Liberalism and Nationalism in Germany 1815-71: Economic foundations of the Zollverein

History – from ancient times to contemporary – provides considerable evidence in supporting the belief that economic necessity is the major precursor to social or political change. From ancient times where humans migrated to areas which were the most fertile and productive – fertilising culture and identity as well as the soil on which they farmed – through the Age of Empires and imperial conquest whereby vast swathes of territory were appropriated by (overwhelmingly European) powers for economic gain through to the present day system of global alliances and ‘unions’ based on trading relationships and economic co-operation, money has been what literally makes the ‘world go round.’ And so it was in 19th century, where the wheels of the Unification train were set in motion by the realisation that the German Confederation was wholly inefficient and divisive when it came to generating wealth and prosperity.

The situation is ìdepressing for [German] men who want to act and trade. With envious eyes they look across the Rhine river, where a large nation [i.e., France], from the Canal to the Mediterranean Sea, from the Rhine to the Pyrenees, from the border with the Netherlands to Italy, engages in trade on open rivers and roads without ever encountering a single customs official

Fredreich List, German Economist, 1820s
Reactionary and absolutist Prussia would not have been the first candidate to spring to minds of contemporary Germans of the time to the lead the movement for Unification

Had you suggested to a German liberal-nationalist in the 1820s that it would be the northern partner of the reactionary ‘Peaceful Dualism’ power-duo in Prussia which would be the cradle of German economic progressiveness and nascent Germanic national unit, they would have likely looked on you as one would an alien with 3 heads. Prussia was not a likely candidate to take the nationalist – let alone liberalist reforming – bulls by the horn and drag Germany kicking and screaming into the modern era of nation-states, but as it transpired their actions set the tone and the environment to ripe for such. having accrued additional territories along the Rhine in the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, the Prussians were frustrated by the multiple and multi-layered array of trading rules, restrictions and most importantly tariffs which they had to negotiate in trading with not only the western portion of their lands (along the Rhine) which were separate from the main Prussian territories but also their neighbouring – and still numerous with over 300 different administrative borders between different political entities – ‘German’ states. As the 2nd largest German state, and a nation which had designs on becoming a genuinely continental power after their success in the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia was acutely aware of these archaic and restrictive economic practices holding her ambitions and aspirations back, and took the lead in abolishing as many internal and pan-Germanic trade barriers as possible in the 1820s.

Whilst some of their fellow German states cast discretion and doubt on Prussia’s plans for economic integration – prophesizing (quite rightly!) that this would act as a precursor to political integration and ergo the end to their independence and sovereignty – and set up competing customs unions (an interesting comparison to this aspect of competition would be to compare to the explosion of railway companies at the dawn of the age of the railroad in both the UK and the US – everyone involved had the same goal and used the same resources and infrastructure – but yet competed with each other and sought to undermine rivals) to counter Prussia’s looming influence and power. Yet resistance was as they futile and eventually what was becoming – in relative terms – the Prussian economic behemoth swallowed them up into what has been described as ‘the most important regional free trade agreement of the 19th century’ – the Zollverein.

The Zollverein was perceived mostly positively by contemporary press of the time.

The Zollverein of 1834 was basically an expansionist version of the earlier Prussian customs unions which continued to grow and involve more and more German states as its economic – and social – benefits became ever more apparent. The success of the Zollverein put more money in the pockets of the average German citizen, standardised economic and customs processes and led to a growing feeling of Germanic cohesion and cooperation across the states. The Zollverein created a huge common market at the center of Europe, echoing much of what Europe as continent has aimed for much of the last 50 years!

The growth of the Zollverein outlined in terms of what states signed up and when. Very quickly it was clear it was better to be ‘in rather than out’ of it.

Naturally, as the instigator and ‘leader’ of this trading bloc, Prussia began to be held up by those with nationalist aspirations as the likely catalyst for any serious steps to be made in the process of German Unification. And within the Prussian corridors of power in Berlin itself, political leaders there saw the benefits the Zollverein offered in extending Prussian political influence across the German Confederation at the expense of Austria, those arch reactionaries and counter-‘everything’ who deemed the Zollverein dangerous and bad for Austrian business. Their policy of Germanic ‘isolationism’ and ‘protectionism’ left them aloof from much of the dynamics and process of change and progress within the rest of the German states, and despite their political influence still being pre-eminent through the 1840s would invariably be left behind as the German states embraced the industrial age, a fact exacerbated further with the explosion in railway building in the 1840s and 1850s.

The Zollverein and the dawning of the Industrial Age in Germany coincided almost perfectly

In summary, the Zollverein not only helped a pan-Germanic economy take root and flourish, it also helped nurture nascent ideas of German unification and progressive economic and political thought and practice whilst propelling Prussia to the forefront of German ‘leadership’ and consigning the reactionary Austrians to a long-term process of decline.

Key Takeaways from this section

Make sure you are secure in your knowledge of the following:

  • Problems facing trade and economic development within the German Confederation in the immediate aftermath of the Congress of Vienna
  • The appeal of customs unions – the Zollverein specifically – to Germans from all walks of life or political affiliations
  • Conversely, be aware of why the Zollverein was not welcomed by some and the existence of competing treaties / unions!
  • Explain the effects and consequences of the Zollverein in developing the German economy
  • As well as its influence and effect on German ideas of nationalism and even liberalism
  • How the coming of the Industrial Age – and in particular the railways – coincided with increased economic cooperation driven by the Zollverein and the combined effects on the prospects of German Unification

Please find associated resources and additional media links below!

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