The North German Confederation was a political union of the northern German states that existed from 1867 to 1871. It was established after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and dissolved after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, when it was succeeded by the German Empire. The confederation was created to consolidate the military and economic power of the northern German states under Prussian leadership, and to counterbalance the influence of the Austrian Empire in Germany. It was also seen as a step towards the unification of Germany, which was achieved in 1871 with the proclamation of the German Empire. During its brief existence, the North German Confederation was successful in establishing a unified currency, a uniform system of weights and measures, and a common legal cod.


  • The North German Confederation was a result of the Second War of German Unification (Prussia against Austria). It plays a huge role in the German unification procress
  • It was an actual state that would become the German Empire after the Third War of German Unification
  • The new black, white and red Reich's Flag represented the North German Confederation


Unlike the German Confederation, the North German Confederation was an actual state. The new Confederation was the product of the second War of German Unification, namely the German War of 1866 (see Wars of German Unification), and was the first unified country on German soil. Otto von Bismarck had been able to ally with 17 northern states during wartime. The so-called alliance of August was now the foundation of the union. The North German Confederation (Norddeutscher Bund) was a union of the German states north of the Main River, excluding the southern states of Wuerttemberg, Baden, Southern Hesse, Bavaria, and Austria. The federal state was formed after Prussia had defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks War of 1866. The capital was Berlin, and the King of Prussia was at the same time its president. He appointed the chancellor and was the commander in chief. The new federal law included transportation, coinage, customs matters, military matters, and trade. The Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was also the chancellor of the North German Confederation. The Reich's Flag (see below) became the official flag of representation for the new nation. It was a combination of the Prussian colors black and white and the colors white and red, which the Hanseatic League used. A description of the Confederation's flag was disseminated in the United States so that German ships could be welcomed in American waters.



The North German Confederation occupied the larger part (79%) of the former German Confederation, and Prussia was the union's biggest state. The Peace of Prague of 1866 allowed the southern German states to form a union as well. However, a Bavarian initiative failed because the other states feared economic and military dependence. Therefore, they sought closer ties to Prussia. The new Confederation had a strong appeal to southern states because of its strong leadership, the federal system, and some codetermination for its citizens in parliament. Simultaneously, Bismarck's alliances with the southern German states and the reorganized customs union in 1867 brought a unified German state into being, stretching from the North and Baltic Sea to the Alps.



As we learned in the previous chapter, the idea of a unified Germany started under the black, red, and gold banner. However, some may be confused about the colors of the German flag changing throughout history. In 1848, the black, red, and gold flag served as the merchant flag of the German Confederation. But, the flag of the first German state bore the colors black, white, and red because Prussia was the driving force behind Germany's unification. Despite this, Prussia's flag was not adopted for the North German Confederation.


One argument for a new flag design came from merchants and Germany's navy, who believed that a new design was necessary to show foreign countries that the age of Germany's fragmentation and disunity was over, and a new era of unity had begun. Otto von Bismarck supported this idea and chose the colors based on his home state of Brandenburg, which had red and white as its colors before it became part of Prussia. Moreover, the Hanseatic League and many other German cities used red and white for their emblems. Meanwhile, Prussia's national colors were black and white.


The flag that waved at Hambach Castle was rejected because it represented rebellion to many contemporaries. One year after the famous gathering at Hambach Castle, a group of cross-border leagues stormed the guardhouse in Frankfurt and attacked police officers. They planned to storm the parliament the following day to overthrow the government.


CCO: Brockhaus Konversations Lexikon (1892)
CCO: Brockhaus Konversations Lexikon (1892)

The new Confederation's navy highly approved the flag, and it was also the preferred choice among ordinary people and merchants. They argued that its design was more dignified compared to the plain and humble Tricolore, which was used by a coal-carrying steamboat. The first flag design underwent a few changes over the following decades, but it remained an easily recognizable symbol of Germany until the end of World War 1 and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic. Although Germany's first democracy made several attempts to adopt the same design as a black, red, and gold version, it was ultimately rejected due to the "stab-in-the-back" legend.


Sources/ Quellenangabe:

Karaschewski, Jörg. Die Geschichte der Reichskriegsflaggen. Norderstedt: BoD, 2017.

Leicht, Johannes. "Der Norddeutsche Bund." LEMO, Deutsches Historisches Museum, 23 June 2010. https://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/reaktionszeit/deutscherbund/norddeutschebund

Naumann, Günter. Deutsche Geschichte. Wiesbaden: marixverlag, 2018.