Nations of Europe and the Great War - Charles Morris
WILLIAM I OF PRUSSIA—BISMARCK'S EARLY CAREER—THE SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN QUESTION—CONQUEST OF THE DUCHIES—BISMARCK'S WIDER VIEWS—WAR FORCED ON AUSTRIA—THE WAR IN ITALY—AUSTRIA'S SIGNAL DEFEAT AT SADOWA—THE TREATY OF PRAGUE—GERMANY AFTER 1866.
The effort made in 1848 to unify Germany had failed for two reasons—first, because its promoters had not sufficiently clear and precise ideas, and, secondly, because they lacked material strength. Until 1859 reaction against novelties and their advocates dominated in Germany and even Prussia as well as in Austria. The Italian war, as was easily foreseen, and as wary counselors had told Napoleon III, revived the agitation in favor of unity beyond the Rhine. After September 16, 1859, it had its center in the national circle of Frankfort and its manifesto in the proclamation which this issued on September 4, 1860, a proclamation whose terms, though in moderate forms, clearly announced the design of excluding Austria from Germany. It was the object of those favoring unity, but with more decision than in 1848, to place the group of German states under Prussia's imperial direction. The accession of a new king, William I, who was already in advance called William the Conqueror, was likely to bring this project to a successful issue. The future German emperor's predecessor, Frederick William IV, with the same ambition as his brother, had too many prejudices and too much confusion in his mind to be capable of realizing it. Becoming insane towards the close of 1857, he had to leave the government to William, who, officially regent after October 7, 1858, became king on January 2, 1861.
The new sovereign was almost sixty-four years old. The son of Frederick William III and Queen Louisa, while yet a child he had witnessed the disasters of his country and his home, and then as a young man had had his first experience of arms towards the close of the Napoleonic wars. Obliged to flee during the revolt of 1848, he had afterwards, by his pro-English attitude at the time of the Crimean war, won the sympathies of the Liberals, who joyfully acclaimed his accession. To lower him to the rank of a party leader was to judge him erroneously. William I was above all a Prussian prince, serious, industrious, and penetrated with a sense of his duties to the state, the first of which, according to the men of his house, has ever been to aggrandize it; and he was also imbued with the idea that the state was essentially incarnate in him.
"I am the first king," he said at his coronation, "to assume power since the throne has been surrounded with modern institutions, but I do not forget that the crown comes from God."
He had none of the higher talents that mark great men, but he possessed the two essential qualities of the head of a state—firmness and judgment. He showed this by the way in which he chose and supported those who built up his greatness, and this merit is rarer than is generally supposed. A soldier above all, he saw that Prussia's ambitions could be realized only with a powerful army.
Advised by Von Moltke, the army's chief of staff after 1858, and Von Roon, the great administrator, who filled the office of minister of war, he changed the organization of 1814, which had become insufficient. Instead of brigades formed in war time, half of men in active service and half of reserves, regiments were now recruited by a three (instead of a two) years' service and reinforced in case of need by the classes of reserves. The Landwehr, divided into two classes (twenty-five to thirty-two years and thirty-two to thirty-nine), was grouped separately. This system gave seven hundred thousand trained soldiers, Prussia having then seventeen million inhabitants. This was more than either France or Austria had. The armament was also superior. Frederick William I had already said that the first result to be obtained in this direction was celerity in firing. This was assured by the invention of the needle gun.
Such a transformation entailed heavy expenses. The Prussian Chamber, made up for the most part of Liberals, did not appreciate its utility. Moreover, it was not in favor of increasing the number of officers, because they were recruited from the nobility. After having yielded with bad grace in 1860, the deputies refused the grants in 1861 and 1862. It was at this time that Bismarck was called to the ministry (September 24, 1862). Otto von Bismarck-Schonhausen, born April 1, 1815, belonged by birth to that minor Prussian nobility, rough and realistic, but faithful and disciplined, which has ever been one of the Prussian state's sources of strength. After irregular studies at the University of Gottingen, he had entered the administration, but had not been able to stay in it, and had lived on his rather moderate estates until 1847. The diet of that year, to which he had been elected, brought him into prominence. There he distinguished himself in the Junker (poor country squires) party by his marked contempt for the Liberalism then in vogue and his insolence to the Liberals. Frederick William IV entrusted him with representing Prussia at Frankfort, where he assumed the same attitude towards the Austrians (1851-59).
He was afterward ambassador at St. Petersburg, and had just been sent to Paris in the same capacity when he became prime minister.
His character was a marked one. In it was evident a taste for sarcastic raillery and a sort of frankness, apparently brutal, but really more refined than cruel. His qualities were those of all great politicians, embracing energy, decision and realism; that is, talent for appreciating all things at their effective value and for not letting himself be duped either by appearances, by current theories, or by words. Very unfavorably received by the parliament, he paid little heed to the furious opposition of the deputies, causing to be promulgated by ordinance the budget which they refused him, suppressing hostile newspapers, treating his adversaries with studied insolence, and declaring to them that, if the Chamber had its rights, the king also had his, and that force must settle the matter in such a case. To get rid of these barren struggles, he took advantage of the first incident of foreign politics. The Schleswig-Holstein question furnished him with the desired opportunity.
This was the first of the various important questions of international policy in which Bismarck became concerned. The united provinces of Schleswig-Holstein, lying on the northern border of Denmark, had long been notable as a source of continual strife between Germany and Denmark. The majority of the inhabitants of Schleswig were Danes, but those of Holstein were very largely Germans, and the question of their true national affiliation lay open from the time of their original union in 1386. It became insistent after the middle of the nineteenth century.
The treaty of London in 1852 had maintained the union of Holstein with Denmark, but did not put a definite end to the demands of the Germans, who held that it was a constituent part of Germany. The quarrel was renewed in 1855 over a common constitution given by King Frederick VII to all his states. This was abolished in 1858, and afterwards the Danes sought to grant complete autonomy to the duchies of Schleswig and Lauenburg, this movement being with the purpose of making more complete the union of Schleswig with their country. This step, taken in 1863, led to a protest from the German diet.
In all this there was food for an indefinite contest, for, on the one hand, Schleswig did not form a part of the Confederation, but, on the other, certain historical bonds attached it to Holstein, and its population was mixed. The death of Frederick VII (November 15, 1863), who was succeeded by a distant relative, Christian IX, further complicated the quarrel. The duke of Augustenburg claimed the three duchies, though he had previously renounced them. The German diet, on its part, wanted the Danish constitution abolished in Schleswig.
The dream of the petty German states hostile to Prussia, and especially of the Saxon minister, Von Beust, was to strengthen their party by the creating of a new duchy. Bismarck admirably outplayed everybody. He knew that the great Powers were at odds with one another over Poland. He, on the contrary, could count on Russia's friendship and the personal aid of Queen Victoria, whom Prince Albert had completely won over to pro-German ideas. He used England to make Christian IX consent to the occupation of Holstein, which, he said, was in reality an acknowledgment of that king's rights. At this stage, had the Danes yielded to the necessities of the situation and withdrawn from Schleswig under protest, the European Powers would probably have intervened and a congress would have restored Schleswig to the Danish realm. Bismarck prevented this by a cunning stratagem, making the Copenhagen government believe that Great Britain had taken a step hostile to that government. There was no truth in this, but it succeeded in inducing Denmark to remain defiant. As a consequence, on the 1st of February 1864, the combined forces of Prussia and Austria crossed the Eider and invaded the province.
It was a movement to regain to Germany a section held to be non-Danish in population and retained by Denmark against the traditions and the will of its people. Austria, which did not wish to appear less German than Prussia, though the matter did not directly appeal to that country, joined in the movement, being drawn into it by Bismarck's shrewd policy.
It was not the original intention to go beyond the borders of the duchies and invade Denmark, but when Christian IX tried to resist the invasion this was done. The Danewerk and the Schlei were forced, and the Danish army was defeated at Flensburg and driven back into Dueppel, which was taken by assault. A conference of the great Powers, opened at London (April 25th to June 25th), brought about no result. Napoleon III did not refuse to act, but he wanted as a condition that England would promise him something more than its moral support, which it refused to do. Finally Jutland was invaded and conquered, and Von Moltke was already preparing for a landing in Fuenen when Christian IX gave up all the duchies by the Vienna preliminaries (August 1st), confirmed by treaty on October 30th following.
The fate of the conquest remained to be decided upon. Bismarck settled it, after a pretence of investigation, by concluding that the rights of King Christian over the duchies were far superior to those of the Duke of Augustenburg, who had a hereditary claim, and that as Prussia and Austria had won them from the king by conquest, they had become the lawful owners. An agreement was made in which Holstein was assigned to Austria and Schleswig to Prussia, and for the time the question seemed settled.
This was far from being the case. Bismarck held views of far more expanded scope. He wanted to exclude Austria from the German confederation, and to do so desired war with that country as the only practical means of gaining his ends. In 1865 he made the significant remark that a single battle in Bohemia would decide everything and that Prussia would win that battle. A remark like this was indicative of the purpose entertained and the events soon to follow.
In such a war, however, it was important to secure the neutrality of France. The alert Prussian statesman had already assured himself of that of Russia. To gain France to his side he held an interview with Napoleon III at Biarritz in October, 1865. The cunning diplomat offered the emperor an alliance with a view to the extension of Prussia and Italy, by means of which France would take Belgium. Napoleon saw very clearly that the offer was chimerical, but he believed that Prussia if fighting alone would be rapidly crushed, and that the alliance of Italy would aid him in protracting the war, thus enabling him to intervene as a peacemaker and to impose a vast rearrangement of territory, the most essential provision of which would be the exchange of Venetia for Silesia. Whatever Napoleon's views, Bismarck saw that he was safe from any interference on the part of France, and returned with the fixed design of driving Austria to the wall.
He found the desired pretext in the Holstein question and the far more serious one of reforming the federal government. On January 24, 1866, he reproached the Austrian government with favoring in Holstein the pretensions of the Duke of Augustenburg. The grievance soon became envenomed by complaints and ulterior measures. In April Bismarck denounced the so-called offensive measures which Austria was taking in Bohemia and which, in short, were only precautionary. Yet at the same time he himself was signing with Italy a treaty, concluded for three months, by virtue of which Victor Emmanuel was to declare war against Austria as soon as Prussia itself had done so.
Bismarck, now invited to lay the Austrian-Prussian dispute before the diet, answered by asking that an assembly elected by universal suffrage be called to discuss the question of federal reform. And when Austria offered to disarm in Bohemia if Prussia would do so on its part, Bismarck demanded, in addition, disarmament in Venetia, a condition he knew to be unacceptable. On May 7, 1866, he declared he would not accept the diet's intervention in the duchies question, and on the 8th ordered the mobilization of the Prussian army.
Napoleon III at this juncture proposed the holding of a congress for settling the duchies question and that of federal reform. Thiers had warned him in vain, in an admirable speech delivered on May 3d, that France had everything to lose by aiding in bringing about the unity of Germany. The emperor obstinately persisted, proposing to tear up those treaties of 1815 which, two years before, he had childishly declared to be no longer in existence. His proposition of a congress, however, failed through the refusal of Austria and the petty states to take pare in it. He next signer( with Austria a secret treaty by which the latter promised to cede Venetia after its first victory and on condition of being indemnified at Prussia's expense. By a strange inconsistency the French emperor proposed at the same time to make Prussia more homogeneous in the north.
Bismarck acted in a far clearer manner than the French emperor. On June 5th, General von Gablenz, the Austrian governor of Holstein, convened the states of that country, Austria declaring that the object of this measure was to enable the federal diet to settle the question. A German force under General Manteuffel at once invaded the duchy and, having far superior forces at his disposal, took possession of it. On the 10th, Prussia asked the different German States to accept a new constitution based on the exclusion of Austria, the election of a parliament by universal suffrage, the creation of a strong federal power and a common army. The diet answered by voting the federal execution against Prussia. Thereupon the Prussian envoy, Savigny, withdrew, declaring that his sovereign ceased to recognize the Confederation.
Events proved how correctly Bismarck had judged in his confidence in Prussia's military strength. The Prussian forces amounted to 330,000 men, who were to be aided in the south by 240,000 Italians. Austria had 335,000 troops and its German allies 146,000. Generally the last named had little zeal.
The Austrian government acted slowly, while its adversary vigorously assumed the offensive. On June 16th, after an unavailing notice, the Prussian troops invaded Saxony and occupied it without resistance, the Saxon army withdrawing to Bohemia. The same was the case in Hesse, whose grand duke was taken prisoner, while his army joined the Bavarians. Still less fortunate was the king of Hanover, who did not even save his army, which, also retreating towards the south, was surrounded and obliged to capitulate at Langensalza (June 29th).
In the south the Prussian General Vogel von Falkenstein, who had but 57,000 men against over a 100,000, took advantage of the fact that his adversaries had separated into two masses, the one at Frankfort and the other at Meiningen, to beat them separately, the Bavarians at Kissingen (July 10th) and the Prince of Hesse, commanding the other army, at Aschaffenburg (July 14th). On the 16th the Prussians entered Frankfort, which they overwhelmed with requisitions and contributions. General Manteuffel, Falkenstein's successor, then drove the federal armies from the line of the Tauber, where they had united, back to Wurzburg. On the 28th an armistice was concluded.
The Italians had been less successful. Archduke Albert, who commanded in Venetia, had only 70,000 men, but they were Croatian Slavs, that is, Austria's best troops. Confronting him, Victor Emmanuel commanded 124,000 men on the Chiese and Cialdini 80,000 in the neighborhood of Ferrara. They proved unable to act together. Cialdini let himself be kept in check by a mere handful of troops, while the Austrian archduke attacked the Italian royal army at Custozza. Serious errors in tactics and panic in an Italian brigade, which fled before three platoons of lancers that had the audacity to charge it, gave victory to the Austrians. Cialdini had remained behind the Po. Garibaldi, who had undertaken, with 36,000 men, to conquer the Trent region, defended by only 13,000 regulars and 4,000 militia under General von Kuhn, found himself not only repulsed in every attack, but, had it not been for the evacuation of Venetia, his adversary would have pursued him on Italian territory. The important events which took place at sea have been described in the preceding chapter.
It was not on these events that the outcome of the war was to depend, but on the victory or defeat of the chief Austrian army. The forces of the two Powers on the Silesian and Saxon frontier were almost equal; but the Austrian commander-in-chief, Benedek, brave and brilliant as a division leader, proved unequal to his present task. He dallied in Moravia until June 16th, while the Prussians entered Bohemia in two separate masses, one on each side of the Riesen Gebirge. Benedek wavered and blundered. He sent only 60,000 men against 150,000 under Prince Frederick Charles, and they suffered four defeats in as many days (June 26-29th). At the same time he had made the same mistake in regard to the Prince Royal, who won in over half a dozen skirmishes. During the following night, June 29-30th, the second Prussian army reached the Elbe.
Benedek's incapacity was now completely demonstrated. He telegraphed to the emperor to make peace at any cost, and retreated on Olmutz. Then he changed his mind and decided to fight, seeking to throw the blame for his own errors on his subordinates. The battlefield chosen by him was near the village of Sadowa, and here his army, though sadly demoralized, fought with much bravery. The Austrians, whom their general had notified of the imminent battle only in the middle of the night, had fortified the slopes and villages as best they could. At eight in the morning Frederick Charles began the attack by crossing the Bistritz. Benedek's center resisted, but the right and left wings lost ground. At half past eleven the Prussians were losing ground and seemed ready to retreat. At this critical moment the army of the Prince Royal appeared, coming from the north.
The second and sixth Austrian corps, obliged to confront the new troops with a flank march under the fire of the Prussian artillery, could not hold out long, and about three o'clock the strongest Austrian position was lost. It was necessary at any cost to regain it, but all efforts failed against their own entrenchments, defended by the captors with desperate energy. At half past four retreat became necessary. Half of the Austrian army escaped without much difficulty; but the rest, three army corps, driven towards the Elbe by the entire victorious army, would have been annihilated but for the devotedness of the cavalry and the artillerymen. These formed successive fire lines, and continuing to shoot until the muzzles of their guns were reached, saving the infantry from destruction through dint of dying at their posts. Despite this diversion it was a frightful rout, which cost the vanquished 40,000 men and 187 pieces of artillery. The Prussians lost only 10,000 dead and wounded.
The Austrians tried to fall back on Vienna, but only three corps out of eight reached there, as the Prussian army by a rapid march had forced the others to seek refuge at Presburg. On July 18th the Prussian armies were concentrated on the Russbach. Archduke Albert, recalled from Italy, had taken command of the troops covering Vienna, but the internal condition of the empire, where Hungary was in agitation, was too disquieting for it to be possible, without aid, to continue the war. This aid Napoleon III could and should have furnished. The French army had suffered from the expedition to Mexico. Yet it would have been possible to put a hundred thousand men on foot immediately, and, later on, Bismarck acknowledged that this would have sufficed to change the result. But Napoleon III was ill and swayed between opposing influences. Prince Napoleon, whom he heeded very much, was decidedly in favor of Prussia. Accordingly, no step was taken but an offer of mediation. Then he had the weakness, in spite of his minister, Drouyn de Lhuys, to consent to the annexations which Prussia wished to bring about in northern Germany. He asked, however, that Austria lose only Venetia, but it was precisely Bismarck's will that had, and not without difficulty, persuaded Icing William that he must not, by territorial demands, compromise the alliance which he afterwards realized.
On July 26th the peace preliminaries of Nikolsburg were signed. Austria paid a considerable indemnity, abandoned its former position in Germany, acknowledged the extension of Prussian authority to the line of the Main and the annexations which Prussia would deem it to its purpose to make. The three Danish duchies were likewise abandoned. It was stipulated only that the inhabitants of northern Schleswig should be consulted as to their wish to be restored or not to Denmark, which was never done. The definitive treaty was signed on August 25th at Prague. As for Italy, Francis Joseph had ceded Venetia to Napoleon III, who was to transmit it to Victor Emmanuel, but the Italians protested loudly against the idea of being satisfied with so little. They wanted in addition at least the Trent country. "Have you, then," Bismarck said to them, "lost another battle to claim a province more?" On August 10th the preliminaries of peace were signed on that side. The final treaty, that of Vienna, was concluded on October 3, 1866.
Prussia, now master of Germany, annexed Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, Nassau and the city of Frankfort, which increased its population by four and a half millions. The rest of the northern states as far as the Main were to form wider its direction the Confederation of Northern Germany (proclaimed July 1, 1867), with a constitution exactly the same as that of the German empire of today. As for the southern states, they remained independent, but signed military agreements which connected them with Prussia. Napoleon III tried in vain to obtain a compensation for that enormous increase of power. To the first overtures which he made to this end (he wanted the Palatinate) Bismarck answered with a flat refusal and a threat of war. He added, however, that he would consent to an enlargement of France from Belgium, a project which he was afterwards careful to mention as coming from the Paris cabinet.
Bismarck had succeeded in humbling Austria and reducing its importance among the great Powers of Europe, and had expanded Prussia alike on the north and south and made it decisively the ruling nation in Central Europe. As we have seen, it had concluded military agreements with the states of southern Germany. It held them also in another manner, namely, by means of the Zollverein, signed anew on June 4, 1867. But it was as yet far from having brought about a peaceful realization of unity. The southern states, not merely the sovereigns only, but the peoples as well, had always shown little taste for Prussian leadership, and after 1866 this feeling was very visible. It was for that reason that Bismarck had need of a war against France to strengthen his position. Union against the foreigner was the cement with which he hoped to complete political unity. Such a war came near breaking out in 1867 in relation to Luxembourg. Napoleon III keenly desired to have at least that country as compensation for Prussia's aggrandizements, and the king of Holland was disposed to cede his rights for a consideration. But Bismarck, after having secretly approved of the bargain, officially declared his opposition to it. Napoleon, hampered at one and the same time by the Paris Exposition of that year and by the bad condition of his army, was too happy to escape from embarrassment, since it was evident that the Prussians were not willing to evacuate the fortress of Luxembourg, by obtaining with the aid of the other Powers that the little duchy be declared neutral and the walls of its capital destroyed.
In spite of this arrangement, it remained certain to everybody that a conflict would break out in a short time between France and Prussia. We have seen what reasons Bismarck had for the methods pursued by him and those projected. Napoleon III's government, justly censured by opinion for the weakness which it had shown in 1866 and constantly losing its authority, was destined to fall into the first trap its adversary would set for it. What this trap was and the momentous events to which it led will be described in the next chapter.