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The North German Confederation (German: Norddeutscher Bund) was a federation of 22 independent states of northern Germany, with nearly 30 million inhabitants. It was the first modern German nation state and the basis for the later German Empire (1870/1871), when several south German states such as Bavaria joined. According to modern scholars the Confederation and the Empire are identical as a state, although technically the Empire was a new foundation.
After several unsuccessful proposals from several sides, to reform the German Confederation (founded in 1815), the North German major power Prussia left the German Confederation with some allies. It came to war between those states on one hand and states such as Austria on the other. After a quick decision in that Austro-Prussian War of July 1866, Prussia and its allies founded the North German Federation. First it was a military alliance between independent states (August-Bündnis), but already with the intention to form later a federation or confederation with a constitution. This was realised in 1867. The North German Confederation is historically important for the economic and judicial unification of Germany, many of its laws were taken over by the German Empire.
Until the constitution of 1867
In 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon, the German princes and free cities established the German Confederation as a loose successor of the former Holy Roman Empire. The sovereignty remained with the individual German states. There were several attempts to create a modern nation state, most prominently in the Revolution of 1848. A major issue in the struggle was the rivalry between Austria, the traditional principal power in Germany, and the ascending Prussia. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 demonstrated the military superiority of Prussia, led by its ingenious and energetic minister-president Otto von Bismarck.
After the war Prussia annexed most of its adversaries' territories north of the river Main, such as the Kingdom of Hanover, and with the other North German states it signed on 18 August the 'August treaties'. The alliance had 15 members then, with 80 percent of the inhabitants living in Prussia. A notable exclave of the North German Confederation was the Prussian territory of Hohenzollern in the south. Hesse-Darmstadt was part of the new Confederation only with its northern part. A South German Confederation, as mentioned in the peace of Prague, did not come to existence.
From the beginning the alliance was supposed to become a nation state with a federal constitution. On 15 December 1866, Bismarck presented a proposal to the representatives of the allied governments. Their complaints did not seriously alter the proposal. On 7 February 1867, the common proposal of the governments was ready. It was the intention not to impose the new constitution but to stipulate it together with a representation of the people. To this end a konstituierender North German parliament was elected on 12 February. This Norddeutscher Reichstag accepted the constitution, with relatively minor changes, on 16 April 1867. It became law on 1 July. Consequently, a new Reichstag was elected, the only one during the (following) existence of the North German Confederation. Bismarck became the first and only North German 'Bundeskanzler', the head of the executive.
Four years of legislation
The constitution opened the Confederation for the south German states to join. But in the situation of 1866/1867, France would not have accepted such an enlargement of Prussia's power. Bismarck, shortly after the war with Austria and amid negotiations about the constitution, could not afford a military conflict with France.
During the roughly four years of the North German Confederation its major action existed in legislation unifying Northern Germany. The Reichstag decided on laws concerning (e.g.):
- free movement of the citizens within the territory of the Confederation (1867)
- a common postal system (1867/1868)
- common passports (1867)
- the taking over of the Prussian military laws (1867)
- equal rights for the different denominations (1869)
The North German Confederation became a member of the Zollverein, the German customs union of 1834. After negotiations in 1867, on January 1, 1868 it was transformed to a closer organisation with new institutions: a council for the governments and a parliament. Bismarck hoped that the Zollverein might become the vehicle of German unification. But in the 1868 Zollverein elections the South Germans voted mainly for anti-Prussian parties.
Then, in mid 1870, a diplomatic crisis concerning the Spanish throne led eventually to the Franco-Prussian War. Still during the war, in November 1870, the North German Confederation and the south German states of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden (together with parts of the Grand Duchy of Hesse which had not originally joined the confederation) arranged a new nation state. It was called originally Deutscher Bund, like the old German Confederation, but this was changed soon to Deutsches Reich (German Empire). The constitution of the Empire, of April 16, 1871, was nearly identical with the one of the North German Confederation. The Empire even took over the North German Confederation's flag. A new Reichstag was elected already on March 3.
The North German Constitution of 16 April 1867, created a national parliament with universal suffrage (for men above the age of 25), the Reichstag. Another important organ was the Bundesrat, the 'federal council' of the representatives of the allied governments. To adopt a law, a majority in the Reichstag and in the Bundesrat was necessary. This gave the allied governments, meaning the states and their princes, an important veto.
Executive power was vested in a president, who was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him — an office that Bismarck designed with himself in mind. There was no formal government; the heads of the departments were not called ministers but secretaries. Those were installed and dismissed by the chancellor.
For all intents and purposes, the confederation was dominated by Prussia. It had four-fifths of the confederation's territory and population — more than the other 21 members combined. The presidency was a hereditary office of the Prussian crown. Bismarck was also foreign minister of Prussia, a post he held for virtually his entire career. In that role he instructed the Prussian deputies to the Bundesrat. Prussia only had 17 of 43 votes in the Bundesrat despite its size, but could easily get a majority by making alliances with the smaller states.
One of the functions of the confederation was to handle mail and issue postage stamps; for details, see postage stamps and postal history of the North German Confederation.
List of member states
|Grand duchies (Großherzogtümer)|
(Only Upper Hesse, the province north of the Main River)
|Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha)||Coburg|
|Reuss, junior line||Gera|
|Reuss, senior line||Greiz|
|Free Hanseatic cities (Freie Hansestädte)|
- Craig, Gordon A. Germany, 1866–1945 (1978) online edition
- Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany: 1840–1945 (1969) pp. 173–232
- Nipperdey, Thomas. Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck (1996), very dense coverage of every aspect of German society, economy and government
- Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany, Vol. 1: The Period of Unification, 1815–1871 (1971)
- Taylor, A.J.P. Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (1967) online edition
- An alternative translation is "North German Federation."
- Manfred Görtemaker: Deutschland im 19. Jahrhundert. Entwicklungslinien. Opladen 1983, p. 241.
- Manfred Görtemaker: Deutschland im 19. Jahrhundert. Entwicklungslinien. Opladen 1983, p. 244.