French and English intellectuals throughout the eighteenth century had been important figures in politics, if not through active partcipation then by introducing new ideas into public discourse. But most German intellectuals of the day shrank from political engagement, and remained if not content with, then at least resigned to, the sort of absolute rule that led to the reform movements in France and England. In fact, what hints of reform there were came not from intellectuals or disaffected peasants but from the rulers themselves. Unlike in France, where the monarchy adamantly resisted most political reform, a number of German princes were in favor of moderately rationalizing the political system. Both Joseph II of Austria (1741-1790) and Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), for instance, introduced religious and economic reforms while working to centralize government power.
But thoughts of reform on the French scale were never seriously entertained by those in power, and the princes grew increasingly antagonistic toward France. The conflict came to a head in 1792, when France and the Empire went to war. The result was disastrous for Germany: France quickly controlled the left bank of the Rhine, Prussia surrendered to the French in 1795, and Austria followed in 1797, defeated by a young Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1798 came another round of fighting in Europe, but French victories in 1800 were decisive. In a third round of European fighting beginning in 1805, Austria was once again defeated, and Prussia fell soon after. Napoleon's forces occupied Vienna and Berlin.
Napoleon's success came partly from using German disunity against itself, pitting the Empire against its various constituent princes. Under French control, the German states were reorganized: the small free cities and ecclesiastical territories were eliminated, and a number of mid-sized states which had supported Napoleon -- Bavaria, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Nassau, and Württemberg especially -- gained land and power. When the smaller states, now organized as the Confederation of the Rhine, seceded from the Empire in 1806, the old imperial constitution was effectively destroyed, and Emperor Francis II (1768-1835) resigned his imperial crown to become merely Francis I of Austria.
French rule had unintended consequences. The French system of governance, with its principles of civil equality and efficient centralized government, gave many Germans their first exposure to a liberal system of statecraft. At the same time, those who had supported Napoleon found themselves galled by French rule, which proved more repressive than that of the Empire. The Germans, although denied serious political unity under Napoleon, began to acquire a sense of national unity, one which became ever greater throughout the nineteenth century. Although there were many competing visions of a German future, Napoleon inadvertently taught the inhabitants of the land he had conquered that a strong and unified Germany on modern liberal principles was possible.
As Napoleon's fortunes began to decline, many German rulers turned their thoughts to liberation. After an abortive Austrian uprising against the French in 1809, Prussia rebelled against France and sided with Russia in February 1813, and was joined soon after by Austria and Bavaria. The Confederation of the Rhine began to fall apart, and by the middle of October of that year, French domination of Germany had ended; in 1814 Germany reclaimed even the Rhineland.
Germany was once again free to decide its own course. From September 1814 to June 1815, delegates of the newly formed Congress of Vienna met to determine the area's future. Their course was moderate, resisting the more radical principles of the French Revolution but recognizing the impossibility of returning to the old forms of government. The result was not a strong centralized state but a loose coalition of thirty-nine states, the German Confederation, ranging in size from the free cities of Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg through the great empires of Austria and Prussia.
Not everyone was content with this arrangement, which was moderate by German historical standards but too conservative for many liberal tastes. Almost as soon as the Confederacy was established, therefore, came calls for reform. In the five years after Napoleon's defeat, a number of member states established local governments on liberal Western European models. In the rest of the country, university students formed societies known as Burschenschaften to promote liberal politics and national unity. In March 1819, the protests came to a head when a radical student assassinated the conservative playwright August von Kotzebue.
The conservative forces, led by Prince Clemens Lothar Wenzel Metternich of Austria (1773-1859), reacted with a series of laws known collectively as the Carlsbad Decrees: the Burschenschaften were shut down and general censorship was introduced throughout Germany. The reformers in many local governments were forced out, and by 1820, all significant German reform movements had come to an end. Apart from a brief radical uprising in 1830, Germany remained under a fundamentally conservative government throughout the Metternich era, ending only with the more significant rebellions of 1848.