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Unification of Germany and Italy

During the 19th century, nationalism emerged as a force that brought sweeping changes in the political world of Europe. In place of multi-national dynastic empires, there was the emergence of ‘nation-states’. These nations formed with the majority of their citizens having a sense of common identity, a shared history, common descent or language.

The congress of Vienna gathered in 1814-15 after the defeat of France. It involved the powers of Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria. The Congress tried to undo the spread of nationalist feelings and establish a medieval feudal power structure. However, their attempts were not fruitful and could not check the unification of Germany and Italy.

German Unification [1815 – 1871]

Germany Before Unification 1

In 1800, the map of Germany was completely different. What we call Germany today, consisted of parts of Prussia in the north and Austria in the South, along with numerous smaller states.

In 1806, under Napoleon, the establishment of the Rhine confederation took place. More than 350 German-speaking areas were merged to form 39 states.

In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, some part of the region went under the control of Prussia whereas some, under the control of Austria. However, from 1830, the rulers of Prussia started supporting the cause of German unification.

Prussia wanted to establish Lesser Germany consisting of the Northern Germanic States, Southern Germanic states and German-speaking parts of Prussia. As Prussia wanted to expand its own influence on Northern and Southern Germanic States, Austria was purposefully kept aside.


For this purpose, Customs Union (Zollverein) was established in 1934, inducing common tariffs toward third countries. It was mutually beneficial for Germany and Prussia. Prussian monarchy supported the aim of German Unification under its leadership. However, given its rivalry with Austria, it did not view it as a part of unified Germany.

Zollverien aided the Prussian capitalist class in dealing with competition from British and French industries. It created tariff barriers against foreign goods and provided an assured market for Russian industries. Thus, Russia emerged as a strong votary of German Unification under Prussian leadership.

Formation of Zollverien was the 1st step in unification of Germany. It enabled the growth of capitalist class and the economic strengthening of Prussia. It enabled Prussia to pursue higher defence expenditures and adopt a militaristic approach (the policy of blood and iron) towards German unification.

1848 Revolution

The revolution of 1848 overthrew the Austrian King. The Frankfurt Parliament in Germany invited the Prussian monarchy to establish a unified Germany. Under this proposal, the Prussian monarch could become the constitutional monarch of a unified Germany. However, Frederick William IV rejected the offer, representing the failure of liberal methods in achieving German Unification.

From 1858, Kaiser William I became the effective leader of Prussia. He took forward the objective of German unification and appointed Bismarck as the Prime Minister by 1862.

Role of Bismarck

Otto Von Bismarck 1
Otto von Bismarck

Bismarck had earlier served in the Prussian Foreign Service and supported the cause of German unification under a strong monarchical rule. This unification was to be pursued under the Prussian monarchy by adopting the militaristic approach. The liberal methods had failed as demonstrated by the failure of the 1848 revolution.

From 1862-1863, under Bismarck, Prussia’s military expenditure increased drastically. He argued that the most important question of the day cannot be resolved through talks and require the use of force (the policy of ‘blood and iron’).

Three major wars were fought under Bismarck.

In 1863, Prussia and Austria joined hands and launched a combined offensive against Denmark over the control of Schleswig and Holstein. Denmark was quickly defeated and both Prussia and Austria agreed to divide the territories amongst themselves.

In 1866, the Austro-Prussian war was witnessed. Prussia secured French neutrality through the promise of territorial gains. France was promised the areas in the Rhine region. Prussia attacked Austria. In the war (aka seven week war), Prussia imposed quick defeat on Austria, and captured the Northern Germanic States.

In 1871, the Franco-Prussian war of was witnessed. France declared attack on Prussia given Bismarck’s refusal to honour the promise of territorial gains offered to France in 1866. Prussia imposed a decisive defeat on France and Southern Germanic states voluntarily united with Prussia to create a unified Germany.

This war ended with the ‘Treaty of Paris’. Along with king Napoleon III, more than 70,000 French soldiers were captured. To secure their release, Napoleon III was forced to sign the treaty. The king had to surrender in the Palace of Versailles and give up control of the Alsace-Lorraine region to Germany.

The treaty was a huge humiliation for France. The French were determined to overcome this humiliation which partly led to WW 1. WW 1 ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, in which France sought back control of the Alsace-Lorraine region.

The German Empire was founded in 1871. Prussia was the dominant constituent state of the new empire; the King of Prussia ruled as its Kaiser, and Berlin became its capital.

Present Map of Germany
Present map of Germany

Bismarck’s Foreign Policy

Once a Unified Germany is created, Bismarck was made Chancellor of it in 1971. As a leader of Germany, Bismarck took several steps to ensure German domination over continental Europe, to isolate France and to prevent the emergence of any alliance against Germany. This would ensure an atmosphere of relative peace in Europe and allow the German economy to flourish.

Steps taken by Bismarck

Under Bismarck, Germany signed a number of opportunistic treaties with the sole objective of isolating France. The Friendship Treaty of 1879 with Austria and the Friendship Treaty of 1882 with Italy established the triple alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungaria and Italy.

Parallelly, a secret dual alliance also existed between Germany and Austro-Hungary. It was called secret since its exact provisions were not made public. In 1887, Germany signed Non-Aggression Pact / Reinsurance treaty with the Russian monarchy (to be valid for 3 years).

To ensure German domination over Europe, and seek parity with Britain, Germany rapidly increased its military expenditure during 1870-1890.

In 1890, while Bismarck argued for the renewal of re-insurance treaty with Russia, Kaiser William II (the new king) was opposed to it. William II argued for pursuing further territorial expansion whereas Bismarck argued for delaying any such moves. Following several such disagreements over policy issues, Bismarck resigned in 1890 at the age of 75. He eventually died in 1898.

Towards 1st World War

In 1894, Russia entered an alliance with France. By 1904, the Anglo-French alliance or Entente Cordiale was also established. By 1907, a Triple Entente composed of Britain, France and Russia was established. The formation of these counter-alliances in Europe was a reaction to the secretive alliances established by Germany under Bismarck’s rule or policies.

Moreover, an intense Arms race was unleashed in Europe, as Germany’s increasing naval expenditures were followed by a simultaneous increase in expenditure by Britain, France, Italy etc.

Thus, the reaction to Bismarck’s foreign policy moves was the militarization of Europe and its breakdown into an alliance system which pushed Europe towards WW 1. Moreover, the humiliation imposed upon France by the Treaty of Paris of 1871 further complicated matters.

Although with nationalism and Bismarck’s Blood and Iron policy, Germany was unified, it also led to the worst phase of history. The policies of the 19th century led to the first world war in 1914 and made the words of Bismarck true to the ages.

“The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood”

Otto von Bismarck

Unification of Italy (1815-1871) :

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna took steps, that were completely against Italian unification. The Congress granted the control of Lombardia and Venetia, which were northern Italian speaking states to Austria, and restored pre-Napoleonic independent states.

Italy Before Unification 2
By User:Gigillo83; derivative work: User:Enok – File:Italia 1843.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mazzini’s contribution

In 1831, Mazzini’s Young Italy Movement took out open public protests demanding freedom for Lombardia and Venetia from Austria and establishing a unified Italy under a republican govt. Although it was later suppressed by the Austrian leadership, the movement helped in spreading the ideas of Italian Nationalism.

The year 1848 witnessed the 1st Italian War for Independence. It was fought against Austria to free the regions of Lombardy Venetia. However, the efforts and the morale of the revolutionaries was strongly crushed within a year.


]In 1952, Count of Cavour became the Prime Minister of Piedmont Sardinia. He was a modernizer interested in economic reforms and unification. Cavour sought allies to achieve the objective of Italian unification.

In 1853, in the conflict over Eastern Question (Crimean Question), Cavour offered support to Britain and France against Russia in exchange for their support for Italian unification. While Britain assured Sardinia of neutrality over any conflict with Austria, France (Napoleon III) offered active support to Sardinia in case of attack by Austria.

In 1858 Sardinia started secretly supporting the nationalist upsurge and protests in Lombardy and Venetia. It provoked Austria to declare war. In this conflict, France supported Sardinia, Austria was defeated and Sardinia managed to take control of Lombardy.

Garibaldi’s contribution

Garibaldi was another leader of the era. He was a former member of Mazzini’s Young Italy Movement and also aimed to establish a unified Italian republic. In around 1860-61, Garibaldi and his 1000 armed-troops termed the ‘Red Shirts’ managed to bring about an armed coup in Sicily.

As Garibaldi’s troops moved to capture Naples, Sardinia provided him the secret military assistance to support his objective and maintain friendly relations. As Garibaldi captured Naples in 1861, he agreed to join hands with Piedmont Sardinia to establish unified Italy under Monarchical leadership. He also agreed to give up the demand for a republic to avoid larger confrontation with Piedmont Sardinia, which could lead to civil war.

Unification of Italy

Finally in 1861, the formation of Italy was declared. However, the regions of Venetia and Rome were still not a part of it. In 1866, following Austria’s defeat by Prussia, it was directed to give up control of Venetia to Italy.

In 1871, when Prussia defeated France, it was also directed to withdraw troops from Rome and give control to Italy. The Italian troops moved in to take control of Rome, completing Italian unification. Thus by 1871 Italy was unified in its present form.

Cavour and Bismarck were the two important personalities of regional unifications.

Both shunned any liberal efforts towards unification, calling it ineffective. Both relied upon the use of force as well as diplomacy to seek allies and militarily accomplish their objectives. Both aimed to establish unified Italy/Germany under Monarchial leadership and were successful.

Posted in World History

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