Chronology of German Unification, 1848-1871


The Revolutions of 1848:  Following revolution in Paris in February, there are popular revolts in Vienna, Berlin and other German cities in March. In May a National Assembly (all-German parliament) meets in Frankfurt, and a Prussian Constituent Assembly (i.e., a parliament meant to draw up a constitution) convenes in Berlin. Liberals and radicals are not able to establish their authority vis-a-vis the princes and monarchs, who retain their thrones (and armies) despite the revolts. In October an Austrian army overthrows the new government in Vienna; in December Prussian troops reoccupy Berlin and dissolve the Constituent Assembly; and in April 1849 the Frankfurt National Assembly (having adopted a national Constitution in March that remains a dead letter) dissolves itself.


In December Prussia’s first constitution goes into force, imposed by decree of the King (to obviate a constitution designed by the Constituent Assembly). After several revisions, this constitution by 1851 is very restricted indeed, featuring the notorious three-class franchise, but it remains in place until the end of the First World War.


Austria frustrates the Prussian Union scheme to reorganize the Germanic Confederation so as to give more formal power to Prussia while edging Austria to the periphery of German affairs. This is the start of an aggravated rivalry between the two powers for leadership in Germany.


This is a time of political stagnation in Prussia and more generally in Germany, caused by disappointment and disillusionment among liberals as much as by clever government manipulation and repression.


This is a time of political repression in Austria accompanied by final attempts (by the ministers Schwarzenberg and Bach) to restructure the Austrian Empire as a centralized modern state. Austria’s defeat in the wars of Italian unification in 1859 makes this policy politically and financially impossible.


Austria’s neutrality in the Crimean War isolates her internationally at a critical time.


The ascension of King William I of Prussia (regent from 1858, king from 1861) releases pent-up hopes for reform and results in opposition victories in Prussian elections from 1859 to 1864. The new King proceeds with reforms, but draws the line when parliament asserts some rights of control over the army. The Prussian constitutional crisis ensues.


Austria loses her Italian possessions in the wars of Italian Unification and also faces state bankruptcy.


In Austria the October Diploma of 1860 and the February Patent of 1861, two successive constitutions, create national parliaments for the first time in the monarchy’s history. Both are rescinded after failing to win the monarchy enough key domestic support.


The Prussian King in desperation appoints Bismarck as Minister-President (prime minister) in the hope he can resolve the constitutional deadlock. Bismarck defies the Prussian parliament and conducts a four-year confrontation with it.


Bismarck solidifies Prussia’s alliance with Russia by cooperating with the Tsarist government during the Polish revolt of this year. Russia accordingly leaves Prussia a free hand in its coming struggle with Austria.


Joint Austro-Prussian war against Denmark to liberate the (German-speaking) territories of Schleswig and Holstein from Danish rule. Denmark is easily defeated, but there is a confused and contentious aftermath between the victors.


The Austro-Prussian War ends suddenly after seven weeks with an overwhelming Prussian victory in the Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), which has the effect of pushing Austria out of German affairs. The South German states (Baden, Wuerttemberg, Bavaria) that were allied with Austria are treated generously. Bismarck capitalizes on war enthusiasm in Prussia by offering a Bill of Indemnity that the Prussian Parliament happily passes, ending its conflict with the Prussian government.


On Prussia’s initiative the Germanic Confederation is replaced with a new structure, the North German Confederation, that excludes Austria (and, for the time being, four considerable South German states). Designed by Bismarck to ensure Prussian dominance in veiled forms, the Confederation greatly resembles a federal state; it is the immediate precursor of and model for the German Empire founded in 1871.


Under irrestible pressure from the Hungarians and the German-Austrian public after the humiliation of Königgrätz, Austria reconstitutes itself into the Dual Monarchy, Austria-Hungary. The new system consists of two kingdoms, each with its own parliamentary system but linked by a common ruler, a single army, and a joint foreign policy.


In the Franco-Prussian War, incited by Bismarck but declared by France, Prussia fights side by side with the South German states, surrounds and defeats the main French forces at Sedan after only six weeks, and occupies much of France. The South German states are now willing to join a united German state. The peace settlement (in 1871) gives the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire.


The foundation of the German Empire is proclaimed in Versailles. The Prussian King becomes Emperor William I of Germany, and the constitution of the North-German Confederation is remodeled into a constitution for the German Empire.