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North German Confederation

North German Confederation
Norddeutscher Bund




Flag Coat of arms
The North German Confederation (red). The southern German states that joined in 1870 to form the German Empire are in orange. Alsace-Lorraine, the territory annexed following the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, is in tan. The red territory in the South marks the original princedom of the House of Hohenzollern, rulers of the Kingdom of Prussia.
Capital Berlin
Languages German, Danish, Low German, Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Sorbian
Religion Majority:
Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed)
Political structure Federation
 •  1867–1871 William I
 •  1867–1871 Otto von Bismarck
Legislature Reichstag
 •  Federal Council Bundesrat
Historical era New Imperialism
 •  Confederation Treaty 18 August 1866
 •  Constitution adopted 16 April 1867
 •  Franco-Prussian War 19 July 1870
 •  Unification of Germany 18 January 1871
Currency Vereinsthaler
Today part of  Germany
 Czech Republic
The North German Confederation (borders in red; Kingdom of Prussia in blue).

The North German Confederation (German: Norddeutscher Bund[1]) was a federation of 22 previously 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 (1871–1918), when several south German states such as Bavaria joined.

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 the Austro-Prussian War of July 1866, Prussia and its allies founded the North German Federation. At first, it was a military alliance between independent states (August-Bündnis), but the states already had 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.


  • History 1
    • Until the constitution of 1867 1.1
    • Four years of legislation 1.2
    • German Empire 1.3
  • Political system 2
  • Postage stamps 3
  • List of member states 4
  • See also 5
  • Further reading 6
  • References 7


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 North German Confederation Treaty. 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 into 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.[2]

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)
  • Prussian military laws replacing local military regulation (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 1 January 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.

German Empire

In mid-1870, a diplomatic crisis concerning the Spanish throne led eventually to the Franco-Prussian War.[3] 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) united to form a new nation state. It was originally called Deutscher Bund (German Confederation), but on 10 December 1870 the Reichstag of the North German Confederation adopted the name Deutsches Reich (German Realm or German Empire) and granted the title of German Emperor to the King of Prussia as President of the Confederation.[4] During the Siege of Paris on 18 January 1871, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.[5] The 16 April 1871 constitution of the Empire was nearly identical to that of the North German Confederation and the Empire adopted the North German Confederation's flag. A new Reichstag was elected on 3 March 1871.

Political system

First session of the (then still provisional) Reichstag on the 24 February 1867

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, a hereditary office of the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling family of Prussia. He was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him — an office that Bismarck designed with himself in mind. There was no formal cabinet; 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 had 17 of 43 votes in the Bundesrat despite being by far the largest state, but could easily get a majority by making alliances with the smaller states.

North German 7-kreuzer stamp, 1868

Postage stamps

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

State Capital
Kingdoms (Königreiche)
Prussia (Preußen)
(including Lauenburg)
Saxony (Sachsen) Dresden
Grand Duchies (Großherzogtümer)
Hesse (Hessen)
(Only Upper Hesse, the province north of the River Main)
Mecklenburg-Schwerin Schwerin
Mecklenburg-Strelitz Neustrelitz
Oldenburg Oldenburg
Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach) Weimar
Duchies (Herzogtümer)
Anhalt Dessau
Brunswick (Braunschweig) Braunschweig
Saxe-Altenburg (Sachsen-Altenburg) Altenburg
Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha) Coburg
Saxe-Meiningen (Sachsen-Meiningen) Meiningen
Principalities (Fürstentümer)
Lippe Detmold
Reuss-Gera (Junior Line) Gera
Reuss-Greiz (Senior Line) Greiz
Schaumburg-Lippe Bückeburg
Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt Rudolstadt
Schwarzburg-Sondershausen Sondershausen
Waldeck-Pyrmont Arolsen
Free and Hanseatic Cities (Freie und Hansestädte)

See also

Further reading

  • Craig, Gordon A. Germany, 1866–1945 (1978) pp 11-22 online edition
  • Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany: 1840–1945 (1969) pp. 173–232
  • Hudson, Richard. "The Formation of the North German Confederation." Political Science Quarterly (1891) 6#3 pp: 424-438. in JSTOR
  • Nipperdey, Thomas. Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck: 1800-1866 (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


  1. ^ An alternative translation is "North German Federation."
  2. ^ Manfred Görtemaker: Deutschland im 19. Jahrhundert. Entwicklungslinien. Opladen 1983, p. 241.
  3. ^ Manfred Görtemaker: Deutschland im 19. Jahrhundert. Entwicklungslinien. Opladen 1983, p. 244.
  4. ^ Case, Nelson (1902). European Constitutional History. Cincinnati: Jennings & Pye. pp. 139–140.  
  5. ^ Case 1902, p. 140

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