Introduction

After Napoleon’s defeat and expulsion from the German lands in 1814, Central Europe experienced a half-century of peace. The German Confederation (1815–1866) was a loose federation of thirty-nine sovereign and independent states. It was far from the unitary German nation-state envisioned by German nationalists: included within its borders were parts of the Habsburg Empire (Austria), enclaves of non-German-speaking populations, and some (but not all) of Prussia’s territory. During these fifty years, German nationalists outlined their goals with increasing clarity and fervor: they spoke and wrote incessantly about the shape of a future Germany and whether it might have a constitution, a representative parliament, and perhaps even a republican form of government. Due to the rapid growth of newspapers and journals, especially after 1830, the nationalists’ message reached a larger segment of people in Central Europe than ever before, though mainly other members of the educated urban elite. The vast majority of Germans lived in the countryside, where they experienced chronic insecurity and hardship. In the 1840s, critics of the status quo raised increasingly vocal opposition to autocratic rulers, and disastrous harvests contributed to the German (and pan-European) revolutions of 1848–49. Between March and May 1848, a National Assembly in Frankfurt am Main was elected on the basis of broad suffrage and met for the first time. Over the next year, its members debated fundamental social, economic, and national issues but lacked the power to impose their decisions on individual states. By March 1849, the Frankfurt National Assembly had been forced to retreat in the face of a state-led conservative backlash. The following month, Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm IV refused to accept the German crown, which he said would be a dog-collar around his neck. During the 1850s—which were neither as barren or reactionary as historians once thought—Germany’s industrial revolution gathered steam and a free-market economy emerged. This industrial take-off brought new wealth and international respect to Prussia, in whose territories many of the rapidly industrializing regions were found. But Prussian statesmen were neither strong nor bold enough to challenge the Habsburg Empire for hegemony in Central Europe. The idea of a “third Germany” did not gain traction either. In the early 1860s, the expansion and reform of the Prussian army was seen as a precondition for asserting Prussia’s power, but when the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, demanded new recruits, he encountered liberal opposition in the Prussian parliament. The ensuing “constitutional conflict” seemed to pit absolutism against liberalism, constitutionalism, and parliamentarism. In September 1862, the Prussian king appointed Otto von Bismarck to break the deadlock. Bismarck was unsuccessful at first: repression did not dislodge the liberal opposition. Gradually, Bismarck concluded that a military showdown with Austria would solve Prussia’s internal and external challenges. Thus, the scene was set for the dramatic events of 1866–71.

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