The Seal of the Confederation of the Rhine tellingly inscribed in French.
Following his stunning defeat of the two great eastern powers—Russia and the Holy Roman Empire—at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 the ever confident Napoleon, self-crowned Emperor of France was even cockier than usual. He was in a mood to redraw the map of Europe and shake up the old order.
He was determined to peel away as many of the German speaking principalities as possible from the Hapsburg-ruled old lands, which as the old joke went were neither Holy nor Roman or much of an empire. After months of cajoling, bribes, and threats he convinced 16 German states to abandon the Empire and form the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund,) a lose new nation to be under the protection of the French Emperor. Of course, it would also serve as a buffer between France and its Prussian and Austrian enemies and be a rich source of vassal armies.
The Confederation came into being with the signing of the Treaty of the Confederation of the Rhine on July 12, 1806. Never had so many German states been united outside of the lose loyalty that they long held to the Holy Roman Emperor.
Humiliated Holy Roman Emperor Francis II was forced to meet with Napoleon after his armies were routed at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Within a year he was forced to dissolve the Empire and lost most of the German states west of Rhine to the new Rheinbund.
It was also the final death knell of an Empire that stretched back in an unbroken line to the crowning of Otto I under the aegis of the Pope in 962. On August 1, 1806 Emperor Francis II was forced to formally dissolve the Empire, although he and the Hapsburg dynasty continued to rule in Austria.
In keeping with the semi-republicanism and liberalism Napoleon still sometimes espoused, the Confederation was organized without a monarchy. Aside from idealism, Napoleon hoped that it would keep the fragile new creation from breaking apart in dynastic struggles. Instead, Karl Theodor von Dalberg, the former Arch Chancellor of the Empire was installed as executive under the non-hereditary title of Prince-Primate. Under the treaty he would also preside over the Diet of the Confederation, a parliamentary body that never actually assembled.
The hereditary rulers of the individual states would be represented by the College of Kings and the Council of the Princes the led by the Prince of Nassau-Usingen.
The largest and most powerful states including Baden, Hesse, Cleves, and Berg were made into grand duchies, and Württemberg and Bavaria became kingdoms each with a larger measure of local autonomy. Smaller principalities were consolidated or had their borders redrawn.
However much relieved the members of the Confederation were to be rid of the Hapsburgs and the Empire—and many of them were mightily glad—they soon found Napoleon’s demands for troops and levies more onerous than their old situation.
A political map of the Rheinbund in 1808.
Later in 1806 Napoleon defeated the major German power, Prussia. After that, more and more states joined the Confederation. By 1808 26 more states had been lured or pressured into the Rheinbund. At its peak only Prussia, Danish Holstein, and Swedish Pomerania remained outside, while German areas west of the Rhine were annexed directly into France. More annexations occurred in 1810 in the northwest to prevent violation of the trade embargo of Britain from the northern ports.
The whole project fell apart in 1812 with Napoleon’s epic blunder—the invasion of Russia. Forced on a winter retreat and punishing hit and run tactics by the Russians nearly destroyed the Grand Armee. Many members of the Confederation switched sides after the Battle of Leipzig and joined the Prussians and Austrians in hectoring the defeated army. The Allies formally dissolved the Confederation in 1813.
When peace was finally restored to Europe with the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the German states were formerly given their independence. The Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe in 1815, but the German states were little affected.
The flag of the German Federation. The black, red, and gold tri-color became the basis for the flag of modern Germany after reunification of East and West.
But with peace the German states realized that a greater central organization was necessary lest the smaller states be picked off one by one by aggressive neighbors. A new German Federation (Deutscher Bund) encompassed the former Confederation states plus Prussia and Austria. The two major powers struggled for superiority and control of the Federation for years, weakening it and blocking the aspirations of German liberals and reformers for a modern unified German state.
Eventually the Prussians got the upper hand dissolving the Deutscher Bund to create the North German Confederation in 1866. The Hapsburgs turned their attention south, expanding their holdings deep into the Balkans creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The architects of the German Empire formed with Prussia at its core--Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck.
Eventually the Prussians under their King Wilhelm II and his able Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck consolidated the German states, minus Austria, into a new Empire with Wilhelm as its Kaiser.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mighty unpleasant history for the French through three bloody wars.
And it can be argued that it all might not have happened if Napoleon had not gone tinkering east of the Rhine creating the first gathering of the principalities outside of the old decrepit Holy Roman Empire.