Modern history


Four Wars

For nearly half a century after 1815, Prussia stood on the sidelines of European power politics, steering in the lee of the great powers, avoiding commitments and shying away from conflict. It avoided antagonizing its powerful neighbours. It acquiesced in Russian tutelage over its foreign policy. Prussia was the only major European power to remain neutral during the Crimean War (1854–6). To some, it even seemed that Prussia’s status as a member of the concert of the great European powers was obsolete. Prussia, a Times leader article observed in 1860, was

always leaning on somebody, always getting somebody to help her, never willing to help herself [… ] present in Congresses, but absent in battles [… ] ready to supply any amount of ideals or sentiments, but shy of anything that savours of the actual. She has a large army, but notoriously one in no condition for fighting. [… ] No one counts on her as a friend; no one dreads her as an enemy. How she became a great Power, history tells us; why she remains so nobody can tell.1

And yet, within eleven years of this blistering appraisal, the Kingdom of Prussia had reinvigorated its armed forces, driven Austria out of Germany, destroyed the military might of France, built a new nation-state and transformed the European balance of power in a burst of political and military energy that astonished the world.


It was no coincidence that the unifications of Italy and Germany were accomplished within a decade of each other. The cultural prehistory of the German nation-state extends back into and beyond the eighteenth century, but the chain of events that made its foundation a political possibility began with the second Italian war of unification. On 26 April 1859, the Austrian Empire declared war on the north Italian Kingdom of Piedmont. This was a conflict that had been planned in advance. During the summer of 1858, the Piedmontese Prime Minister Camillo di Cavour had negotiated a defensive alliance with Emperor Napoleon III of France. In the spring of 1859, Cavour provoked Vienna by massing Piedmontese troops near the border with Austrian Lombardy. The resulting Austrian declaration of war activated France’s obligations under the secret treaty. French troops rushed southwards across the Alps in the first major mobilization by railway. Between the end of April and the beginning of July, the joint French-Piedmontese forces occupied Lombardy, winning two major victories against the Austrians at Magenta (4 June) and Solferino (24 June). Piedmont annexed the Duchy of Lombardy; the duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany and the papal territory of Romagna were coaxed into a union with Turin. Piedmont now controlled the north of the peninsula and things might have stayed that way, had it not been for an invasion of the south by a band of volunteers under the command of Giuseppe Garibaldi. The Kingdom of Naples quickly collapsed, clearing the way for the unification of most of the peninsula under the rule of the Piedmontese monarchy. An Italian kingdom was proclaimed in March 1861.

The Prussian monarch, William I, and his foreign minister, Alexander von Schleinitz, responded to these events with the usual Prussian circumspection. As the Franco-Austrian conflict loomed, Prussia stuck to the middle ground, adopting neither the ‘conservative’ option of an alliance with Vienna, nor the ‘liberal’ option of a partnership with France against Austria. There were the usual efforts to make incremental gains in Germany at Austria’s expense. Berlin promised, for example, to assist Austria against France, but only on the condition that Prussia be placed in command of all the non-Austrian Confederal contingents. This proposal, which recalled the security initiatives of Bernstorff and Radowitz during the war scares of 1830–32 and 1840–41, was rejected on prestige grounds by the Austrian Emperor. At about the same time, Berlin deployed heavy troop concentrations to the Rhineland to deter Napoleon III from extending the sphere of his operations to western Germany. There was nothing particularly remarkable or unexpected about these measures. In responding thus to the Italian crisis (and the accompanying French war scare), the Prussian government worked within the well-worn grooves of a tentative dualist rivalry that sought to avoid direct confrontation while embracing the opportunity to expand Prussian influence at Austria’s expense.

Yet it is clear in retrospect that the Italian war set Prussian national policy on a new footing. It was obvious to contemporaries that there were parallels between the Italian and the German predicament. In both cases a strong sense (within the educated elite) of historical and cultural nationhood coexisted with the fact of dynastic and political division (though Italy had only seven separate states to Germany’s thirty-nine). In both cases, it was Austria that stood in the way of national consolidation. There were also clear parallels between Piedmont and Prussia. Both states were noted for their confident bureaucracies and their modernizing reforms, and both were constitutional monarchies (since 1848). Each had sought to suppress popular nationalism while at the same time manoeuvring to extend its own influence in the name of the nation over the lesser states within its sphere of interest. It was thus easy for small-German enthusiasts of a Prussian-led union to project the Italian events of 1859–61 on to the German political map.2

The Italian war also demonstrated that new doors had opened within the European political system. Most important of these was the estrangement between Austria and Russia. In 1848, the Russians had saved the Austrian Empire from partition at the hands of the Hungarian national movement. During the Crimean War of 1854–6, however, the Austrians had made the fateful decision to join the anti-Russian coalition, a move that was seen in St Petersburg as rank treachery. Vienna thereby irretrievably forfeited the Russian support that had once been the cornerstone of its foreign policy.3Cavour was the first European politician to show how this realignment could be exploited to his state’s advantage.

The events of 1859 were instructive in other ways as well. Under Napoleon III, France emerged as a power prepared to challenge by force the European order established at Vienna in 1815. The Prussians now felt the ancestral threat from the west more keenly than ever. The shock effect of the French intervention in Italy was heightened by memories of the first Napoleon, whose ascendancy had begun with the subjugation of the Italian peninsula and continued with an invasion of the Rhineland. The Prussian mobilization of 1859 may not have been the disaster some historians have described, but it did nothing to allay the sense of vulnerability to a resurgent Bonapartist France.4 As for the Austrians, they had fought bitterly to keep their Italian possessions, inflicting 18,000 casualties on the Franco-Piedmontese at Magenta and Solferino. Would they not also fight to defend their political pre-eminence within a divided Germany? Prussia’s position was in some respects worse than Piedmont’s, for it seemed clear that the middling states of the ‘third Germany’ (unlike the lesser north Italian principalities) would support Austria in any open struggle between the two potential German hegemons. ‘Almost all Germany for the last forty years has [… ] cherished a hostile spirit against Prussia,’ William wrote to Schleinitz on 26 March 1860, ‘and for a year this has decidedly been on the increase.’5

The Italian war was thus a reminder of the centrality of armed force to the resolution of entrenched power-political conflicts, and the view gained ground within the military leadership that Prussia would have to reform and strengthen its army if it was to meet the challenges facing it in the near future. This was not a new problem. Since the 1810s, financial constraints had meant that the size of the army had not kept pace with the growth in the Prussian population. By the 1850s, only about one-half of the young men of eligible age were being drafted. There were also concerns about the quality of the Landwehr militia created to fight Napoleon by the military reformers Scharnhorst and Boyen, as its officers were trained to much less exacting standards.

Leading the campaign for military reform was the new regent, Prince William of Prussia. William was already a 61-year-old man with an impressive spray of whiskers when he began in 1858 to deputize for his older brother, who had been incapacitated by a sequence of strokes. William’s emotional attachment to the Prussian army was deeply rooted in his biography. He had worn a uniform since the age of six. On 1 January 1807, at the age of nine, he received his ensign’s commission (together with promotion to lieutenant as a Christmas present). His earliest experiences in service were bound up with the memory of invasion and the flight of the royal family to East Prussia. Unlike his more mentally agile elder brother, William disliked his lessons and was never happier than when in the company of his fellow cadets and military tutors.6 It is easy to imagine how important the companionable routines of service must have become after the trauma of his mother’s death in 1810. William’s devotion was focused on the regular army of the line, not on the auxiliary militias of the Landwehr. William was repelled by the civilian ethos of the Landwehr, which he regarded as both militarily ineffective and politically unreliable. Boyen and Scharnhorst had set out to forge a military establishment that would feel and engage the patriotic enthusiasms of the people. William and his military advisers wanted an armed force that was responsive only to the will of the sovereign.

It would be going too far to suggest that William already had in mind the unification of Germany by armed Prussian force – his thinking on the German question was much more open-ended than that. Yet there is no doubt that he was a consistent enthusiast for the idea of a closer German union of some kind, and that he envisaged this as occurring under Prussian captaincy. William had shared his brother’s enthusiasm for the ill-fated Erfurt Union and was disappointed by the Prussian retreat at Olmütz. ‘Whoever wants to govern Germany must conquer it first,’ he had written in 1849. ‘Whether the time for this unification has come, God alone knows; but that Prussia is destined to stand at the summit of Germany is an underlying fact of our history. But when and how? That is the question.’ During his posting to the Rhineland as military governor in 1849, William cultivated contacts with ‘small-German’ liberal enthusiasts of a Prussian-led union. ‘Prussia’s historical development shows that it is destined to lead Germany,’ he wrote in April 1851.7

In order to meet the challenges of a more aggressive German policy, Prussia needed a flexible and highly effective military instrument. William and his military advisers aimed to double the size of the Prussian army by raising the number of recruits in each annual levy, extending the period of basic training by six months to three years and lengthening the period of service in the regular army reserve from two to five years. The regent also proposed to draw a clearer line between the regular army and the Landwehr, which was to be separated from the front line and regular reserve units and relegated to a subordinate position at the rear.

The government’s call for military reform was not in itself particularly controversial. Military expenditure had been in relative decline since 1848 and there was broad support across the liberal majority in the parliament for the idea that Prussia needed a stronger army if it was to remain capable of independent action. The events of 1859, moreover, produced a remarkable mobilization of liberal nationalist opinion across northern Germany, culminating in the foundation of the National Society (Nationalverein) in September 1859. Led by the Hanoverian nobleman Rudolf von Bennigsen, this was an elite body of several thousand parliamentary deputies, university professors, lawyers and journalists, whose purpose was to lobby the Prussian government on behalf of the small-German cause.

The real problem lay in the question of the political relationship between the army and the parliament. Three aspects of the regent’s reform programme particularly antagonized the liberals. The first was the plan to do away with what remained of the Landwehr’s independence. The military chiefs viewed the Landwehr as the defunct remnant of a bygone era, but for many liberals it remained a potent embodiment of the ideal of a people’s army. The second bone of contention was the regent’s insistence on a three-year training period for soldiers of the line. Liberals rejected this in part because of the cost implications, and in part because they believed – with some justice – that the three-year period was intended less as a military than as a political measure, to ensure that soldiers were imbued with conservative and militarist values, as well as trained to make war. Underlying both these issues was the central question of the monarch’s unique, extra-constitutional power of command – the Kommandogewalt.8

Conflict over the military was pre-programmed into the Prussian political system after 1848. The issue had both a constitutional and a broader cultural dimension. The constitutional problem was simply that the monarch and the parliament had potentially conflicting rights over the army. The monarch was responsible for command functions and in general for the composition and functionality of the military establishment. But it was the parliament that controlled funding. From the crown’s point of view, the army was an organization bound in personal loyalty to the monarch and quite independent of the parliament. Liberal parliamentarians, by contrast, took the view that their budgetary powers implied a limited right to co-determine the character of the army. This implied not only policing expenditure, but also ensuring that the army reflected the values of the broader political culture – this latter issue was the tripwire that had precipitated the crisis of the Berlin parliament in 1848. On both sides, the issues involved were of constitutive importance. William insisted that the Kommandogewalt was an unalienable attribute of his sovereignty, while the liberals saw that the curtailment of their budgetary powers or the creation of a reactionary praetorian guard honed for the purpose of domestic repression would make a nonsense of the powers granted to parliament under the new constitution.

The military-constitutional conflict that resulted gradually brought the Prussian constitutional system created in 1848 to a standstill. Early in 1860, the government presented two bills to parliament, one outlining reforms and the other approving funds. William saw these bills as distinct in their constitutional status; it was permissible for the parliament to have a say in the question of financing, since budgetary powers were essential attributes of the assembly. On the other hand, he did not recognize the right of the deputies to tamper with the details of the proposed reform itself, which fell, as he saw it, within the sphere of his power of command. The parliament responded to this gambit by making only a provisional grant of extra monies – tactically an unwise step, as it turned out, since it permitted the government to go ahead with the first phase of the reforms, even though final approval had not yet been given.

A process of political radicalization set in among the liberals. In January, a group of seventeen deputies broke off from the main body of the liberal faction to become the core of the new Progressive Party (Fortshrittspartei). Thinking that a more conservative parliament might give the administration an easier ride, William dissolved the parliament and called for new elections. The new chamber returned at the end of 1861 was even more resolutely liberal than the old, with over 100 Progressive Party members. The conservative faction, who had ruled the roost in the 1850s, were cut back to a rump of only fifteen members. The new chamber was no more willing to approve the military reforms than its predecessor; in the spring of 1862 it too was dissolved. The new elections of May 1862 merely confirmed the intractability of the standoff. More than 230 of the 325 deputies belonged to liberal factions.

Among the men who ran Prussia’s military establishment there were some who now favoured an all-out break with the constitutional system. Of these, the most influential was the chief of the military cabinet, Edwin von Manteuffel, cousin of the minister-president, whose conservative reformism had done so much to secure the new constitutional system after the 1848 revolutions. Edwin was both more charismatic and less politically flexible than his cousin. He was an army man of the old school who equated his relationship with the monarch with the fealty of a German tribesman to his chieftain. Contemporary prints show an upright, hyper-masculine figure with thick curling hair, the lower half of the face concealed behind a hedge of dense beard.9 As a member of the military cabinet, a body attached directly to the person of the king, he stood completely outside the parliamentary/constitutional order.

Manteuffel could be ruthless in defence of his ‘honour’ and that of the Prussian army (which he appears to have seen as essentially the same thing). In the spring of 1861, when a liberal city councillor by the name of Karl Twesten published an article criticizing the proposed military reforms and attacking Manteuffel personally for seeking to alienate the army from the people, the general offered the councillor the choice between a full public retraction and a duel. Unwilling to endure the humiliation of a retraction, Twesten chose the duel, though he was no marksman. The councillor’s bullet flew wide, while the general’s drilled his opponent through the arm. The episode highlighted not just the polarization generated by the military question, but the increasingly raw style of public life in post-1848 Prussia.

There was a moment of collective paranoia in the early months of 1862 when Manteuffel’s extreme views enjoyed a certain resonance among conservatives close to the monarch, but the post-revolutionary consensus held firm and the general’s ‘great hour’ never arrived.10 Neither King William (Frederick William IV had died in January 1861) nor the majority of his political and military advisers seriously contemplated an all-out break with the constitution. The minister of war, Albrecht von Roon, the chief architect of the proposed reforms, preferred to search for a compromise that would spare the system while preserving the essence of the reform programme.11 Even King William found it easier to imagine his own voluntary departure from office than to contemplate a return to absolutism. By September 1862, he appeared to be on the point of abdicating in favour of his son, Crown Prince Frederick William, who was known to be sympathetic to the liberal position. It was Albrecht von Roon who persuaded the king to step back from the brink and adopt a measure of last resort: the appointment of Otto von Bismarck to the minister-presidency of Prussia.


45. Otto von Bismarck at the age of thirty-two. Woodcut, after an anonymous drawing from 1847.


Who was Otto von Bismarck? Let us begin with a letter he wrote in the spring of 1834, when he was just nineteen years old. His school-leaving certificate had been delayed; as a result, doubts arose about whether he would be able to matriculate in the University of Berlin. In this transitional moment, forced into idleness and full of uncertainty about what the future held, the young Bismarck was moved to reflect on what would become of him if he failed to gain entry to university. From the family estate at Kniephof he penned the following lines to his school friend Scharlach:

I shall amuse myself for a few years waving a sword at raw recruits, then take a wife, beget children, till the soil and undermine the morals of my peasantry by the inordinate distillation of spirits. So, if in 10 years’ time you should happen to find yourself in the neighbourhood, I invite you to commit adultery with an easy and curvaceous young woman selected from the estate, to drink as much potato brandy as you fancy and to break your neck out hunting as often as you see fit. You will find here a fleshy home-guard officer with a moustache that curses and swears till the earth trembles, cultivates a proper repugnance to Jews and Frenchmen, and thrashes his dogs and domestics with egregious brutality when bullied by his wife. I shall wear leather trousers, make a fool of myself at the Stettin wool market and when people address me as baron I shall stroke my moustache benignly and knock a bit off the price; I shall get pissed on the king’s birthday and cheer him vociferously and the rest of the time I shall sound off regularly and my every other word will be: ‘Gad what a splendid horse!’12

This letter is worth citing at such length because it demonstrates how much ironic distance there was in the young Bismarck’s perception of his own social milieu – the milieu of the East-Elbian Junkers. Bismarck often liked to play the part of the red-necked Krautjunker of the Prussian boondocks, but in reality he was a rather untypical example of the type. His father was the real thing: he was descended from five centuries of noble East-Elbian landowners. But his mother’s family carried the imprint of a different tradition. Bismarck’s mother, Wilhelmine Mencken, was the descendant of an academic family from Leipzig in Saxony. Her grandfather had been a professor of law who entered the employ of the Prussian state to serve as cabinet secretary under Frederick the Great.13

It was Wilhelmine Mencken who made the key educational decisions for her sons; Bismarck consequently received a rather uncharacteristic upbringing for a member of his class: he began, not with Cadet School, but with a classic bourgeois education as a boarder at the Plammann Institute in Berlin – a school for the sons of senior civil servants. From there he progressed to the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium, and later to the universities of Göttingen (1832–3) and Berlin (1834–5). There followed a four-year period of civil service training in Aachen and Potsdam. Bored by the monotony and the lack of personal autonomy that were the hallmarks of civil service training, young Otto retired, to the astonishment and dismay of his family, to work on his own estate at Kniephof, where he stayed from 1839 to 1845. During this long interlude, he played the Junker in heroic style; these were years of heavy eating and drinking, with epic breakfasts of meat and ale. And yet a closer examination of life at home with Otto von Bismarck reveals some thoroughly unjunkerly pursuits, such as wide reading in the works of Hegel, Spinoza, Bauer, Feuerbach and Strauss.

These observations suggest themes that are important to an understanding of Bismarck’s political life. His background and attitude help to explain the fractured relationship between Bismarck and the conservatives who were – in their own eyes at least – the natural representatives of the landed aristocracy. Bismarck was never really one of them, and they, sensing this, never really trusted him. He never shared the corporatism of the Old Conservatives; he had never been attracted to a world-view that saw the Junker interest as pitted in corporate solidarity against the state. He had little interest in championing the rights of the locality and the province against the claims of the central authority; he did not see revolution and the reforming state as two faces of the same satanic conspiracy against the natural historic order. On the contrary, Bismarck’s remarks on politics and history were always informed by a deep respect for – and even at times a crude glorification of – the absolutist state, and above all of its capacity for autonomous action. ‘When Prussia was invoked in his speeches, it was the Prussia of the Great Elector and of Frederick, never the backward-looking utopia of the corporative state that put a curb on absolutism.’14

Like his maternal ancestors, Bismarck would seek his fulfilment as an adult in service to the state. But he would serve the state without being a servant. The link to the Estate was not in itself a destiny – it was too narrow and boring for that – but it represented an assurance of independence. The tie to the Estate, with the sense of mastery and separateness that it brought, was a fundamental strut in Bismarck’s concept of personal autonomy – as he explained in a letter to his cousin at the age of twenty-three, a man who aspired to play a role in public life must ‘carry over into the public sphere the autonomy of private life’.15 His concept of that autonomy of private life was emphatically not bourgeois; it derived from the social world of the landed estate, whose lord is responsible to none but himself.

The consequences of this understanding of his own place in the world can be observed in his demeanour as a public figure, and particularly in his tendency towards insubordination. Bismarck never behaved as if he had a boss. This was most glaringly apparent in his relations with William I. As chancellor, Bismarck frequently pushed policies through against the monarch’s will; when the king created obstructions, Bismarck resorted to tantrums and fits of weeping, backed up by the threat – sometimes unspoken and sometimes explicit – to resign and return to the comfort and peace of his estate. When Bismarck wanted to consolidate his relationship with the monarch, he generally did so not by endearing himself directly to the sovereign, but by engineering crises that highlighted his own indispensability, like a helmsman who steers into the storm in order to demonstrate his mastery of the ship.

Bismarck appeared to stand outside the ideological prescriptions of any one interest. He was not an aristocratic corporatist; nor, on the other hand, was he, or could he be, a liberal. Nor, for all his civil service experience, did he ever identify with the ‘fourth estate’ of the bureaucrats (throughout his life he regarded the ‘pen-pushers’ (Federfuchser) of the administrative bureaucracy with a certain disdain). The result was a freedom from ideological constraints that made his behaviour unpredictable – one could call it realism, pragmatism or opportunism – an ability in any case to spring from one camp to the other, wrong-footing his opponents or exploiting the differences among them. Bismarck was not accountable. He could collaborate with the forces of liberalism against the conservatives (and vice versa), he could flourish the democratic franchise as a weapon against elitist liberalism, he could puncture the pretensions of the nationalists by seeming to take charge of the national cause.

Bismarck was perfectly conscious about all of this. He disparaged theory and principle as yardsticks for political life: ‘Politics is no science, it is an art, and anyone without the knack for it should leave it alone.’16‘If I am to proceed through life on the basis of principles, it is as if I were to walk down a narrow path in the woods and had to hold a long pole in my mouth.’ Bismarck’s ability to toss away the pole when it became bothersome shocked those friends who believed they were his ideological soulmates. One of these was the conservative nobleman Ludwig von Gerlach (brother of Leopold) who fell out with Bismarck in 1857 over whether Napoleon III should be treated as a legitimate monarch despite the fact that he had been carried into power by a revolution. So Bismarck was not a man of principle; he is better described as the man of detachment from principle, the man who disconnected himself from the romantic attachments of an older generation to practise a new kind of politics, flexible, pragmatic, emancipated from fixed ideological commitments. Public emotion and public opinion were not authorities to be indulged or followed, but forces to be managed and steered.

Bismarck’s post-romantic politics was also part of the broader transformation wrought by the revolutions of 1848. In this sense, Bismarck belongs in the company of Cavour, Field Marshal Saldanha, Pius IX and Napoleon III. The point has sometimes been made that Bismarck learned much from the populist authoritarianism of the French Emperor, and that his governance as German chancellor after 1871 amounted to a belated German version of ‘bonapartism’.17 However, the importance of the French model should not be overstated. Prussia itself, as we have seen, underwent a transformation in governmental practices after 1848. Like Otto von Manteuffel and the new king himself, Bismarck was a ‘man of 1848’, prepared to mix politics in new combinations. Like Manteuffel, he saw the monarchical state as the key actor in political life. It was during Manteuffel’s period in office that Bismarck acquired his shrewd ‘respect’ for public opinion, not as the arbiter of the future but as a subordinate partner to be cajoled and manipulated into cooperation. As the Prussian representative at the headquarters of the German Confederation in Frankfurt, Bismarck was entrusted with the covert channelling of government funds to friendly newspaper editors and journalists. Governmental manipulation of the press was a device that Bismarck would later raise to a high art.

In the autumn of 1862, Bismarck was installed as minister-president in Berlin. His objective, as he explained in a letter to the crown prince, was to secure ‘an understanding with the majority of the deputies’, while at the same time safeguarding the powers of the crown and the proficiency of the army.18 Bismarck opened play by concocting a modified military reform programme that would enlarge the army and secure government control in key areas while meeting the liberal demand for two-year service. This gambit foundered on the resistance of Edwin von Manteuffel, who succeeded in persuading the king to withhold his support. It was the old problem of the antechamber of power. Bismarck immediately understood that the key to remaining in office now lay in neutralizing all rivals for the king’s confidence, and he altered his policy accordingly. The attempt at compromise was abandoned and Bismarck switched to a policy of open confrontation designed to assure the king of his absolute dedication to the crown and its interests. The military reforms were put in train and taxes collected without parliamentary approval, civil servants were informed that disobedience and political involvement with the opposition would be punished with immediate dismissal, and the parliament was baited into ineffectual and self-undermining expressions of outrage. All this sufficed to convince the king of Bismarck’s skill and dependability and he soon began to overshadow the other competitors for influence over the monarch.

In other respects, however, Bismarck’s position remained extremely fragile. A further election in October 1863 produced a chamber with only thirty-eight pro-government deputies. The battle for public opinion had evidently been lost. The king was so downcast by the election results that he reportedly sank into despondency and remarked, while looking down from a window above Palace Square: ‘Down there is where they will put up a guillotine for me.’19 The political paralysis in Berlin also appeared to be undermining Prussia’s ability to make the running in the German question. In 1863, while Bismarck struggled with the chamber, the Austrians were busy drafting and proposing reforms that would breathe new life into the German Confederation.

Berlin seemed to be drifting. The Prussian minister-president’s achievements in the realm of foreign policy appeared modest, to say the least: in 1863, he succeeded in blocking the Austrian reform project and continued to stave off Vienna’s efforts to join the German Customs Union. More important was Bismarck’s rapprochement with Russia, formalized in the Alvensleben Convention (8 February 1863). This agreement, by which Prussia and Russia undertook to collaborate in the suppression of Polish nationalism, secured the goodwill of St Petersburg, but it was deeply unpopular with Polonophile liberals and helped to make Bismarck a widely hated figure. After only eighteen months in office, the new minister-president had made a mark as an unusually energetic, ruthless and inventive political tactician. From a contemporary standpoint, however, it was still easy to imagine that he might struggle on for a year or two before being dismissed to make way for a compromise settlement with the lower house of parliament. It was the Danish war of 1864 that transformed Bismarck’s fortunes.


In the winter of 1863, Schleswig-Holstein was in the news again. Frederick VII of Denmark had died on 15 November 1863, triggering a succession crisis. As there was no direct male heir (the Danish Crown passed instead via the maternal line to Christian of Glücksburg), a dispute arose over who had a legitimate hereditary claim to rule over the duchies. The details of the Schleswig-Holstein controversy have always been taxing to follow – the more so as nearly everyone involved in it was called either Frederick or Christian – and the following is a sketch of the salient points. A series of international treaties had established in the early 1850s that the new King of Denmark, Christian of Glücksburg, would succeed on the same terms as his predecessor, Frederick VII.20 In 1863, however, the waters were muddied by the appearance of a rival claimant, Prince Frederick of Augustenburg. The Augustenburgs did have a longstanding claim to the duchies, but Prince Frederick’s father, Christian of Augustenburg, had agreed to renounce it as part of the 1852 Treaty of London. In 1863, however, Frederick of Augustenburg declared himself unbound by the treaty of 1852 and defiantly adopted the title ‘Duke of Schleswig-Holstein’. His claim was enthusiastically supported by the German nationalist movement.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the distinctive quality of the Schleswig-Holstein crisis. Modern and pre-modern themes were interwoven. On the one hand, it was an old-fashioned dynastic crisis, triggered, like so many seventeenth and eighteenth-century crises, by the death of a king without male issue. In this sense, we might call the conflict of 1864 ‘the War of the Danish Succession’. On the other hand, Schleswig-Holstein became the flashpoint for a major war only because of the role played by nationalism as a mass movement. The galvanizing effect of the Schleswig-Holstein issue on the German national movement had already made itself felt in the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848;in 1863–4, German nationalist opinion demanded that the duchies be constituted jointly as a new German federal state under the rule of the Augustenburg dynasty. Nationalism was crucial on the Danish side as well: the Danish nationalist movement demanded that Denmark defend its claim to Schleswig, and it was supported in this by the mainstream of Danish liberal opinion. The inexperienced and ineffectual new king, Christian IX, thus faced an explosive domestic situation when he came to the throne. At one point, the demonstrations taking place outside the royal palace in Copenhagen were so turbulent that the city’s chief of police warned of the imminent collapse of law and order in the capital. It was anxiety about the prospect of political upheaval that forced the hand of the new king. By signing the November Constitution of 1863, Christian IX announced his intention to absorb the Duchy of Schleswig into the Danish unitary state, a gesture denounced by the German nationalists as an unpardonable provocation.

There were now three conflicting positions on the duchies. The Danes insisted on the incorporation of Schleswig as set out in the November Constitution of 1863. The German nationalist movement and the majority of states in the Confederation favoured the Augustenburg claim and were prepared to support an armed intervention. The Prussians and the Austrians opposed the Augustenburg claim and insisted that the Danes (and the Augustenburgs) abide by the promises made in the international treaties of 1850 and 1852. After much horse-trading at the Confederal Diet in December, a resolution was passed (by just one vote) that an intervention could proceed on the basis of the London treaties. On 23 December 1863, a small Confederal task force crossed the Danish frontier and moved northwards without resistance to occupy most of Holstein south of the river Eider. The strains within the Confederation soon began to tell. The task force (with only 12,000 men) had been sufficient to take undefended Holstein, but Schleswig would be another matter. The Danes were expected to put up a vigorous defence and a much larger force would be required to ensure success. Still acting in concert, Prussia and Austria declared that they were prepared to invade Schleswig, but only in their own right as European powers and only on the basis of the treaties of 1851 and 1852, not as representatives of the German Confederation and not in support of the Augustenburg claim. In January 1864, the two powers presented their joint ultimatum separately to Denmark (without consulting the other Confederal states) and, when the Danes refused to comply, moved their combined forces across the river Eider and into Schleswig.

It was a remarkable turnaround. The Austro-Prussian rivalry of the 1850s and early 1860s seemed to have made way for a mood of sweet harmony and cooperation. But the apparent unity of purpose concealed a pandemonium of conflicting expectations. For the Austrian Chancellor Count Johann Bernhard Rechberg, the joint campaign was a chance to discredit the German nationalist movement while establishing an Austro-Prussian condominium over Germany and reinvigorating the trans-territorial institutions of the German Confederation. It was also a way of preventing Berlin from securing major unilateral gains (such as the annexation of Schleswig) at Denmark’s (and Austria’s) expense. At the back of Rechberg’s mind was another threatening prospect: Napoleon III, who had begun to warm to his role as Europe’s troublemaker, had suggested to the Prussians that France would support the outright annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, along with the lesser states of northern Germany, to Prussia. It looked as if Paris was angling for another anti-Austrian war, with Prussia playing the role of Piedmont. Rechberg, who was kept fully informed by Bismarck of these initiatives, knew this was a war that the Austrian Empire could not afford to fight.

Bismarck’s agenda could scarcely have been more different. The Confederation as such played no role in his planning. His ultimate objective was to annex the duchies to Prussia. The Prussian Chief of Staff Helmut von Moltke may well have been the key influence here. Moltke was strongly opposed to the transformation of the duchies into an independent principality, on the grounds that the new entity might become a satellite of the Habsburgs and open up a hole in Prussia’s northern seaward flank. As Bismarck knew, however, a unilateral annexation would have exposed Prussia to the threat of combined reprisals from Austria, the rest of the Confederation, and possibly one or more European powers. The extra troops would also come in handy, especially if, as Moltke warned, the Danes succeeded in exploiting their superiority at sea to evacuate their troops from the mainland. The agreement to work with Austria was thus a temporary device to limit risk and ensure that all options remained open.21

The Danish war came to an end on 1 August 1864, when the Danes were forced to sue for peace. Three features of the conflict deserve emphasis. The first is that the Prussians did not outperform the Austrians militarily. One early mistake was to nominate the Prussian Field Marshal Count Friedrich Heinrich Ernst von Wrangel as overall commander of the allied forces. The eighty-year-old Wrangel was old for his years and, though popular with the conservatives at court, at best a mediocre general. All his combat experience had been acquired against civilian insurgents in the revolutions of 1848. While Wrangel lurched from blunder to blunder in Denmark, the Austrian units acquitted themselves with courage and skill. On 2 February 1864, one Austrian brigade charged and took the Danish positions at Ober-Selk with such panache that old Wrangel rushed to embrace and kiss its commander on the cheeks, to the embarrassment of his Prussian colleagues. Four days later, the Austrian Brigade Nostitz broke through heavily defended Danish fortifications at Oeversee, while a Prussian Guards division on their flank looked on almost inert. These were frustrating setbacks for an army that had not experienced war for half a century and desperately needed to prove its mettle, both to the international community and to

a domestic population that had been following the political struggle over military reform.22

A second striking feature of the conflict was the primacy of the political over the military leadership. The Danish war was the first Prussian armed conflict in which a civilian politician exercised control. Throughout the war Bismarck ensured that the evolution of the conflict served the objectives of his diplomacy. He prevented the Prussian forces from pursuing the Danish army into Jutland during the early weeks of the war, so as to reassure the great powers that the joint campaign was not aimed at the territorial integrity of the Danish kingdom. There were slip-ups, to be sure – in mid-February, Wrangel sent an advance detachment of Guards north of the Jutland border despite instructions to the contrary. But Bismarck persuaded the war minister to send a sharp reprimand to the elderly general, and Wrangel was relieved of his command at Bismarck’s insistence in mid-May. It was Bismarck who oversaw Prussian communications with Vienna, ensuring that the terms of the alliance evolved to Prussia’s advantage. And in April it was Bismarck who insisted that the Prussian forces attack the Danish fortifications at Düppel in Schleswig, rather than mounting a protracted invasion of Denmark that might have dragged the other powers into the conflict.

The decision to attack Düppel was controversial. The Danish positions there were heavily fortified and manned, and it was clear that a Prussian frontal attack would succeed only – if at all – with numerous casualties. ‘Is it supposed to be a political necessity to take the bulwarks?’ asked Prince Frederick Charles, a brother of the king, who had been placed in charge of the siege. ‘It will cost a lot of men and money. I don’t see the military necessity.’23 The case for engineering a showdown at Düppel was indeed political rather than military. A full-blown invasion of Denmark was undesirable for diplomatic reasons and the Prussians sorely needed a spectacular victory. There was much grumbling among the commanders, but Bismarck’s will prevailed and the deed was done. On 2 April, the Prussians began a heavy bombardment of the defence works, using their new rifled field guns. On 18 April, the infantry went in under the command of Frederick Charles. It was no easy fight. The Danes offered fierce resistance from behind their battered defences and subjected the Prussians to heavy fire as they climbed the slopes before the entrenchments. Over 1,000 Prussians were killed or wounded; the Danes suffered 1,700 casualties.


46. Prussian troops storm the Danish entrenchments at Düppel, 18 April 1864. Contemporary engraving.

Bismarck’s dominance throughout the conflict generated considerable tension and ill-feeling. When the commanders protested, Bismarck was quick to remind them that the army had no business interfering in the conduct of politics – itself an extraordinary declaration in the Prussian setting, and one which reveals how things had changed since the revolutions of 1848. The army, however, had no intention of accepting this verdict, as War Minister Albrecht von Roon made clear in a memorandum of 29 May 1864:

There has been, and is now hardly any army that regarded itself and understood itself to be purely a political instrument, a lancet for the diplomatic surgeon. [… ] When a government depends – and this is our situation – particularly upon the armed part of the population [… ] the army’s views on what the government does and does not do are surely not a matter of indifference.24

In the exhilaration of victory, these altercations were quickly forgotten, but the issue underlying them would later resurface in more acrimonious and menacing forms. Bismarck’s assertion of control over virtually every branch of the executive papered over but did not solve the structural problem of civil–military relations at the apex of the Prussian state. The 1848 revolutions had parliamentarized the monarchy without demilitarizing it. At the heart of the post-revolutionary settlement lay an avoided decision that would haunt Prussian (and German) politics until the collapse of the Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918.

Prussia’s victories in Denmark – Düppel was followed at the end of June by a successful amphibious assault on the island of Alsen – also transformed the domestic political landscape. The resulting wave of patriotic enthusiasm opened up latent divisions within the Prussian liberal movement. The Arnim-Boitzenburg petition of May 1864, which called for annexation of the duchies, attracted 70,000 signatures, not only from conservatives but from many liberals as well. Prussian military successes also had an unsettling effect more generally, since they seemed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the reform programme so bitterly opposed by the liberals. There was a growing desire for a settlement with the government, reinforced by the fear that if the conflict dragged on, the liberal movement would forfeit its purchase on public opinion.

During 1864 and 1865, Bismarck and ‘his’ ministers played skilfully with the parliament, confronting it with bills that divided the liberal majority or forcing it into unpopular positions. In the naval construction bill of 1865, for example, the government asked parliament to approve the building of two armed frigates and a naval base in Kiel, at a cost of just under 20 million thalers. The creation of a German navy was a fetish to the liberal nationalist movement, especially in the aftermath of the Danish war, where naval operations had played a prominent role. The overwhelming majority of the deputies strongly supported the proposed expenditures, but they were forced nevertheless to reject the bill on the grounds that, in the absence of a legal budget, no new funds could be approved by parliament. Bismarck seized his opportunity to deliver a tirade against the ‘impotently negative’ attitude of the chamber.25

The minister-president could afford to gamble in this way because the coffers of the Prussian government were full to overflowing. During the 1850s and 1860s, the Prussian economy experienced the transforming effects of the first world boom. Rapid growth in the railway network and in associated enterprises, such as steel smelting and machine-building, was supported by a phenomenal expansion in the extraction of fossil fuels. During the 1860s, the coalmines of the Ruhr district in the Prussian Rhineland grew at an average rate of 170 per cent per annum bringing economic and social change at a pace unparalleled in the history of the region. This growth was sustained by the convergence of change on many different levels: quality gains at every stage of production, savings through improvements to transport infrastructure, a highly liquid capital market (supported by the gold rushes in Australia and California), a favourable balance of trade and, as we have seen, the withdrawal of the Prussian government from various forms of regulation that had previously obstructed growth.

Although the boom slowed somewhat during the ‘first world slump’ of 1857–8, the 1860s saw a return to robust expansion, though on a broader sectoral basis than had been the case for the previous decade. By contrast with the 1850s, when growth was largely driven from within the heavy-industrial sector, the 1860s witnessed more coordinated expansion across heavy industry, textiles and agriculture. This was sustained by steadily growing investment through banks and in joint-stock companies that yielded increasingly high rates of return.26

The combination of this prolonged boom with the fiscal and financial improvements of the 1850s and the expansion of production in the state-owned mines had a predictable effect on government revenues. In March 1865 Bismarck boasted to a confidant that the Danish war had largely been financed out of budget surpluses for the previous two years; only 2 million thalers had had to be sourced from the state treasury. Nor did it seem likely that the money would run out in the near future. Obliging entrepreneurs, such as the Cologne banker Abraham Oppenheimer and his Berlin colleague Gerson Bleichröder, besieged the minister-president with lucrative offers to privatize government enterprises or buy out the state-owned shares of semi-public companies. ‘The financiers are pressing loans on us without parliamentary approval,’ Bismarck declared, ‘but we could wage the Danish War twice over without needing one.’27


On 1 August 1864, King Christian of Denmark ceded all rights to the duchies to Prussia and Austria and they passed under a joint Austro-Prussian military occupation, pending a decision concerning their future by the German Confederation. All of this looked rather like the inauguration of an era of harmonious dual hegemony based on cooperation between the two German major powers. This was certainly what the Austrians were after and Bismarck did his best to encourage their hopes. In an instruction of August 1864 to the Prussian ambassador in Vienna, he offered the ingratiating observation that ‘a true German policy is only possible when Austria and Prussia are united and take the lead. From this high standpoint, an intimate alliance of the two powers has been our aim from the outset. [… ] If Prussia and Austria are not united, politically Germany does not exist.’28 This was no more than eyewash. Bismarck’s objective was still to annex both duchies to Prussia and neutralize Austrian political influence in Germany. He planned to do so, if necessary, by war. Already in 1863 he had suggested to the Russians that Prussia might soon mount a surprise attack on the Austrian Empire ‘as under Frederick II in 1756’.29 His tactic was to keep all options open by eking out the joint occupation while at the same time picking fights with the Austrians at every possible opportunity.

In the diplomatic struggle that ensued over the future of Schleswig-Holstein the Austrians were at a geopolitical disadvantage. The duchies were extremely remote from Vienna, and Austria’s interest in maintaining a troop presence there was correspondingly lukewarm. In the autumn of 1864, the Austrians offered Berlin a choice between two courses of action: the Prussians could either (a) recognize the duchies as a separate state under the Augustenburg dynasty or (b) annex them to Prussia and compensate Austria with land along the Silesian border. Bismarck rejected both options, declaring that Silesia was not negotiable and adding rather mysteriously that Berlin had special rights in both duchies. This was followed up in February 1865 by a provocative declaration to the effect that Prussia intended to regard any form of ‘independent’ Schleswig-Holstein as a Prussian satellite. In the meanwhile, the Prussians in the duchies continued to extend their control, prompting furious complaints from the Austrians, who responded by taking the matter to the Confederal Diet and putting the Augustenburg succession back on to the table. By the summer, it looked as if war was imminent. The crisis was deferred when Francis Joseph sent an ambassador to negotiate a new agreement with King William.

The result was the Convention of Gastein signed on 14 August 1865. Based on a proposal by Bismarck, the Convention maintained joint Austro-Prussian sovereignty in the duchies, while placing Schleswig under Prussian and Holstein under Austrian control. But Gastein was no more than an interim arrangement conceived by Bismarck as a means of gaining time. The Prussian provocations in Holstein continued and in January 1866, Berlin seized on a pro-Augustenburg nationalist meeting in Holstein to accuse Vienna directly of breaking with the terms of the treaty. On 28 February, a crown council in Berlin resolved that war between the two German powers was inevitable. The assembled generals, ministers and senior diplomats agreed that Austria had failed to honour the Gastein Convention and continued to treat Prussia as a rival and an enemy. There was general assent when Bismarck pointed out that Prussia’s mission was to lead Germany and that this very ‘natural and justified’ ambition had been unjustly blocked by Austria. The crown prince was alone in pleading for a non-military resolution.30

Bismarck’s next step was to seek an alliance with Italy. Negotiations began soon after the crown council and a treaty against Austria was signed on 8 April 1866. The two states were now committed to assist each other in the event of a war breaking out with Austria over the following three months. (Bismarck also revived the time-honoured Prussian tradition of the Hungarian fifth column, deployed by Frederick the Great during the Seven Years War and again in the 1790s by Frederick William II, but his contacts with the Hungarian revolutionary movement produced nothing of any consequence.) At the crown council of 28 February, Bismarck had announced as well that he intended to seek ‘more definite guarantees’ from France, and feelers were duly extended to Paris. These produced a chain of vague proposals and counterproposals. Exactly what assurances Bismarck gave to Napoleon has been hotly disputed, but it seems likely that French neutrality was bought with the promise of compensations in Belgium, Luxembourg and possibly in the region between the Rhine and the Moselle (encompassing the Prussian Saarland and the Bavarian Palatinate). Since the Austrians secretly purchased French neutrality on very similar terms (including a French satellite state in the Rhineland!), Napoleon III had every reason to be confident that France would end up as a beneficiary of the Prusso-Austrian conflict, whoever emerged as the victor.31

Russia was the third power whose attitude was crucial to the success of Prussian designs. Russia had blocked the unionist designs of Frederick William IV and Radowitz in 1848–50, while helping to restore Austria’s fortunes. By 1866, however, things had changed. Russia was locked into a process of fundamental domestic political reform. Relations with Austria were still cool (Russian strategic planning foresaw Austria and Britain – not Prussia – as the most likely opponents in a future war). The post-Crimean estrangement between the two eastern empires had already yielded dividends for Cavour in 1859. This lesson was not lost on Bismarck, who had just left his post at Frankfurt and happened to be stationed at the Prussian embassy in St Petersburg when the Italian crisis broke. Bismarck had cultivated relations with Russia with great care since coming to office as minister-president and there seemed little reason to fear intervention from this quarter.32

These diplomatic preparations were flanked with other measures intended to disorient the German liberal camp and unsettle public confidence in the German Confederation. On 9 April, Bismarck sprang a proposal on the diet calling for the creation of a German national parliament to be elected by direct universal male suffrage. The Confederal representatives were still mulling over this unexpected initiative when news of troop movements in Italy triggered a partial Austrian mobilization on 21 April. Now began a chain of troop deployments and counter-measures that culminated in a full-scale mobilization on both sides.

As the two German great powers prepared for a war, it became clear that most of the lesser states of the Confederation supported Austria. On 9 May, a majority of representatives to the diet voted in favour of a resolution demanding that Prussia explain its mobilization. At the end of the month, the Austrians formally passed responsibility for the duchies to the Confederation. During the first week of June, Prussian troops entered Holstein, encountering no resistance from the Austrians, who withdrew into Hanover. On 11 June, the Austrian ambassador to the diet denounced the Prussian occupation of Holstein as illegal and in breach of the terms of the Convention of Gastein and proposed a resolution calling for the mobilization of the Confederation against Prussia. On 14 June, at the last plenary meeting of the diet in Frankfurt, this resolution was passed by majority vote and the Prussian ambassador walked out, declaring that his government regarded the Confederation as dissolved. Five days later, the Italians declared war on Austria.33

With Russian and French neutrality virtually assured, Prussia went to war with Austria in the summer of 1866 under an auspicious great power constellation. Yet the outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion. Most well-informed contemporaries – including Emperor Napoleon III, who had actually fought the Austrians in 1859–predicted an Austrian victory.34 The combat performance of the two armies in the Danish war had done nothing to dispel this view. It is true that Prussians had embarked on a programme of military reforms after 1859, but these were not as revolutionary as has often been claimed.35 In any case, Austria too had responded to the disasters of 1859 with its own reform programme. Its artillery was sophisticated and deployed by well-trained battery teams. It was true that Prussia enjoyed a slight superiority in numbers in the Bohemian theatre of operations where the war would be decided: 254,000 Prussians faced the 245,000 troops of Austria’s North Army. The situation would have been very different, of course, had the Italians not committed over 200,000 men to their offensive in Venetia, forcing the Austrians to divert an extra 100,000 troops to the south-western front.

Austria also enjoyed an important strategic advantage: in the diplomatic contest of 1866, most of the middling German states opted to side with Vienna against Berlin. The Prussians were thus obliged to mobilize not only against the Austrians but also against the other German combatant states, including, most importantly, Hanover and Saxony. In all, the Confederal armies of 1866 mustered some 150,000 men dispersed among a number of separate armies. This meant in turn that Prussia’s Chief of the General Staff Helmut von Moltke had to break the Prussian army into four blocks small enough to be transported quickly by Prussia’s widely separated rail lines to the Austrian, Saxon and Hanoverian frontiers. Austria, by contrast, could operate on a much more concentrated terrain and had the advantage of interior lines.

Why, then, did the Prussians win? Bismarck’s famous invocation of ‘blood and iron’has often been seen as a reference to the role of industry in consolidating Prussian power. Prussia, or at least parts of Prussia, had certainly experienced a dramatic growth in their industrial capacity during the later 1850s and 1860s. But this played a lesser role in Prussia’s victory over Austria than we might suppose.36 The figures we would need to make direct comparisons are not available, but there is little to indicate that a major qualitative gap separated the economies of the two antagonists in 1866. In some respects, indeed, the Prussian economy appears to have been more backward than the Austrian – a larger proportion of Prussians than Austrians worked in agriculture, for example. Of the various weapons that played a role in 1866, the ones requiring the most sophisticated manufacturing processes were the field guns of the artillery, and here it was the Austrians, with their accurate rifled cannon, who clearly had the advantage. In any case, this was not a war that pitted industrial economies against each other. It was a short, sharp fight in which both sides managed to get by on pre-stocked weaponry and munitions. It is true that Moltke attached great importance to the use of railways, but in the event his elaborate planning nearly brought disaster upon the Prussians, whose supply trains caught up with their armies only when the battle of Königgraätz had already been won. In the meantime, the Prussian armies lived off the land or paid their way, much as the armies of Frederick the Great had done. Industrial power thus mattered less than politics and military culture.

Although the army of the German Confederation disposed of some 150,000 men, these were hardly a formidable fighting force. They did not properly constitute an army, since they had never trained together and did not possess a unified command structure – here was the consequence of a half-century of particularism within the Confederation. Moreover, the armies of the middling states were unwilling to take the initiative against Prussia. Appealing to the stipulations of the Confederal constitution, which forbade the German states to settle their differences by force, they preferred to wait until Prussia had openly breached the peace. Bavaria, for example, which controlled the largest single contingent – the 65,000 men of the VII Federal Corps – informed Vienna early in June 1866 that the Austrians could rely on Bavarian support only if the Prussians actually invaded a fellow German state. They were thus unwilling to contemplate pre-emptive action of any kind.

Many of the other individual federal corps were hamstrung by internal political divisions that made swift and concerted action virtually impossible. In the case of the VIII Confederal Corps, for example, comprising troops from Württemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt, the commander, Prince Alexander of Hesse, was an Austrophile who favoured intervention on behalf of Austria, but the staff chief was a more cautious Württemberger. His orders from his sovereign were to slow the prince’s deployment to a crawl and to do what he could to prevent movements east, so that troops would be available if necessary to defend the frontiers of Württemberg itself. In the face of the Prussian offensive, the Hanoverian army withdrew south in the forlorn hope that the Bavarians or the Austrians might march north to join them. After a small victory against a numerically inferior force at Langensalza, they were pushed out of their defensive positions by Prussian reinforcements, compelled to surrender on 29 June, and provided with free train tickets home. News of the Hanoverian defeat further reinforced the determination of the south German states to sit tight and guard their frontiers. The only truly effective contribution came from the Saxons, who abandoned their home territory to fight alongside the Austrian North Army in Bohemia.

The chief author of the Prussian victory of 1866 was the Chief of the General Staff, Helmut von Moltke. In Bohemia, to a much greater extent than in Denmark, Moltke was able to unfold an innovative strategic conception. His approach to the Austrian war was to break the Prussian forces up into groups small enough to be moved at the highest possible speed to the point of attack. The objective was to mesh the converging units wing-to-wing only at the last minute, in order to deliver the decisive blow in battle. The advantage of this approach was that it reduced the logistical strain on narrow country roads and one-track railways and thus saved on tailbacks and traffic jams. The increased speed and manoeuvrability of the forces in the field raised the likelihood that the Prussians rather than their enemies would be able to determine the timing and the setting of the decisive engagement. It was a conception of mobilization that required sophisticated use of the most modern infrastructural resources: of railways and roads in particular, and of telegraph, since the separate armies would be out of immediate contact with each other and would need to be rigorously coordinated from headquarters. The chief potential drawback of this approach was that it could, as we have seen, so easily go wrong. If the armies were forced off course or failed to keep pace with each other, there was the risk that the enemy might attack them individually with a superior force.

Complementing this aggressive strategic approach was a set of measures designed to make the Prussian infantryman the best in Europe. In the mid-1860s, Prussia was the only European great power to be armed with a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse Zündgewehr, or needle-gun. This was essentially a rifle of the modern type, in which a cartridge consisting of a projectile mounted on a small cylindrical case of explosive charge was loaded into a metal chamber and detonated by a blow from a hammer (known as the ‘needle’ on account of its elongated shape). The needle-gun had one crucial advantage over the traditional muzzle-loading weapons still used by most European armies. It could be reloaded and fired between three and five times as fast. A man lying behind a tussock of grass, or standing behind a tree could reload, aim and fire his needle-gun without emerging from cover; there was no need to drop powder, wadding and shot down the barrel of the weapon. This allowed for a much more flexible and lethal application of infantry firepower at close quarters than had previously been possible.

There was nothing particularly mysterious about the needle-gun. The technology was widely known. Yet most military establishments chose not to introduce it as the general weapon of infantry warfare. There were good reasons for this. The early needle-gun prototypes were notoriously unreliable; the gas seals were sometimes faulty, so that the chamber exploded or emitted a searing spray of burning powder – not a feature that inspired enthusiasm in the average rifleman. Many soldiers trained with early-generation needle-guns found that the bolt action was prone to get stiff and sometimes had to be hammered open with a rock; there was also a tendency to jam during frequent fire. Another concern was that men provided with this sophisticated instrument would fire too fast, squander their costly ammunition and then toss away the now-useless gun and leave the field. By contrast, it was argued, the old muzzle-loaders with their slow rate of fire imposed a degree of discipline on infantry-lines. Perhaps the most important reason for rejecting the needle-gun was simply the widespread contemporary preference for what were known as ‘shock tactics’. These were based on the notion – a kind of orthodoxy among the military thinkers of mid nineteenth-century Europe – that infantry firepower was ultimately of secondary importance in any serious military confrontation. It was the artillery that should focus on high-accuracy, high-impact fire. What counted in the front line was the ability to unseat the enemy from a coveted position, and this was best achieved by swift charges of massed infantry with mounted bayonets.

The Prussians overcame most of the practical objections to the new weapon by rigorously testing and modifying the Dreyse prototype, with the result that its specifications steadily improved over successive batches, while the costs of production and ammunition fell. At the same time, policies were set in place to improve the technical mastery and fire discipline of the men who used the weapon. Between 1862 and 1864, while the Austrians cut their annual expenditure on target practice, relying instead on shock tactics, the Prussians introduced an extensive regime of marksmanship: infantrymen were trained to use their weapons at all ranges, educated about how to use their sights to compensate for the arc of a bullet and required to keep a record of their success or failure in a ‘shooting log’. Here, the military command could reap the rewards of Prussia’s exemplary education system. Without the kingdom’s exceptionally high rates of literacy and numeracy, a regime of this kind would have been impossible. All of this implied the cession of a much greater level of autonomy and self-governance to the rank-and-file soldier than was the norm in Europe’s mid-century armies. The new Prussian infantry were – in theory at least – professionals, not cattle to be herded in the direction of the enemy by their officers. The Prussian army’s ability to achieve technical innovation over a range of separate but interdependent domains owed much to the General Staff, which specialized in integrating weapons research with the evolution of strategy and tactical doctrine.

The result of these changes was a growing complementarity between Prussian and Austrian practices in the field. While the Austrians focused on refining their shock tactics – especially after the disasters of 1859 – the Prussians focused on ‘fire tactics’ centred on the needle-gun. Moltke was able to combine flexibility and speed in the offensive strategic deployment of large units with the controlled and defensive tactical deployment of infantry units on the battlefield. By contrast, the Austrians tended to be strategically defensive and tactically offensive. None of this made a Prussian victory inevitable. There was little reason, without hindsight, to suppose that fire would win the day over shock. The Austrians used shock tactics with great success against the Italians at Custozza on 24 June 1866, and the Prussians themselves had used them with effect against the Danes entrenched at Düppel. It also made sense, from the Austrian standpoint, to adopt a defensive strategic policy on the assumption that the attacking Prussians, with their separate armies and extended supply lines, would at some point expose themselves to a crippling Austrian strike. Nor was it obvious that the needle-gun would prove a decisive advantage – after all, the 1854 model muzzle-loader used by the majority of Austrian infantrymen was a more accurate weapon with a longer range.

In the event, however, the war in Bohemia showed that the advantages of speed outweighed those of range and that waves of infantrymen charging with bayonets mounted stood little chance against the shredding fire of well-placed infantry armed with breech-loaders. On 28 June, the Austrians were subjected to a painful early demonstration of the potency of fire tactics when General Clam-Gallas, commander of the Austrian I Corps, engaged two companies of Prussian riflemen on a bridge across the river Iser at the little town of Podol. The men of I Corps initially cleared the town with little difficulty. When Prussian reinforcements moved up, the Austrians launched a bayonet charge to repel them. But instead of running away, the Prussians stopped in their tracks, deployed their forward platoons and began firing rapidly into the mass of approaching Austrians. The shooting continued for thirty minutes. After the momentum of the Austrian attack had been broken, the Prussians combed through the town street by street, ‘keeping touch by their rifle flashes as dusk turned to night’.37 Of the 3,000 Austrians engaged in the battle for Podol, nearly 500 were shot; Prussian casualties were about 130. By two o’clock in the morning the Austrians had had enough and withdrew.

On the previous day, an encounter between units of the Prussian 2nd Army and the Austrian VI Corps on the Nachod plateau in Bohemia had produced similarly unbalanced casualty figures – 1,200 Prussians against 5,700 Austrians. In this bloody engagement, over one-fifth of the Austrians committed were either killed or wounded. Even in situations where the Austrians prevailed, as at Trautenau, where the Prussians were caught on the back foot and forced to withdraw out of Bohemia into the mountains, the scything fire of the needle-guns took 4,800 Austrian casualties to 1,300 Prussian.38

The victory of the Prussian armies cannot, of course, be ascribed solely to the needle-gun. Although it is difficult to gauge exactly the impact of such factors, there is evidence that the Austrians suffered from lower morale by comparison with their Prussian adversaries. Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians and Venetians figured prominently among those who deserted or were captured unwounded by the Prussians, suggesting that motivation among the non-German (though not the Hungarian) troops was lower than among Austrians proper. Italian subjects of the Habsburg Crown obviously had little reason to relish a war that was also being fought against their countrymen. One Prussian officer participating in the skirmish at Hühnerwasser on 26 June 1866, was surprised to come across three Venetian infantrymen sitting out the fire-fight in the tall corn around the village. At the sight of the approaching Prussian, they reportedly dropped their rifles, covered his hands in kisses and begged for mercy. There were also problems of communication: in many Austrian units, officers and men spoke different languages. Recalling the battle of Münchengraätz, the staff chief of the Austrian I Corps reported of the mixed Polish and Ukrainian XXX Regiment that it had fought bravely until dusk, when the men were no longer able to see their officers miming examples of what was needed.39 By contrast, the Polish recruits to the Prussian army proved willing and reliable soldiers.

The Austrian command culture was a further factor in the defeat. While there were certainly misunderstandings, failures of communication and episodes of disobedience by Prussian subordinate commanders, the Austrians suffered from a systemic crossing of lines of command, so that the movement of armies was frequently dogged by inconsistent or conflicting orders; there was a tendency to lose time in debating the merits of instructions from above, and officers lacked a clear sense of the immediate and longer-term objectives of a given engagement. Supply trains failed to arrive, so that troops retired from protracted actions without food or drink. The Austrians also failed to maintain a staff organization with the power and cohesion of the Prussian General Staff. By the beginning of July, the staff of the North Army in Bohemia had degenerated into a loose gathering of couriers and order-drafters. Finally, the Austrian field commander General Ludwig Benedek made a number of serious errors, the most disastrous being the deployment of Austrian troops at the beginning of July around the fortress of Königgraätz – in a position where they could be pinned down by the Prussians with the river Elbe cutting them off at the back.

It was here that the decisive battle took place on 3 July 1866. For seventeen hours, nearly half a million armed men contested a front between the river fort of Königgraätz and the Bohemian town of Sadowa. This immense engagement was no triumph of military planning. Benedek had not originally intended to give battle at Königgraätz; he had been trapped there on his way to Olmütz, and initially hoped that the Emperor would let him off the hook by entering into peace negotiations with the Prussians. As for the Prussians, as late as 30 June their two separated main armies were still finding it difficult to stay in touch and there was confusion among the Prussian commanders about the precise location of the Austrian North Army. When battle opened on 3 July, it was partly by accident. Prince Frederick Charles, commander of the Prussian 1st Army, had encountered an Austrian force on the previous evening, became convinced that Benedek had decided to stand and fight, and launched an attack in the small hours of the morning without consulting his commander-in-chief. The odds were still with the Austrians, who held the high ground, were well entrenched and enjoyed a decisive advantage in heavy artillery. Yet it was the Prussians who won the day. After the Prussian 1st Army had engaged the Austrians for most of the morning, the 2nd Army under the command of Crown Prince Frederick moved up to attack the Austrian flank. As the noose tightened around the Austrian positions, Benedek failed to take full advantage of openings in the enemy line. He also made the error of committing forty-three battalions to a desperate fight in the Swiepwald, a patch of dense wood on the Prussian left flank, where infantrymen used needle-guns to cut down wave after wave of Austrian troops. By the end of the afternoon, the Austrians had been forced to withdraw. The Prussian victory was comprehensive. Over 40,000 men of the North Army had been killed or wounded. There remained not a single combat-effective Austrian infantry brigade on the field.

On 22 July 1866, Emperor Franz Joseph capitulated to the Prussians. The Austro-Prussian war was over, just seven weeks after it had begun. The Austrian Emperor was spared any annexations, but had to agree to the dissolution of the German Confederation and the creation of a new Prussian-dominated North German Confederation to the north of the river Main. Prussia secured carte blanche to exact annexations as it pleased in the north, with the exception of the Austrians’ faithful ally, the Kingdom of Saxony. Schleswig and Holstein were annexed, along with part of Hesse-Darmstadt and the entirety of Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau and the city of Frankfurt. The unfortunate burghers of Frankfurt, the scene of Prussia’s diplomatic humiliation on the eve of the Austrian war, were subjected to a punitive indemnity of 25 million guilders.

Bismarck had prevailed over his German enemies. He prevailed over his Prussian enemies too. At the end of February 1866, the Prussian liberals had formed a solid oppositional bloc, welded together by the tyrannical and provocative behaviour of the Bismarck administration. By contrast with Austria, where there was considerable enthusiasm for a war, Prussian public opinion was overwhelmingly hostile. An anti-war rally held in the industrial city of Solingen in the Rhineland on 25 March inaugurated a wave of oppositional meetings across the monarchy. There was a flood of petitions and anti-war manifestos. It looked very much as if the liberals had succeeded in mobilizing a genuine mass movement.

The news of Prussia’s mobilization and victory transformed the situation utterly. The Prussian occupation of Hanover, Dresden and Kassel was greeted with a wave of jubilation. Cheering crowds mobbed Bismarck whenever he appeared in public. The political consequences made themselves felt in the first round of the Landtag elections on 25 June, when voting for the electoral college revealed a sharp turn towards the conservatives. On 3 July, as Prussian troops charged the Austrian positions near Königgraätz, the second round of voting returned a chamber with 142 conservative mandates (as opposed to twenty-eight in the previous chamber). Bismarck had foreseen this: ‘At the moment of decision,’ he told Count von der Goltz, the Prussian ambassador in Paris, ‘the masses will stand by the monarchy.’40

The news of the victory at Königgraätz and the subsequent capitulation left the old liberal parliamentary bloc in an impossible position. They could no longer dispute the legitimacy of the military reforms. An Austrian indemnity of 40 million florins restored the government’s liquidity and underscored its independence from the parliament. Moreover, many of the leading figures in the liberal camp were themselves profoundly moved by the scope of Prussia’s success. A characteristic example was Gustav Mevissen, the former revolutionary minister of 1848, who watched the victory parade down Unter den Linden in a state of near intoxication: ‘I cannot shake off the impression of this hour. I am no devotee of Mars; I feel more attached to the goddess of beauty and the mother of graces than to the mighty god of war, but the trophies of war exercise a magic charm upon the child of peace. One’s eyes are involuntarily riveted on [… ] the unending rows of men who acclaim the god of the moment – success.’ Another such case was the industrialist Werner Siemens, for whom the news of the victory over Austria was a transformative moment. Within the space of a few months, he broke with his left-liberal friends and campaigned for a reconciliation with Bismarck, before withdrawing entirely from politics in order to focus on building his firm.41

To many liberals, it seemed obvious that the events of 1866 had created an entirely new point of departure. The defeat of neo-absolutist Austria (and the implicit defeat of Catholicism as a force in German affairs) appeared in the eyes of many to be an intrinsically liberal achievement. Bismarck’s promise of a closer national union on a constitutional basis spoke to deeply ingrained liberal aspirations. The liberals saw national unity on the terms proposed by Bismarck as the basis for a more rational political order that would open the door to further political and constitutional progress. Underlying this sanguine vision was a belief in the essentially progressive character of the Prussian state, which in turn legitimated Prussia’s dominant role in the new Germany. There was common ground here with elements of the military leadership. Moltke, too, a sometime student of Hegel, viewed Prussia as the model of a progressive, prejudice-free, rational state to which political leadership must necessarily fall because it stood at the forefront of historical development.42 This consensus about the fundamentally progressive and virtuous quality of the state – whatever the designs of the current government – played a crucial role in healing the breach created by the constitutional crisis.

Bismarck recognized that the time had come to knit the Prussian political system back together. Liberalism was too important and potentially fruitful a political force to be marginalized for ever – in conceding this, Bismarck revealed himself a true executor of the post-revolutionary settlement of the 1850s. There was – much to the chagrin of the backwoods conservatives who wishfully claimed Bismarck as one of their own – no coup against the constitution. An indemnity bill was offered to the parliament; this amounted to an open acknowledgement that the government had acted illegally during the crisis years; it also provided a means of reaffirming the authority of parliament and getting the boat of the constitution back on to an even keel.43 These and other shrewdly devised concessions sufficed to dissolve the already fragile unity of the liberal opposition. There was a growing stream of defections from the ranks of parliamentary progressives still holding out against Bismarck. Defectors such as Karl Twesten (he who had been shot in the arm only four years before by the chief of the military cabinet) were warmly welcomed by Bismarck, who disarmed any residual doubters by drawing them respectfully into consultations over further concessions to the liberal interest.44

Under the pressure of this accommodation between Bismarck and the moderate opposition, the liberal front that had coalesced during the constitutional crisis finally came undone. A cleavage opened between those National Liberals who saw in national unity the promise of a more rational political order and those progressives who focused instead on the issues of liberty and parliamentary powers that had been at the heart of the constitutional conflict. Interestingly enough, ‘new Prussians’ soon came to dominate the nascent National Liberal movement – its two most distinguished leaders, Rudolf von Bennigsen and Johannes Miquel, were both Hanoverians elected after the annexations of 1866(many of the old Prussian liberals found it hard to shake off the antipathies of the crisis years).

A complementary rift opened up within the conservative ranks. Many of the conservatives had been hoping that the victory over Austria would usher in a final reckoning with the parliamentary-constitutional system, and they were bitterly disappointed by Bismarck’s decision to propose an indemnity bill. The result was a schism between those ‘free conservatives’ who were willing to support the adventurous minister-president and those ‘Old Conservatives’ who deeply resented any attempt to conciliate the liberals through political concessions. At the centre of the political spectrum there now emerged that hybrid bloc of moderate liberals and flexible Bismarckian conservatives who would play a crucial role in providing a stable platform for government in the Prussian parliament and the new Reichstag of the North German Confederation. This was not just a consequence of Bismarck’s statesmanship; it was a return to the post-revolutionary political settlement of the 1850s. It was the constitutional crisis that had forged the liberals into a unified bloc; once the pressure eased, they fell apart into fundamentalist and realist wings. On the conservative side too, the schism of 1866–7 ran along a well-established cleavage between those who had accepted the constitutional order of 1848–9 and those who had not. This was overlaid after Königgraätz by the divide between those (including a substantial contingent of Pietist East-Elbian landowners) who remained attached to a specifically Prussian state identity and those who were willing to embrace the broader cause of the German nation.

With the victory of 1866, the long history of Prussia’s contest with Austria for hegemony over the German states came to an end. A solid block of Prussian territory now stretched between France and Belgium in the west and the flatlands of Russian Lithuania in the east. Prussia encompassed over four-fifths of the population of the new North German Confederation, a federal entity comprising the twenty-three northern states and centred on Berlin. The southern states of Hesse-Darmstadt, Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria escaped annexation, but were made to sign alliances that placed them within Prussia’s sphere of influence.

The North German Confederation may have looked a little like a continuation of the old Deutscher Bund (whose diet had obligingly voted itself out of existence on 28 July in the dining room of the Three Moors Hotel in Augsburg), but in reality the name was little more than a fig-leaf for Prussian dominance. Prussia exercised exclusive control over military and foreign affairs; in this sense, the North German Confederation was, as King William himself put it, ‘the extended arm of Prussia’. At the same time, however, the new Confederation bestowed a certain semi-democratic legitimacy upon the power-political settlement of 1866. In constitutional terms, it was an experimental entity without precedent in Prussian or German history. It had a parliament representing the (male) populations of all the member states, whose deputies were elected on the basis of the Reich electoral law drawn up by the revolutionaries in 1849. No attempt was made to impose the Prussian three-class franchise; instead, all men of the age of twenty-five years and over acquired the right to a free, equal and secret ballot. The North German Confederation was thus one of the late fruits of the post-revolutionary synthesis. It blended elements of the old politics of princely cabinets with the new and unpredictable logic of national parliamentary representation.45


As early as August 1866, Bismarck confided to a close associate of the Grand Duke of Baden that he believed a union between the north and the south of Germany was only ‘a matter of time’.46 Yet in many respects, the conditions for such a union remained inauspicious after the Austrian war. France, which stood to lose most from a further extension of Prussian influence, would obviously oppose it. The Austrians still hoped to overturn the verdict of 1866. The new Austrian foreign minister, Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust, was a Prussophobe Saxon who hoped that the German southern states might serve – in collusion, perhaps, with France – as a lever to unsettle Prussian hegemony. In the south German states, and especially in Württemberg and Bavaria, public opinion was still vehemently opposed to a closer union. There was outrage in March 1867 when it was revealed that the south German governments had signed away their autonomy after the Austrian war in ‘eternal’ offensive-defensive treaties with the North German Confederation. In Bavaria and Württemberg, the parliamentary elections of 1869 produced anti-liberal majorities opposed to a small-German union. In Bavaria in particular, the Catholic clergy agitated from the pulpits against a closer union with the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, circulating petitions that attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures. An anti-Prussian front began to crystallize, composed of particularist patriots, pro-Austrian Catholics and southern German democrats. Political Catholicism emerged as a formidable domestic obstacle to unionist objectives. Anti-unionist agitation depicted Prussia as anti-Catholic, authoritarian, repressive, militaristic and a threat to southern economic interests.

Bismarck remained flexible, as always, on the question of how and when German unification would be achieved. He soon abandoned his early hope that it would come about through a process of peaceful coalescence. For a time he took an interest in plans to create a ‘southern confederation’ (Südbund) linking Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria, but mutual distrust among the southern states (especially of Bavaria) made such an agreement impossible. Then there was a plan to integrate the southern states gradually through the creation of a ‘customs parliament’ (Zollparlament), to which members of the Zollverein outside the North German Confederation would be entitled to send deputies. But the south German elections for this body in March 1868 merely revealed the depth of opposition to closer union.

The notion that unification might be expedited by a security threat from France was another theme in Bismarck’s thinking. In the summer of 1866, he had observed that ‘in the event of war with France, the barrier of the River Main will be broken and the whole of Germany will be drawn into the struggle.’47 This comment referred specifically to contemporary apprehensions that France might decide to use force to reverse Prussia’s gains after Königgraätz, but it was also in line with Prussian policy since the 1820s, which had always tended to see French security threats as facilitating Prussian designs. There was certainly abundant potential for friction between the two powerful neighbours. Emperor Napoleon III was shocked at the scale of Prussia’s success in 1866 and convinced that it posed a threat to French interests. He also resented the fact that France had received no ‘compensation’ in the traditional manner, despite the generous, if vague, undertakings given by Bismarck before the war. In the spring of 1867, Bismarck exploited these tensions in the set-piece known as the Luxembourg crisis. Having covertly encouraged Napoleon III to satisfy his expectations through the annexation of Luxembourg, Bismarck first leaked news of the Emperor’s designs to the German press, knowing that these would prompt a wave of nationalist outrage, and then posed publicly as the German statesman bound by honour and conviction to execute the will of his people. The crisis was resolved by an international conference that guaranteed Luxembourg’s status as an independent principality, but it could easily have led to a French declaration of war, as Bismarck himself was aware.48 Here again, Bismarck showed himself to be the master of mixed registers, who could blend covert manoeuvre and public posturing, high diplomacy and popular politics, with consummate skill.

A further opportunity to exploit friction with France arose over the question of the Hohenzollern candidacy for the Spanish throne. After the deposition of Queen Isabella in the Spanish revolution of 1868, the new government in Madrid identified Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Catholic south German relative of the Prussian reigning family, who had a Portuguese wife, as an appropriate figure to take her place. Bismarck recognized that this issue could be used to generate friction with France and became an ardent supporter of Prince Leopold’s succession. Pressing the case for the prince was an uphill battle, since both William I and Leopold’s father were at first strongly opposed. By the summer of 1870, however, he had managed, through patient persuasion and intriguing, to secure the consent of both men. In July, the news that the candidature had been formalized prompted a wave of nationalist outrage in France. In a bellicose speech to the French parliament, the inexperienced new foreign minister, Antoine Agénor, Duc de Gramont, promised the French nation that Leopold would never be permitted to ascend the ‘throne of Charles V’ – a reference to the sixteenth century, when the German dynasty of the Habsburgs had threatened to encircle France. The French ambassador to Berlin, Vincent de Benedetti, was despatched to Bad Ems, where William I was on summer vacation taking the waters, to sort the matter out with the Prussian king.

Since William I responded in a conciliatory manner to Benedetti’s representations and eventually accepted that Leopold must renounce his claim to the Spanish throne, the matter might simply have ended there, with a diplomatic victory for Paris. But Gramont made a serious tactical error. Benedetti was sent back to the Emperor to demand a further and more far-reaching assurance that the Prussian king would never again support the candidacy. Demanding that the Prussian monarch tie his hands in perpetuity was a step too far and William responded with a polite refusal. When Bismarck received the king’s telegram (immortalized as the ‘Ems telegram’) summarizing the substance of the meeting with Benedetti, he saw immediately that an opportunity had arisen to slap down the French without surrendering the moral high ground. On 13 July, he released a lightly edited version of the text (a few words were removed, but none was added), in which the refusal was made to appear as a brusque rebuff and the ambassador as an impertinent petitioner. French translations of the edited version were also leaked to the press. The French government, enraged and anticipating an explosion of national outrage, responded with mobilization orders on the following day.

Here, as in 1864 and 1867, was a political crisis made to measure for Bismarck, who understood better than any one how to exploit the unstable relationship between dynastic mechanisms and the forces of mass nationalism. Yet Bismarck’s skill and cunning, remarkable as they were, can also be deceptive. He was not in control of events. He had not planned the Hohenzollern candidacy, and although he pressed hard for it during the spring and summer of 1870, he was also prepared to step back when it looked as if the Prussian king had agreed to withdraw and was willing to accept a French diplomatic victory. Even to say that the French played into his hands partly misrepresents the situation, for France’s readiness to risk war was not the outcome of Bismarck’s actions as such, but expressed a principled refusal to countenance any diminution of its privileged place within the European international system. The French went to war in 1870 because they believed – reasonably enough – that they could win. It would thus be an exaggeration to say that Bismarck ‘planned’ the war with France. Bismarck was not an exponent of preventive war. It was, as he once remarked, equivalent to shooting yourself in the head because you are afraid to die.49 On the other hand, war with France was certainly on his menu of political options, provided that the French took the initiative and acted first. Throughout the Luxembourg and Spanish crises, Bismarck operated an open-ended policy that incorporated the possibility of war but also served other objectives, such as accelerating the integration of the south German states and challenging French pretensions.50 Had the Ems despatch merely generated friction and threats from Paris, this too would have served Bismarck’s objectives by reminding the south Germans that they would remain vulnerable until they entered into a union with the north.

The news of mobilization and the subsequent French declaration of war set off a wave of patriotic emotion in Prussia and the other German states. As he returned by train from Bad Ems, William I was mobbed at every station by cheering crowds. Even the South Germans were outraged by the bellicosity and arrogance of Gramont’s speech to the French parliament and indignant over his insolent treatment of the Prussian king. The mood in the foreign office and the ministry of war was one of confidence, and with good reason. Plans were already in place to coordinate military operations with the south German states under the terms set out in their alliances with the North German Confederation. The diplomatic setting was also auspicious: Vienna was still struggling with the consequences of far-reaching domestic reforms and was reluctant to risk any joint action; a draft treaty of 1869 thus remained unsigned. As for the Italians, they were unlikely to help Paris while French troops continued to occupy what remained of the Papal States (thereby preventing the absorption of Rome and its hinterland into the Kingdom of Italy). Britain had already made its peace with the idea of a unified Germany dominated by Prussia, and the Russians were easily won over by Bismarck’s promise that Prussia would support St Petersburg in revising the most burdensome stipulations of the Crimean peace settlement. There was thus little reason to fear that Russia would intervene in support of France.51 The window of opportunity created by the Crimean conflict was still open.

In military terms, the Prussians were well placed – better indeed than most contemporaries were aware – to win. They had – at full force – a larger, fitter and more disciplined army than the French. They also outperformed them in tactics and infrastructure. As in the Austrian war, the superiority of Prussian military organization was crucial. By contrast with the Prussian-German General Staff, which reported directly to the king, the French General Staff was a mere department of the ministry of war; in matters of strategy, tactics and discipline it was always subject to political pressure from the left-leaning National Assembly. The Prussian General Staff, its reputation sealed by the victory of 1866, had continued in the aftermath of the Bohemian war to introduce improvements to transport and supply, with the result that Prussia mobilized much more swiftly than her adversary, transporting over half a million men to the frontier with France while the French army on the Rhine still numbered only 250,000. The antique smooth-bore field guns that had performed so lamentably against the Austrian artillery in 1866 were phased out and replaced by rifled cannon incorporating the latest technology. Enormous effort was expended on improving the tactical deployment of artillery in support of infantry, an area where the Prussians had fallen down in 1866.

None of this made a Prussian victory inevitable. For all the efforts of the General Staff, the weaponry of the two sides was more closely matched in 1870 than in the previous conflict. The decisive advantage bestowed by the needle-gun in Austria was cancelled out in 1870 by the excellent infantry rifle (known as the chassepot) of the French, not to mention the mitrailleuse, an early machine gun that sowed havoc wherever it came into action against Prussian troops. The Prussians were dogged by the usual misunderstandings and false steps. General Steinmetz once again distinguished himself by his blithe disregard of instructions from the General Staff, and the August engagements at Spicheren, Wissembourg and Froeschwiller were stumbled into rather than planned. Even Moltke made some serious errors, most notably at the outset of the campaign, when he route-marched more than 200,000 men across the French front, exposing his forces to a devastating flanking attack; fortunately for the Prussians, the French commander, General Bazaine, failed to seize the opportunity.

The Prussians also exploited their marginal superiority in artillery with increasing skill, using their field guns to draw French fire away from advancing Prussian infantry. Most importantly, perhaps, the Prussians made fewer mistakes than their opponents. At Mars-la-Tour, Bazaine, commander of the French Army of the Rhine, failed to mount an offensive, transforming a potential French victory into a disaster that left the strategic strongpoint at Verdun exposed to a German advance. By early September 1870, barely six weeks into the war, the French had lost a series of decisive battles and with them, an irreplaceable reservoir of weaponry, officers and experienced cadres. After the crushing defeat and capitulation of the French forces under General Patrice de MacMahon on 1 and 2 September at Sedan, Napoleon III himself was taken prisoner, along with 104,000 men. The war dragged on for many more weeks as the Germans took Strasbourg and Metz and dug in for a protracted siege of Paris, while francs-tireurs took a rising toll in casualties behind the lines. After arduous negotiations with the new republican prime minister, Adolphe Thiers (the very man whose loose talk of French annexations in 1840 had triggered the Rhine crisis), a provisional peace was signed at the end of February. It was not until 10 May 1871, after French government forces had crushed the uprising of the Commune in Paris, that a final treaty was agreed at Frankfurt. In the meanwhile, Bismarck had overcome the objections of the southern states and secured their agreement to a union. On 18 January 1871, a new German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. Exactly 170 years to the day after the coronation of Frederick I as Prussian king, King William I accepted the title of German Emperor.


For centuries, Europe’s German centre had been politically fragmented and weak. The continent was dominated by the states on its periphery, whose interest was to maintain the power vacuum at the centre. Now, however, for the first time, the centre was united and strong. Relations among the European states would henceforth be driven by a new and unfamiliar dynamic. Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Conservative opposition in the House of Commons, saw this more clearly than most: ‘This war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French,’ he declared before the House. ‘There is not a single diplomatic tradition that has not been swept away.’52 How true these observations were would only gradually become clear.

The era of Austro-Prussian dualism – once the structuring principle of political life among the German states – was over. As early as May 1871, the Austrian foreign minister, Count Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust, recognized the futility of a policy of containment and advised Emperor Francis Joseph that Vienna should henceforth seek ‘an agreement between Austria-Hungary and Prussia-Germany embracing current affairs’.53 Beust himself did not survive to oversee the new orientation – he was dismissed in November 1871 – but his successor, Count Gyula Andrássy, pursued the same general line. Its first fruit was the Three Emperors’ League of October 1873 between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany; six years later, Bismarck negotiated the more comprehensive Dual Alliance of 1879 that transformed Austria-Hungary into Germany’s junior ally. Henceforth, Austrian policy would aim to engage Berlin as deeply as possible in the security interests of Austria-Hungary, even if this meant accepting subordinate status within the relationship. The two states would remain bound to each other until 1918.


47. 18 January 1871: King William I of Prussia is proclaimed German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles; engraving after a drawing by Anton von Werner

The war of 1870 also placed the relationship with France on an entirely new footing. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine – strongly advocated by Bismarck – traumatized the French political elite and imposed a lasting burden on Franco-German relations.54 Alsace-Lorraine became the holy grail of the French cult of revanche, providing the focus for successive waves of chauvinist agitation. Pressing for it may well have been the ‘worst mistake’ of Bismarck’s political career.55Even without the annexation, however, the very existence of the new German Empire would have transformed the relationship with France. German weakness had been one of the traditional mainstays of French security policy. ‘It is easy to see,’ French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier Count Vergennes wrote in 1779, ‘what advantage [Germany] would have over us if this formidable power were not limited by the form of its constitution. [… ] We thus owe our superiority and our security to the forces of [German] disunity.’56 After 1871, France was bound to seek every possible opportunity to contain the new power on its eastern border. A lasting enmity between France and Germany – despite intermittent efforts on both sides to achieve a rapprochement – was thus to an extent pre-programmed into the European international system after the wars of unification.

If we consider these two factors – the close bond with Austria-Hungary and the lasting enmity with France – as fixtures of the European scene in the post-unification decades, then it becomes easier to see why Prussia-Germany found it so difficult to avoid the drift into isolation that was such a striking feature of the decades before 1914. From Paris’s perspective, the chief objective had to be to contain Germany by forming an anti-German alliance. The most attractive candidate for such a partnership was Russia. Berlin could prevent this only by attaching Russia to an alliance system of its own. But any alliance system incorporating both Russia and Austria-Hungary was bound to be unstable: having been shut out of Germany and Italy, Austro-Hungarian foreign policy focused increasingly on the Balkans, a region where Vienna’s interests conflicted directly with those of Russia.57

It was tension over the Balkans that broke the Three Emperors’ League in 1885. Bismarck managed to patch up German relations with Russia by negotiating the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887, but by 1889 it had become increasingly difficult to reconcile Berlin’s commitments to Austria-Hungary with its obligations to Russia. In 1890, Bismarck’s successor, Leo von Caprivi, allowed the Reinsurance Treaty to lapse. France promptly leapt in, offering St Petersburg generous loans and armaments subsidies. The result was the Franco-Russian military convention of 17 August 1892 and the fully fledged alliance of 1894, both of which clearly envisaged Germany as the future enemy. It was to compensate for this adverse development that Germany in turn moved closer to Turkey in the 1890s, freeing Britain from its traditional role as guardian of the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits and allowing it (after 1905) to pursue a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis Russia.58 The bi-polar Europe that would go to war in 1914 was now in place. This does not mean that the statesmen of united Germany should be cleared of blame for the epic blunders and omissions that did so much to undermine Germany’s international standing during the last decade and a half before 1914. But it does suggest that the momentous drift into isolation can only partly be explained in terms of political provocation and response. It represents, at a deeper level, the unfolding of the structural transformation wrought by Prussia’s ‘German revolution’ of 1866–71.

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