German princes and resentment towards Prussia

The Napoleonic Wars

In the last decade of the 18th century, Napoleon’s forces were strong enough to conquer and control the whole of mainland Europe, including the numerous German states. He reorganised the ‘German’ lands to 39 larger states. He also established the Confederation of the Rhine, which brought further unification to the most influential German states.

The German princes organised military resistance. They promised their subjects constitutional government in the event of Napoleon’s defeat.

When Napoleon was defeated (firstly at Leipzig in 1813 and then at Waterloo in 1815), the German princes broke this promise.

The German princes did not feel long-lasting reform was necessary for their survival. They promised liberal reforms when it was politically useful. But they repeatedly reversed these decisions.

Map showing the Confederation of the RhineThe Confederation of the Rhine

Opposition to unification

The German princes felt threatened by unification:

  • their power was based on the idea of absolute control of their individual states
  • they saw their position as bestowed by God - they and their kin were the rightful rulers of the German states
  • liberal ideas would remove a great deal of their power
  • a written constitution and parliament elected by the people would shift policy away from their interests
  • they would lose their status in a unified Germany - only one prince could rule a united Germany with the rest subservient to him

Opposition to Prussia

Apart from Austria, Prussia was the strongest German state. It was the only state that showed any real ability to unite Germany. It was clear that unification would mean being ruled by the Prussian King. This was not acceptable to the other German princes. They felt threatened by Prussia’s strength, particularly its military strength.

In 1850, the German states sided with the Austrians as they reasserted power over Germany and re-established the German Confederation. This showed how opposed many German princes were to Prussia.