Who ruled Germany in the 19th century?

Berlin 1900, National Parliament Building and Victory Column (PD-EXP)

For the first few years of the 19th century, it looked as though Napoleon would rule Germany, maybe establishing a French Empire in Europe.

When the century began, France already had control over the German area west of the Rhine. In 1801 the Kaiser and the Holy Roman Empire signed the Peace Treaty of Lunéville, ceding this territory to France. The formalities of the treaty had to be settled within the Empire, since the treaty foresaw compensation for the German principalities that had lost territory.

This was agreed in 1803 by the “Principal Conclusion of the Extraordinary Imperial Delegation” (that is just one word in German: Reichsdeputationshauptschluss). The compensation was achieved by secularization of ecclesiastical properties and mediatization of smaller principalities. Mediatization meant that the territories of these principalities would be annexed by larger neighboring principalities. To some degree, the losers were compensated to provide them with a living, but they lost their membership in the Empire. A few of the “winners” ended up ruling much greater territory than they had had before.

In prior centuries, the Kaiser had vested temporal authority on many bishoprics, abbeys and convents, thus giving them representation in the Empire, but this was withdrawn as they lost control of their in some cases significant territorial holdings, which were passed to principalities or sold. They were also compensated to some extent, the new holders being obligated to provide pensions and maintain religious buildings (even to the present for churches in some areas). This all took a couple of years, eliminating many of the once more than 350 principalities of the Empire.

In 1804, the French Senate changed the constitution, declaring Napoleon and his heirs to be French emperor. He demanded recognition of this by the Franz II, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, whose reluctance led to the risk of another war. To avoid this, Franz II established the Austrian Empire to assure his role as Kaiser (as Franz I of the new entity) over territories not in direct contact with France. He had a long list of lesser titles for his personal rule of individual territories.

In 1806, he abdicated as Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire and disbanded it, freeing the principalities of their allegiance to him.

Napoleon immediately began to consolidate the principalities in the west of Germany that joined his Confederation of the Rhine. He “promoted” the dukes of Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg to kings and installed his brother Jérôme as King of Westphalia. (Did that make Napoleon a more important emperor than the kaiser, having four kings in his empire?) By the time he was defeated, there were less than 50 principalities and Free Cities (those with some form of democratic rule and independent of a principality).

After Napoleon had been exiled to the Island of Elbe in 1814, the powers of Europe met in the Congress of Vienna to settle the many issues arising from almost 25 years of war and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Every country affected by the Napoleonic Wars and representatives of the princely houses attended, more than 200—including Tallyrand for France. The Congress met from November until June 1815, the “Final Act” being signed just days before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

For Germany, there were some shifts in territory, and Hanover became a kingdom, making George III of England king of two countries in personal union. The German representatives at the Congress established a new federation, documented in the Bundesakte, “Act of Confederation,” signed by 41 parties—by the Prussian king and Austrian emperor only relative to parts of their territories.

It is a very interesting document, but this is only about who ruled Germany. Not only the English and the Prussian kings and the Austrian Emperor, but also the Danish king as Duke of Holstein, and the king of the Netherlands as Duke of Luxembourg and Duke of Limburg in Holland, ruled their parts of Germany. The other members of the new confederation were the previously existing German kings (Westphalia had been restored to prior holders), dukes and counts, but no ecclesiastics. In the Federal Assembly, the major members each had a greater number of votes.

This worked out pretty well for the next fifty years, during which populace’s desire for a unified German nation arose and demands for democratic representation increased, resulting in the establishment of elected parliaments in most of the principalities (something called for in the Act of Confederation). The loose confederation was headed by the Austrian emperor (later Franz’s son), but in 1866, Prussia started a war about the control of Schleswig-Holstein and with Austria, winning the so called “Deutscher Krieg”, but in contravention of the Act of Confederation, which soon resulted in its dissolution. Prussia was by far the most powerful political power in Germany. A new military union, the Northern German Confederation, was established, which included the principalities north of the Main River.

In 1870, France declared war against the Northern Confederation for reasons that are too complicated to try to explain here. The southern principalities joined forces against France, whose army was soon conquered. Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1871, Wilhelm I of Prussia was declared German Emperor. He had preferred the title, “Emperor of Germany,” but that could have implied rule over German areas that were not part of the new empire. He rejected the title that had been proposed much earlier—“Emperor of the Germans”—which could have suggested that he was elected to the office.

The German Empire existed until the end of the first World War in 1918.

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  • Alissa says:

    This is confusing, i am a year 6 (12 years old) and doing Germany for the FIFA world cup assignment we have been provided i have to do a report on Germany and i want to know who ruled Germany could u tell me instead of me reading every single web page??? you would be a massive help to me if u tell me tonight???

    xoxo Alissa

  • eiffel says:


    This page contains historical details of specialist interest. For a year 6 assignment you would probably find more understandable information at Wikipedia.

  • myoarin says:

    Hi Alissa,

    I agree with Eiffel: the Wikipedia article about Germany would be a better source of information. The website of the CIA for Germany may also be of help:

    Just briefly about who rules Germany:
    At present, it is ruled by a coalition of the CDU and CSU (conservative parties) and the liberal FDP. Angela Merkel, as “Chancellor” (prime minister in UK terms), heads the government. The “Bundespräsident” – federal president – Horst Köhler, just resigned, but the office is a representative one, like those of the Queens of England and the Netherlands and of the King of Spain.

    But now find information that confirms this, since I could be wrong.

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