 to 34,000,000.[16] The era saw the demographic transition take place in Germany. It was a transition from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth and death rates as the country developed from a pre-industrial to a modernized agriculture and supported a fast-growing industrialized urban economic system. In previous centuries, the shortage of land meant that not everyone could marry, and marriages took place after age 25. The high birthrate was offset by a very high rate of infant mortality, plus periodic epidemics and harvest failures. After 1815, increased agricultural productivity meant a larger food supply, and a decline in famines, epidemics, and malnutrition. This allowed couples to marry earlier, and have more children. Arranged marriages became uncommon as young people were now allowed to choose their own marriage partners, subject to a veto by the parents. The upper and middle classes began to practice birth control, and a little later so too did the peasants.[17] The population in 1800 was heavily rural,[18] with only 8% of the people living in communities of 5,000 to 100,000 and another 2% living in cities of more than 100,000.


In a heavily agrarian society, land ownership played a central role. Germany's nobles, especially those in the East called Junkers, dominated not only the localities, but also the Prussian court, and especially the Prussian army. Increasingly after 1815, a centralized Prussian government based in Berlin took over the powers of the nobles, which in terms of control over the peasantry had been almost absolute. They retained control of the judicial system on their estates until 1848, as well as control of hunting and game laws. They paid no land tax until 1861 and kept their police authority until 1872, and controlled church affairs into the early 20th century. To help the nobility avoid indebtedness, Berlin set up a credit institution to provide capital loans in 1809, and extended the loan network to peasants in 1849. When the German Empire was established in 1871, the nobility controlled the army and the Navy, the bureaucracy, and the royal court; they generally set governmental policies.[19][20]


Peasants continued to center their lives in the village, where they were members of a corporate body and helped manage community resources and monitor community life. In the East, they were serfs who were bound prominently to parcels of land. In most of Germany, farming was handled by tenant farmers who paid rents and obligatory services to the landlord, who was typically a nobleman.[21] Peasant leaders supervised the fields and ditches and grazing rights, maintained public order and morals, and supported a village court which handled minor offenses. Inside the family, the patriarch made all the decisions and tried to arrange advantageous marriages for his children. Much of the villages' communal life centered around church services and holy days. In Prussia, the peasants drew lots to choose conscripts required by the army. The noblemen handled external relationships and politics for the villages under their control, and were not typically involved in daily activities or decisions.[22][23]

Rapidly growing cities

After 1815, the urban population grew rapidly, due primarily to the influx of young people from the rural areas. Berlin grew from 172,000 people in 1800 to 826,000 in 1870; Hamburg grew from 130,000 to 290,000; Munich from 40,000 to 269,000; Breslau (now Wrocław) from 60,000 to 208,000; Dresden from 60,000 to 177,000; Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) from 55,000 to 112,000. Offsetting this growth, there was extensive emigration, especially to the United States. Emigration totaled 480,000 in the 1840s, 1,200,000 in the 1850s, and 780,000 in the 1860s.[24]

Ethnic minorities

Despite its name and intention, the German Confederation was not entirely populated by Germans; many people of other ethnic groups lived within its borders:

Zollverein: economic integration

Zollverein and German unification

Further efforts to improve the confederation began in 1834 with the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein. In 1834, the Prussian regime sought to stimulate wider trade advantages and industrialism by decree—a logical continuation of the program of Stein and Hardenberg less than two decades earlier. Historians have seen three Prussian goals: as a political tool to eliminate Austrian influence in Germany; as a way to improve the economies; and to strengthen Germany against potential French aggression while reducing the economic independence of smaller states.[25]

Inadvertently, these reforms sparked the unification movement and augmented a middle class demanding further political rights, but at the time backwardness and Prussia's fears of its stronger neighbors were greater concerns. The customs union opened up a common market, ended tariffs between states, and standardized weights, measures, and currencies within member states (excluding Austria), forming the basis of a proto-national economy.[26]

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 axle, 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.[27] 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. 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.

Revolutions of 1848

War ensign of the Reichsflotte
Naval jack of the Reichsflotte

News of the 1848 Revolution in Paris quickly reached discontented bourgeois liberals, republicans and more radical working-men. 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, safeguarding his own rule and regime.[28][29]

On 18 May, the Frankfurt Parliament (Frankfurt Assembly) 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.

In May to August, the Assembly installed a provisional German Central Government, 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 belatedly 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". As the monarchist forces marched their armies to crush rebellions in cities and towns throughout Austria and Germany the Frankfurt Assembly was forced to flee, first to Stuttgart and then to Württemberg, where, reduced to so few deputies that it could no longer form a quorum, its final meeting was forcibly dispersed on 18 June 1849 by the Württemberg army. With the complete triumph of monarchist reaction rampaging across all of Europe, thousands of German middle class liberals and "red" Forty-eighters were forced to flee into exile (primarily to the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia).

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".

Dissolution of the Confederation

Rise of Bismarck

A new generation of statesmen responded to popular demands for national unity for their own ends, continuing Prussia's tradition of autocracy and reform from above. Germany found an able leader to accomplish the seemingly paradoxical task of conservative modernization. In 1851, Bismarck was appointed by King Wilhelm I of Prussia (the future Kaiser Wilhelm I) to circumvent the liberals in the Landtag of Prussia, who resisted Wilhelm's autocratic militarism. Bismarck told the Diet, "The great questions of the day are not decided by speeches and majority votes ... but by blood and iron" – that is, by warfare and industrial might.[30] Prussia already had a great army; it was now augmented by rapid growth of economic power.

Gradually, Bismarck subdued the more restive elements of the middle class with a combination of threats and reforms, reacting to the revolutionary sentiments expressed in 1848 by providing them with the economic opportunities for which the urban middle sectors had been fighting.[31]

Seven Weeks' War

The German Confederation ended as a result of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 between the Austrian Empire and its allies on one side and the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies on the other. The Confederation had 33 members immediately before its dissolution. In the Prague peace treaty, on 23 August 1866, Austria had to accept that the Confederation was dissolved.[32] The following day, the remaining member states confirmed the dissolution. The treaty allowed Prussia to create a new Bundesverhältnis (a new kind of federation) in the North of Germany. The South German states were allowed to create a South German Confederation but this did not come into existence.

North German Confederation

Prussia created the North German Confederation in 1867, a federal state combining all German states north of the river Main and also the Hohenzollern territories in Swabia. Besides Austria, the South German states Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt remained separate from the rest of Germany. However, due to the successful prosecution of the Franco-Prussian War, the four southern states joined the North German Confederation by treaties in November 1870.[33]

German Empire

As the Franco-Prussian War drew to a close, King Ludwig II of Bavaria was persuaded to ask King Wilhelm to assume the crown of the new German Empire. On 1 January 1871, the Empire was declared by the presiding princes and generals in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, near Paris. The Diet of the North German Confederation moved to rename the North German Confederation as the German Empire and gave the title of German Emperor to the King of Prussia.[34] The new constitution of the state, the Constitution of the German Confederation, effectively transformed the Diet of the Confederation into the German Parliament (Reichstag).[35]


In Frankfurt at the Paulskirche, June 14th, 2008: The German navy commemorates the 160th anniversary of the decision of the Frankfurt Parliament to create the Reichsflotte.

The modern German nation state known as the Federal Republic is the continuation of the North German Confederation of 1867. This North German Confederation, a federal state, was a totally new creation: the law of the German Confederation ended, and new law came into existence. The German Confederation was, according to historian Kotulla, an association of states (Staatenbund) with some elements of a federal state (Bundesstaat), and the North German Confederation was a federal state with some elements of an association of states.[36]

Still, the discussions and ideas of the period 1815-66 had a huge influence on the constitution of the North German Confederation. Most notably may be the Federal Council, the organ representing the member states. It is a certain copy of the 1815 Federal Convention of the German Confederation. The successor of that Federal Council of 1867 is the modern Bundesrat of the Federal Republic.[37]

The German Confederation does not play a very prominent role in German historiography and national culture. It is mainly seen negatively as an instrument to oppress the liberal, democratic and national movements of the period. On the contrary, the March revolution (1849/49) with its events and institutions attract much more attention and partially devotion. The most important memorial sites are the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, which is now a cultural hall of national importance, and the Rastatt castle with the Erinnerungsstätte für die Freiheitsbewegungen in der deutschen Geschichte (a museum and memorial site for the freedom movements in the German history, not only the March revolution).

The remnants of the federal fortifications are certain tourists attractions at least regionally or for people interested in military history.

Territorial legacy

Map of the German Confederation

The current countries whose territory were partly or entirely located inside the boundaries of the German Confederation 1815–1866 are:

Denmark proper has never been a member state, but its king was at the same time the duke of the member states Holstein and Lauenburg. The Duchy of Schleswig (which nowadays partially belongs to Denmark) was never a part of the Confederation although it was mentioned in the 1849 Frankfurt Constitution and governed briefly by a government installed by the German Central Government. However, Holstein, Lauenburg and Schleswig were combined under an Austrian-Prussian condominium in 1864–1866.

See also


  1. The German Confederation did not include German-speaking lands in the eastern portion of the Kingdom of Prussia (East Prussia and parts of West Prussia and Posen), the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland (including a third of majority francophone Fribourg and Valais), Alsace and a north-eastern strip of Lorraine in France, and southern portions of Schleswig (Kingdom of Denmark).
  2. "German Confederation". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  3. Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Vol. I: Reform und Restauration 1789 bis 1830. 2nd edition, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart [et al.] 1967, pp. 601/602.
  4. Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Vol. I: Reform und Restauration 1789 bis 1830. 2nd edition, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart [et al.] 1967, pp. 594/595.
  5. Deutsche Geschichte 1848/49 Archived 18 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Meyers Konversationslexikon 1885–1892
  6. Lee, Loyd E. (1985). "The German Confederation and the Consolidation of State Power in the South German States, 1815–1848". Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, 1750–1850: Proceedings. 15: 332–346. ISSN 0093-2574.
  7. Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Band III: Bismarck und das Reich. 3rd edition, W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1988, p. 559/560.
  8. Heeren, Arnold Hermann Ludwig (1873), Talboys, David Alphonso (ed.), A Manual of the History of the Political System of Europe and its Colonies, London: H. G. Bohn, pp. 480–481
  9. "LAUENBURG", in: Encyclopædia Britannica: 29 vols., 111910–1911, vol. 16 'L to Lord Advocate', p. 280.
  10. Following Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. vol. I: Reform und Restauration 1789 bis 1830. 2nd edition, W. Kohlhammer: Stuttgart et al., 1967, pp. 607-609.
  11. Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. vol. 2: Der Kampf um Einheit und Freiheit 1830 bis 1850. W. Kohlhammer: Stuttgart et al., 1960, pp. 669-671.
  12. Treitschke, Heinrich. History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century. Jarrold & Sons, London, 1919. Vol. VII, p. 519.
  13. Beilage zum Militaer-Wochenblatt fuer das deutsche Bundesheer. No. 3, 1860.
  14. Williamson, George S. (2000). "What Killed August von Kotzebue? The Temptations of Virtue and the Political Theology of German Nationalism, 1789–1819". Journal of Modern History. 72 (4): 890–943. doi:10.1086/318549. JSTOR 318549. S2CID 144652797.
  15. Sheehan, James J. (1989). German History: 1770–1866. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 324–371, 802–820. ISBN 0198221207.
  16. Nipperdey, Thomas (1996). Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800–1866. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 86. ISBN 069102636X.
  17. Nipperdey, Thomas (1996). Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800–1866. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 87–92, 99. ISBN 069102636X.
  18. Clapham, J. H. (1936). The Economic Development of France and Germany: 1815–1914. Cambridge University Press. pp. 6–28.
  19. Weber, Eugen (1971). A Modern History of Europe. New York: Norton. p. 586. ISBN 0393099814.
  20. Sagarra 1977, pp. 37–55, 183–202
  21. The monasteries of Bavaria, which controlled 56% of the land, were broken up by the government, and sold off around 1803. Nipperdey, Thomas (1996). Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800–1866. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 59. ISBN 069102636X.
  22. Sagarra 1977, pp. 140–154
  23. For details on the life of a representative peasant farmer, who migrated in 1710 to Pennsylvania, see Kratz, Bernd (2008). "Hans Stauffer: A Farmer in Germany Before his Emigration to Pennsylvania". Genealogist. 22 (2): 131–169.
  24. Nipperdey, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800–1866 pp 96–97
  25. Murphy, David T. (1991). "Prussian aims for the Zollverein, 1828–1833". Historian. 53 (2): 285–302. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1991.tb00808.x.
  26. W. O. Henderson, The Zollverein (1959) is the standard history in English
  27. William Manchester, The Arms of Krupp, 1587–1968 (1968)
  28. James J. Sheehan, German History, 1770–1866 (1993), pp 656–710
  29. Mattheisen, Donald J. (1983). "History as Current Events: Recent Works on the German Revolution of 1848". American Historical Review. 88 (5): 1219–1237. doi:10.2307/1904890. JSTOR 1904890.
  30. Kitchen, Martin (2006). A History of Modern Germany, 1800–2000. p. 105.
  31. Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany, Vol. 1: The Period of Unification, 1815–1871 (1971)
  32. Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Vol. III: Bismarck und das Reich. 3rd edition, Kohlhammer Verlag, Stuttgart 1988, p. 571, 576.
  33. Case, Nelson (1902). European Constitutional History. Cincinnati: Jennings & Pye. p. 139. OCLC 608806061.
  34. Case 1902, pp. 139–140
  35. Ernst Rudolf Huber: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Vol. III: Bismarck und das Reich. 3rd edition, W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart [u. a.] 1988, p. 747.
  36. Michael Kotulla: Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte. Vom Alten Reich bis Weimar (1495–1934). Springer, Berlin 2008, p. 505.
  37. Hans Boldt: Erfurter Unionsverfassung. In: Gunther Mai (ed.): Die Erfurter Union und das Erfurter Unionsparlament 1850. Böhlau: Köln [et al.] 2000, pp. 417–431, here pp. 429/430.
  38. Heinrich Sybel, The Founding of the German Empire by William I. 1890. Volume 1, page 182.
  39. Charles Eugene Little, Cyclopedia of Classified Dates: With an Exhaustive Index, 1900, page 819.


  • Stier, Hans-Erich (1976). Großer Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (Map). Westermann. (in German, detailed maps)
  • Moore, Barrington Jr. (1993) [1966]. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. ISBN 9780140550863.

Further reading

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