July 12th in German History: The Formation of the Confederation of the Rhine

Confederation of the Rhine after the Final Peace of Paris, 1817 ...

As Napoleon advanced across Europe, he formed puppet nations in conquered territories. The purpose of these states, including the Batavian Republic and the Duchy of Warsaw, was to secure France’s borders and create a friendly government that would aid in the fight against Napoleon’s enemies. While not one nation, the Confederation of the Rhine was a political entity formed by client principalities Germany. It was formed on July 12th, 1806.

File:Portrait of Karl Theodor von Dalberg by Franz Stirnbrand.jpg
Karl Theodor von Dalberg, Prince-Primate of the Confederation of the Rhine.

After the defeat of the Third Coalition at the Battle of Austerlitz, France was left as the dominant power in Europe and, in particular, in Germany. France, however, was still threatened by the defeated Prussia and Austria, and so wanted to create a buffer state on the border. Germany at the time consisted of many small states, and France formed sixteen of these states into the Confederation of the Rhine. These states all signed the Treaty of the Confederation of the Rhine on July 12th, 1806. The confederation was not a unified nation. Rather, it was a collection of generally sovereign states who gave up some of their independence to a parliamentary body, the Diet of the Confederation, which never actually assembled. The confederation was led by the Prince-Primate of the Confederation, an office held by Karl Theodor von Dalberg. Members of the confederation were each forced to abide by the continental system, an embargo against Britain, and to maintain a large standing army. As compensation, several of the states gained territory by annexing small German polities and some rulers were elevated in title. After Napoleon defeated France, he forced twenty-three new states to join the confederation, giving him control of all of Germany with the exception of Prussia, Austria, and Swedish Pomerania. In 1810, Napoleon annexed parts of Germany, reducing the size of the confederation. Most states chafed under the burdens imposed by the confederation, namely the financial cost of their armies and the embargo of Britain. Thus, few complained when, in 1814, the coalition powers dissolved the confederation after Napoleon’s defeat and first exile. The territories annexed by France were liberated, although many were in turn annexed by Prussia.

The Confederation of the Rhine was the second attempt at a united Germany, the first one having been by the Holy Roman Empire. However, it was not a unity by choice, rather it was imposed by and for the benefit of a foreign power. Germans would not accept such a union, but they that did not mean that they wanted no union at all. Forty-seven years after the confederation was dissolved, Germany would be united again. This time, however, it was a union orchestrated by Germans and brought about by the invasion and defeat of France and the defeat of Napoleon, although admittedly not the same Napoleon that had formed the Confederation of the Rhine.

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