A German History
Compiled and contributed by: Erik Bedijs
Knowing the history of the country your ancestors came from will go a long way toward understanding why they came to the United States and what part of Europe they came from. Erik generously compiled a history of Germany covering the years preceding the great migration and the years following which he hopes will help you in your endeavor to find your roots in Europe. He suggests you locate some maps covering the time in question to refer to as you read the following. Summary of German History 1648-1789 After the Thirty Years´ War, Germany loses its former importance. Political and economic development is retarded by Germany’s structure of numerous independent states. For economic and religious reasons many Germans leave their homes to emigrate. 1789-1848 Rulers in Germany are watching suspiciously the French Revolution, because they fear that their own states might be infected by the ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity. When Napoleon seizes power, war spreads all over the continent and Europe is subjected. After Napoleon is defeated, restoration prevails at the Congress of Vienna. While suppressing patriotic and social demands, German states try to find their role in Europe. After the 1848 Revolution, National Assembly works hard to proceed towards national unity and political modernisation, but fails. 1848-1914 After the 1848 Revolution, Prussia begins to dominate the other German states. Bismarck sets a new aim to unify Germany by force. France is defeated in the war of 1870-1871, and Kaiser Wilhelm I is crowned as German Kaiser. Industrial revolution and social reforms bring about modernisation in state and society. Wilhelm II tries to gain more international importance and risks the balance of power.
German History Part 1 (1648-1789) For the hurried reader: After the Thirty Years´ War, Germany loses its former importance. Political and economic development is retarded by Germany’s structure of numerous independent states. For economic and religious reasons many Germans leave their homes to emigrate. New Start in 1648 Let us begin our walk through German history at the end of the Thirty Years´ War in 1648. Germany lies devastated by a conflict that was an explosive mixture of religious and political interests. Not only had German Catholics and Protestants fought against each other in changing coalitions but also France, Sweden and Spain had sent troops to fight on Germany’s ground. The loss of lives is immense: it is estimated today that population was reduced from 16 to 10 millions; in some areas where war had raged badly 60 to 70 percent had died of military force, by hunger and disease. At last, after several years of negotiations, the Peace of Westphalia settles the conflict. As the result, Germany is looking into a future with poor chances. The Netherlands and Switzerland are allowed to leave Germany and get independent states. France pushes forward to the river Rhine; Sweden takes the Baltic coast with its important ports. Inside Germany, religious contrasts still exist, although they are tolerated now. Unlike the other states in Europe, Germany keeps Catholic and Protestant population and regents within its borders. More than that, Germany is a geographic term without political content. Imagine a state ruled by the Kaiser (Emperor) whose states are free to obey his orders or not, advised by the “Reichstag” in Regensburg as the permanent congress of the states, supported by the High Court “Reichskammergericht” that tries to solve conflicts between them. Imagine in this Reich there are no taxes, no administration, no army, even no capital city. Therefore the Reich, as the Peace of Westphalia creates it, is obviously a weak construction. Furthermore, the Reich guarantees the independent existence of about 300 states with nearly 2000 ruler families. Imagine a map of patchwork with lots of areas, larger and smaller ones, territories often torn and perforated by properties of neighbors. Imagine that every state uses to have its own currency, tolls, measures, law and army. Economy suffers from bad conditions. Roads and ports lie destroyed. The Coastline is reduced to short pieces at the North Sea and the Baltic. There is not enough population for a powerful start in agriculture or in commerce. Germany gets into stagnation and cannot keep pace with the other European states, when the era of colonisation and worldwide trade begins without Germany. Enlightened Absolutism As we have seen, the Reich forms only a framework to the German states. While the Reich itself uses to be ruled by the House of Habsburg (at the same time rulers of Austria), there are several states of importance, notably Bavaria (that looks for secret alliance with France), Saxony, Brandenburg (later known as Prussia) and Hannover. At that time, Louis XIV, the King of France, is much admired by the German rulers who successfully try to copy the idea of absolutism. Political power is concentrated in the ruler himself, everything and everyone is put under his personal will and aims. Later in the eighteenth century, the leading Houses begin to apply the principles of Enlightenment. The ideal of freedom, equality, tolerance and humanity requires that the state have to strive for peace, welfare and personal luck. There is also an astonishing step forward for cultural development to the highest standard, especially in German literature (Lessing, Goethe, Schiller), and in music (Bach, Haendel, Haydn, Mozart). The most powerful German state is Austria, which keeps its pre-eminence until the end of the nineteenth century. Interesting to see is the development of Prussia, in 1648 a small state in northern Germany known as Brandenburg. After having gained some holdings and small regions, Brandenburg as a participant of the Swedish War (1700-1721) manages to get Prussia, thus forming a remarkable state and 1701 entering the status of the Kingdom of Prussia. There is a time of peace inside Germany beginning with 1648, which only is spoiled by France in three campaigns, seizing parts of south-western Germany (Reunion of Elsass 1681, War of Pfalz 1692-1697, and Spanish Succession War 1701-1714). These events of complete and needless destruction makes a deep impression on Germany that at the western frontier there exists a constant threat. Let us have a closer look on Prussia, because its rivalry with Austria has great influence on Germany’s development as a whole. In the interior, things get along well between the German states until Prussia takes up a confrontation with Austria in three campaigns (First Silesian War 1740-1742, Second Silesian War 1744-1745, War of Seven Years 1756-1763). King Friedrich (called The Old Fritz) takes Silesia as well as a third of the former Kingdom of Poland (1772). Like Prussia itself, several other German states have remarkable territories outside the borders of the German Reich, with a multitude of language and religion. Austria continues to expand into the South-West of Europe in a long conflict with the Ottoman Empire. German History Part 2 (1789-1848) For the hurried reader: Rulers in Germany are watching suspiciously the French Revolution, because they fear that their own states might be infected by the ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity. When Napoleon seizes power, war spreads all over the continent and Europe is subjected. After Napoleon is defeated, restoration prevails at the Congress of Vienna. While suppressing patriotic and social demands, German states try to find their role in Europe. After the 1848 Revolution, National Assembly works hard to proceed towards national unity and political modernisation, but fails. The End of the Reich in 1806 Let us continue our walk through German history with a glance at Germany’s reaction to the French Revolution of 1789. At first enthusiastically welcomed by intellectuals for the idea of having a constitution and a bill of rights, disgust for the mass executions and civil war excesses becomes strong. New French nationalism raises fear upon German’s leading circles. In 1792, Prussia and Austria direct their armies towards Paris in order to regain public order in France and to save the Royal family, but surprisingly they fail. French revolutionary forces invade Austria’s Netherlands, Holland, and the Rhineland, and fight in Italy. Prussia hopes to get a time of relax by the Peace of Basel 1795. However, as soon as Napoleon I seizes power in 1799, the other German states come under military pressure until they have to accept the Treaty of Regensburg 1803. Napoleon puts an end to most of the little independent states inside Germany. So more than 1,600 states disappear and are incorporated to the greater states of Bavaria, Wuerttemberg, Baden, Hessen and Prussia. In 1805, Prussia is defeated and occupied. Napoleon calls in a Congress of all German leaders at Regensburg in 1806. Kaiser Franz must resign, and a tradition of a thousand years of German emperors ends. Napoleon organizes a structure of 16 German states and the Kingdom of Westphalia (with his brother Jerome as the king) in the Rhine Confederation. Austria and Prussia are not members. Occupation brings about reforms and standardisation of legal codes, administration, measures and currencies. Economy suffers from the Continental Blockade against England. As for the leading circles, adaptation of French culture and even the use of French language can be observed, which leads to irritation and bitterness with common people. The Rhine Confederation serves to provide Napoleon’s campaigns with German soldiers. In Prussia, defeat is taken as a humiliation. Progressive heads from military and administration develop a concept of serious reforms in social and military affairs. After a time of reconvalescence and revitalization, Prussia joins in an alliance with Austria and Russia. Napoleon must flee from burning Moscow. In 1813, (Peoples´ battle of Leipzig) and 1815 (Battle of Waterloo) France’s occupation of Europe ends. Congress of Vienna The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) aims to restore states that legally existed before French Revolution and Napoleon’s occupation. There is strong resistance against reforms as to establishment of parliamentary reforms, economic freedom, and civil liberty. The desire to follow the ideal of the American Constitution and the French Revolution is well known among the delegates. Still, monarchy government and the nobles´ privileges prevail. Therefore, the outcome of the Congress is rather an agreement towards balance of power among the European states. Indeed the Congress enables Europe to have a time without continent- wide war for nearly 100 years until in 1914 World War I begins. From the German point of view, the Congress keeps to the principle that there must not be a unified German Reich. Congress creates the German Confederation including 38 sovereign states and 4 free cities. The Eastern part of Prussia and the Italian parts of Austria do not belong to the Confederation. To make confusion complete, even some foreign monarchs are members in the Confederation: Holstein is part of Denmark, Hannover is ruled by Great Britain, and the King of the United Netherlands rules as Grand Duke of Luxemburg. We have seen that confusion after the Peace of Westphalia as well, with but one difference now: French Revolution and Napoleon’s occupation have put new ideas into the hearts and brains of German people. Firstly, there is the ideal of civil liberty, of course. Secondly, consciousness has emerged that there is a common quality of being German. To have disregarded (or better: to have beaten off) new German Nationalism is a reproach that is done to the Congress from today’s point of view. Times of overwhelming emotions in the patriotic fight against Napoleon are soon over: Germany’s natural chance to found a unified state of nation and to establish a modern political system is blocked again. This makes a deep and bitter impression on people and the longing for a better future steadily grows. Political suppression and social tension become harder when in the 1820s industrialisation and capitalism begin to win influence on farmers and labourers´ lives. Misery and even hunger grow and become unbearable in the 1840s. The Frankfurt Parliament In 1848, like in many other European states, revolution turns over the conservative governments in Berlin, Vienna and some other German cities. Soon, things are conceded that have often thought impossible: the rulers promise to establish the right of election, representative democracy and civil liberty. German monarchs accept that a National Assembly with delegates from all German states meet in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt-on-Main (St. Paul’s Church Assembly). A mighty wave of patriotic enthusiasm arises all over Germany. The creation of a German national state seems to be at hand. Discussion takes a long time. Should there be a “Large Germany” solution or “Little Germany” excluding Austria and the Habsburg Empire? In the National Assembly, at first consisting of single speakers with very different aims, groups of common interest manage to form gradually, thus preparing the later foundation of political parties. While in Berlin the “Workers Congress” decides to ask the Assembly for support for the social movement, in Vienna counter- revolution regains power for the monarchy. The National Assembly at last decides in favour of “Little Germany” and a constitutional monarchy with an Emperor (Kaiser) as a sovereign. In March 1849, delegates elect King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia as the German Kaiser. A group of delegates takes a travel to Berlin in order to offer him the crown. However, this turns out to be a political catastrophe: with contempt and indignation, the King refuses to take the crown from the people, because “it is a crown without honour, but with the stink of revolution”. National Assembly ends in confusion and escape. Civil war begins all over Germany, but is soon ended by military troops. Many rebels are killed in executions, others flee into exile and emigration. German History Part 3 (1848-1914) For the hurried reader: After the 1848 Revolution, Prussia begins to dominate the other German states. Bismarck sets a new aim to unify Germany by force. France is defeated in the war of 1870-1871, and Kaiser Wilhelm I is crowned as German Kaiser. Industrial revolution and social reforms bring about modernisation in state and society. Wilhelm II tries to gain more international importance and risks the balance of power. Bismarck In 1862, King Wilhelm of Prussia chooses Prince Otto von Bismarck as his minister president. The idea is to have the state ruled by a man ruthless enough to ignore the parliament’s right of budget, which Bismarck does. Soon Bismarck is involved in an increasing tension with neighbour states. At first, in the campaign of 1864, Denmark must hand over Schleswig-Holstein and Lauenburg. More than that, Bismarck begins to work for Prussia’s hegemony and sets into scene a confrontation with powerful Austria. In 1866, Prussia fights a risky campaign against Austria, its South Germany allies and Hannover in the North. Prussia succeeds in the German war and seizes remarkable territories, such as Hannover, Schleswig-Holstein, and Frankfurt-on-Main. Austria, Baden, Wuerttemberg and Bavaria are excluded from the new-founded North German Confederation. More than that, Austria is divided into two halves (imperial and royal double monarchy of Austria-Hungary). Bismarck decides that there is a better solution instead of waiting for what France’s reaction to a German unification might be. He prepares for a war against France by a secret alliance with the South German states. To get support in the public opinion, old resentment against France is pushed up. Hate is ignited when a confrontation is set into scene (called the Emser Depesche Affair) from which the Germans understand that France tries to humiliate them. In the French War Germany invades Eastern France in September 1870, besieges Paris until January 1871. There is an enormous symbolical meaning in the political outcome: Elsass-Lothringen must leave France and is annexed by Germany, the Western frontier is pushed far into France. This is something that both sides will not forget: the cities of Metz and Strasbourg are clues to France´s and Germany´s national pride, as well as the frontier of the river Rhine is. Imagine the clash of patriotism on both sides, when in Versailles, inside the French Royal palace, Wilhelm of Prussia is crowned German Kaiser. This will be remembered for a long time. The Second Reich Constitution is not in favour of liberal ideas and the people’s democratic participation. The Kaiser’s strong position gives him personal control over foreign policy, the army and the declaration of war. He chooses the kanzler and the ministers who form the government and prepare legislation. The Reichstag (parliament), elected by universal male suffrage, is weak and cannot gain substantial influence on policy. Germany enters into world policy as a latecomer. Bismarck establishes a fine web of alliances and secret treaties with other European states in order to safeguard the balance of power for Germany and its neighbours. The new Reich experiences an immense growth of economy and population, partly because of the reparations paid by France, partly because of the change in economic chances (Gruenderjahre = founders´ years). Measures, weights, currencies, jurisdiction and laws are standardized; from the churches, the state takes control over schools, citizen registry and civil marriage. Under the impression of the industrial revolution beginning in the 1850s, there has been a growing social tension, like in the other European states, too. Leading heads of the social movement come from Germany (Marx, Engels). After years of severe struggle, Bismarck realizes a danger for Germany’s inner unity and development. In order to tie the working population to the state, he meets to the social requirements by establishing a very progressive system of national health insurance and old-age pensions. Wilhelm II In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I dies and few months days later his successor, too. Young Wilhelm II, the grandson, is crowned as the new Kaiser (Three Kaisers´ Year). Thus, one generation of ruling is skipped and with it, continuous development and experience. This gives Germany’s policy new aspects and direction. After a time of tension, Wilhelm II dismisses Bismarck. Wilhelm II has a different vision of what the foreign political role the Reich should be like. He handles the fragile construction of balanced power carelessly and clumsily. Germany tries to establish a colonial empire overseas out of old and new territories. Based on economic power, scientific and technical skill, an immense rearmament begins. Soon, the Kaiser manages to have Germany ready for war. For contact information, see contributors page. He will be willing to answer German history/geography inquiries only.