History Highlights, prussia, Second Reich...1871 to 1918

Should Austria or Prussia be the leader of Germany?

The question of who should lead a future united Germany, Prussia or Austria, was answered in 1866. In this first image, Prussian King Wilhelm is congratulating his son, Crown Prince Friedrich III, on the battlefield after their victory over the Austrian Empire. Prussia’s leadership was now assured but would mean the hoped for “Greater Germany” option would not come to pass… instead the “Smaller Germany”, or Germany without Austria, solution was all that could be achieved.

Berlin, Ruhmeshalle wall mural…Battle of Königgrätz, 1866

Why was there a struggle to replace Austria as Germany’s leader?

Germany’s first empire, the Holy Roman Empire, was created in 800 by Karl der Grosse (Charlemagne). After a period of weakening, the Empire was reconfirmed in 962 by Otto I, who excluded France from the Empire. After existing for 1000 years, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation… under the leadership of Austria for its last 369 years… was dissolved in 1806 after its defeat by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz. Germany was split apart and ruled by France for 7 years, until the successful Freedom Wars of 1813. From then on, for the next 58 years, there was a general yearning for strong leadership and a reunited German nation.

Germany: 1813 to 1900

German leaders convened the Congress of Vienna of 1814/15 to establish some of the old duchies as new monarchies and bring stability and peace. A loose union of states was created to coordinate the economies of separate German-speaking countries so that industrial centers could arise and traffic and trade routes could be built up.

However, by mid-century new liberal-democratic movements and nationalist movements flourished and led to the revolutions of 1848/49. A German National Assembly was convened in Frankfurt to work out a constitution for a new united nation-state of Germany. The image below was used as a patriotic backdrop at the assembly.

Germania wall fresco, St. Pauls Church, Frankfurt am Main, by
Philipp Veit

However, this attempt to establish a democratic state was not successful. The governing authorities in German States suppressed and opposed the revolutionary movements. The proposed black, red, gold flag was also rejected, although it was eventually adopted 100 years later in 1949 and as the current national flag of Germany.

The dream of a rebirth of the German Empire was eventually realized 22 years after the Revolutions when Prussia fulfilled the dream in 1871. Prussian King Wilhelm defeated the French Empire of Napoleon III and then used France’s Versailles Palace to proclaim the creation of a new united German Empire…a federation of states under a constitutional monarchy. The Prussian King Wilhelm I, as German Emperor, became the head of state and Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor. This creation of the second Deutsches Reich unleashed an era of peace and prosperity that lasted for 43 years, until WWI.

Bismarck secured the Empire’s position through a policy of European alliances. Domestically his aim was to stabilize the new Empire with an authoritarian government and in securing societal equilibrium. In 1888, when Wilhelm II became Emperor, he initially supported social and political reforms, but rejected the idea of democratizing the Empire. Bismarck was forced to retire and the young Kaiser took active control of foreign and domestic policies.

At the end of the 19th Century, after almost 30 years of peace and unification…a golden era of success in business, science, education and social safety net programs …Germany’s competitive power became overwhelming. Other Empires, particularly the British, viewed Germany as a threat to their economy and their rule of the seas. Dangerous alliances were constructed by all the European powers. The groundwork for a violent 20th century was irrevocably laid by the end of the 19th century.


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