The North German Confederation (Norddeutscher Bund) was the name of the German federal state from July 1867 to December 1870. The name is also used for the alliance of 22 German states of August 18, 1866 (Augustbündnis). In 1870-1871, the south German states Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Württemberg and Bavaria joined the country. On January 1, 1871, the country received a new constitution that gave it the name ‘German Empire’. The North German Confederation continues as the German nation state which still exists today.
The federal constitution established a constitutional monarchy with the Prussian king as the bearer of the Bundespräsidium, or head of state. Laws could only be enabled with the consent of the Reichstag (a parliament based on universal male suffrage) and the Federal Council (a representation of the states). During the three years of the North German Confederation, a conservative-liberal cooperation undertook important steps to unify (Northern) Germany with regard to law and infrastructure. The political system (and the political parties) remained essentially the same in the years after 1870.
The North German Confederation had nearly 30 million inhabitants of which eighty percent lived in Prussia. Three quarters of the people of the 1871 Empire had already been ‘North Germans’.
With the final defeat and abdication of Francis II in 1806, the once mighty Holy Roman Empire was defeated by Napoleon Bonaparte, allowing the armies of France to conquer much of continental Europe, during the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815. It wasn’t until the disastrous attempt of invading Russia and the final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 that the grand armies of France were finally defeated. This left the German-speaking world fractured into two powerhouses, Austria and Prussia and a multitude of smaller kingdoms, duchies, principalities and free cities.
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna created the German Confederation. The Confederation, initially consisting of 39 German states including parts of Austria and Prussia, was a loose political and military alliance designed to replace the former Holy Roman Empire. Although it was officially led by Austria, it was also meant to create a buffer between Prussia and Austria.
For the most of 1815-1848, Austria and Prussia worked together and used the German Confederation as a tool to suppress liberal and national ambitions in the German population. In 1849, the National Assembly in Frankfurt elected the Prussian king as the Emperor of a Lesser Germany (a Germany without Austria). The king refused and tried to unite Germany with the Erfurt Union of 1849-1850. When the union parliament met in early 1850 to discuss the constitution, the participating states were mainly only those in Northern and Central Germany. Austria and the southern German states Württemberg and Bavaria forced Prussia to give up its union plans in late 1850.
In April and June 1866, Prussia proposed a Lesser Germany again. Corner stone of the proposal was the election of a German parliament based on the universal male suffrage. The proposal even explicitly mentioned the Frankfurt election law of 1849. Otto von Bismarck, the minister-president of Prussia, wanted to gain sympathy within the national and liberal movement of the time. Austria and its allies refused the proposal. In summer 1866, Austria and Prussia fought with their respective allies in the Austro-Prussian War, commonly called the Seven Weeks War. This began as a dispute over the northern territory of Schleswig-Holstein.
While most of the larger German states joined with Austria, many of the smaller northern states sided with Prussia. However, the newly formed Kingdom of Italy joined with Prussia, which put Austria at a disadvantage because it needed to fight on two war fronts to the north and south of the Empire. The Prussian/Italian alliance won the war, and Austria paid a heavy price for its defeat.
Prussia and Austria signed a Nikolsburg preliminary (July 26, 1866) and a final peace treaty of Prague (August 23). Austria affirmed the Prussian view that the German Confederation was dissolved. Prussia was allowed to create a ‘closer federation’ (einen engeren Bund) in Germany north of the river Main. Bismarck had already agreed on this limitation with the French emperor Napoleon III prior to the peace talks.
The liberals in the Prussian parliament favored a wholesome annexation of all North German territories by Prussia. In a similar way, Sardinia-Piemont had created the kingdom of Italy. Bismarck chose a different approach. Prussia did only incorporate (in October 1866) the former military opponents Hannover, Hesse-Kassel, Hesse-Nassau and also the free city of Frankfurt. Sleswig and Holstein became a Prussian province as well.
On August 18, 1866, Prussia and a larger number of North and Central German states signed a Bündniß (alliance). The treaty created a military alliance for one year. It also affirmed that the states wanted to form a federal state based on the Prussian proposals of June 1866. They agreed to have a parliament elected to discuss a draft constitution. Later in 1866, other states joined the treaty. Saxony and Hesse-Darmstadt, former enemies in the war of 1866, had to agree their accession to the new federation in their respective peace treaties (Hesse-Darmstadt only joined with its northern province, Upper Hesse).
Bismarck sought advice from conservative and democratic politicians and finally presented a draft constitution to the other state governments. It was his intention to make the new federal state look like a confederation in the tradition of the German Confederation. This explains the name of the country and several provisions in the draft constitution. Bismarck wanted to make the federal state more attractive (or less repulsive) to southern German states which might later join.
At the same time, in late 1866, Prussia and the other states prepared the election of a North German parliament. This konstituierender Reichstag was elected in February 1867 based on state laws. The konstituierender Reichstag gathered from February to April. In close talks with Bismarck it altered the draft constitution in some significant points. The konstituierender Reichstag was not a parliament but only an organ to discuss and accept the draft constitution.
The North German Constitution of April 16, 1867, created a national parliament with universal suffrage (for men above the age of 25), the Reichstag. Another important organ was the Bundesrat, the ‘federal council’ of the representatives of the allied governments. To adopt a law, a majority in the Reichstag and in the Bundesrat was necessary. This gave the allied governments, meaning the states and their princes, an important veto.
Executive power was vested in a president, a hereditary office of the House of Hohenzollern, the ruling family of Prussia. He was assisted by a chancellor responsible only to him — an office that Bismarck designed with himself in mind. There was no formal cabinet; the heads of the departments were not called ministers but secretaries. Those were installed and dismissed by the chancellor.
For all intents and purposes, the confederation was dominated by Prussia. It had four-fifths of the confederation’s territory and population — more than the other 21 members combined. The presidency was a hereditary office of the Prussian crown. Bismarck was also foreign minister of Prussia, a post he held for virtually his entire career. In that role he instructed the Prussian deputies to the Bundesrat. Prussia had 17 of 43 votes in the Bundesrat despite being by far the largest state, but could easily get a majority by making alliances with the smaller states.
In June 1867, the state parliaments ratified the constitution so that on July 1 it was enabled. In August, the first Reichstag of the new federal state was elected.
During the roughly three years of the North German Confederation its major action existed in legislation unifying Northern Germany. The Reichstag decided on laws concerning, for example:
- free movement of the citizens within the territory of the Confederation (1867)
- a common postal system (1867-1868)
- common passports (1867)
- equal rights for the different denominations (1869)
- unified measures and weights (with the obligatory introduction of the metric system)
- penal code (1870)
The North German Confederation became a member of the Zollverein, the German customs union of 1834. After negotiations in 1867, on January 1, 1868, it was transformed to a closer organization with new institutions: a council for the governments and a parliament. Bismarck hoped that the Zollverein might become the vehicle of German unification. But in the 1868 Zollverein elections the South Germans voted mainly for anti-Prussian parties.
One of the functions of the North German Confederation was to handle the mail and issue postage stamps. Prior to joining, the German states of Prussia, Saxony, Oldenburg, Brunswick, Bremen, Hamburg, and Lubeck had all issued their own stamps, as did Hanover and Bergedorf prior to joining Prussia and Hamburg respectively. Although not a German state, the House of Thurn and Taxis had a postal monopoly with horse drawn mail coaches throughout Europe. They had Northern District stamps (in silver groschen) and Southern District stamps (in kreuzer). Thurn and Taxis sold its monopoly in 1867.
The coverage of the North German Postal Union (Norddeutscher Postbezirk) was described as comprising the federal territories comprise Anhalt, Bremen, Brunswick, Hamburg, Lippe, Lübeck, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oldenburg, Prussia together with Lauenburg, Reuss senior line, Reuss junior line, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Saxe-Meiningen, Grand Duchy of Saxony, Kingdom of Saxony, Schaumburg-Lippe, Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, Upper Hesse (part of Hesse north of the Main), and Waldeck.
It is noteworthy that Upper Hesse was administered as part of the postal union even though the Grand Duchy of Hesse was not a member of the North German Confederation.
A major difficulty which had to be overcome was that within the Confederation, three different monetary systems were in use:
- Northern District: 30 groschen = 1 thaler
- Southern District: 60 kreuzer = 1 gulden
- Hamburg: 16 schillings = 1 mark
To accommodate for these differences, three separate postal groups were created, and stamps were printed in the three different currencies. The stamps were distinguished by framing the value number in a circle for the groschen stamps, and in an oval for the kreuzers. All of these stamps were inscribed NORDDEUTSCHER POSTBEZIRK. Although Hamburg continued to issue it’s own stamps, the North German Confederation did issue a special half-schilling stamp for Hamburg, with the additional inscription STADTPOSTBRIEF HAMBURG.
The North German Postal Union began issuing stamps on January 1, 1868, with six stamps valued in groschen (Scott #1-6) and five in kreuzers (Scott #7-11). A non-denominated stamp (sold for ½ schilling) was also released at this time for Hamburg (Scott #12). These stamps were printed on white paper and rouletted 8½ to 10 and 11 to 12½. As with the rouletted issues of Prussia, the rouletting on these stamps is very irregular and sometimes incomplete. Thus, a stamp with uneven or missing rouletting on one or more sides is not necessarily faulty. All of the groschen and kreuzer stamps also exist imperforate; Scott gives them minor catalog numbers (#1a-11a). The (½ schilling) Hamburg stamp is also known imperforate, but is unlisted by Scott.
Early in 1869 the stamps were reissued perforated 13½x14 (Scott #13-23). A perforated (½ schilling) stamp was also issued for Hamburg at this time (Scott #24). On March 1, 1869, 10 groschen and 30 groschen values were issued, notable for being printed on a paper similar goldbeater’s skin — the outer membrane of an oxen intestine; this parchment is used for making gold leaf — a scheme to prevent reuse of these high-value stamps.
In 1870, the North German Confederation also issued Official stamps — five denominated in groschen and four stamps in kreuzer values (Scott #O1-O9).
In mid-1870, a diplomatic crisis concerning the Spanish throne led eventually to the Franco-Prussian War. In November 1870, the North German Confederation and the south German states of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden (together with parts of the Grand Duchy of Hesse which had not originally joined the confederation) united to form a new nation state. It was originally called Deutscher Bund (German Confederation), but on December 10, 1870, the Reichstag of the North German Confederation adopted the name Deutsches Reich (German Realm or German Empire) and granted the title of German Emperor to the King of Prussia as Bundespräsidium of the Confederation. On January 1, 1871, the new constitution gave the country the name ‘German Empire’ and the title of Emperor to King William. He accepted the title on January 18, 1871.
A new Reichstag was elected on March 3, 1871. The constitutions of January 1 and April 16, 1871, of the Empire were nearly identical to that of the North German Confederation, and the Empire adopted the North German Confederation’s flag.
I currently have just five stamps of the North German Confederation in my collection; I would like to add more as most are not very expensive. Scott #17 was released in January 1869, a 2-groschen ultramarine, perforated 13½x14, typographed and unwatermarked. The Hamburg postmark of October 18, 1871, was applied after the Confederation had become the German Empire. The use of North German Confederation stamps would be superseded by the first issues of the German Empire on January 1, 1872.