The Austro-Prussian War (in Germany usually called Deutscher Krieg ("German War"); also the Seven Weeks War, the Unification War, or the German Civil War) was a war fought in 1866 between the Austrian Empire and its German allies on one side and the Kingdom of Prussia with its German allies and Italy on the other, that resulted in Prussian dominance over the German states. In Germany and Austria it is called the Deutscher Krieg (German war), Österreichisch-preussischer Krieg (Austro-Prussian War) or Bruderkrieg (war of brothers). In the Italian unification process, this is called the Third Independence War.
The major result of the war was a shift in power among the states of the German Confederation away from Austrian and towards Prussian hegemony, and impetus towards the unification of all of the northern German states in a Kleindeutschland that excluded Austria. The war also strengthened the ideal of the nation state in Italy. Another result was the severance of the ties of the British royal family, the House of Hanover, with government in Germany after the Kingdom of Hanover was annexed by Prussia as a result of the war (however, some members of the British royal family continued to hold German allegiance and titles until the declaration of the First World War).
In the meantime, partly in reaction to the triumphant French nationalism of Napoleon, and partly as an organic feeling of commonality glorified during the romantic era, German nationalism became a potent force during this period. The ultimate aim of most German nationalists was the union of all Germans into one state. Two different ideas of national unification eventually came to the fore. One was a Grossdeutschland that would include all German-speaking lands, including and dominated by the multi-national empire of Austria; the other (preferred by Prussia) was a Kleindeutschland that would exclude even the German parts of Austria and be dominated by Prussia.
There are many different interpretations of Bismarck's behavior prior to the Austrian-Prussian war, which concentrate mainly on whether the 'Iron chancellor' had a master plan that resulted in this war, the North German confederation, and eventually the unification of Germany.
Bismarck maintained that he orchestrated the conflict in order to bring about the North German Confederation, the Franco-Prussian War and the eventual unification of Germany. However, historians such as A. J. P. Taylor dispute this interpretation and believe that Bismarck did not have a master plan, but rather was an opportunist who took advantage of the favourable situations that presented themselves. Taylor thinks Bismarck manipulated events into the most beneficial solution possible for Prussia. Possible evidence can be found in Bismarck's orchestration of the Austrian alliance during the Second War of Schleswig against Denmark, which can be seen as his diplomatic ‘masterstroke.’ Taylor also believes that the alliance was a "test for Austria rather than a trap", and that the goal was not war with Austria, contradicting what Bismarck later gave in his memoirs as the main reason for establishing the alliance. It was in Prussia’s best interests to gain an alliance with Austria so that the combined allied force could easily defeat Denmark and as a result settle the issue of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The alliance can therefore be regarded as an aid to Prussian expansion, rather than a provocation of war against Austria. Many historians believe that Bismarck was simply a Prussian expansionist, rather than a German nationalist who sought the unification of Germany. It was later at the convention of Gastein that the Austrian alliance was set up to lure Austria into war.
Bismarck had also set up an alliance with Italy committing them to war if Prussia went to war within three months. This treaty virtually guaranteed a commitment on Bismarck's side to muster up a war with Austria within these 3 months in order to ensure Austria's full strength would not be attacking Prussia.
The timing of declaration was perfect, because all other European powers were bound by alliances that forbade them from entering, or had domestic problems that had priority. Britain had no stake economically or politically in a potential war between Prussia and Austria. Russia was unlikely to enter on the side of Austria due to ill will following Austrian support of the anti-Russian alliance during the Crimean War, and Prussia had stood by Russia during the Polish revolts whereas Austria had not. France was also unlikely to enter on the side of Austria because Bismarck and Napoleon III met in Biarritz and allegedly discussed whether or not France would intervene in a potential Austro-Prussian war. Nobody knows what was discussed, but many historians think Bismarck was guaranteed French neutrality in the event of a war. Finally, Italy was already in an alliance with Prussia, which meant that Austria would be fighting their combined power with no allies of its own. Bismarck was aware of his numerical superiority, but still “he was not prepared to advise it immediately even though he gave a favourable account of the international situation."
Universal conscription, combined with an increase in the term of active service from two years to three years, dramatically increased the size of the army. It also provided Prussia with a reserve army equal in size to that which Moltke actually deployed against Austria. Had France under Napoleon III attempted to intervene in force on Austria's side, the Prussians could have faced him with equal or superior numbers of troops.
The three-year term of active service, during which troops were continually trained and drilled, also ensured a better standard of training and discipline than that of the Austrian army, particularly in the infantry. Some Austrian commanders still dismissed infantry conscripts to their homes on permanent leave soon after their induction into the army, retaining a cadre of long-term soldiers for formal parades and routine duties. The conscripts sent on leave had to be trained almost from scratch when they were recalled to their units on the outbreak of war. The Austrian cavalry and artillery however were as well-trained as their Prussian counterparts. Austria possessed two incomparable divisions of heavy cavalry, but weapons and tactics had advanced since the Napoleonic Wars and heavy cavalry were no longer a decisive arm on the battlefield.
An important difference in the Prussian and Austrian military systems was that the Prussian army was locally based, organised as Kreise (lit. circles), each containing a Korps headquarters and its component units. The vast majority of reservists lived within a few hours' journey from their corps' depots, and mobilisation to full strength would take very little time.
By contrast, the Austrians deliberately ensured that units were stationed far from the areas from which their soldiers were recruited—to prevent army units taking part in separatist revolts. Conscripts on leave or reservists recalled to their units as a result of mobilisation faced a journey which might take weeks before they could report for duty. The Prussian army was therefore able to mobilise far more quickly than the Austrian army.
The Austrian army under Ludwig von Benedek in Bohemia (the present-day Czech Republic) might previously have been expected to enjoy the advantage of the "central position", being able to concentrate on successive attacking armies strung out along the frontier. The Prussian ability to concentrate faster nullified this advantage. By the time the Austrians were fully assembled, they would be unable to concentrate against any one Prussian army without having the other two instantly attack their flank and rear, threatening their lines of communication.
Finally, the Prussian infantry were equipped with the Dreyse needle gun, a breech-loading rifle capable of far more rapid fire than the muzzle-loading rifles with which the Austrians were equipped. In the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, French troops had taken advantage of the fact that the rifles of the time fired high if sighted for long range. By rapidly closing the range, French troops could come to close quarters without sustaining too many casualties from the Austrian infantry. In the aftermath of this war, the Austrians had adopted the same methods, which they termed the "Stosstaktik". Although they had some warnings of the German weapon, they ignored these and retained the crude "Stosstaktik" as their main method.
In one respect, the Austrian army had superior equipment in that their artillery consisted of breech-loading rifled guns, while the Prussian army retained many muzzle-loading smoothbore cannon. New Krupp breech-loading guns were only slowly being introduced. In the event, the other shortcomings of the Austrian army were to prevent their artillery from being decisive.
In 1866 the Prussian economy was rapidly growing, partly as a result of the Zollverein, and this gave her an advantage in the war. It enabled Prussia to supply her armies with breech-loading rifles, and later with new Krupp breach loading artillery. In contrast, the Austrian economy was suffering after the 1848 revolutions in Hungary and the Second Italian War of Independence. Austria only had one bank, the Creditanstalt, and the nation was heavily in debt. Many historians, including Andrina Stiles, believe that Prussia's economic success had an impact on the outbreak of war. The conflict between Austria and Prussia for mastery in Germany had an important economic dimension, suggesting that conflict between Austria and Prussia on the battlefield was related to their long term struggle for economic supremacy.
Some of the northern German states joined Prussia, in particular Oldenburg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and Brunswick. The Kingdom of Italy participated in the war with Prussia, because Austria still held the territory of Venetia wanted by Italy to complete the process of Italian Unification. In return for Italian aid against Austria, Bismarck agreed not to make a separate peace until Italy had obtained Venetia.
Notably, the other foreign powers abstained from this war. French Emperor Napoleon III, who expected a Prussian defeat, chose to remain out of the war to strengthen his negotiating position for territory along the Rhine, while the Russian Empire still bore a grudge against Austria from the Crimean War.
|Alliances of the Austro-Prussian War, 1866|
|Kingdom of Prussia||Austrian Empire||neutral|
Kingdom of Italy|
Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Kingdom of Bavaria |
Kingdom of Hanover
Kingdom of Saxony
Kingdom of Württemberg
The main campaign of the war occurred in Bohemia. Prussian Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke had planned meticulously for the war. He rapidly mobilized the Prussian army and advanced across the border into Saxony and Bohemia, where the Austrian army was concentrating for an invasion of Silesia. There, the Prussian armies led nominally by King Wilhelm converged, and the two sides met at the Battle of Königgrätz (Sadová) on July 3. The Prussian Elbe Army advanced on the Austrian left wing, and the First Army on the centre, prematurely; they risked being counter-flanked on the left. Victory therefore depended on the timely arrival of the Second Army on the left wing. This was achieved through the brilliant staffwork of its Chief of Staff, Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal. Superior Prussian organization and élan decided the battle against Austrian numerical superiority, and the victory was near total, with Austrian battle deaths nearly seven times the Prussian figure. Austria rapidly sought peace after this battle.
Except for Saxony, the other German states allied to Austria played little role in the main campaign. Hanover's army defeated Prussia at the Second Battle of Langensalza on June 27, but within a few days they were forced to surrender by superior numbers. Prussian armies fought against Bavaria on the Main River, reaching Nuremberg and Frankfurt. The Bavarian fortress of Würzburg was shelled by Prussian artillery, but the garrison defended its position until armistice day.
The Austrians were more successful in their war with Italy, defeating the Italians on land at the Battle of Custoza (June 24) and on sea at the Battle of Lissa (July 20). Garibaldi's "Hunters of the Alps" defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Bezzecca, on 21 July, conquered the lower part of Trentino, and moved towards Trento. Prussian peace with Austria–Hungary forced the Italian government to seek an armistice with Austria, on 12 August. According to Treaty of Vienna, signed on October 12, Austria ceded Venetia to France, which in turn ceded it to Italy (for details of operations in Italy, see Third Italian War of Independence).
In order to forestall intervention by France or Russia, Bismarck pushed King William I to make peace with the Austrians rapidly, rather than continue the war in hopes of further gains. The Austrians accepted mediation from France's Napoleon III. The Peace of Prague on August 23, 1866 resulted in the dissolution of the German Confederation, Prussian annexation of many of Austria’s former allies, and the permanent exclusion of Austria from German affairs. This left Prussia free to form the North German Confederation the next year, incorporating all the German states north of the Main River. Prussia chose not to seek Austrian territory for itself, and this made it possible for Prussia and Austria to ally in the future, since Austria was threatened more by Italian and Pan-Slavic irredentism than by Prussia. The war left Prussia dominant in Germany, and German nationalism would compel the remaining independent states to ally with Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and then to accede to the crowning of King Wilhelm as German Emperor. United Germany would become one of the most powerful of the European countries.
The war meant the end of the German Confederation. Those states who remained neutral during the conflict took different actions after the Prague treaty:
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