Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain. — Friedrich Schiller

Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire - J. W. Headlam

Outbreak of War with Austria


The arrangement made at Gastein could not be permanent; it was only a temporary expedient to put off the conflict which henceforward was inevitable—inevitable, that is, if the Emperor of Austria still refused to sell Holstein to Prussia. It was, however, so far as it went, a great gain to Prussia, because it deprived Austria of the esteem of the other German States. Her strength had hitherto lain in her strict adhesion to popular feeling and to what the majority of the Germans, Princes and people alike, believed was justice; by coming to a separate agreement with Prussia, she had shaken their confidence. Bavaria especially was much annoyed by this change of front, and it seemed probable that the most important of the southern States would soon be ranged on the side of Prussia. This was a consummation which Bismarck ardently desired, and to which he addressed himself with much energy.

The attitude of France was more important than that of the German States, and in the autumn Bismarck made a fresh visit to that country. Just as he had done the year before, he went to take the sea-baths at Biarritz. This step was the more remarkable because Napoleon had received the news of the Treaty of Gastein with marked displeasure, and had given public expression to his opinions. Bismarck saw Drouyn de Lhuys at Paris and then went on to Biarritz where the Emperor was; for ten days he lived there in constant association with the Imperial family. The personal impression which he made was very favourable: "A really great man," wrote Mérimée, "free from feeling and full of esprit." He saw Napoleon again on his return through Paris; the two succeeded in coming to an understanding. Napoleon assured him that he might depend on the absolute neutrality of France, in case of a war between Prussia and Austria; it was agreed also that the annexation of the Duchies to Prussia would not be an increase of territory which would cause any uneasiness at Paris; Napoleon would view it with favour. Bismarck went farther than this; he opened the subject of a complete reform of the German Constitution on the lines that Prussia was to have a free hand in the north of Germany; he pointed out

"that the acquisition of the Duchies would only be an earnest for the fulfilment of the pledge which history had laid upon the State of Prussia; for the future prosecution of it we need the most friendly relations with France. It seems to me in the interest of France to encourage Prussia in the ambitious fulfilment of her national duty."

The Emperor acquiesced; as we know, the division of Europe into large national States was what he meant by Napoleonic ideas; he was willing enough to help in Germany a change such as that he had brought about in Italy. It was agreed that events should be allowed to develop themselves; when the time came it would be easy enough to come to some definite agreement.

This however was not all; it was not to be expected that Napoleon should render Prussia so valuable a service without receiving something in exchange; we know Bismarck's opinion of a statesman who, out of sympathy for another country, would sacrifice the interests of his own. The creation of a strong consolidated State in the north of Germany could not be in the interests of France; the power of France had always been founded on the weakness of Germany. Even if Napoleon himself, with his generous and cosmopolitan sympathies, was willing to make the sacrifice, France was not; Napoleon knew, and Bismarck knew, that Napoleon could not disregard the feeling of the country; his power was based on universal suffrage and the popularity of his name; he could not, as a King of Prussia could, brave the displeasure of the people. France must then have some compensation. What was it to be? What were to be the terms of the more intimate and special understanding? We do not know exactly what was said; we do know that Bismarck led both the Emperor and his Ministers to believe that Prussia would support them in an extension of the frontier. He clearly stated that the King would not be willing to surrender a single Prussian village; he probably said that they would not acquiesce in the restoration to France of any German territory. France therefore must seek her reward in a French-speaking people. It was perhaps an exaggeration if Drouyn de Lhuys said "he offered us all kinds of things which did not belong to him," but Napoleon also in later years repeated that Bismarck had promised him all kinds of recompenses. No written agreement was made; that was reserved for later negotiations, but there was a verbal understanding, which both parties felt was binding. This was the pendant to the interview of Plombières. But Bismarck had improved on Cavour's example; he did not want so much, he asked only for neutrality: the King of Prussia would not be called upon, like Victor Emmanuel, to surrender the old possessions of his House.

Bismarck returned to Berlin with his health invigorated by the Atlantic winds and his spirits raised by success. The first step now was to secure the help of Italy; he had seen Nigra, the Italian Minister, at Paris, and told him that war was inevitable; he hoped he could reckon on Italian alliance, but there was still, however, much ground for anxiety that Austria might succeed in arranging affairs with Italy.

The relations of the four Powers at this time were very remarkable. All turned on Venetia. The new Kingdom of Italy would not rest until it had secured this province. Napoleon also was bound by honour to complete his promise and "free Italy to the Adriatic"; neither his throne nor that of his son would be secure if he failed to do so. A war between Austria and Prussia would obviously afford the best opportunity, and his whole efforts were therefore directed to preventing a reconciliation between the two German Powers. His great fear was that Austria should come to terms with Prussia, and surrender the Duchies on condition that Prussia should guarantee her Italian possessions. When Bismarck visited Napoleon at Biarritz, the first question of the Emperor was, "Have you guaranteed Venetia to Austria?" It was the fear of this which caused his anger at the Treaty of Gastein. On the other hand, Bismarck had his reasons for anxiety. It was always possible that Austria, instead of coming to terms with Prussia, might choose the other side; she might surrender Venetia in order to obtain French and Italian support in a German war. The situation indeed was this: Austria was liable at any moment to be attacked by both Italy and Prussia; it would probably be beyond her strength to resist both assailants at the same time. A wise statesman would probably have made terms with one or the other. He would have either surrendered Venetia, which was really a source of weakness, to Italy, or agreed with Prussia over the Duchies and the German problem, thereby gaining Prussian support against Italy. The honourable pride of Mensdorf and the military party in Austria refused to surrender anything till it was too late.

None the less, the constant fear lest Austria should make terms with one of her enemies for a long time prevented an alliance between Prussia and Italy. The Italians did not trust Bismarck; they feared that if they made a treaty with him, he would allow them to get entangled in war, and then, as at Gastein, make up his quarrel with Austria. Bismarck did not trust the Italians; he feared that they and Napoleon would even at the last moment take Venetia as a present, and, as very nearly happened, offer Austria one of the Prussian provinces instead. It was impossible to have any reliance on Napoleon's promises, for he was constantly being pulled two ways; his own policy and sympathies would lead him to an alliance with Prussia; the clerical party, which was yearly growing stronger and had the support of the Empress, wished him to side with the Catholic power. In consequence, even after his return from France, Bismarck could not pass a day with full security that he might not find himself opposed by a coalition of Austria, France, and Italy; the Austrians felt that they were to be made the victims of a similar coalition between Prussia, France, and Italy; France always feared a national union between the two great German Powers.

Bismarck began by completing and bringing to a conclusion the arrangements for a commercial treaty with Italy; at the beginning of January the King of Prussia sent Victor Emmanuel the order of the Black Eagle; Bismarck also used his influence to induce Bavaria to join in the commercial treaty and to recognise the Kingdom of Italy. Then on January 13th he wrote to Usedom that the eventual decision in Germany would be influenced by the action of Italy; if they could not depend on the support of Italy, he hinted that peace would be maintained; in this way he hoped to force the Italians to join him.

Affairs in the Duchies gave Bismarck the opportunity for adopting with good grounds a hostile attitude towards Austria; Gablenz, the new Governor of Holstein, continued to favour the Augustenburg agitation. Many had expected that Austria would govern Holstein as a part of the Empire; instead of doing so, with marked design the country was administered as though it were held in trust for the Prince; no taxes were levied, full freedom was allowed to the Press, and while the Prussians daily became more unpopular in Schleswig the Austrians by their leniency won the affection of Holstein. At the end of January, they even allowed a mass meeting, which was attended by over 4000 men, to be held at Altona. This made a very unfavourable impression on the King, and any action of Austria that offended the King was most useful to Bismarck. "Bismarck is using all his activity to inspire the King with his own views and feelings," wrote Benedetti, the French Ambassador, at this time. At the end of January he felt sufficiently secure to protest seriously against the Austrian action in Holstein. "Why," he asked, "had they left the alliance against our common enemy, the Revolution?" Austria, in return, refused peremptorily to allow Bismarck any voice in the administration of Holstein. Bismarck, when the despatch was read to him, answered curtly that he must consider that henceforth the relations of the two Powers had lost their intimate character; "we are as we were before the Danish war, neither worse nor better." He sent no answer to the Austrian despatch and ceased to discuss with them the affairs of the Duchies.

This was a fair warning to Austria and it was understood; they took it as an intimation that hostilities were intended, and from this day began quietly to make their preparations. As soon as they did this, they were given into Bismarck's hands; the Prussians, owing to the admirable organisation of the army, could prepare for war in a fortnight or three weeks' time less than the Austrians would require; Austria to be secure must therefore begin to arm first; as soon as she did so the Prussian Government would be able, with full protestation of innocence, to point to the fact that they had not moved a man, and then to begin their own mobilisation, not apparently for offence but, as it were, to protect themselves from an unprovoked attack. In a minute of February 22d Moltke writes that it would be better for political reasons not to mobilise yet; then they would appear to put Austria in the wrong; Austria had now 100,000 men in Bohemia and it would be impossible to undertake any offensive movement against Prussia with less than 150,000 or 200,000; to collect these at least six weeks would be required, and the preparations could not be concealed. Six days later a great council was held in Berlin. "A war with Austria must come sooner or later; it is wiser to undertake it now, under these most favourable circumstances, than to leave it to Austria to choose the most auspicious moment for herself," said Bismarck. The rupture, he explained, had already really been effected; that had been completed at his last interview with Karolyi. Bismarck was supported by most of the Ministers; the King said that the Duchies were worth a war, but he still hoped that peace would be kept. The arrangement of the foreign alliances was now pushed on. The King wrote an autograph letter to Napoleon saying that the time for the special understanding had come; Goltz discussed with him at length the terms of French compensation. Napoleon did not ask for any definite promise, but suggested the annexation of some German territory to France; it was explained to him that Prussia would not surrender any German territory, but that, if France took part of Belgium, the Prussian frontier must be extended to the Maas, that is, must include the north-east of Belgium.

General von Moltke.

Again no definite agreement was made, but Napoleon's favouring neutrality seemed secure. There was more difficulty with Italy, for here an active alliance was required, and the Italians still feared they would be tricked. It was decided to send Moltke to Florence to arrange affairs there; this, however, was unnecessary, for Victor Emmanuel sent one of his generals, Govone, nominally to gain some information about the new military inventions; for the next three weeks, Govone and Barrel, the Italian Minister, were engaged in constant discussions as to the terms of the treaty. Of course the Austrians were not entirely ignorant of what was going on. The negotiations with Italy roused among them intense bitterness; without actually mobilising they slowly and cautiously made all preliminary arrangements; a despatch was sent to Berlin accusing the Prussians of the intention of breaking the Treaty of Gastein, and another despatch to the German Courts asking for their assistance. Karolyi waited on Bismarck, assured him that their military preparations, were purely defensive, and asked point-blank whether Prussia proposed to violate the treaty. The answer, of course, was a simple "No," but according to the gossip of Berlin, Bismarck added, "You do not think I should tell you if I did intend to do so." On March 24th a despatch was sent to the envoys at all the German Courts drawing their attention to the Austrian preparations, for which it was said there was no cause; in view of this obvious aggression Prussia must begin to arm. That this was a mere pretext is shewn by a confidential note of Moltke of this same date; in it he states that all the Austrian preparations up to this time were purely defensive; there was as yet no sign of an attempt to take the offensive. Two days later, a meeting of the Prussian Council was held and the orders for a partial mobilisation of the army were given, though some time elapsed before they were actually carried out.

Under the constant excitement of these weeks Bismarck's health again began to break down; except himself, there was in fact scarcely a single man who desired the war; the King still seized every opportunity of preserving the peace; England, as so often, was beginning to make proposals for mediation; all the Prussian diplomatists, he complained, were working against his warlike projects. He made it clear to the Italians that the result would depend on them; if they would not sign a treaty there would be no war. The great difficulty in arranging the terms of the treaty was to determine who should begin. The old suspicion was still there: each side expected that if they began they would be deserted by their ally. The suspicion was unjust, for on both sides there were honourable men. The treaty was eventually signed on April 9th; it was to the effect that if Prussia went to war with Austria within the next three months, Italy would also at once declare war; neither country was to make a separate peace; Prussia would continue the war till Venetia was surrendered. On the very day that this treaty was signed, Bismarck, in answer to an Austrian despatch, wrote insisting that he had no intention of entering on an offensive war against Austria. In private conversation he was more open; to Benedetti he said: "I have at last succeeded in determining a King of Prussia to break the intimate relations of his House with that of Austria, to conclude a treaty of alliance with Italy, to accept arrangements with Imperial France; I am proud of the result."

Capitulation at Sedan.

Suddenly a fresh impediment appeared: the Austrians, on April 18th, wrote proposing a disarming on both sides; the Prussian answer was delayed for many days; it was said in Berlin that there was a difference of opinion between Bismarck and the King; Bismarck complained to Benedetti that he was wavering: when at last the answer was sent it was to accept the principle, but Bismarck boasted that he had accepted it under such conditions that it could hardly be carried out. The reluctance of the King to go to war caused him much difficulty; all his influence was required; it is curious to read the following words which he wrote at this time:

"It is opposed to my feelings, I may say to my faith, to attempt to use influence or pressure on your paternal feelings with regard to the decision on peace or war; this is a sphere in which, trusting to God alone, I leave it to your Majesty's heart to steer for the good of the Fatherland; my part is prayer, rather than counsel";

Then he again lays before the King the insuperable arguments in favour of war.

Let us not suppose that this letter was but a cunning device to win the consent of the King. In these words more than in anything else we see his deepest feelings and his truest character. Bismarck was no Napoleon; he had determined that war was necessary, but he did not go to the terrible arbitrament with a light heart. He was not a man who from personal ambition would order thousands of men to go to their death or bring his country to ruin. It was his strength that he never forgot that he was working, not for himself, but for others. Behind the far-sighted plotter and the keen intriguer there always remained the primitive honesty of his younger years. He may at times have complained of the difficulties which arose from the reluctance of the King to follow his advice, but he himself felt that it was a source of strength to him that he had to explain, justify, and recommend his policy to the King.

All anxiety was, however, removed by news which came the next day. A report was spread throughout the papers that Italy had begun to mobilise, and that a band of Garibaldians had crossed the frontier. The report seems to have been untrue. How it originated we know not; when Roon heard of it he exclaimed, "Now the Italians are arming, the Austrians cannot disarm." He was right. The Austrian Government sent a message to Berlin that they would withdraw part of their northern army from Bohemia, but must at once put the whole of their southern army on a war footing. Prussia refused to accept this plea, and the order for the mobilisation of the Prussian army went out.

As soon as Austria had begun to mobilise, war was inevitable; the state of the finances of the Empire would not permit them to maintain their army on a war footing for any time. None the less, another six weeks were to elapse before hostilities began.

We have seen how throughout these complications Bismarck had desired, if he fought Austria, to fight, not for the sake of the Duchies, but for a reform of the German Confederation.

In March he had said to the Italians that the Holstein question was not enough to warrant a declaration of war. Prussia intended to bring forward the reform of the Confederation. This would take several months. He hoped that among other advantages, he would have at least Bavaria on his side; for the kind of proposal he had in his mind, though at this time he seems to have had no clear plan, was some arrangement by which the whole of the north of Germany should be closely united to Prussia, and the southern States formed in a separate union with Bavaria at the head. He had always pointed out, even when he was at Frankfort, that Bavaria was a natural ally of Prussia. In a great war the considerable army of Bavaria would not be unimportant.

At the beginning of April Bismarck instructed Savigny, his envoy at the Diet, to propose the consideration of a reform in the Constitution. The proposal he made was quite unexpected. No details were mentioned as to changes in the relations of the Princes, but a Parliament elected by universal suffrage and direct elections was to be chosen, to help in the management of common German affairs. It is impossible to exaggerate the bewilderment and astonishment with which this proposal was greeted. Here was the man who had risen into power as the champion of monarchical government, as the enemy of Parliaments and Democracy, voluntarily taking up the extreme demand of the German Radicals. It must be remembered that universal suffrage was at this time regarded not as a mere scheme of voting,—it was a principle; it was the cardinal principle of the Revolution; it meant the sovereignty of the people. It was the basis of the French Republic of 1848, it had been incorporated in the German Constitution of 1849, and this was one of the reasons why the King of Prussia had refused then to accept that Constitution. The proposal was universally condemned. Bismarck had perhaps hoped to win the Liberals; if so, he was disappointed; their confidence could not be gained by this sudden and amazing change—they distrusted him all the more; "a Government that, despising the laws of its own country, comes forward with plans for Confederate reform, cannot have the confidence of the German people," was the verdict of the National party. The Moderate Liberals, men like Sybel, had always been opposed to universal suffrage; even the English statesmen were alarmed; it was two years before Disraeli made his leap in the dark, and here was the Prussian statesman making a far bolder leap in a country not yet accustomed to the natural working of representative institutions. He did not gain the adhesion of the Liberals, and he lost the confidence of his old friends. Napoleon alone expressed his pleasure that the institutions of the two countries should become so like one another.

There was, indeed, ample reason for distrust; universal suffrage meant not only Democracy,—it was the foundation on which Napoleon had built his Empire; he had shewn that the voice of the people might become the instrument of despotism. All the old suspicions were aroused; people began to see fresh meaning in these constant visits to France; Napoleon had found an apt pupil not only in foreign but in internal matters. It could mean nothing more than the institution of a democratic monarchy; this was Bonapartism; it seemed to be the achievement of that change which, years ago, Gerlach had foreboded. No wonder the King of Hanover began to feel his crown less steady on his head.

What was the truth in the matter? What were the motives which influenced Bismarck? The explanation he gave was probably the true one: by universal suffrage he hoped to attain a Conservative and monarchical assembly; he appealed from the educated and Liberal middle classes to the peasants and artisans. We remember how often he had told the Prussian House of Commons that they were not the true representatives of the people.

"Direct election and universal suffrage I consider to be greater guarantees of Conservative action than any artificial electoral law; the artificial system of indirect election and elections by classes is a much more dangerous one in a country of monarchical traditions and loyal patriotism. Universal suffrage, doing away as it does with the influence of the Liberal bourgeoisie, leads to monarchical elections."

There was in his mind a vague ideal, the ideal of a king, the father of his country, supported by the masses of the people. He had a genuine interest in the welfare of the poorest; he thought he would find in them more gratitude and confidence than in the middle classes. We know that he was wrong; universal suffrage in Germany was to make possible the Social Democrats and Ultramontanes; it was to give the Parliamentary power into the hands of an opponent far more dangerous than the Liberals of the Prussian Assembly. Probably no one had more responsibility for this measure than the brilliant founder of the Socialist party. Bismarck had watched with interest the career of Lassalle; he had seen with admiration his power of organisation; he felt that here was a man who in internal affairs and in the management of the people had something of the skill and courage which he himself had in foreign affairs. He was a great demagogue, and Bismarck had already learnt that a man who aimed at being not only a diplomatist, but a statesman and a ruler, must have something of the demagogic art. From Lassalle he could learn much. We have letters written two years before this in which Lassalle, obviously referring to some previous conversation, says: "Above all, I accuse myself of having forgotten yesterday to impress upon you that the right of being elected must be given to all Germans. This is an immense means of power; the moral conquest of Germany." Obviously there had been a long discussion, in which Lassalle had persuaded the Minister to adopt universal suffrage. The letters continue with reference to the machinery of the elections, and means of preventing abstention from the poll, for which Lassalle professes to have found a magic charm.

One other remark we must make: this measure, as later events were to prove, was in some ways characteristic of all Bismarck's internal policy. Roon once complained of his strokes of genius, his unforeseen decisions. In foreign policy, bold and decisive as he could be, he was also cautious and prudent; to this he owes his success; he could strike when the time came, but he never did so unless he had tested the situation in every way; he never began a war unless he was sure to win, and he left nothing to chance or good fortune. In internal affairs he was less prudent; he did not know his ground so well, and he exaggerated his own influence. Moreover, in giving up the simpler Conservative policy of his younger years, he became an opportunist; he would introduce important measures in order to secure the support of a party, even though he might thereby be sacrificing the interests of his country to a temporary emergency. He really applied to home affairs the habits he had learned in diplomacy; there every alliance is temporary; when the occasion of it has passed by, it ceases, and leaves no permanent effect. He tried to govern Germany by a series of political alliances; but the alliance of the Government with a party can never be barren; the laws to which it gives birth remain. Bismarck sometimes thought more of the advantage of the alliance than of the permanent effect of the laws.

Even after this there was still delay; there were the usual abortive attempts at a congress, which, as in 1859, broke down through the refusal of Austria to give way. There were dark intrigues of Napoleon, who even at the last moment attempted to divert the Italians from their Prussian alliance. In Germany there was extreme indignation against the man who was forcing his country into a fratricidal war. Bismarck had often received threatening letters; now an attempt was made on his life; as he was walking along Unter den Linden a young man approached and fired several shots at him. He was seized by Bismarck, and that night put an end to his own life in prison. He was a South German who wished to save his country from the horrors of civil war. Moltke, now that all was prepared, was anxious to begin. Bismarck still hesitated; he was so cautious that he would not take the first step. At last the final provocation came, as he hoped it would, from Austria. He knew that if he waited long enough they would take the initiative. They proposed to summon the Estates of Holstein, and at the same time brought the question of the Duchies before the Diet. Bismarck declared that this was a breach of the Treaty of Gastein, and that that agreement was therefore void; Prussian troops were ordered to enter Holstein. Austria appealed for protection to the Diet, and moved that the Federal forces should be mobilised. The motion was carried by nine votes to seven. The Prussian Envoy then rose and declared that this was a breach of the Federal law; Prussia withdrew from the Federation and declared war on all those States which had supported Austria. Hanover and Hesse had to the end attempted to maintain neutrality, but this Bismarck would not allow; they were given the alternative of alliance with Prussia or disarmament. The result was that, when war began, the whole of Germany, except the small northern States, was opposed to Prussia. "I have no ally but the Duke of Mecklenburg and Mazzini," said the King.