Chapter 20 Nation-States and Empires in Europe: 1814-1914

Section 2 New Nation-States: Italy and Germany

Only 15 years after the Congress of Vienna, a tired Metternich despaired that “the old Europe is nearing its end.”[27] Despite his efforts to stifle change, the old order had been destroyed beyond repair. Europeans of all classes were growing more nationalistic. Liberalism, which emphasized individual rights, was becoming too strong to ignore or repress. Many Europeans—especially Italians and Germans—began to see the nation-state as the best way to guarantee individual liberties and national prosperity. 

The Growth of Italian Nationalism

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula had been divided into a multitude of states, some relatively large and some as small as single cities. Each had its own form of government and economy, its own peculiar dialect, and its own traditions and customs. Over the centuries, this tapestry had shifted and changed, as larger stronger states gobbled up their neighbors, or invading foreign powers like France, Spain and Austria had staked out their own claims to Italian territories. Rome itself, along with large territories in central Italy, known as the Papal States, were considered the property of the Church and were ruled by the pope.

            During his campaigns in Italy, Napoleon had united many of these Italian states into the kingdom of Italy. After his final defeat, however, in an effort to restore the pre-revolutionary status quo, the Congress of Vienna had restored to power most of the displaced rulers of these states, leaving Italy once again divided. After Austria took over Lombardy and Venetia, Italian nationalism grew in opposition to Austrian rule.

            Many thinkers and writers revived interest in Italy’s rich cultural traditions. For example, they resurrected Dante’s classic Divine Comedy, the first book to be written in the Italian vernacular, or common language. In his poem “To Italy,” Giacomo Leopardi compared “the columns and altars, the statues/And towers our ancestors built” to Italy's present “wounded and bruised,/And bleeding” state.[28] Leopardi and other writers called for Italians to join together and liberate Italy from foreign rule. This nationalistic movement became known as the Risorgimento, or “resurgence.”

            Many nationalists formed secret societies to promote their cause. The Carbonari, or “charcoal-burners,” plotted to overthrow the Austrians. Although they attracted many regional supporters, the Carbonari never united on a national scale.

            More significant was the Young Italty movement launched in 1831 by the eloquent writer Giuseppe Mazzini. Though exiled for his outspoken nationalism, Mazzini smuggled his patriotic pamphlets into Italy. Mazzini's Young Italy became such a threat to existing governments that the Austrians declared its members could be sentenced to death if caught.

            Many Italian states opposed unification because they did not want to give up their power to a central government. The Papal States, ruled by the Catholic Church from Rome, regarded liberal reformers as enemies of the church. However, when liberal revolution spread throughout Europe in 1848, Italian nationalists led rebellions of their own. After Austrian troops withdrew from Lombardy to put down a revolt in Vienna, rioting began in Milan. The Austrian military commander Marshal Radetzky confessed “I can no longer hold Milan. The whole country is in revolt.”[29]

            Other rebellions forced the rulers of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and Tuscany to grant constitutions. Revolutionaries seized Rome in 1849 and set up a republic that Mazzini and two other leaders governed. All but one of these revolutionary movements soon failed. Austrian troops recaptured Lombardy, and French troops helped the pope regain control of Rome. The revolt succeeded only in Sardinia, which remained independent.

Italian Unification

Despite the failure of the revolts of 1848 and 1849, Italian patriots continued to work for a unified nation. However, they could not agree on how to achieve unity. Many Italians wanted a federation of states headed by the pope. Liberals wanted a republic. Others wanted a constitutional monarchy under King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia. 

Cavour and Sardinia. One of the main architects of Italian unification was the Count di Cavour [kah-voor],[30] the prime minister of Sardinia since 1852. Though initially not a supporter of unification, Cavour resented the Austrian occupation of Italy and dreamed of a Sardinia strong enough to drive out the Austrians.

            Cavour firmly believed that “the political resurrection of a nation can never be separated from its economic resurrection.”[31] Thus, he worked to improve the economy by funding railroad construction, encouraging industrialization, and negotiating free-trade agreements. Cavour also reorganized and strengthened the Sardinian army. By 1859 he had won a powerful ally when France agreed to aid Sardinia in its planned war against Austria. In return, Sardinia agreed to give France control of Savoy and Nice. 

Garibaldi and the Red Shirts. Italians consider Cavour the “brain” of Italian unification and Mazzini its “heart.” Equally important, however, was Giuseppe Garibaldi, who has been dubbed the “sword” of Italy.[32] Garibaldi had joined Mazzini's Young Italy movement in 1834, but because of his nationalistic activities, he was forced to flee to South America twice.[33]

            After Garibaldi’s final return to Italy in 1859, Cavour summoned him to Sardinia. Cavour asked Garibaldi to lead an army of volunteers in the upcoming war with Austria. Realizing that only Sardinia could lead the other Italian states to unity, Garibaldi agreed. After a few months of bitter fighting, Austria agreed to cede Lombardy to Sardinia, while keeping Venetia.

            Garibaldi and his followers (known as the Red Shirts because of their colorful uniforms) next aided rebels fighting against Bourbon rule in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Instructing the Sicilians to “harass the enemy in any way possible,”[34] Garibaldi waged guerilla warfare against the Bourbon troops. By July 1860, the Red Shirts controlled the island of Sicily. They then crossed to the mainland. Meanwhile, Cavour had annexed the small kingdoms of central Italy. In September, these Sardinian troops marched south and helped Garibaldi conquer Naples. 

The Kingdom of Italy. With the Red Shirts in control of the whole kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Garibaldi offered the territory to King Victor Emmanuel. The newly united territories throughout Italy held elections in 1861, and all agreed to unification. “Our country is…no longer the field for every foreign ambition,” rejoiced Victor Emmanuel. “It becomes, henceforth, the Italy of the Italians.”[35]

            The only holdouts were Venetia, which still belonged to Austria, and the Papal States, where French troops supported the pope. When the Seven Weeks' War broke out between Austria and Prussia in 1866, the Italians sided with the Prussians. Austria was defeated, and Prussia rewarded its Italian ally with Venetia. In 1870, war between France and Prussia forced the French to withdraw their troops from Rome. In September 1870 Italian troops entered Rome thus completing the unification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel.

The Growth of German Nationalism

Like Italy before unification, Germany in the early 1800s was a patchwork of independent states. However, Germany's long history of interference by France helped spark German nationalism. Napoleon unwittingly nurtured nationalism when he united the German states into the Confederation of the Rhine. After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna retained Napoleon's Rhine Confederation but renamed it the German Confederation. In addition, the Congress of Vienna gave Prussia new territory that would soon make it a dominant power in the confederation. 

The Zollverein. The first major step toward German unity after the Congress of Vienna involved the economy. The tariffs that each state levied made movement of goods from one German state to another extremely difficult. The Junkers [yoong-kuhrz]—the aristocratic landowners of Prussia—complained that the tariffs increased the prices of their farm goods so much that they reduced the amounts sold.

            In 1818 the Junkers persuaded the king of Prussia to abolish all tariffs within his territories. Soon, Prussia and other German states eliminated tariffs by setting up the Zollverein, or customs union. By 1844 it included almost all of the German states. Though the Zollverein had no immediate political effects, it inspired business people to support German unification. Friedrich von Motz, the Prussian finance minister, predicted in 1829 that “the unification of these states in a customs or commercial union will lead to one and the same political system.”[36] 

German liberalism. Some of the strongest calls for political unification came from liberals. Though liberals differed over whether to support a republic or a constitutional monarchy, they agreed that German unity would promote individual rights and liberal reforms. In 1848, liberalism reached the peak of its popularity. As revolution swept through Europe, German liberals seized the opportunity to revolt.

            When the people of Berlin learned that Metternich had been ousted in Vienna, they encircled the royal palace to hear the Prussian king’s response. The crowd erupted when edgy soldiers fired shots. Berliners set up barricades and forced the royal soldiers to retreat. The king gave in to nationalist demands and proclaimed, “From now on Prussia merges with Germany!”[37] However, the king soon reasserted his power. German unification would be accomplished not by revolution, but by the policies of a king and his powerful chancellor. 

Bismarck and Prussian imperialism. [BIO] The upheavals of 1848 gave Otto von Bismarck, a Junker and a politician, his first taste of power. Born in 1815, Bismarck was catapulted into Prussian national politics when he gave a staunchly conservative speech at the national assembly in 1847. Bismarck soon became leader of the conservative politicians who supported the king and opposed the liberal revolution of 1848.

            In 1862, William I, the new Prussian king, appointed Bismarck head of the Prussian cabinet. Bismarck believed it was Prussia's destiny to lead the German people to unification. Bismarck practiced what would later be called Realpolitik (ray-ahl-poh-li-teek), or “realistic politics.” He pursued policies based on Prussian interests rather than on ideals. As a pragmatist and man of action, Bismarck argued for the buildup up the Prussian military: 

“Prussia must build up and preserve her strength for the favorable moment which has already come and gone many times. Her borders under the treaty of Vienna are not favorable for the healthy existence of the state. The great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by blood and iron.”[38] 

            When the Prussian parliament refused to approve the money for military expansion, Bismarck simply dismissed the assembly and collected the taxes without the parliament's approval. Bismarck and his generals proceeded to build the Prussian army into a great war machine that would soon use “blood and iron” to forcibly unite the German states under Prussia.

Unification of Germany

To increase the power and size of Prussia, Bismarck had to overcome two major obstacles. First, he had to drive Austria out of its position of leadership within the German Confederation. Second, he had to overcome Austria's influence over the southern German states, which opposed Prussian leadership. He accomplished these objectives in two wars: the Seven Weeks' War, and the Franco-Prussian War.

            Bismarck first maneuvered to drive Austria out of the German Confederation. He persuaded Napoleon III of France to remain neutral if war broke out between the German powers, then Bismarck formed an alliance with Italy. Next, he provoked Austria into declaring war on Prussia in 1866. The superbly trained and equipped Prussian army defeated the Austrians in only seven weeks. The treaty ending the Seven Weeks' War dissolved the German Confederation and forced Austria to surrender the northern German state of Holstein to Prussia. When several other northern states united with Prussia the next year, only three southern states remained outside Prussian control.

            Bismarck decided that he could annex the southern states by provoking war with his recent ally France. When France declared war on Prussia in 1870, Bismarck persuaded the southern German states to join Prussia against the land-hungry French. With their help, Bismarck secured a Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War. In the peace settlement, France lost Alsace and part of Lorraine and had to pay a huge indemnity, or payment for damages.

            Through "blood and iron," Bismarck had weakened Austria and united the German states. On January 18, 1871, representatives of the allied German states met at Versailles, near Paris. With the polished swords of the army officers glinting off the mirrored walls, King William I of Prussia was proclaimed Kaiser, or emperor, of the German Empire. Bismarck was named chancellor, a post he would hold until 1890.

Section 2 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:


Franco-Prussian War





Seven Weeks’ War


LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:



Papal States



1.      MAIN IDEA  What were the goals of the Italian nationalists?

2.      MAIN IDEA  How did Prussia bring about German unification?

3.      GEOGRAPHY  Which country—Italy or Germany—do you think had the most significant geographic obstacles to overcome to achieve unification?

4.      WRITING TO PERSUADE  Imagine that you are a member of Young Italy. Prepare a poster with a short paragraph describing your goals for Italy.