In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Wars of German Unification

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Otto Von Bismarck
  • Helmut von Moltke
  • Napoleon III
  • Public Opinion/Press
  • Staff Officers and Generals
  • Diplomats
  • Spanish Revolution of 1868
  • Danish War 1863–1864
  • Austro-Prussian War
  • Franco-Prussian War
  • Königgrätz
  • Sedan
  • Siege of Paris
  • Alsace-Lorraine
  • Metz
  • Bismarck vs. Moltke
  • Russian Reaction to the Outbreak of the Wars
  • Black Sea Crisis
  • Austria-Hungary
  • France
  • Germany
  • Great Britain
  • Italy
  • Russia
  • Impact of 1870

Military History Wars of German Unification
David Wetzel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0064


The German empire came into being as a result of three successful wars fought by Prussia between the years 1864 and 1871, and its creation is widely—and rightly—regarded as the greatest political and diplomatic event of the 19th century. As a result of these three wars, Prussia gained the mastery of Germany and assumed a position of unrivaled domination in the configuration of the great powers of Europe. The question of why Prussia expanded as fast as she did may be discussed in two contexts. The first context emphasizes economic factors and Prussia’s success in this area against the other powers, Austria most of all. By the mid-19th century, the Rhineland provinces given to Prussia in 1815 as a barrier against France had become an industrial powerhouse and the heartland of Germany’s economic strength. The second context stresses the weakness of Prussia and how this weakness was surmounted by very strong leaders who concentrated their attention on centralizing the government and building a strong army, with much of the state’s budget being devoted to its expansion. This army came to be regarded as the foundation of state power, its main line of defense, and its only true frontier. The second of these contexts constitutes the bulk of the literature on the wars of German unification, though the importance of the first cannot be denied.

General Overviews

A number of instructive overviews tackle, albeit from different angles, the problems the wars gave rise to. Hargreaves 1991 is a useful compendium of important documents. Showalter 1975 has no rival and is unlikely ever to have any. Showalter 2004 is no less significant a contribution, with extensive footnotes that form a guide to the historiography on the subject. Craig 1955 is a magisterial analysis from an author who is arguably the leading American historian of Germany in the 20th century, indispensable for its analysis of key actors. Walter 2003 accumulates valuable information on recruitment and presents it with flair and clarity. Hamerow 1969 focuses on the Prussian sociopolitical system on the eve of unification. Hamerow 1972 sees unification as the product of nationalism. Böhme 1971 stresses the importance of economic forcess—virtually to the exclusion of everything else. Carr 1991 is a brief, well-balanced, and reliable guide.

  • Böhme, Helmut, ed. The Foundation of the German Empire: Select Documents. Translated by Agatha Ramm. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

    English translation of Die Reichsgründung, first published in 1967. Sees unification overwhelmingly, indeed almost exclusively, as a reaction to the ebb and flow of middle-class economic pressures. Stirred a great controversy when first published.

  • Carr, William. The Origins of the Wars of German Unification. London: Longman, 1991.

    Draws the general outline clearly and competently. Short but rich bibliography makes the book ideal for classroom use.

  • Craig, Gordon A. The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.

    Classic work, exquisitely written. Particularly strong on political themes. Military institutions seen in terms of long historical trends and developments.

  • Hamerow, Theodore S. The Social Foundations of German Unification, 1858–1871. Vol. 1, Ideas and Institutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

    Historiography of the highest order, combining both reflection and erudition. Especially useful for long translations from contemporary records.

  • Hamerow, Theodore S. The Social Foundations of German Unification, 1858–1871. Vol. 2, Struggles and Accomplishments. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

    An indispensable account, strong on dissection of events and unrivaled in simplifying complex issues. Discusses wars against broad social, ideological, economic, and institutional backgrounds. Well-balanced narrative makes the book suitable for undergraduate courses.

  • Hargreaves, David. Bismarck and German Unification. Documents and Debates. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991.

    Compact survey. Illuminates diplomatic developments clearly. Valuable undergraduate resource.

  • Showalter, Dennis E. Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1975.

    Pathbreaking, painstaking analysis of how the Prussian army met the technological challenges of the industrial revolution. Many important revisionist theses. A model of insight, originality, and sheer intellectual firepower.

  • Showalter, Dennis E. The Wars of German Unification. London: Hodder Arnold, 2004.

    Incisive and comprehensive study containing important observations on issues debated by leading German authorities. Especially strong on development of strategy.

  • Walter, Dierk. Preussische Heeresreformen, 1807–1870: Militärische Innovation und der Mythos der “Roonschen Reform”. Paderborn, Germany: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2003.

    Definitive study on the subject, based on exhaustive research. Challenges the view that the army was isolated from rest of society.

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