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National consciousness

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National consciousness

German States 1815

Boundary of the German Empire, the Prussian territory and the other German states, 1815
In 1815 Europe had just defeated Napoleon. Germany, as we know it, did not exist. There were 39 German states, each ruled by its own prince. They joined in the German Confederation (Bund) which aimed to protect its members and give Germany a stronger voice in Europe. It had a parliament or Diet but it did not achieve much because decisions had to be unanimous and political divisions meant this was hard to achieve.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the populations of these separate states began to develop a sense they were not just citizens of their own individual states but part of a German volk (people). They realised they had much in common.

Cultural nationalism

  • All of these 39 states spoke the same language and shared similar customs.
  • They had a common culture and shared the same taste in literature and music.
  • Writers such as Hegel, Goethe and Schiller recognised common German characteristics - things that identified a person as German. Here were the beginnings of a German identity.

Military necessity

After Napoleon had conquered the German states after 1805, the 39 states realised that being small and politically divided meant to be vulnerable to strong aggressors. The states realised they needed each other for common defence.

  • The German princes stirred up nationalistic feelings in the German population to help raise armies to drive Napoleon's forces out of German territory.
  • The lessons learned by defeat to Napoleon, and the strong nationalism that was stirred up to finally drive him out, helped strengthen the sense of a common German identity with common goals.

Economic nationalism

Industrialisation was gaining pace in Germany. Businessmen wanted to increase the markets available for their goods to maximise profits. Most existing trade was between the 39 states but developing this was hampered by tariff barriers. A single Germany without so many taxes and tariffs would help trade and increase prosperity.

  • In 1818 Prussia, the largest and most powerful German state, scrapped its trade tariffs between its own territories.
  • The following year, it offered an economic alliance (Zollverein) with similar trade concessions to other German states.
  • By 1836, 25 other German states had joined this economic alliance. Prussia developed its road and rail networks to maximise trade opportunities. This economic co-operation was so successful it made people think of political union.
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