Nothing is harder to direct than a man in prosperity; nothing more easily managed than one is adversity. — Plutarch

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




The Treaty of Gastein



1864-1865


Bismarck always looked back with peculiar pleasure on the negotiations which were concluded by the Peace of Vienna. His conduct of the affair had in fact been masterly; he had succeeded in permanently severing the Duchies from Denmark; he had done this without allowing foreign nations the opportunity for interfering; he had maintained a close alliance with Austria; he had pleased and flattered the Emperors of Russia and France. What perhaps gave him most satisfaction was that, though the result had been what the whole of the German nation desired, he had brought it about by means which were universally condemned, and the rescue of the Duchies had been a severe defeat to the Democratic and National party.

With the Peace a new stage begins; the Duchies had been transferred to the Allied Powers; how were they now to be disposed of? We have seen that Bismarck desired to acquire them for Prussia; if it were absolutely necessary, he would accept an arrangement which would leave them to be ruled by another Prince, provided very extensive rights were given to Prussia. He would acquiesce in this arrangement if annexation would involve a war with one of the European Powers. If, however, a Duke of Schleswig-Holstein was to be created he was determined that it should not be the Prince of Augustenburg, whom he distrusted and disliked. The real object of his diplomacy must be to get the Duchies offered to Prussia; it was, however, very improbable, as the Czar once said to him, that this would happen.

He wished for annexation, but he wished to have it peacefully; he had not forgotten his own resolution to have a war with Austria, but he did not wish to make the Duchies the occasion of a war. Austria, however, refused to assent to annexation unless the King of Prussia would give her a corresponding increase of territory; this the King positively refused. It was an unchangeable principle with him that he would not surrender a single village from the Prussian Monarchy; his pride revolted from the idea of bartering old provinces for new. If Austria would not offer the Duchies to Prussia, neither would the Diet; the majority remained loyal to Augustenburg. The people of the Duchies were equally determined in their opposition to the scheme; attempts were made by Bismarck's friends and agents to get up a petition to incorporate them with Prussia, but they always failed. Even the Prussian people were not really very anxious for this acquisition, and it required two years of constant writing in the inspired Press to bring them into such a state of mind that they would believe that it was, I will not say the most honourable, but the most desirable solution. The King himself hesitated. It was true that ever since the taking of the Düppel the lust of conquest had been aroused in his mind; he had visited the place where so many Prussian soldiers had laid down their lives; and it was a natural feeling if he wished that the country they had conquered should belong to their own State. On the other hand, he still felt that the rights of Augustenburg could not be neglected; when he discussed the matter with the Emperor of Austria and the subject of annexation was raised, he remained silent and was ill at ease.

If Bismarck was to get his way, he must first of all convince the King; this done, an opportunity might be found. There was one man who was prepared to offer him the Duchies, and that man was Napoleon. It is instructive to notice that as soon as the negotiations at Vienna had been concluded, Bismarck went to spend a few weeks at his old holiday resort of Biarritz. He took the opportunity of having some conversation with both the Emperor and his Ministers.

He required rest and change after the prolonged anxieties of the two years; at no place did he find it so well as in the south of France:

"It seems like a dream to be here again," he writes to his wife. "I am already quite well, and would be quite cheerful if I only knew that all was well with you. The life I lead at Berlin is a kind of penal servitude, when I think of my independent life abroad." Seabathing, expeditions across the frontier, and sport passed three weeks. "I have not for a long time found myself in such comfortable conditions, and yet the evil habit of work has rooted itself so deeply in my nature, that I feel some disquiet of conscience at my laziness. I almost long for the Wilhelmstrasse, at least if my dear ones were there."

On the 25th he left "dear Biarritz" for Paris, where he found plenty of politics awaiting him; here he had another of those interviews with Napoleon and his Ministers on which so much depended, and then he went back to his labours at Berlin.

At that time he was not prepared to break with Austria, and he still hoped that some peaceful means of acquisition might be found, as he wrote some months later to Goltz, "We have not got all the good we can from the Austrian alliance." Prussia had the distinct advantage that she was more truly in possession of the Duchies than Austria. This possession would more and more guarantee its own continuance; it was improbable that any Power would undertake an offensive war to expel her. On the whole, therefore, Bismarck seems to have wished for the present to leave things as they were; gradually to increase the hold of Prussia on the Duchies, and wait until they fell of themselves into his hands. In pursuit of this policy it was necessary, however, to expel all other claimants, and this could not be done without the consent of Austria; this produced a cause of friction between the two great Powers which made it impossible to maintain the co-dominium.

There were in Holstein the Confederate troops who had gone there a year ago and had never been withdrawn; Augustenburg was still living at Kiel with his phantom Court; and then there were the Austrian soldiers, Prussia's own allies. One after another they had to be removed. Bismarck dealt first with the Confederate troops.

He had, as indeed he always was careful to have, the strict letter of the law on his side; he pointed out that as the execution had been directed against the government of Christian, and Christian had ceased to have any authority, the execution itself must ipso facto cease; he therefore wrote asking Austria to join in a demand to Saxony and Hanover; he was prepared, if the States refused, to expel their troops by force. Hanover—for the King strongly disliked Augustenburg—at once acquiesced; Saxony refused. Bismarck began to make military preparations; the Saxons began to arm; the Crown treasures were taken from Dresden to Königstein. Would Austria support Saxony or Prussia? For some days the question was in debate; at last Austria determined to support a motion at the Diet declaring the execution ended. It was carried by eight votes to seven, and the Saxons had to obey. The troops on their return home refused to march across Prussian territory; and from this time Beust and the King of Saxony must be reckoned among the determined and irreconcilable enemies of Bismarck.

The first of the rivals was removed; there remained Austria and the Prince.

Just at this time a change of Ministry had taken place in Austria; Rechberg, who had kept up the alliance, was removed, and the anti-Prussian party came to the front. It was, therefore, no longer so easy to deal with the Prince, for he had a new and vigorous ally in Austria. Mensdorf, the new Minister, proposed in a series of lengthy despatches his solution of the question; it was that the rights of the two Powers should be transferred to Augustenburg, and that Schleswig-Holstein should be established as an independent Confederate State. The Austrian position was from this time clearly defined, and it was in favour of that policy to which Bismarck would never consent. It remained for him to propose an alternative. Prussia, he said, could only allow the new State to be created on condition that large rights were given to Prussia; what these were would require consideration; he must consult the different departments. This took time, and every month's delay was so much gain for Prussia; it was not till February, 1865, that Bismarck was able to present his demands, which were, that Kiel should be a Prussian port, Rendsburg a Prussian fortress; that the canal was to be made by Prussia and belong to Prussia, the management of the post and telegraph service to be Prussian and also the railways; the army was to be not only organised on the Prussian system but actually incorporated with the Prussian army, so that the soldiers would take the oath of allegiance not to their own Duke but to the King of Prussia. The Duchies were to join the Prussian Customs' Union and assimilate their system of finance with that of Prussia. The proposals were so drawn up that it would be impossible for Austria to support, or for the Prince of Augustenburg to accept them. They were, in fact, as Bismarck himself told the Crown Prince, not meant to be accepted. "I would rather dig potatoes than be a reigning Prince under such conditions," said one of the Austrian Ministers. When they were officially presented, Karolyi was instructed to meet them with an unhesitating negative, and all discussion on them ceased.

Prussia and Austria had both proposed their solution; each State even refused to consider the suggestion made by the other. Meanwhile, since the departure of the Confederate troops the administration of the Duchies was in their hands; each Power attempted so to manage affairs as to prepare the way for the final settlement it desired, Prussia for annexation, Austria for Augustenburg. Prince Frederick was still living at Kiel. His position was very anomalous: he assumed the style and title of a reigning Prince, he was attended by something like a Court and by Ministers; throughout Holstein, almost without exception, and to a great extent also in Schleswig, he was looked upon and treated by the population as their lawful sovereign; his birthday was celebrated as a public holiday; he was often prayed for in church. All this the Austrians regarded with equanimity and indirectly supported; Bismarck wished to expel him from the country, but could not do so without the consent of Austria. At the end of March the matter again came up in the Diet; Bavaria and Saxony brought in a motion that they expected that Austria and Prussia would transfer the administration to Frederick. The Prussian Envoy rose and explained that they might expect it, but that Prussia would not fulfil their expectations; he moved that the claims of all candidates should be considered by the Diet, not only those of Augustenburg and of the Duke of Oldenburg, but also of Brandenburg.

The claims of Brandenburg were a new weapon of which Bismarck was glad to avail himself. No one supposed that they had really any foundation; they were not seriously put forward; but if the motion was carried, the Diet would be involved in the solution of a very complicated and necessarily very lengthy legal discussion. What the result was would be known from the beginning, but the Diet and its committees always worked slowly, and Bismarck could with much force maintain that, until they had come to a decision, there was no reason for handing over the administration to Augustenburg; it was at least decent not to do this till the claims of the rivals had been duly weighed. In the months that must elapse many things might happen. In the meantime the Diet would be helpless. When it had come to a decision he would then be able to point out, as he had already done, that they had no legal power for determining who was the ruler of any State, and that their decision therefore was quite valueless, and everything would have been again exactly as it was before. Austria supported the motion of Saxony, which was carried by nine votes to six. Prussia answered by sending her fleet from Danzig to Kiel, and occupying the harbour; the Government asked for a vote for the erection of fortifications and docks and for the building of a fleet; the Chamber refused the money, but Roon declared publicly in the House that Prussia would retain Kiel,—they had gone there and did not intend to leave. The occupation of Kiel was an open defiance to Austria; that it was intended to be so is shewn by the fact that a few days later Bismarck wrote to Usedom, the Prussian Minister at Florence, instructing him to sound the Italian Government as to whether they would be willing to join Prussia in war against Austria. At the same time he wrote to Goltz to find out in Paris whether there was any alliance between Austria and France. It would be some time before foreign relations could be sufficiently cleared up for him to determine whether or not war would be safe. He occupied the intervening period by continuing the negotiations as to the principles on which the joint administration should be conducted. He came forward with a new proposal and one which was extremely surprising, that the Estates of the Duchies should be summoned, and negotiations entered into with them. It is one of the most obscure of all his actions; he did it contrary to the advice of those on the spot. Everyone warned him that if the Estates were summoned their first action would be to proclaim Augustenburg as Duke. Some suppose that the King insisted on his taking this step; that is, however, very improbable; others that he proposed it in order that it might be rejected by Austria, so that Austria might lose the great influence which by her support of Augustenburg she was gaining in Germany. Austria, however, accepted the proposal, and then negotiations began as to the form in which the Estates should be called together; what should be the relations to them of the two Powers? This gave rise to a minute controversy, which could not be settled, and no doubt Bismarck did not wish that it should be settled. One of his conditions, however, was that, before the Estates were summoned, Augustenburg should be compelled to leave Holstein. Of course the Prince refused, for he well knew that, if he once went away, he would never be allowed to return. The Duke of Oldenburg, who was always ready to come forward when Bismarck wished it, himself demanded the expulsion of the Prince. The King of Prussia wrote a severe letter to Augustenburg, intimating his displeasure at his conduct and warning him to leave the country. The Prince answered, as he always did to the King, expressing his gratitude and his constant loyalty to Prussia, but refused, and his refusal was published in the papers. It was still impossible to remove him except by force, but before he ventured on that Bismarck had to make secure the position of Prussia.

At the beginning of July events began to move towards a crisis. Bismarck had appointed a commission of Prussian lawyers to report on the legal claim of the different candidates for the Ducal throne; their report was now published. They came to the conclusion, as we might anticipate that they would, that Augustenburg had absolutely no claim, and that legally the full authority was possessed by the two Powers who had the de facto government. Their opinion did not carry much weight even in Prussia itself, but they seem to have succeeded in convincing the King. Hitherto he had always been haunted by the fear lest, in dispossessing Augustenburg, he would be keeping a German Prince from the throne which was his right, and that to him was a very serious consideration. Now his conscience was set at rest. From this time the last support which Augustenburg had in Prussia was taken from him, for the Crown Prince, who always remained faithful to him, was almost without influence. Bismarck was henceforward able to move more rapidly. On the 5th of July the Prince's birthday was celebrated throughout the Duchy with great enthusiasm; this gave bitter offence to the King; shortly afterwards Bismarck left Berlin and joined the King, who was taking his annual cure at Carlsbad, and for July 28th a Council of State was summoned to meet at Regensburg. Probably this is the only instance of a King coming to so important a decision outside his own territories. The Council was attended not only by the Ministers, but also by some of the generals and by Goltz, who was summoned from Paris for the purpose. It was determined to send an ultimatum to Austria; the chief demand was that Austria should withdraw all support from Augustenburg, and agree immediately to eject him from the Duchies. If Austria refused to agree, Prussia would do so herself; he was to be seized, put on board a ship, and carried off to East Prussia. To shew that they were in earnest, a beginning was made by seizing in Holstein Prussian subjects who had written in the newspapers in a sense opposed to the wishes of the Prussian Government, and carrying them off to be tried at Berlin. In order to be prepared for all possibilities, an official request was sent to Italy to ask for her assistance in case of an outbreak of war. After these decisions were arrived at, the King continued his journey to Gastein to complete his cure; there, on Austrian territory in company with Bismarck, he awaited the answer.

In Austria opinions were divided; the feeling of annoyance with Prussia had been steadily growing during the last year. The military party was gaining ground; many would have been only too glad to take up the challenge. It would indeed have been their wisest plan to do so—openly to support the claim of Augustenburg, to demand that the Estates of Holstein should be at once summoned, and if Bismarck carried out his threats, to put herself at the head of Germany and in the name of the outraged right of a German Prince and a German State to take up the Prussian challenge.

There were, however, serious reasons against this. The Emperor was very reluctant to go to war, and, as so often, the personal feelings of the rulers had much to do with the policy of the Government. Then the internal condition of Austria both politically and financially was very unsatisfactory; it would have been necessary to raise a loan and this could not be easily done. There was also the constant danger from Italy, for Austria knew that, even if there were no alliance, as soon as she was attacked on one side by Prussia, the Italians on the other side would invade Venetia. Count Metternich was instructed to ask Napoleon, but received as an answer that they could not hope for a French alliance; the Austrians feared that he might already be engaged on the side of Prussia. For all these reasons it was determined to attempt to bring about a compromise. A change of Ministry took place, and Count Blome, one of the new Ministers, was sent to Gastein. He found both the King and Bismarck not disinclined to some compromise. The reports both from Florence and Paris did not seem to Bismarck to be entirely satisfactory: he did not find such readiness as he had hoped for; he feared that some secret understanding might be arrived at between Austria and Napoleon; and then, as we have seen, he was really anxious to avoid war for the sake of the Duchies; he had not given up his intention of war with Austria some day, but it would be impossible to find a less agreeable excuse for it.

"Halbuber and Augustenburg are acting so that we shall soon have to apply force; this will cause bad blood in Vienna; it is not what I wish, but Austria gives us no choice,"

he had written a few days before. After a few days of indecision a compromise therefore was agreed upon. The joint administration of the Duchies was to be given up; Austria was to administer Holstein, Prussia, Schleswig; they both undertook not to bring the question before the Diet; the Duchy of Lauenburg was to be handed over absolutely to the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Austria receiving two million thalers for his share. Lauenburg was the first new possession which Bismarck was able to offer to the King; the grateful monarch conferred on him the title of Count, and in later years presented to him large estates out of the very valuable royal domains. It was from Lauenburg that in later years the young German Emperor took the title which he wished to confer on the retiring Chancellor.