Germany in the 1800s - History of Europe
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Germany in the 1800s

November 2016 - After an alliance of European armies defeated Napoleon in 1814, all the European countries held meetings known as the Congress of Vienna to figure out the best way to stop anyone from conquering them again, and to keep peace all over Europe. One of the things they did was to establish a German federal government uniting a lot of smaller countries that mostly spoke some variety of German, to replace the old Holy Roman Empire. But Prussia, in what is now the eastern half of Germany, was still an independent country, and a very powerful one. Prussia, under also controlled a lot of what is now Poland.

The German Confederation was supposed to keep France and Prussia and Austria-Hungary from fighting each other, or at least to force them to fight each other in Germany instead of in each others' countries, but it didn't really manage to keep the peace. As Germany got better farming - potatoes and sugar beets - and cloth factories, fewer children died, and there got to be a lot more people in Germany. Railroads and coal made Germany richer. More families got rich enough to send their kids to school, and then they wanted to live like richer people: they wanted some political power.

painting of head and shoulders of white man with big mustache
Otto von Bismarck

In 1848, working people in Germany tried to get more power by revolution, just as they had earlier that year in France and in Austria-Hungary. They wanted freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, a written constitution, and an elected parliament - so they wanted the vote. Karl Marx was involved. But the revolution failed. Many of its leaders and supporters left Germany for the United States or for Brazil.

photograph of a white man with a big mustache
Kaiser Wilhelm

Then in the 1860s the prime minister of Prussia, Bismarck, succeeded in combining Prussia and Germany into a big German Empire covering the whole middle of Europe. Seeing himself as a second Augustus or Napoleon, Bismarck used his new Empire to attack Denmark, Austria, and France. Austria, under Sophie and then her son Franz Joseph, got so weak it had to do pretty much whatever Germany wanted. Then, fighting against Napoleon III in France, Germany won some big victories, and even marched through Paris. Germany took over some of France's land, and made France pay huge amounts of money to Germany as revenge for the money Napoleon I had taken from Prussia. The excitement of winning wars encouraged Germany to agree to be one country. Like Britain and France, Germany also started to take control of parts of Africa - Togo and part of Ghana, Cameroon, Rwanda, and Namibia.

As people in Germany got richer, they wanted the power rich people had always had. But instead of giving people more power, as Britain had, and as Sophie did in Austria and Andrew Jackson did in the United States, Bismarck ruled more like the Russian czars: by force. He stopped letting the Parliament meet, and he limited freedom of speech, and banned Socialism. In 1866, a Jewish activist shot Bismarck, but Bismarck survived. In the 1870s, Bismarck persecuted Catholics too - he threw out the Jesuits in 1872. But Bismarck got support by giving workers a lot of government help if they got sick, were out of work, or retired.

But in 1888, the new Kaiser Wilhelm II, still in his 20s, wanted to strengthen and expand German power instead of keeping peace in Europe. In 1890 Kaiser Wilhelm forced Bismarck to retire (at 75). Without Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm didn't do as well. He made enemies where Bismarck had made friends, and the end result, in 1914, was World War I.

Learn by doing: did your family get richer or poorer from colonization?
More about Louis-Philippe in France
More about Austria-Hungary
World War I

Bibliography and further reading about colonization:

Ottoman Empire
Russia
United States
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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