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Unification of Germany and Italy

1. Background

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 the ‘nation-states’. These nations were formed with the majority of their citizens having a sense of common identity, a shared history, common descent or language.

On the other hand, the Congress of Vienna gathered in 1814-15 after the defeat of France. It involved the powers of Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria- which aimed to undo the spread of the nationalist feelings and establish a medieval feudal power structure. However, their attempts were not fruitful enough and failed to check the unification of Germany and Italy.

2. German Unification [1815 – 1871]

In 1800s, 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. Moreover, in 1806, under Napoleon, the establishment of the Rhine confederation took place and more than 350 German-speaking areas were merged to form 39 states.

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, several parts of these states went under the control of Prussia and Austria.

However, from 1830 onwards, the rulers of Prussia started supporting the cause of German unification. It is so because Prussia wanted to establish Lesser Germany consisting of the Northern Germanic States, Southern Germanic states and German-speaking parts of Prussia. In pursuance of its aim, where Prussia wanted to expand its own influence on Northern and Southern Germanic States, Austria was purposefully kept aside.

2.1 Zollverein

To fulfil the aim of German unification, the Customs Union (Zollverein) was established in 1934, which induced the common tariffs towards the third countries. It was mutually beneficial both for Germany and Prussia.

The Zollverein was supposed to aid the Prussian capitalist class in dealing with the competition from the British and French industries. It created tariff barriers against the foreign goods and provided an assured market for the Russian industries. As a result, Russia emerged as a strong votary of German Unification under the Prussian leadership.

Thus, it can be argued that the formation of Zollverein was the 1st step in the unification of Germany. It enabled the growth of the capitalist class and the economic strengthening of Prussia. It also enabled Prussia to pursue higher defence expenditures and adopt a militaristic approach (the policy of blood and iron) towards the German unification.

2.2 1848 Revolution

The revolution of 1848 overthrew the Austrian King and 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 the German Unification.

Later on, from 1858, Kaiser William I became the effective leader of Prussia.
He agreed to take forward the objective of German unification and appointed Bismarck as the Prime Minister in 1862.

2.3 Role of Bismarck

 Image: Otto von Bismarck

Bismarck had earlier served in the Prussian Foreign Service and supported the cause of German unification under a strong monarchical rule. To pursue the aim of unification, he adopted the militaristic approach as the liberal methods had failed as demonstrated by the failure of the 1848 revolution.

It was because of this reason that from 1862-1863, under Bismarck’s leadership, the Prussian 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’).

2.4. Three Major Wars Were Fought Under Bismarck

Under Bismarck’s leadership, three wars were fought. These were:

  • In 1863, Prussia and Austria joined hands and launched a combined offensive attack 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 war took place between the forces of Austro-Prussian. During that period, Prussia had secured French neutrality through the promise of the territorial gains. (France was promised the areas in the Rhine region.) Therefore, Prussia soon attacked Austria. In this course of war (aka seven week war), Prussia imposed quick defeat on Austria, and captured the Northern Germanic States.
  • Then in 1871, the Franco-Prussian war 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 in the course of war, the Southern Germanic states voluntarily united with Prussia to create a unified Germany.

At last, this war ended with the ‘Treaty of Paris’. During the war, along with the king Napoleon III, more than 70,000 French soldiers were captured and 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 seen as a huge humiliation for France. The French were determined to overcome this humiliation which partly led to the World War 1. Thus, it was because of these conditions that the World War 1 took place and consequently ended with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, in which France sought back the control of the Alsace-Lorraine region.

(It is to be noted that the German Empire was founded in 1871 and Prussia became the dominant constituent state of the new empire; the King of Prussia ruled as its Kaiser, and Berlin became its capital.)

Image: Present map of Germany

2.5 Bismarck’s Foreign Policy

Once a Unified Germany was created, Bismarck was made Chancellor of it in 1971. As a leader of Germany, Bismarck took several steps to ensure the German domination over the 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.

2.6 Steps taken by Bismarck

Under Bismarck, Germany signed a number of opportunistic treaties with the sole objective of isolating France. For instance, the Friendship Treaty of 1879 with Austria, and the Friendship Treaty of 1882 with Italy which led to the establishment of the triple alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungarian and Italy.

At the same time, a secret dual alliance also existed between Germany and Austro-Hungary. It was called secret since its exact provisions were not made public.

Further, in the year 1887, Germany signed Non-Aggression Pact / Reinsurance treaty with the Russian monarchy (to be valid for 3 years). However, following disagreements between Bismarck and Kaiser William II over the question of extension of the treaty with Russia after three years, Bismarck resigned in 1879 at the age of 75 and he eventually died in 1898.

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3. Towards the 1st World War

From 1890s onwards, several alliances such as between Russia-France, the Anglo-French alliance or Entente Cordial in 1904, and the Triple Entente in 1907 etc. came into being as a counter- alliance to those established by Bismarck.

An intense Arms race was also unleashed in Europe, and with the rise in Germany’s naval expenditures, a simultaneous increase in the expenditure by Britain, France and Italy etc. also began.

These developments as a reaction to Bismarck’s policies in Europe led to militarisation and eventually ended into the First World War. This situation was further fuelled by the humiliations imposed by the Treaty of Paris of 1871.

It was thereby argued that though with nationalism and Bismarck’s Blood and Iron policy, Germany was unified, but this marked the worst phase in the history of world politics asit gave birth to conflicts which eventually resulted into the First World War.

“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


4. Unification of Italy (1815-1871)

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

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

4.1 Mazzini’s Contribution

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

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

4.2 Cavour

In 1952, Count of Cavour became the Prime Minister of Piedmont Sardinia. He was a modernizer interested in the 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 the 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 the end, in order to carry out his aims for unification, 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.

Image: Mazzini
Image: Count of Cavour
Image: Garibaldi

4.3 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 as the ‘Red Shirts’ managed to bring about an armed coup in Sicily.

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

4.4 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.

Then in the year 1866, following Austria’s defeat by Prussia, it was directed to give up control of Venetia to Italy. Similarly, 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 the Italian unification. Thus, by 1871 Italy was unified in its present form.

Image: Present Map of Italy

Cavour and Bismarck were the two important personalities of regional unifications. Both shunned any liberal efforts towards unification, calling it ineffective and relied upon the use of force as well as diplomacy to seek allies and militarily accomplish their objectives. They also aimed to establish unified Italy/Germany under Monarchical leadership and were successful in their aims.

5. Summary

The unification of Germany and Italy represents the evolution of significant events which brought many changes to the world system. Germany being comprised of various parts such as Austria and Prussia realised that a strong state can only be built and governed when all the parts were unified as a whole.

Thereby, it started its process of unification; however, like the reforms which were taken in any part of the world, the German unification too faced issues in the form of revolutions such as that of 1848. This revolution also paved way for the rise of Bismarck as an important leader of the German history and also to what we know of as the First World War.

The same process was followed in Italy, where Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour had played the similar role.

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6. Multiple Choice Question

1] Which of the following lead to the establishment of 39 states in Germany?
a) Treaty of Paris
b) Rhine confederation
c) Declaration of Pillnitz
d) Treaty of Amiens

Show Answer

Ans: b) Rhine confederation

2] Zollverein refers to which of the following?
a) Political body
b) Economic union of 39 states
c) Customs union
d) Parliament

Show Answer

Ans: c) Customs union

3] Which policy is adopted by Bismarck during the German unification?
a) Subordinate Union
b) Blood and Iron
c) Carrot and stick policy
d) Wolf warrior strategy

Show Answer

Ans: b) Blood and Iron

4] What is the stand of the Congress of Vienna regarding the Italian unification?
a) It favoured the Italian unification
b) Formed the federation 39 states
c) Against the Italian unification
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: c) Against the Italian unification

5] The Young Italy Party was founded by whom?
a) Garibaldi
b) Mazzini
c) Bismarck
d) Napoleon

Show Answer

Ans: b) Mazzini

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