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The German Confederation (German Deutscher Bund) was a loose association of Central European states created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to organize the surviving states of the Holy Roman Empire, which had been abolished in 1806.
The German Confederation had roughly the same boundaries as the Empire at the time of the French Revolution (less what is now Belgium). The member states, drastically reduced to about three dozen from more than 200 under the Empire, were recognized as fully sovereign. The members pledged themselves to mutual defence, and jointly maintained the fortresses at Mainz, the city of Luxembourg, Rastatt, Ulm, and Landau. A federal diet under Austrian presidency met at Frankfurt.
The Confederation was dissolved in 1866 after the Austro-Prussian War, and was succeded by Prussia's North German Confederation. All the constituent states of the German Confederation became part of the German Empire in 1871, except Austria, Luxembourg, Limburg, and Liechtenstein.
Impact of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasions
The late 18th century was a period of political, economic, intellectual, and cultural reform, the Enlightenment (represented by figures such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Adam Smith), but also involving early Romanticism, climaxed in the French Revolution, where freedom of the individual and nation was asserted against privilege and custom. Composed of a great variety of types and theories, they largely respond 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 reactionary states such as the Kingdom of Prussia and Austrian Empire to survive, laying the groundwork for the Congress of Vienna, 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 a barrier 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, aside from 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 member states of defunct Holy Roman Empire joined to form the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund) — a rather loose organisation, especially because the two great rivals, the Austrian Empire and the Prussian kingdom, each feared domination by the other.
To contemporary observers, a post-Napoleon revolutionary upheaval in Prussia, however, would seem unlikely. Later to emerge as the dominant German state, the political base of a united Germany, and a power that would vie for global preeminence toward the end of the nineteenth century, Prussia was seemingly backward. Under Prussia, manorial reaction dates back to fall of the Teutonic Knights. Although agricultural structures has been very decentralized in form under the Teutonic Order, the Prussian nobility would later expand their holdings at the expense of the peasantry under territories once held by the Teutonic Order, reducing them to quiescent serfdom. Under Prussia, the rise of urban burgers was also greatly impeded. The Junkers sought to reduce the towns to dependence by short-circuiting them with their exports, leaving little revolutionary potential for free labor — urban and rural — from feudal obligation. In Britain and France, which proved far more hospitable to Western democracy from the Enlightenment to Germany's defeat in World War II, the decline of feudal obligations had been connected development of the urban burgers in The Hohenzollerns instead would forge a centralized state, explaining the weak development of parliamentary government under Prussia. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia was a backward state, grounded in the virtues of its established military-aristocracy stratified by rigid hierarchical lines.
Apart from Prussia, in Germany as a whole — or more precisely the many Germanies —, political disunity, conflicts of interests between nobles and merchants, and the guild system, which discouraged competition and innovation, retarded the progress of industrialism in Germany. 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 reactionaries among the old order that a weak, divided, and backward Germany could very well have been prey to its united and industrializing neighbor.
After 1815, Prussia's initial 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 ostensibly liberal reforms of Karl August von Hardenberg and Count Stein were thoroughly conservative, enacted to preserve aristocratic privilege and institutions during an era of reform, reaction, and revolution opened up by the French Revolution by forging a competent national army.
The reforms laid the foundation for Prussia's future military might by professionalizing the military, 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.
Romanticism, nationalism, liberalism and 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 competition entailed the forces of the old order competing with 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 associated with landowning aristocracy or military aristocracy (the Junker) in Prussia, the forces behind the Habsburg empire in Austria, and the conservative backers of the particularist, 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, which might not only repudiate Austrian preponderance of the Confederation, but also stimulate nationalist sentiment within the Austrian Empire itself. As a multi-national polyglot 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 figures like Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Johann Gottfried von Herder promulgate Romantic nationalism. Others promulgated these ideas among the youth. Father Friedrich Jahn's gymnastic associations exposed middle class German youth to nationalist ideas, which were took the form of the nationalistic college fraternities known as the Burschenschaften. The Wartburg Festival in 1817 celebrated Martin Luther as a proto-German nationalist, linking Lutheranism to German nationalism, helping to arouse religious sentiments for the cause of German nationhood. The festival culminated in the burning of several books and other things that were to symbolize reactionary attitude, one of them being a book by the German writer August von Kotzebue. In 1819, after he was accused of being a spy for imperial Russia, another multi-national empire desperately trying to hang on to the old order as it existed before the French Revolution, he was murdered by the theological student Karl Ludwig Sand (who was exectued for this crime). Metternich swiftly and harshly reacted, using this pretext to persuade the Confederation Diet to issue the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, which dissolved the Burschenschaften, cracked down against the liberal press, and seriously restricted academic freedom.
Meanwhile, Prussia would continue to repress liberalism and continue with reform from above. Further efforts to improve the confederation began in 1834 with the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein. In 1834 Prussia's regime would stimulate wider trade advantages and industrialism by decree — a logical continuation of the program embarked upon by Stein and Hardenberg less than two decades earlier. Inadvertently, these reforms would spark the unification movement and augment a middle class demanding further political rights, but at the time backwardness and Prussia's fears of its stronger neighbors was the larger threat. The customs union opened up a common market and ended local tariffs between states and standardized weights, measures, and currencies within member states (excluding Austria), forming the basis of a proto-national economy.
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 industrialists, especially the Krupp works established by the Krupp family, would introduce the invention of 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 manufactures also produced heavily for the non-defense sector. No longer would Britain be able to supply half Germany's needs in 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, came to terms with 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 would only increase 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 represented a move toward economic integration and modern industrial capitalism and the victory of centralism over localism, quickly bringing the era of guilds in the small German princely states to an end. This would take the form of the revolt of the Silesian Weavers in 1844, who witnessed their livelihood destroyed from the floodgates of new manufactures. Unable to compete with industrial efficiency, textile weavers quickly saw their economic base vanish. This base of small artisans, textile weavers, journeymen, guildsmen, and small businessmen would later pose a threat to the Second Reich, dominated by an emerging coalition of the landed upper class and industrialists, posing problems the Second Reich later on. These sharp class conflicts, the weakness of democratic traditions, and the narrow a social base of the landowning and military aristocracy, would be later quelled by authoritarian means of rule under the Second Reich, especially during Bismarck's suppression of Catholics and Socialists.
The Zollverein also weakened Austrian domination of the Confederation as economic unity and increased the desire for political unity and nationalism. In the following years, the other German states began to regard Prussia, not Austria, as their leader.
The Revolutions of 1848
Main article: The Revolutions of 1848 in the German states
However, the Zollverein, at this point, still did not suffice to eliminate the desires of the German middle class to attain the right to rule. News of the 1848 Revolution in Paris quickly reached discontented bourgeois liberals and more radical workingmen, only leaving the most reactionary regimes of the Romanovs and Ottomans unscathed.
On March 15, 1848, the subjects of Frederick William IV of Prussia thus vented their long-repressed political aspirations in violent rioting in Berlin as barricades were erected all over the French capital to contain urban combat between Parisians and the army. As France's Louis Philippe fled to Britain, the Prussian king, cowed and coerced, capitulated to revolutionary demand, promising a constitution, a parliament, and support for German unification.
Meanwhile, from the point of view of the monarch, at least his regime was standing. In France, where the conservative aristocracy was soundly pushed aside by the Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, the new Second Republic erupted into civil war between rival revolutionary groups — the bourgeois moderates who favored order and constitutional democracy and the socialists, supported by mobs the Parisian working class. In Paris, unemployed workers, with the cry of "bread or lead," hoisted the red flag, the first time that the red flag emerged as a symbol of the proletariat, and erected barricades to overthrow the Second Republic. Not since the Reign of Terror had Paris seen fighting on this scale, later crushed by savage repression that left a bitter hatred between the French working class and bourgeois elements.
On May 18 the Frankfurt Parliament opened its first session from various German states and Austria proper. However, 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 have integrated Austria proper and Bohemia (but not Hungary) into the new Germany.
From May to December, the Assembly eloquently debated academic topics while conservatives swiftly reacted against the reformers. Meanwhile, such competition intensified authoritarian and reactionary trends among the landed upper class, as it did under Metternich's Austria and Russia under staunch reactionary Nicholas I, as it found its economic basis sinking. Thus, it would turn to political levers to preserve its rule. As the Prussian army proved to be loyal, and peasants proved to be uninterested, King Fredrick Wilhelm regained his confidence. While the Assembly issued its Declaration of the Rights of the German people , and a constitution was drawn (excluding Austria since it downright refused the offer), the leadership of the Reich was offered to Fredrick Wilhelm, who refused to "pick up a crown from the gutter." Most delegates returned home, and the Prussian army responded to quell some rioting. Thousands of middle class liberals fled abroad, especially to the United States.
In 1850 the Prussian king issued his own constitution, responding to the failed revolution from below. His document sponsored a confederation of North German states and concentrated real power in the hands of the Kaiser and the upper classes. However, Prussia responded to Austrian and Russian pressure, fearing a strong, Prussian-dominated Germany, at the conference of Olomouc, known as the "humiliation of Olmütz."
Bismarck and the Wars of Unification
Shortly after the "humiliation of Olmütz," a new generation of statesmen began to respond to popular demands for national unity for their own ends not only in Germany, but in Italy and Japan as well, continuing Prussia's tradition of autocracy and reform from above. It takes very able leadership to drag along the less perceptive reactionary elements, and Italy and Germany found it to accomplish the seemingly paradoxical task of conservative modernization. Bismarck, like Stein and Hardenberg, sought to essentially preserve the position of the Junkers in a time of great changes. Bismarck, in fact, was appointed by Kaiser Wilhelm I to circumvent the liberals in the lastag who opposed the Kaiser's military build-up because of its elitist nature. Gradually the Junkers, led by Bismarck, would win over the middle class, reacting to their revolutionary sentiments expressed in 1848 by providing them with the economic opportunities for which the urban middle sectors had been fighting.
One striking fact about the course of conservative modernization is the appearance of a galaxy of distinguished political leaders; Cavour in Italy; in Germany, Stein, Hardenberg, and Bismarck, the most famous of them all; in Japan the statesmen of the Meiji Era. It seems unlikely that the appearance of a similar leadership in similar circumstance could be pure coincidence. All were conservatives in the political spectrum of their time and country, devoted to the monarchy, willing and able to use it as an instrument of reform, modernization, and national unification. Though all were aristocrats, they were dissidents or outsiders in relation to the old order. To the extent that their aristocratic background contribution habits of command and a flair for politics, one may perhaps detect a contribution of the agrarian ancien régimes to the construction of a new society.
1 See Karl Marx, Selected Works, II, "Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution," written mainly by Engels.
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