Austro-Prussian War

Author:      Fyffe, Charles A.

 

Austro-Prussian War 1866

 

 

 

 

     This conflict, called also the Seven Weeks' War, was productive of

results not to be measured by the duration of the struggle in the field - the

total exclusion of Austria from political control in Germany, and the rise of

Prussia to a position of primacy among the German States.  The annexation of

Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia, as a consequence of the war, not only

aggrandized that kingdom, but made an important change in the relations of the

duchies so annexed.

 

     The "Schleswig-Holstein question" was the cause of the war - that and the

ancient rivalry between Austria and Prussia.  The Schleswig-Holstein question

is one of the most complicated matters in modern history.  The two duchies had

been long united under a single duke.  When ducal heirs failed, Denmark

undertook the government of both duchies, which were "never to be separated."

Schleswig was a vassal State of Denmark, and Holstein of Germany.  When in

1846 the duchies demanded local independence, Denmark attempted to absorb

them, and German troops were sent to their assistance. Denmark secured a

provisional triumph, and adhered to her purpose of incorporating the duchies

with her own territory.  In 1864 Schleswig and Holstein were occupied by the

allied forces of Austria and Prussia, and the "Danish War" ensued, in which

the duchies were quickly wrested from Denmark to be disposed of by the other

two Powers.  This war furnished a notable example of the fact that royal

alliances no longer control the fate of nations.  Only the year before the

Prince of Wales had wedded the Crown Princess of Denmark, yet Denmark was

robbed of territory with no protest from England.

 

     For many years Austria had been dominant in Germany and had subjected

Prussia to her will.  On the accession of William I, in 1861, Prussia began to

assert her independence, and this new policy was aggressively pursued by Count

Otto von Bismarck, the King's minister.  He strengthened the army, an directed

his schemes against Austria.  It had been agreed that Prussia should govern

Schleswig, while Holstein was to be ruled by Austria.  Bismarck accused

Austria of violating this agreement, and, after various moves by both sides,

warlike preparations were begun.  In April, 1866, a treaty of alliance was

signed between Prussia and Italy, while several German States took the part of

Austria.

 

     On March 16, 1866, the Austrian Government announced that it should refer

the affairs of Schleswig-Holstein to the Federal Diet.  This was a clear

departure from the terms of the Convention of Gastein, ^1 and from the

agreement made between Austria and Prussia before entering into the Danish War

in 1864 that the Schleswig-Holstein question should be settled by the two

Powers independently of the German Federation.  King William was deeply moved

by such a breach of good faith; tears filled his eyes when he spoke of the

conduct of the Austrian Emperor, Francis Joseph; and though pacific influences

were still active around him, he now began to fall in more cordially with the

warlike policy of his minister.  The question at issue between Prussia and

Austria expanded from the mere disposal of the duchies to the reconstitution

of the federal system of Germany.  In a note laid before the Governments of

all the minor States, Bismarck declared that the time had come when Germany

must receive a new and more effective organization, and inquired how far

Prussia could count on the support of allies if it should be attacked by

Austria or forced into war.  Immediately after this reopening of the whole

problem of federal reform in Germany the draft of the treaty with Italy was

brought to its final shape by Bismarck and the Italian envoy, and sent to the

Ministry at Florence for its approval.

 

[Footnote 1: A treaty concluded between Austria and Prussia at Wildbad

Gastein, August 14, 1865, by which the duchies conquered from Denmark were

disposed of. - Ed.]

 

     Bismarck had now to make the best use of the three-months' delay that was

granted to him.  On the day after the acceptance of the treaty by the Italian

Government the Prussian representative at the Diet of Frankfort handed in a

proposal for the summoning of a German parliament, to be elected by universal

suffrage.  Coming from the minister who had made parliamentary government a

mockery in Prussia, this proposal was scarcely considered as serious.

Bavaria, as the chief of the secondary States, had already expressed its

willingness to enter upon the discussion of federal reform, but it asked that

the two leading Powers should in the mean time undertake not to attack each

other.  Austria at once acceded to this request, and so forced Bismarck into

giving a similar assurance.  Promises of disarmament were then exchanged; but

as Austria declined to stay the collection of its forces in Venetia against

Italy, Bismarck was able to charge his adversary with insincerity in the

negotiation, and preparations for war were resumed on both sides.  Other

difficulties now came into view.  The treaty between Prussia and Italy had

been made known to the Court of Vienna by Napoleon, whose advice La Marmora,

the Italian minister, had sought before its conclusion, and the Austrian

Emperor had thus become aware of his danger.  He now determined to sacrifice

Venetia if Italy's neutrality could be so secured. On May 5th the Italian

ambassador at Paris, Count Nigra, was informed by Napoleon that Austria had

offered to cede Venetia to him in behalf of Victor Emmanuel if France and

Italy would not prevent Austria from indemnifying itself at Prussia's expense

in Silesia.

 

     Without a war, at the price of mere inaction, Italy was offered all that

it could gain by a struggle which was likely to be desperate and which might

end in disaster.

 

     La Marmora was in sore perplexity.  Though he had formed a juster

estimate of the capacity of the Prussian army than any other statesman or

soldier in Europe, he was thoroughly suspicious of the intentions of the

Prussian Government; and in sanctioning the alliance of the previous month he

had done so half expecting that Bismarck would through the prestige of this

alliance gain for Prussia its own objects without entering into war, and then

leave Italy to reckon with Austria as best it might.  He would gladly have

abandoned the alliance and have accepted Austria's offer if Italy could have

done this without disgrace.  But the sense of honor was sufficiently strong to

carry him past this temptation.  He declined the offer made through Paris, and

continued the armaments of Italy, though still with a secret hope that

European diplomacy might find the means of realizing the purpose of his

country without war.

 

     The neutral Powers were now, with various objects, bestirring themselves

in favor of a European congress.  Napoleon believed the time to be come when

the treaties of 1815 might be finally obliterated by the joint act of Europe.

He was himself ready to join Prussia with three hundred thousand men if the

King would transfer the Rhenish Provinces to France.  Demands, direct and

indirect, were made on Count Bismarck in behalf of the Tuileries for cessions

of territory of greater of less extent.  These demands were neither granted

nor refused.  Bismarck procrastinated; he spoke of the obstinacy of the King

his master; he inquired whether parts of Belgium or Switzerland would not

better assimilate with France than a German Province; he put off the Emperor's

representatives by the assurance that he could more conveniently arrange these

matters with the Emperor when he should himself visit Paris. On May 28th

invitations to a congress were issued by France, England, and Russia jointly,

the objects of the congress being defined as the settlement of the affairs of

Schleswig-Holstein, of the differences between Austria and Italy, and of the

reform of the Federal Constitution of Germany, in so far as these affected

Europe at large.  The invitation was accepted by Prussia and by Italy; it was

accepted by Austria only under the condition that no arrangement should be

discussed which should give an increase of territory or power to one of the

States invited to the congress.

 

     This subtly worded condition would not indeed have excluded the equal

aggrandizement of all.  It would not have rendered the cession of Venetia to

Italy or the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia impossible; but it

would either have involved the surrender of the former Papal territory by

Italy in order that Victor Emmanuel's dominions should receive no increase,

or, in the alternative, it would have entitled Austria to claim Silesia as its

own equivalent for the augmentation of the Italian Kingdom.  Such reservations

would have rendered any efforts of the Powers to preserve peace useless, and

they were accepted as tantamount to a refusal on the part of Austria to attend

the congress.  Simultaneously with its answer to the neutral Powers Austria

called upon the Federal Diet to take the affairs of Schleswig-Holstein into

its own hands, and convoked the Holstein Estates. Bismarck thereupon declared

the Convention of Gastein to be at an end, and ordered General Manteuffel to

lead his troops into Holstein.  The Austrian commander, protesting that he

yielded only to superior force, withdrew through Altona into Hanover.

 

     Austria at once demanded and obtained from the Diet of Frankfort the

mobilization of the whole of the federal armies.  The representative of

Prussia, declaring that this act of the Diet had made an end of the existing

federal union, handed in the plan of his Government for the reorganization of

Germany, and quitted Frankfort.  Diplomatic relations between Austria and

Prussia were broken off on June 12th, and on the 15th Count Bismarck demanded

of the sovereigns of Hanover, Saxony, and Hesse-Cassel that they should on

that very day put a stop to their military preparations and accept the

Prussian scheme of federal reform.  Negative answers being given, Prussian

troops immediately marched into these territories, and war began.  Weimar,

Mecklenburg, and other petty States in the north took part with Prussia; all

the rest of Germany joined Austria.

 

     The goal of Bismarck's desire, the end he had steadily set before himself

since entering upon his ministry, was attained; and, if his calculations as to

the strength of the Prussian army were not at fault, Austria was at length to

be expelled from the German Federation by force of arms.  But the process by

which Bismarck had worked up to this result had ranged against him the almost

unanimous opinion of Germany outside the military circles of Prussia itself.

His final demand for the summoning of a German parliament was taken as mere

comedy.  The guiding star of his policy had hitherto been the dynastic

interest of the house of Hohenzollern; and now, when the Germans were to be

plunged into war with one another, it seemed as if the real object of the

struggle was no more than the annexation of the Danish duchies and some other

coveted territory to the Prussian Kingdom.  The voice of protest and

condemnation rose loud from every organ of public opinion.  Even in Prussia

itself the instances were few where any spontaneous support was tendered to

the Government.

 

     The Parliament of Berlin, struggling up to the end against the

all-powerful minister, had seen its members prosecuted for speeches made

within its own walls, and had at last been prorogued in order that its

insubordination might not hamper the Crown in the moment of danger.  But the

mere disappearance of Parliament could not conceal the intensity of ill-will

which the minister and his policy had excited.  The author of a fratricidal

war of Germans against Germans was in the eyes of many the greatest of all

criminals; and on May 7th an attempt was made by a young fanatic to kill

Bismarck in the streets of Berlin.  The minister owed the preservation of his

life to the feebleness of his assailant's weapon and to his own vigorous arm.

But the imminence of the danger affected King William far more than Bismarck

himself.  It spoke to his simple mind of supernatural protection and aid; it

stilled his doubts and confirmed him in the belief that Prussia was in this

crisis the instrument for working out the Almighty's will.

 

     A few days before the outbreak of hostilities the Emperor Napoleon gave

publicity to his own view of the European situation.  He attributed the coming

war to three causes: To the faulty geographical limits of the Prussian State,

to the desire for a better federal system in Germany, and to the necessity

felt by the Italian nation for securing its independence.  These needs would,

he conceived, be met by a territorial rearrangement in the north of Germany

consolidating and augmenting the Prussian Kingdom; by the creation of a more

effective federal union between the secondary German States; and finally, by

the incorporation of Venetia with Italy, Austria's position in Germany

remaining unimpaired.

 

     Only in the event of the map of Europe being altered to the exclusive

advantage of one great Power would France require an extension of frontier.

Its interests lay in the preservation of the equilibrium of Europe, and in the

maintenance of the Italian Kingdom.  These had already been secured by

arrangements which would not require France to draw the sword; a watchful but

unselfish neutrality was the policy which its Government had determined to

pursue.  Napoleon had in fact lost all control over events, and all chance of

gaining the Rhenish Provinces, from the time when he permitted Italy to enter

into the Prussian alliance without any stipulation that France should at its

option be admitted as a third member of the coalition.  He could not ally

himself with Austria against his own creation, the Italian Kingdom; on the

other hand, he had no means of extorting cessions from Prussia when once

Prussia was sure of an ally who could bring two hundred thousand men into the

field.  His diplomacy had been successful in so far as it had assured Venetia

to Italy whether Prussia should be victorious or overthrown, but as regarded

France it had landed him in absolute powerlessness.  He was unable to act on

one side; he was not wanted on the other.  Neutrality had become a matter, not

of choice, but of necessity; and until the course of military events should

have produced some new situation in Europe, France might well be watchful, but

it could scarcely gain much credit for its disinterested part. ^1

 

[Footnote 1: On May 11th Nigra, Italian ambassador at Paris, reported that

Napoleon's ideas on the objects to be attained by a congress were as follows:

Venetia to Italy; Silesia to Austria; the Danish duchies and other territory

in North Germany to Prussia; the establishment of several small States on the

Rhine under French protection; the dispossessed German princes to be

compensated in Roumania.  Napoleon III was pursuing in a somewhat altered form

the old German policy of the republic and the empire - namely, the balancing

of Austria and Prussia against each other, and the establishment of a French

protectorate over the group of secondary States.]

 

     Assured against an attack from the side of the Rhine, Bismarck was able

to throw the mass of the Prussian forces southward against Austria, leaving in

the north only the modest contingent that was necessary to overcome the

resistance of Hanover and Hesse-Cassel.  Through the precipitancy of a

Prussian general, who struck without waiting for his colleagues, the

Hanoverians gained a victory at Langensalza on June 27th; but other Prussian

regiments arrived on the field a few hours later, and the Hanoverian army was

forced to capitulate the next day.  The King made his escape to Austria; the

Elector of Hesse-Cassel, less fortunate, was made a prisoner of war. Northern

Germany was thus speedily reduced to submission, and any danger of a diversion

in favor of Austria in this quarter disappeared.

 

     In Saxony no attempt was made to bar the way to the advancing Prussians.

Dresden was occupied without resistance, but the Saxon army marched southward

in good time, and joined the Austrians in Bohemia.  The Prussian forces, about

two hundred fifty thousand strong, now gathered on the Saxon and Silesian

frontier, covering the line from Pirna to Landshut.  They were composed of

three armies: the first, or central, army under Prince Frederick Charles, a

nephew of the King; the second, or Silesian, army under the Crown Prince; the

westernmost, known as the Army of the Elbe, under General Herwarth von

Bittenfeld.  Against these were ranged about an equal number of Austrians, led

by Benedek, a general who had gained great distinction in the Hungarian and

Italian campaigns.  It had at first been thought probable that Benedek, whose

forces lay about Olmuetz, would invade Southern Silesia, and the Prussian line

had therefore been extended far to the east.  Soon, however, it appeared that

the Austrians were unable to take up the offensive, and Benedek moved westward

into Bohemia.  The Prussian line was now shortened, and orders were given to

the three armies to cross the Bohemian frontier and converge in the direction

of the town of Gitschin.  General Moltke, chief of staff, directed their

operations from Berlin by telegraph.

 

     The combined advance of the three armies was executed with extraordinary

precision; and in a series of hard-fought combats, extending from June 26th to

the 29th, the Austrians were driven back upon their centre, and effective

communication was established between the three invading bodies.  On the 30th

the King of Prussia, with General Moltke and Count Bismarck, left Berlin; on

July 2d they were at headquarters at Gitschin.  It had been Benedek's design

to leave a small force to hold the Silesian army in check, and to throw the

mass of his army westward upon Prince Frederick Charles and overwhelm him

before he could receive help from his colleagues.  This design had been

baffled by the energy of the Crown Prince's attack, and by the superiority of

the Prussians in generalship, in the discipline of their troops, and in the

weapon they carried; for though the Austrians had witnessed in the Danish

campaign the effects of the Prussian breechloading rifle (called the

needle-gun), they had not thought it necessary to adopt a similar arm.

 

     Benedek, though no great battle had yet been fought, saw that the

campaign was lost, and wrote to the Emperor on July 1st recommending him to

make peace, for otherwise a catastrophe was inevitable.  He then concentrated

his army on high ground a few miles west of Koeniggraetz, and prepared for a

defensive battle on the grandest scale.  In spite of the losses of the past

week he could still bring about two hundred thousand men into action.  The

three Prussian armies were now near enough to one another to combine in their

attack, and on the night of July 2d the King sent orders to the three

commanders to move against Benedek before daybreak.

 

     Prince Frederick Charles, advancing through the village of Sadowa, was

the first in the field.  For hours his divisions sustained an unequal struggle

against the assembled strength of the Austrians.  Midday passed; the defenders

now pressed down upon their assailants; and preparations for a retreat had

been begun, when the long-expected message arrived that the Crown Prince was

close at hand.  The onslaught of the army of Silesia on Benedek's right, which

was accompanied by the arrival of Hewarth at the other end of the field of

battle, at once decided the day.  With difficulty the Austrian commander

prevented the enemy from seizing the positions that would have cut off his

retreat.  He retired eastward across the Elbe with a loss of eighteen thousand

killed or wounded and twenty-four thousand prisoners.  His army was ruined;

and ten days after the Prussians had crossed the frontier the war was

practically at an end.

 

     The disaster of Koeniggraetz was too great to be neutralized by the

success of the Austrian forces in Italy.  La Marmora, who had given up his

place at the head of the Government in order to take command of the army,

crossed the Mincio at the head of a hundred twenty thousand men, but was

defeated by inferior numbers on the fatal ground of Custozza, and compelled to

fall back on the Oglio.  This gleam of success, which was followed by a naval

victory at Lissa off the Istrian coast, made it easier for the Austrian

Emperor to face the sacrifices that were now inevitable.  Immediately after

the Battle of Koeniggraetz he invoked the mediation of Napoleon III, and ceded

Venetia to him in behalf of Italy.  Napoleon at once tendered his good offices

to the belligerents, and proposed an armistice.  His mediation was accepted in

principle by the King of Prussia, who expressed his willingness also to grant

an armistice as soon as preliminaries of peace should be recognized by the

Austrian Court.

 

     In the mean time, while negotiations passed between all four Governments,

the Prussians pushed forward until their outposts came within sight of Vienna.

If in pursuance of General Moltke's plan the Italian generals had thrown a

corps northeastward from the head of the Adriatic, and so struck at the very

heart of the Austrian monarchy, it is possible that the victors of

Koeniggraetz might have imposed their own terms without regard to Napoleon's

mediation, and, while adding the Italian Tyrol to Victor Emmanuel's dominions,

have completed the union of Germany under the house of Hohenzollern at one

stroke.  But with Hungary still intact, and the Italian army paralyzed by the

dissensions of its commanders, prudence bade the great statesman of Berlin

content himself with the advantages he could reap without prolongation of the

war, and without the risk of throwing Napoleon into the enemy's camp.  He had

at first required, as conditions of peace, that Prussia should be left free to

annex Saxony, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, and other North German territory; that

Austria should wholly withdraw from German affairs; and that all Germany, less

the Austrian Provinces, should be united in a federation under Prussian

leadership.

 

     To gain the assent of Napoleon to these terms, Bismarck hinted that

France might by accord with Prussia annex Belgium.  Napoleon, however, refused

to agree to the extension of Prussia's ascendency over all Germany, and

presented a counter-project, which in its turn was rejected by Bismarck. It

was finally settled that Prussia should not be prevented from annexing

Hanover, Nassau, and Hesse-Cassel, as conquered territory that lay between its

own Rhenish Provinces and the rest of the Kingdom; that Austria should

completely withdraw from German affairs; that Germany north of the Main,

together with Saxony, should be included in a federation under Prussian

leadership; and that for the States south of the Main the right of entering

into a national bond with the Northern League should be reserved.

 

     Austria escaped without loss of any of its non-Italian territory; it also

succeeded in preserving the existence of Saxony, which, as in 1815, the

Prussian Government had been most anxious to annex.

 

     Napoleon, in confining the Prussian Federation to the north of the Main,

and in securing by a formal stipulation in the treaty the independence of the

South German States, imagined himself to have broken Germany into halves, and

to have laid the foundation of a South German League that should look to

France as its protector.  On the other hand, Bismarck by his annexation of

Hanover and neighboring districts had added a population of four millions to

the Prussian Kingdom, and given it a continuous territory; he had forced

Austria out of the German system; he had gained its sanction to the federal

union of all Germany north of the Main, and had at least kept the way open for

the later extension of this union to the South German States.

 

     Preliminaries of peace embodying these conditions and recognizing

Prussia's sovereignty in Schleswig-Holstein were signed at Nicolsburg on July

26th, and formed the basis of the definitive treaty of peace, which was

concluded at Prague on August 23d.  An illusory clause, added at the instance

of Napoleon, provided that if the population of the northern districts of

Schleswig should by a free vote express the wish to be united with Denmark,

these districts should be ceded to the Danish Kingdom.

 

     Bavaria and the southwestern allies of Austria, though their military

action was ineffective, continued in arms for some weeks after the Battle of

Koeniggraetz, and the suspension of hostilities arranged at Nicolsburg did not

come into operation in their behalf till August 2d.  Before that date their

forces were dispersed and their power of resistance broken by the Prussian

generals Falckenstein and Manteuffel in a series of unimportant engagements

and intricate manoeuvres.  The city of Frankfort, against which Bismarck seems

to have borne some personal hatred, was treated for a while by the conquerors

with extraordinary and most impolitic harshness; in other respects the action

of the Prussian Government toward these conquered States was not such as to

render future union and friendship difficult.

 

     All the South German Governments, with the single exception of Baden,

appealed to the Emperor Napoleon for assistance in the negotiations they had

opened at Berlin.  But at the very moment when this request was made and

granted Napoleon was himself demanding from Bismarck the cession of the

Bavarian Palatinate and of the Hessian districts west of the Rhine.  Bismarck

had only to acquaint the King of Bavaria and the South German ministers with

the designs of their French protector in order to reconcile them to his own

chastening but not unfriendly hand.  The grandeur of a united "Fatherland"

flashed upon minds hitherto impenetrable by any national ideal, when it became

known that Napoleon was bargaining for Oppenheim and Kaiserslautern. Not only

were the insignificant questions as to the war indemnities to be paid to

Prussia and the frontier villages to be exchanged promptly settled, but by a

series of secret treaties all the South German States entered into an

offensive and defensive alliance with the Prussian King, and engaged in case

of war to place their entire forces at his disposal and under his command.

 

     The diplomacy of Napoleon III had in the end effected for Bismarck almost

more than his earlier intervention had frustrated, for it had made the South

German courts the allies of Prussia, not through conquest or mere compulsion,

but out of regard for their own interests.  It was said by the opponents of

the Imperial Government in France, and scarcely with exaggeration, that every

error which it was possible to commit had, in the course of the year 1866,

been committed by Napoleon III.  One crime, one act of madness, remained open

to the Emperor's critics, to lash him and France into a conflict with the

power whose union he had not been able to prevent.

 

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