German Unification: Origins, causes and consequences of the historical event that upset the global geopolitical balance of the 19th and 20th centuries


To fully understand the true genesis of the German nation it is appropriate to understand the geopolitical dynamics of the geographical context corresponding to present-day Germany (to have a more complete picture of the “German” territorial context we are talking about it would be appropriate to observe in a historical atlas the territorial extension of the German Empire until 1914 or before the conclusion of the Second World War) from the formation of the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne up to the present day. Things that, for obvious reasons, we should explain in extreme summary. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the geopolitical reality of the German geographical context (as well as the French one) originates from the Frankish kingdom which took shape after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The extension of this geopolitical reality corresponded, roughly, to that of today’s France and to what, until 1989, was the German federal republic. The apogee of the Frankish kingdom was the reign of Charlemagne (who inaugurated the Carolingian dynasty) and expanded its borders eastward, making the Frankish kingdom the most important and powerful among the contemporary Roman-barbarian kingdoms. However, the size of which should not deceive us about its real strength and power. The economic and political structure of the latter was typically feudal and within it the figure of the King did not enjoy the right to impose himself on his vassals. The kingdom was therefore characterized by a profound political and administrative decentralization and on the basis of the Salic law (the law in force among the Franks) the figure of the King was elective and in fact under the control of the nobility against whom the sovereign could not substantially do nothing. These distinctive traits will remain much more ‘in the eastern part of the kingdom than in the western one when, on the basis of the patrimonial conception of power in vogue among the Franks, the latter was divided, after the death of Charlemagne, between the three sons of he. And this explains why political evolution in the French and “German” contexts will be, in the following centuries, very different and in some respects completely divergent. In the French context, the figure of the King saw a progressive strengthening after the year 1000 as a consequence of the reactivation of trade and the birth of the bourgeoisie. These factors will be fundamental to understand the process of strengthening the King towards his vassals and therefore the progressive centralization of power in the hands of the crown (since the King will be able to draw on taxes on trade and therefore replenish his finances to the point of form a caste of his own subordinates directly dependent on him as they are paid by him. In the German political context (i.e. that of the Holy Roman Empire or First Reich, whatever you prefer) the figure of the emperor will increasingly lose his prerogatives over the centuries after the year 1000 to the point that this office even became elective (and therefore not hereditary as in the French monarchy) and less and less relevant, and more and more involved in a conflict of power with the other “power universal”, that of the Pope, which will distract him from the specific interests of the German geopolitical context (this conflict arises from the interpenetration between the two “universal powers” when Charlemagne, in the year 800, demanded that his coronation be carried out by the Pope and legitimized by the same by initiating a practice that will be a harbinger of a secular power clash between the Empire and the Papacy). These dynamics highlight well why the German political, geopolitical and economic model maintained a medieval imprint much longer than in France. Determining a notable delay in the processes of social evolution (birth and affirmation of the bourgeoisie), economic (development of trade with consequent monetary circulation and accumulation of capital) and political (affirmation of a strong central power that could unite the action in a common direction of the various German principalities that constituted, de facto, the Holy Roman Empire). All this explains the backwardness of the Holy Roman Empire compared to the kingdom of France and why the reality of the national state matured first in France (where it took shape already during the 14th century) than in the German area (where only in the second half of the 20th century did it manage to materialize with German unification and the birth of the second German Reich).


The historical excursus just exposed is of fundamental importance to understand why the birth of the German nation occurred very late and why the German region remained in the Middle Ages (politically and economically understood) much longer than in other contexts European geopolitics (especially the French and English ones). The geopolitical context of the Holy Roman Empire remained static and almost unchanged until the emergence of the Prussian power which, during the 18th century, was able to establish itself as a great power in the geopolitical context of Central-Eastern Europe also thanks to an efficient army which allowed him to impose himself on the battlefields of half of Europe. This allowed it to increase its weight and influence throughout Central Europe and to have a leading role in the process of economic and political union of the various principalities of the Holy Roman Empire which then resulted, in 1871, in the birth of the German nation. The Zollverein (i.e. the customs union between the various geopolitical realities of the German geographical context) contributed essentially to this, favoring the economic development of the German area like never before. Prussia’s plans to expand its influence in the area found a strong obstacle in Austria’s geopolitical interests in the southern part of the Holy Roman Empire. A question that was resolved in the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 which led to the defeat of Vienna (in the battle of Sadowa the Prussian military superiority appeared in all its power) and its general weakening towards its powerful neighbor which, thanks to this victory was able to control all the states of central-northern Germany. But it was not enough to win the Austrian empire to unify the various Germanic principalities under a single flag. Even the France of Napoleon III looked with serious concern at the geopolitical developments that were maturing in the area of what was formally still the Holy Roman Empire of Germany (in the same way it looked with suspicion at the geopolitical developments of the Italian peninsula with the birth of a great nation that weakened its role and its power in the Mediterranean Sea) as the unification of the various principalities into a single nation would have given rise to a geopolitical reality that was strong enough to subvert the balance of power that then existed not only in Europe but also in the world. The conflict seemed obvious starting from 1967 following the birth of the North German Confederation and the Austrian defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1966 which now placed Prussia at the helm of the entire geopolitical context of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. Napoleon III realized the lethality of these geopolitical developments and contrasted them to the point of facing Prussia in a direct confrontation (the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71) which, however, Paris was not able to win, revealing its ‘inferiority’ of his army compared to the Prussian one. Prussia was therefore able, at that point, to unite all the German principalities into one powerful nation. So powerful as to constitute, a few years later, a mortal threat even for the “perfidious Albion” and its boundless empire.


The birth of the German Empire (or Second Reich, whatever you prefer) revolutionized not only the political map of Europe at the time but also the global geoeconomic reality and the existing geopolitical balances. In fact, Germany was the most populous nation on the European continent (and therefore the largest market on the old continent), its army appeared to be the most powerful in Europe, its economy was in full expansion (and already beginning of the 20th century, its industry established itself as the most productive and powerful in the entire European continent, superior even to that of England and inferior only to that of the USA). Its industrial development was so powerful that it pushed the German establishment to launch into a plan of colonial expansion which led it to occupy vast areas of Africa (Cameroon, Namibia and Tanzania) and the most remote archipelagos of Asia and ‘Oceania. This colonial expansion was dictated by the need not only to find raw materials to use in industrial processes but also to obtain outlet markets for its industrial output (so strong that it soon transcended the needs of the German internal market).Such a bold colonial initiative necessitated the construction of a powerless merchant and military fleet that placed Berlin in direct competition with London for control of the seas and world trade. This was the real trigger of the First World War which represented the showdown between German economic and military expansion and the English desire to reduce this expansion (to prevent Berlin from becoming so powerful as to replace London at the helm of the world ). In fact, all the other causes that contributed to the development of the war events (the French interest in Alsace-Lorraine lost in the Franco-Prussian war, the clash between Russia and Austria for the control of the Balkans and that between Russia and Turkey for the control of the Bosphorus) appear to be of regional and not global relevance. And they did not have the weight that the clash for control of the seas, maritime trade and, ultimately, for world power between the German and British empires had.


In this brief historical examination we have tried to highlight the origins, causes and consequences of German unification from an economic and geopolitical point of view to understand how, almost suddenly, in 1871, the world found itself with a new world superpower capable of significantly altering the balance of power that existed at the time. (a dynamic that is very reminiscent of what is happening nowadays with the rise of Chinese power on the global geopolitical scene). All this had the well-known consequences of the two German hegemonic attempts (which took place in the context of the two world wars of the 20th century). After all, it couldn’t have gone any other way. The German Empire immediately represented an existential threat to British hegemony. And this as a consequence of its military power (its army was the “direct heir” of Prussian militarism which had earned so much fame on the ground during the 18th and 19th centuries), of its economic-industrial strength (already at the beginning of the 900 German industrial production had largely surpassed that of England in heavy industry) and its aspirations to become a great naval and commercial power. All this left no room for negotiations with the Anglo-Saxon establishment. Who, in fact, waged war on his powerful rival and faced him within a specifically formed coalition of states (as always, moreover, from the 16th century onwards against anyone who opposed or threatened the hegemony of perfidious Albion). The rest is history.

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