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The German Unification

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The German Unification

On January 18, 1871, Prussian King Wilhelm I was declared emperor of the newly created German Empire at the Palace of Versailles in Paris. But why was a Prussian king made emperor of Germany? And why was he crowned in a French palace? What arrangement existed before the declaration of Germany as a unified nation-state?

Learn about the German Unification of 1871 in this article, including how a mixture of diplomacy and war led to the unification of Germany under Prussia's leadership and how this new nation state changed the balance of power in Europe, setting the stage for the First World War.

German Unification Summary

Before the German unification of 1871, the German states existed as a loose confederation that had limited economic and political cooperation. The two dominant German states were Prussia and Austria and there was competition between the two over who should be the leader of the German states.

By the mid-1800s, Prussia had become the more powerful of the two and its prime minister Otto von Bismarck played a clever game of using diplomacy and war to unite the German states under its leadership. A series of wars in the 1860s, culminating in the Prussian defeat of France in 1871 resulted in the German unification of 1871 under Prussian leadership.

That is a short German unification summary, but the process was complex, and you can learn more about it by looking at the German unification timeline and detailed account of the wars of German unification below.

The German Unification of 1871 Map StudySmarterMap of after the German Unification in 1871. Source: ziegelbrenner, CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated, Wikimedia Commons

German Unification Timeline

The German Unification of 1871 occurred after nearly a century of progress towards uniting the German states. See some of the major events and steps along the way to the German Unification of 1871 in the German Unification timeline below.

German Unification Timeline StudySmarterGerman Unification Timeline. Created by the author Adam McConnaughhay, StudySmarter Originals

The Germanic States Before the German Unification of 1871

Germany existed as a loose confederation of kingdoms, small republics, and city-states before the German Unification of 1871. Let's trace how it unified under Prussian leadership.

Setting the Stage: The German Confederation

Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire dating to Charlemagne's coronation in 800. However, it had a mostly decentralized structure since the 1200s, although the states still cooperated in naming a Holy Roman Emperor, usually the Habsburg ruler of Austria.

The Holy Roman Empire was officially dissolved after Napoleon conquered the area and declared the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806. The Kingdom of Prussia by this time had emerged as a major power of its own and played a role in the defeat of Napoleon along with Austria.

The status of the German states was a key question at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after Napoleon was defeated. The German Confederation was created as a loose alliance of 39 states, including Prussia and Austria; however, rule remained highly decentralized, and the states remained independent of each other.

Greater or Lesser Germany?

The common experience of conquest by Napoleon had led to calls for German unification. The German states spoke the same language and nationalism was a growing force. However, a key question concerned whether a united Germany would include Austria or not.

Proponents of a "greater" Germany argued Austria should be part of Germany as Austrians were ethnically and linguistically related to Germans. However, Austria was part of the larger Austro-Hungarian Empire, which included many other nationalities in southeastern Europe.

Therefore, others called for a "lesser" Germany that excluded Austria. This was also the route of unification preferred by Prussia. Excluding Austria would assure their leadership role in a unified Germany.

In 1834, the Zollverein was created as a customs and trade union between the states of the German Confederation. It was largely led by Prussia, and Austria was excluded. It promoted free trade and economic integration between its members and was a step towards full German unification in 1871.

1848: Failed Attempt at Revolution and Unification

During the revolutions of 1848, liberal forces argued for reforms as well as German unification. The Frankfurt Assembly of 1848, a meeting of elected representatives from the German states, offered King Frederick William IV of Prussia the crown of a unified Germany.

However, the conservative Prussian leadership rejected the assembly's proposed democratic reforms. Meanwhile, Austria also worked to undermine attempts at unification under Prussian leadership seeing it as a threat to their own power. The dream of uniting Germany through the assembly had failed by 1849.

However, Prussia's leaders would work for a more top-down form of unification that preserved their conservative monarchial rule, eventually successfully achieving German unification 23 years later.

"Iron and Blood": Otto von Bismarck and German Unification

Historians see Prussia's Chancellor Otto von Bismarck as the main architect of German unification.

When Wilhelm I became King of Prussia in 1861, he sought to modernize Prussia as a major military and industrial power. He eventually appointed Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor, the head executive position in the Prussian government.

Bismarck gave a famous speech in 1862 on the topic of German unification. In this speech, he argued for a top-down approach to unification under the leadership of Prussian power. Bismarck believed in Realpolitik, or a realistic view of politics that rejected liberal idealism and accepted a cold, hard reality instead.

Germany is not looking to Prussia’s liberalism, but to its power...Prussia has to coalesce and concentrate its power for the opportune is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided – that was the big mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood."1

Historians have debated whether Bismarck carried out a preconceived plan to unite Germany, or if he simply reacted to the situation as it developed. Regardless of which is true, over the next decade, he led Prussia through a series of wars and clever diplomacy that resulted in the unification of Germany in 1871 under Prussian leadership, his stated goal.

Otto von Bismarck and German Unification StudySmarterOtto von Bismarck, Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Wars of German Unification

Germany ultimately unified under Prussian leadership after a series of wars beginning in 1864.

Danish War of 1864

The first war of German unification occurred in 1864 over the Germanic provinces of Schleswig and Holstein, which Denmark claimed. Bismarck accused Danish authorities of mistreating German peoples in these provinces. He cleverly united with Austria to go to war with Denmark.

At the end of the war, Schleswig became part of Prussia and Holstein part of Austria. However, a second war over the spoils soon broke out.

Austro-Prussian War of 1866

In 1866, the former allies of Prussia and Austria went to war with each other. The Prussians won a stunning victory in a matter of weeks.

Besides seizing Holstein, they also absorbed several other German states that had allied with Austria, including Hanover and Nassau. The North German Confederation, under Prussian leadership, was created to further integrate most of the German states under Prussian leadership.

This war had also settled the question of which of the two potential leaders of Germany was stronger. Prussia was now ascendant and was clearly the strongest of the German states, having defeated its rival Austria on the battlefield. It became increasingly clear that German unification would occur under Prussian, not Austrian leadership.

Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71

However, it would take one final war before the German Unification of 1871 was finally complete.

Some of the western German states, such as Bavaria had so far resisted domination by Prussia. Bismarck hoped that by provoking war with France, he could form an alliance with these states and finally unite Germany as one larger nation-state.

In 1870, Bismarck manipulated newspaper articles and a telegram from Wilhelm to France's Napoleon III to insult the French.

An outraged French public called for war, granting Bismarck's wish and the Franco-Prussian War began when France declared war on Prussia. Bismarck had successfully created a situation where France was seen as the aggressor and the remaining independent German states were drawn in on the Prussian side to unite in war against them.

The well-organized Prussian army quickly defeated the French, capturing Napoleon III and his army in the process.

Declaration of the Unification of Germany in 1871

In January 1871, German forces had laid siege to Paris. In an insult to injury on top of the humiliating defeat of the French on the battlefield, Wilhelm had himself crowned Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

Bismarck's goal of uniting the German states into a single nation state under Prussian leadership was now complete. The new German Empire also claimed the territories of Alsace and Lorraine from France.

The German Unification of 1871 painting StudySmarterPainting of the coronation of Wilhelm as Emperor of Germany in 1871. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Consequences of the German Unification of 1871

The declaration of Germany was followed by internal attempts to further unify the new empire under Prussian leadership. It also had drastic consequences for the diplomatic situation in Europe.

Unifying the New Nation State

Bismarck now sought to unite the German people.

He did so by a process of negative integration, focusing on defining Germans as what they were not. His policies of Kulturekampf attempted to reduce the power of the Catholic Church and also persecuted German Jews.

While these policies eventually provoked backlash, they helped to reaffirm the dominant status of the conservative Prussian Junker landowning political class. German nationalism and national identity came to be defined by them. The Prussian military officer class was also widely celebrated, and militarism became an important part of German nationalism.

While Bismarck created a largely conservative and authoritarian political structure, he also introduced a number of welfare reforms, including unemployment relief, retirement pensions, and protections for sick and injured workers. These reforms helped create public support for the government.

End of the Balance of Power in Europe

The German unification of 1871 had profound consequences for the conditions in Europe.

Germany was now a large, unified state in central Europe, and it had shown on the battlefield that it was a force to be reckoned with. The balance of power created by the Vienna Conference of 1815 was now shattered.

The unified Germany would go on to quickly industrialize and modernize, ultimately challenging both France and Britain's status as the most powerful European powers. Bismarck now worked to create a system of alliances that isolated France, who he feared would want to take revenge for the humiliating defeat of 1871.

However, tensions would continue to grow, and mutual fear of the ascendant Germany would lead Britain and France to a closer relationship. Germany would come into conflict with both as it sought to further assert itself as a great power of equal status under Emperor Wilhelm II. Meanwhile, the earlier Prussian defeat of Austria accelerated the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, leading to tensions in the Balkans.

These simmering tensions would boil over at the start of World War One.

Europe before and after the German Unification of 1871

Map of Europe before the German Unification of 1871 StudySmarterEurope in 1815. Source: Alexander Altenhof, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Map of Europe after the German unification of 1871 StudySmarter

Europe in 1815. Source: Alexander Altenhof, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Exam Tip

Exam questions often ask about the concepts of change and continuity. Look at the maps above and think about how you could construct a historical argument that the unification of Germany altered the balance of power in Europe after 1871.

German Unification - Key takeaways

  • The German Unification of 1871 was the culmination of a complex series of processes that saw the German states become increasingly integrated and aligned under Prussian leadership over the course of the 19th century.
  • Economic and diplomatic integration in the German Confederation and the Zollverein laid the foundations for German Unification in 1871.
  • Questions emerged whether Prussia or Austria was the proper leader of a unified Germany.
  • Otto von Bismarck played a key role in uniting the German states under Prussian leadership through diplomacy and war using his philosophy of Realpolitik.
  • The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 resulted in the declaration of the German Empire with the Prussian King Wilhelm I proclaimed emperor of the new nation state of Germany, completing German unification.


  1. Otto von Bismarck, Blood and Iron Speech, September 30, 1862.

Frequently Asked Questions about The German Unification

The unification of Germany occurred in 1871 when the Germanic states united under Prussian leadership as the new nation state and empire of Germany.

The purpose of the German unification was to unite the German states into one unified nation state.

Germany officially unified in 1871.

The most serious obstacle to German unification was the competition between Prussia and Austria to be the dominant state in a possible union.

German unification affected the rest of Europe by upsetting the balance of power created after the Napoleonic Wars. Germany now became a major power, helping to cause tensions that led to World War I.

Final The German Unification Quiz


Which two countries competed to be the leader of the German states?

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Prussia and Austria

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What political entity existed in what became Germany from 800 to 1806?

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The Holy Roman Empire

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What characterized the status of the German states after the Congress of Vienna in 1815?

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They were united in a German Confederation but remained mostly independent.

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Why did attempts at unification fail in 1848?

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The Prussian King rejected the liberal constitution proposed and Austria also worked to prevent unification.

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Who became Chancellor of Prussia and argued for a policy of "iron and blood?"

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Otto von Bismarck

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What happened in the 1864 Danish War?

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Prussia and Austria allied to take the German states of Schleswig and Holstein.

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What happened in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War?

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Prussia defeated Austria, taking Holstein and some other German states.

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What happened in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War?

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France declared war on Prussia and the German states united to fight together against them, winning the war and humiliating France.

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Who became Emperor of Germany upon its declaration in 1871?

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Prussian King Wilhelm I

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Where was Wilhelm crowned?

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At the French palace of Versailles

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Why did the unification of Germany change the balance of power in Europe?

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Germany quickly emerged as a major power and threatened Britain and France.

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What economic group helped pave the way for German unification later?

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The Zollverein, created in 1834.

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