Issues Relevant to U.S. Foreign Diplomacy: Unification of German States


When the United States announced its independence from Great Britain in 1776, Central Europe was a fragmented area of roughly 300 sovereign, independent states (kingdoms, duchies, principalities, free cities, etc.). The German states were bound together in a loose political entity known as the Holy Roman Empire, which dated to the era of Charlemagne in the 800s. By the late eighteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire was, as Voltaire remarked, “Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”

During the mid-eighteenth century, a rivalry developed between the Holy Roman Empire’s two largest (and strongest) states: the Kingdom of Austria, ruled by the Habsburgs, and the Kingdom of Prussia, ruled by the Hohenzollerns. Traditionally Austria was the dominant German state, and as such the Habsburg king was elected as the Holy Roman Emperor. This influence started to change in the 1740s when Prussia, strengthened by newly acquired lands and an enlarged military, began to challenge Austria’s hegemony. The Kingdom of Prussia was the first German state to officially recognize the United States in 1785 when it signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce; Austria did not recognize the United States until 1797, when it accepted Conrad Frederick Wagner as U.S. Consul at Trieste, a city then under the jurisdiction of the Habsburg Empire.

During the early nineteenth century, Napoleon’s armies occupied, moved through, or were allied with the German states. In 1806 the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, and when the Congress of Vienna met in 1814-15, a major question was what to do with Central Europe. The solution was to consolidate the German states and to create the German Confederation, a conglomeration of 39 states, including Austria and Prussia. The members of the German Confederation pledged to come to the aid of any member who was attacked by a foreign power; however, the confederation fell short of any economic or national unity. The first effort at striking some form of economic unification between the members of the German Confederation came with the 1834 establishment of the Zollverein customs union.

In the meantime, the effects of the First Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) began to take hold in Central Europe and North America. During this time there was increased emigration by Germans to the United States in search of greater economic opportunities as well as political, religious, and personal freedom. The combination of these two events propelled the first official acts of recognition between the United States and various smaller German states as they negotiated and signed treaties, conventions, and agreements to regulate trade, commerce, navigation, naturalization, and inheritance rights. In a few cases, the United States established diplomatic relations, such as with the Hanseatic League (the Free Cities of Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg) and the Kingdom of Baden.

The main issue that confronted the idea of German unification by the mid-nineteenth century was the idea of a “greater” Germany versus a “smaller” Germany. The concept of a “smaller” Germany was that a unified German entity should exclude Austria, while the idea of “greater" Germany was that Germany should include the Kingdom of Austria. Proponents of “smaller” Germany argued that Austria’s inclusion would only cause difficulties for German policy, as the Kingdom of Austria was part of the greater Austrian Empire, which included large swaths of land in Central and Southeastern Europe that was composed of nearly 15 different minorities. Those who favored “greater” Germany pointed to the traditional role played by Austria, which was mostly composed of Germans, and the Habsburg rulers in German affairs.

The first effort at unifying the German states came in the revolutionary year 1848. Once news of the February 1848 revolution in Paris spread, many felt that the time was finally at hand for German unification. Rural riots broke out in the weeks after February 1848 and spread to the urban areas. Throughout the German states revolutionaries advocated for freedom of the press, a national militia, a national German parliament, and trial by jury. Other ideas that were championed during the heady days of 1848 were the abolition of privilege of the aristocracy, the creation of constitutions in several of the German states, a more fair system of taxation, and freedom of religion.

On May 18, 1848, the German National Assembly met at Frankfurt am Main, representing the first assembly to be freely elected by the German people. Yet, despite the election of an imperial vice regent (Reichsverweser), the government was flawed from the beginning by its lack of a strong executive power. By the autumn of 1849 the revolution disintegrated and hope of fully unifying the German states was extinguished for the time being.

The next attempt at German unification, a successful one, was undertaken by Otto von Bismarck, the Prime Minister of Prussia. Bismarck was a proponent of “smaller” Germany, not to mention a master at the game of real-politik. German unification was achieved by the force of Prussia, and enforced from the top-down, meaning that it was not an organic movement that was fully supported and spread by the popular classes but instead was a product of Prussian royal policies.

The first war of German unification was the 1862 Danish War, begun over the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Bismarck allied with Austria to fight the Danes in a war to protect the interests of Holstein, a member of the German Confederation.

The second war of German unification was the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, which settled the question of “smaller” versus “greater” Germany. This brief war (fought over the course of mere weeks) pitted Prussia and her allies against Austria and other German states. Prussia won and directly annexed some of the German states that had sided with Austria (such as Hanover and Nassau). In an act of leniency, Prussia allowed some of the larger Austrian allies to maintain their independence, such as Baden and Bavaria. In 1867 Bismarck created the North German Confederation, a union of the northern German states under the hegemony of Prussia. Several other German states joined, and the North German Confederation served as a model for the future German Empire.

The third and final act of German unification was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, orchestrated by Bismarck to draw the western German states into alliance with the North German Confederation. With the French defeat, the German Empire was proclaimed in January 1871 in the Palace at Versailles, France. From this point forward, foreign policy of the German Empire was made in Berlin, with the German Kaiser (who was also the King of Prussia) accrediting ambassadors of foreign nations. Relations were severed when the U.S. declared war upon Imperial Germany in 1917.

Major Events

United States’ Recognition of the Federal German Republic, 1848.

On July 8, 1848, Secretary of State John M. Middleton informed U.S. Minister to Prussia Andrew J. Donelson, that the United States was prepared to recognize any unified, de facto German Government that “appeared capable of maintaining its power.” On August 9, 1848, Donelson was appointed as U.S. Minister to the German Federal Parliament at Frankfurt, and presented his credentials on September 13, 1848. However, the failure of this first experiment of German unification led to the U.S. recalling Donelson from service to the Federal German Republic on November 2, 1849. Donelson resumed his previous appointment as U.S. Minister to Prussia.

United States’ Recognition of the North German Union, 1867.

Following the establishment of the North German Confederation on July 1, 1867, on November 20, 1867, the U.S. Minister to Prussia, George Bancroft, informed Secretary of State William H. Seward that he had attended the opening of the North German Parliament. He requested, however, that the Secretary formally notify him of the intentions of the U.S. Government concerning the question of the recognition of the North German Confederation. On December 9, 1867, Secretary Seward approved of Bancroft’s decision to attend the opening of the North German Parliament since he was the officially-accredited U.S. Minister to the Prussian King Wilhelm I, who was also the hereditary President of the North German Confederation. Furthermore, Seward informed Bancroft that he would disseminate a description of the Confederation’s flag so that its ships would be welcomed in American waters. This exchange between Seward and Bancroft implicitly signified a formal recognition of the North German Confederation by the United States.

United States’ Recognition of the German Empire and Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, 1871.

Following the establishment of the German Empire on January 18, 1871, the United States recognized the new German Empire by changing the accreditation of its Minister to Prussia to become Minister to the German Empire. On April 8, 1871, U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Prussia George Bancroft presented the new German Emperor Wilhelm I (who was concurrently King of Prussia) with a letter from U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant dated March 16, 1871. The letter from the President congratulated the Emperor on his assumption of the German throne and recognized him as the head-of-state of a federal Germany.

Termination of Relations During the First World War, 1917.

Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 led to the termination of diplomatic relations between Imperial Germany and the United States. On February 3, 1917, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing informed the German Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Count Johann von Bernstorff, that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had severed diplomatic relations with Germany, that the U.S. Ambassador in Berlin (James W. Gerrard) had been withdrawn, and that the U.S. Government would be returning von Bernstorff’s passports.

U.S. Declaration of War Against Imperial Germany, 1917.

Following a series of attacks against American merchant ships on the high seas by German U-boats, on February, 24, 1917, the U.S. Ambassador in London, Walter Hines Pages, received the infamous “Zimmerman telegram” from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour. This led to the decision to abandon the plan to adopt “armed neutrality” by placing U.S. naval personnel on civilian ships to guard them against German attacks. On April 2, U.S. President Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany in order to make the world “safe for democracy.” Following the passage of a Joint Resolution by Congress on April 6, President Wilson issued on the same day a proclamation to the effect that a state of war existed between Germany and the United States.

Overall Impact upon U.S. Foreign Policy

The history of the establishment of recognitions (and relations, where applicable) between the United States and the German states impacted several different areas of policy, including:

Trade and Commerce. Although the Napoleonic period stunted the growth of industrialization in the German states during the early nineteenth century, by the 1820s and 1830s the industrialization process was underway, especially in areas such as Westphalia, the Rhineland, and Upper Silesia. It was also during this time that the first railways were built in the German lands, thus facilitating the transportation of goods to and from the main ports of Hamburg and Bremen. As a result, the German states (and after 1871, the German Empire) and the United States both sought to cultivate trade and commercial ties for mutual benefit.

Emigration, Citizenship, and Naturalization. In the nineteenth century, most German states (and later, the German Empire) had mandatory military service for all male subjects/citizens, whereas the United States did not have any such policy. One point of contention between the U.S. and some of the German states was whether German citizens were emigrating to the U.S. to obtain citizenship and then return to Central Europe and thus eschew military service. In 1868 U.S. Minister to Prussia and the North German Union George Bancroft negotiated a series of naturalization treaties that sought to close this loophole. See Bancroft Treaties for further information.

After the creation of the Second Reich in 1871 there were questions as to whether U.S. officials should abide by treaties concluded with individual states or with Prussia (the German Empire was considered the successor state to Prussia) in dealing with issues of trade, citizenship, or extradition. Two major principles guided U.S. foreign policy towards the German states. First, “where a State has lost its separate existence, as in the case of Hanover and Nassau, no questions can arise.” Second, “where no treaty has been negotiated with the Empire, the treaties with the various States which have preserved a separate existence have been resorted to.”

Although the Constitution of the German Empire of 1871 stipulated that the Empire was responsible for treaties, alliances, and representing the Empire, the smaller states still retained the right of legation. This included the right to legislate, to grant exequators to foreign consuls in their territories (though not to send German consuls abroad), and to enter into conventions with foreign nations as long as they did not concern matters already within the jurisdiction of the Empire or the Emperor.