Germany and Italy Unification

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Time Line


1852 Camillo di Cavour becomes prime minister of Sardinia
1859 Sardinia receives Lombardy; other northern Italian states unite with Sardinia
1860 Garibaldi invades Sicily, then liberates Sicily and Naples; southern Italian region unites with northern
1861 Italy is declared a unified nation; king of Sardinia is crowned Victor Immanuel II of Italy
1862 Bismarck becomes prime minister of Prussia
1866 Prussia defeats Austria
1867 Prussia annexes various German states into North German Confederation
1870 Papal States become part of unified Italy
1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War
1871 German Empire declared; Wilhelm I of Prussia crowned emperor


German and Italy Unification

The spirit of nationalism led to the unifications of two of Europe’s largest ethnic and cultural populations—the Italians and the Germans—in the late nineteenth century. Masterminded in both cases by shrewd ministers of state— Cavour in Italy and Bismarck in Prussia—the unification process in both cases happened surprisingly quickly and smoothly. However, each nation would proceed very differently once unification was accomplished.

Unlike Germany, Italy had a previous history as a unified nation. Italy had been the center of the Roman Empire and had continued to exist under one central government until the sixth century A.D. The Italians had a shared language, an ancient shared history of ruling the known world, and a common culture. This made Italy a natural breeding ground for nationalism.

Once unification was completed in 1861, however, complications ensued. First, the Church refused to go along with unification, perceiving it as a threat to ecclesiastical authority. This rift between the pope and the heads of the Italian state would not be resolved for many years, and it made them into enemies, thus depriving the people of one of their most important common bonds— their shared faith. Second, a rift developed between the northern and southern regions of the country. The northern provinces were prosperous and had gone some way toward industrialization, while the south remained poor and rural. Most men of authority in the new government—the king, the prime minister, the provincial governors, and a large majority of the high-ranking military officers and civil servants—came from the north, which caused resentment in the south.

As Piedmont became the core of Italy, Prussia was to become the core of Germany. The foundations for Prussian supremacy had been laid as early as 1640 and continued under Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck used his considerable diplomatic skills to provoke France into declaring war on Prussia, which caused the southern German states to rally to Prussia’s support. An easy German victory led to unification in 1871. The new German Empire, ruled by the king of Prussia (now kaiser of Germany), established its headquarters in the Prussian capital city, Berlin. A bicameral legislature, with a popularly elected lower house and an upper house of hereditary German princes, satisfied the goals of both upper and middle classes.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Germany and Italy Unification Practice Test

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