Crucially, both the Wartburg rally in 1817 and the Hambach Festival in 1832 had lacked any clear-cut program of unification. At Hambach, the positions of the many speakers illustrated their disparate agendas. Held together only by the idea of unification, their notions of how to achieve this did not include specific plans but instead rested on the nebulous idea that the Volk (the people), if properly educated, would bring about unification on their own. Grand speeches, flags, exuberant students, and picnic lunches did not translate into a new political, bureaucratic, or administrative apparatus. While many spoke about the need for a constitution, no such document appeared from the discussions. In 1848, nationalists sought to remedy that problem.
German revolutions of 1848 and the Frankfurt Parliament
Pre-parliament delegates processing into Paul's Church in Frankfurt, where they laid the groundwork for electing a National Parliament
The widespread—mainly German—revolutions of 1848–49 sought unification of Germany under a single constitution. The revolutionaries pressured various state governments, particularly those in the Rhineland, for a parliamentary assembly that would have the responsibility to draft a constitution. Ultimately, many of the left-wing revolutionaries hoped this constitution would establish universal male suffrage, a permanent national parliament, and a unified Germany, possibly under the leadership of the Prussian king. This seemed to be the most logical course since Prussia was the strongest of the German states, as well as the largest in geographic size. Generally, center-right revolutionaries sought some kind of expanded suffrage within their states and potentially, a form of loose unification. Their pressure resulted in a variety of elections, based on different voting qualifications, such as the Prussian three-class franchise, which granted to some electoral groups—chiefly the wealthier, landed ones—greater representative power.
On 27 March 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament passed the Paulskirchenverfassung (Constitution of St. Paul's Church) and offered the title of Kaiser (Emperor) to the Prussian king Frederick William IV the next month. He refused for a variety of reasons. Publicly, he replied that he could not accept a crown without the consent of the actual states, by which he meant the princes. Privately, he feared opposition from the other German princes and military intervention from Austria or Russia. He also held a fundamental distaste for the idea of accepting a crown from a popularly elected parliament: he would not accept a crown of "clay". Despite franchise requirements that often perpetuated many of the problems of sovereignty and political participation liberals sought to overcome, the Frankfurt Parliament did manage to draft a constitution and reach an agreement on the kleindeutsch solution. While the liberals failed to achieve the unification they sought, they did manage to gain a partial victory by working with the German princes on many constitutional issues and collaborating with them on reforms.
1848 and the Frankfurt Parliament in retrospective analysis
Scholars of German history have engaged in decades of debate over how the successes and failures of the Frankfurt Parliament contribute to the historiographical explanations of German nation building. One school of thought, which emerged after The Great War and gained momentum in the aftermath of World War II, maintains that the failure of German liberals in the Frankfurt Parliament led to bourgeoisie compromise with conservatives (especially the conservative Junker landholders), which subsequently led to the so-called Sonderweg (distinctive path) of 20th-century German history. Failure to achieve unification in 1848, this argument holds, resulted in the late formation of the nation-state in 1871, which in turn delayed the development of positive national values. Hitler often called on the German public to sacrifice all for the cause of their great nation, but his regime did not create German nationalism: it merely capitalized on an intrinsic cultural value of German society that still remains prevalent even to this day. Furthermore, this argument maintains, the "failure" of 1848 reaffirmed latent aristocratic longings among the German middle class; consequently, this group never developed a self-conscious program of modernization.
More recent scholarship has rejected this idea, claiming that Germany did not have an actual "distinctive path" any more than any other nation, a historiographic idea known as exceptionalism. Instead, modern historians claim 1848 saw specific achievements by the liberal politicians. Many of their ideas and programs were later incorporated into Bismarck's social programs (e.g., social insurance, education programs, and wider definitions of suffrage). In addition, the notion of a distinctive path relies upon the underlying assumption that some other nation's path (in this case, the United Kingdom's) is the accepted norm. This new argument further challenges the norms of the British-centric model of development: studies of national development in Britain and other "normal" states (e.g., France or the United States) have suggested that even in these cases, the modern nation-state did not develop evenly. Nor did it develop particularly early, being rather a largely mid-to-late-19th-century phenomenon. Since the end of the 1990s, this view has become widely accepted, although some historians still find the Sonderweg analysis helpful in understanding the period of National Socialism.
Problem of spheres of influence: The Erfurt Union and the Punctation of Olmütz
This depiction of Germania, also by Philipp Veit, was created to hide the organ of the Paul's Church in Frankfurt, during the meeting of the Parliament there, March 1848–49. The sword was intended to symbolize the Word of God and to mark the renewal of the people and their triumphant spirit.
After the Frankfurt Parliament disbanded, Frederick William IV, under the influence of General Joseph Maria von Radowitz, supported the establishment of the Erfurt Union—a federation of German states, excluding Austria—by the free agreement of the German princes. This limited union under Prussia would have almost entirely eliminated Austrian influence on the other German states. Combined diplomatic pressure from Austria and Russia (a guarantor of the 1815 agreements that established European spheres of influence) forced Prussia to relinquish the idea of the Erfurt Union at a meeting in the small town of Olmütz in Moravia. In November 1850, the Prussians—specifically Radowitz and Frederick William—agreed to the restoration of the German Confederation under Austrian leadership. This became known as the Punctation of Olmütz, but among Prussians it was known as the "Humiliation of Olmütz."
Although seemingly minor events, the Erfurt Union proposal and the Punctation of Olmütz brought the problems of influence in the German states into sharp focus. The question became not a matter of if but rather when unification would occur, and when was contingent upon strength. One of the former Frankfurt Parliament members, Johann Gustav Droysen, summed up the problem:
We cannot conceal the fact that the whole German question is a simple alternative between Prussia and Austria. In these states, German life has its positive and negative poles—in the former, all the interests [that] are national and reformative, in the latter, all that are dynastic and destructive. The German question is not a constitutional question but a question of power; and the Prussian monarchy is now wholly German, while that of Austria cannot be.
Unification under these conditions raised a basic diplomatic problem. The possibility of German (or Italian) unification would overturn the overlapping spheres of influence system created in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna. The principal architects of this convention, Metternich, Castlereagh, and Tsar Alexander (with his foreign secretary Count Karl Nesselrode), had conceived of and organized a Europe balanced and guaranteed by four "great powers": Great Britain, France, Russia, and Austria, with each power having a geographic sphere of influence. France's sphere included the Iberian Peninsula and a share of influence in the Italian states. Russia's included the eastern regions of Central Europe and a balancing influence in the Balkans. Austria's sphere expanded throughout much of the Central European territories formerly held by the Holy Roman Empire. Britain's sphere was the rest of the world, especially the seas.
This sphere of influence system depended upon the fragmentation of the German and Italian states, not their consolidation. Consequently, a German nation united under one banner presented significant questions. There was no readily applicable definition for who the German people would be or how far the borders of a German nation would stretch. There was also uncertainty as to who would best lead and defend "Germany", however it was defined. Different groups offered different solutions to this problem. In the Kleindeutschland ("Lesser Germany") solution, the German states would be united under the leadership of the Prussian Hohenzollerns; in the Grossdeutschland ("Greater Germany") solution, the German states would be united under the leadership of the Austrian Habsburgs. This controversy, the latest phase of the German dualism debate that had dominated the politics of the German states and Austro-Prussian diplomacy since the 1701 creation of the Kingdom of Prussia, would come to a head during the following twenty years.
External expectations of a unified Germany
Other nationalists had high hopes for the German unification movement, and the frustration with lasting German unification after 1850 seemed to set the national movement back. Revolutionaries associated national unification with progress. As Giuseppe Garibaldi wrote to German revolutionary Karl Blind on 10 April 1865, "The progress of humanity seems to have come to a halt, and you with your superior intelligence will know why. The reason is that the world lacks a nation [that] possesses true leadership. Such leadership, of course, is required not to dominate other peoples but to lead them along the path of duty, to lead them toward the brotherhood of nations where all the barriers erected by egoism will be destroyed." Garibaldi looked to Germany for the "kind of leadership [that], in the true tradition of medieval chivalry, would devote itself to redressing wrongs, supporting the weak, sacrificing momentary gains and material advantage for the much finer and more satisfying achievement of relieving the suffering of our fellow men. We need a nation courageous enough to give us a lead in this direction. It would rally to its cause all those who are suffering wrong or who aspire to a better life and all those who are now enduring foreign oppression."
German unification had also been viewed as a prerequisite for the creation of a European federation, which Giuseppe Mazzini and other European patriots had been promoting for more than three decades:
In the spring of 1834, while at Berne, Mazzini and a dozen refugees from Italy, Poland and Germany founded a new association with the grandiose name of Young Europe. Its basic, and equally grandiose idea, was that, as the French Revolution of 1789 had enlarged the concept of individual liberty, another revolution would now be needed for national liberty; and his vision went further because he hoped that in the no doubt distant future free nations might combine to form a loosely federal Europe with some kind of federal assembly to regulate their common interests. [...] His intention was nothing less than to overturn the European settlement agreed [to] in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, which had reestablished an oppressive hegemony of a few great powers and blocked the emergence of smaller nations. [...] Mazzini hoped, but without much confidence, that his vision of a league or society of independent nations would be realized in his own lifetime. In practice Young Europe lacked the money and popular support for more than a short-term existence. Nevertheless he always remained faithful to the ideal of a united continent for which the creation of individual nations would be an indispensable preliminary.
The convergence of leadership in politics and diplomacy by Bismarck, left, reorganization of the army and its training techniques by Albrecht von Roon (center), and the redesign of operational and strategic principles by Helmuth von Moltke (right) placed Prussia among the most powerful states in European affairs after the 1860s.
King Frederick William IV suffered a stroke in 1857 and could no longer rule. This led to his brother William becoming Prince Regent of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1858. Meanwhile, Helmuth von Moltke had become chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857, and Albrecht von Roon would become Prussian Minister of War in 1859. This shuffling of authority within the Prussian military establishment would have important consequences. Von Roon and William (who took an active interest in military structures) began reorganizing the Prussian army, while Moltke redesigned the strategic defense of Prussia by streamlining operational command. Prussian army reforms (especially how to pay for them) caused a constitutional crisis beginning in 1860 because both parliament and William—via his minister of war—wanted control over the military budget. William, crowned King Wilhelm I in 1861, appointed Otto von Bismarck to the position of Minister-President of Prussia in 1862. Bismarck resolved the crisis in favor of the war minister.
The Crimean War of 1854–55 and the Italian War of 1859 disrupted relations among Great Britain, France, Austria, and Russia. In the aftermath of this disarray, the convergence of von Moltke's operational redesign, von Roon and Wilhelm's army restructure, and Bismarck's diplomacy influenced the realignment of the European balance of power. Their combined agendas established Prussia as the leading German power through a combination of foreign diplomatic triumphs—backed up by the possible use of Prussian military might—and an internal conservatism tempered by pragmatism, which came to be known as Realpolitik.
Bismarck expressed the essence of Realpolitik in his subsequently famous "Blood and Iron" speech to the Budget Committee of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies on 30 September 1862, shortly after he became Minister President: "The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood." Bismarck's words, "iron and blood" (or "blood and iron", as often attributed), have often been misappropriated as evidence of a German lust for blood and power. First, the phrase from his speech "the great questions of time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions" is often interpreted as a repudiation of the political process—a repudiation Bismarck did not himself advocate. Second, his emphasis on blood and iron did not imply simply the unrivaled military might of the Prussian army but rather two important aspects: the ability of the assorted German states to produce iron and other related war materials and the willingness to use those war materials if necessary.