Military Review

"Iron and Blood": how Prussia defeated Austria

150 years ago, 3 July 1866, the Battle of Sadow was held - the decisive battle of the Austro-Prussian War 1866. After the battle, the remnants of the Austrian troops withdrew to Olmuts, thus covering the route to Hungary, but leaving the capital of the empire, Vienna, without protection. The huge Austrian empire still had military potential for resistance, but the Austrian elite did not want to fight anymore. In Vienna, they feared the collapse of the empire. Less than a month after the battle, a peace treaty was signed, ending this war. The victory allowed Prussia to head Northern Germany and take an important step towards the creation of the German Empire, which would unite most of the previously independent German lands.


At the beginning of the XIX century, the German lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire. It included dozens of government entities. The largest and strongest were Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, Württemberg and especially Austria, which was the largest public entity in the Holy Roman Empire. These states were formally subordinate to the emperor and the imperial Diet, but in fact they had complete independence. The main centers of attraction for the German people and traditional rivals were Austria and Prussia.

One of the main issues of European politics in the XIX century and the main problem of fragmented Germany was the question of the unification of the German nation. Particularly acute German question arose after the liquidation of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, that is, when the French emperor Napoleon liquidated the First Reich. The German principalities entered the Rhine Union, which was under the influence of Napoleon’s empire. In the 1813 year, after the defeat of Napoleon’s army in the Battle of Leipzig, the Rhine Union disintegrated. Instead, the German Union was created from 38 German states, including Prussia and the German part of Austria.

As a result, right up to the formation of the Second Reich, two options for solving the German issue competed: the low German (under the rule of Prussia) and the Great German (under the leadership of Austria). However, the Germanic variant was more difficult, since Prussia would never have become part of an empire led by Vienna. In addition, the Austrian empire included a large number of territories with other ethnic groups (Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, etc.), many of whom had their own experience of statehood. Also during this period, the Prussian kingdom significantly increased in political, economic and military terms. The territory of Prussia during the Napoleonic wars almost doubled due to the enclave on the Rhine, the northern part of the kingdom of Saxony and Polish territories.

In addition, Austria shook the crisis. So, 1848 year, in the Austrian Empire, a revolution began, also called the "spring of nations". Intensified national liberation movements. In 1849, the Hungarian uprising was suppressed with military help from Russia, but the Austrian Empire weakened. At the end of the 1850s, Austria found itself in complete isolation in Europe: its hostile neutrality towards Russia during the Crimean (Eastern) War and the intervention in the Danube principalities destroyed the traditional alliance with Russia; and the refusal to actively participate in the war with Russia pushed France from her. Relations with Prussia deteriorated due to rivalry in the German Confederation. The Austro-Italian-French war of 1859 led to the collapse of the Austrian army in the battle of Solferino, the loss of Lombardy and the formation of a strong Italian kingdom. At the same time, united Italy still claimed part of the territory of the Austrian Empire and became a constant headache for Vienna, forced to closely monitor the situation in the Italian kingdom and divert a significant part of military forces to the Italian sector.

The Austrian leadership was forced to make an agreement with Hungary, which claimed autonomy or independence. In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Agreement was concluded, which turned the Austrian Empire into Austria-Hungary. The new state was a constitutional dualistic monarchy, divided into Tsisleytanii and Translating (areas directly subordinate to the Austrian imperial and Hungarian royal crowns). Both parts of the empire were headed by the former emperor of the Austrian Empire, Franz Joseph I, who ruled Austria-Hungary until the 1916 year. However, Hungary has become a serious force in a single empire. The Hungarian elite feared that the expansion of Austria at the expense of the German lands would lead to the strengthening of German domination, which would weaken their autonomy, and therefore did not support Vienna in unifying Germany. A new uprising in Hungary could lead to the destruction of the Habsburg Empire, with the separation of the Slavic regions.

Prussia, unlike Austria, was a more monolithic, unified state entity. Berlin has preserved and strengthened the traditional alliance with St. Petersburg, using the victory of Russia over Napoleon’s empire as much as possible. Prussia was the only great power that did not come out against the Russian Empire during the Eastern (Crimean) War, which, together with Prussian assistance in suppressing the Polish 1863 uprising of the year, ensured the benevolent neutrality of the Russian government in Prussia’s wars against its neighbors. Also, the Prussian King William I was the uncle of Tsar Alexander II, which inclined Russia even more in favor of Prussia.

England in strong Prussia saw a counterbalance to the French Empire and its expansion in Europe. London also irritated the active colonial policies of Napoleon III’s empire. British and French interests collided in Africa, Asia and America. Therefore, in London, which traditionally tried to weaken the most powerful country in continental Europe at the expense of its neighbors, were not averse to strengthening Prussia as opposed to the French Empire.

The French overslept the strengthening of Prussia, the main focus was on building a colonial empire. French forces were distracted by the seizure and strengthening of the colonies, where French interests were constantly faced with British ones. The interests of France and Austria also clashed in Italy, which the French initially supported, planning to include the young Italian kingdom in their sphere of influence. In addition, the French emperor Napoleon III underestimated the military power of the modernized Prussian state (up to the French military catastrophe in 1870) and hoped only to win as an arbitrator from the intra-German conflict. The French believed that, if necessary, they would easily crush the Prussian kingdom. As a result, France has missed many opportunities to stop the growth of Prussia’s power and transform it into the Second Reich.

Prussia itself was changing at a rapid pace. The economy developed, especially large-scale industry developed rapidly. The Krupp cannon factory in Essen received great fame. The network of railroads was rapidly expanding, the single German market became stronger. Agriculture developed with the preservation of large landed estates (the “Prussian path”). As a result, the interests of large Prussian capital, landowners demanded the unification of Germany, the destruction of all the old medieval barriers, the creation of a single market that could claim its share of the world market. The intelligentsia also advocated unification: it was necessary to destroy the old feudal order, to develop science and education. Thus, Prussia was on the rise and could lead the process of unification of Germany.

German alliance before the war 1866

The unification of Germany Bismarck "iron and blood"

At the same time, the big bourgeoisie, landowners and many representatives of the intelligentsia were inclined to unite the country under the leadership of the Prussian monarchy. The Prussian monarchy was a force capable of embodying the interests of a significant part of society. Impressed by the unification of Italy in Germany, the movement for national unification also revived. Revolutionary sentiment began to grow again. It was necessary to channel this energy so that the revolution would not start. In 1862, the frightened Prussian king Wilhelm I appointed the decisive and purposeful Otto von Bismarck the first minister. He showed himself to be a politician of firm will and a great practical mind. Bismarck skillfully led the internal affairs of Prussia, strengthened the army and proved to be a cunning diplomat, using the political aspirations of Russia, Italy and France in the interests of Prussia.

True, in Prussia itself Bismarck had a reputation as an inveterate reactionary. Since the military reform of 1860, the Prussian government has been in a fierce quarrel with the Prussian Landtag, which refused to approve the budget annually. The vast liberal majority of the Prussian bourgeoisie opposed the policy of the Iron Chancellor. Opposition to the Bismarck government almost reached the brink of revolution. Only a few of the most astute representatives of the Prussian bourgeoisie, observing Bismarck’s tough hand on the Schleswig-Holstein issue, began to understand what a great thing he was doing.

Chancellor Bismarck rightly saw Austria and France as the main obstacle in the unification of Germany. Austria itself claimed leadership in Germany and opposed Bismarck’s unification policy. The rulers of a number of small German states, defending their narrowly elite interests, were afraid of the takeover of their possessions by Prussia and relied on the support of Austria. Bismarck planned to smash Austria and first unite only North Germany so that France did not support the Austrian empire. The Iron Chancellor did not doubt that the German unification movement would force the rest of the German states to strive for unity. But the final unification of Germany is possible only after the defeat of France. France claimed leadership in Europe and did not want the emergence of a new strong state in Europe. In addition, France owned some disputed lands, where there was a significant percentage of the German population. Paris claimed the main positions in several German states. Thus, war with France was inevitable.

Bismarck consistently defeated all the enemies who prevented the unification of Germany, cunning policy did not allow them to create an anti-Prussian coalition. At the same time, he received political support from St. Petersburg, who wanted to break free from the humiliating conditions of the Paris world of 1856. At first Prussia, in alliance with Austria, defeated Denmark (the Austro-Prussian-Danish war of 1864). Bismarck demanded that Denmark abandoned the two German provinces that were part of it - the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The weak Danish army was easily defeated. Denmark abandoned its claims to Lauenburg, Schleswig and Holstein. The duchies were declared joint possessions of Prussia and Austria, with Schleswig being ruled by Prussia, and Holstein by Austria. This war was an important stage in the path of unification of Germany under the hegemony of Prussia.

Bismarck's preparation for the 1866 war of the year

Then Bismarck began preparing the war with Austria. Bismarck made an alliance with Italy (she claimed Venice). 8 On April 1866, a secret agreement was concluded between Italy and Prussia, in which the parties committed themselves not to cease hostilities until Italy receives Venice, and Prussia is an equivalent region in Germany. Bismarck also ensured the benevolent neutrality of Russia and the neutrality of France. Petersburg was occupied with internal reforms and was obliged to Berlin for its friendly position during the suppression of the Polish uprising 1863.

France posed a great threat to Bismarck’s unification plans. Paris could, in alliance with Vienna, completely bury the idea of ​​a united Germany. However, Paris was weakened by colonial adventures and fascinated by momentary gain. Napoleon III hoped not to interfere with the Austro-Prussian war, wait for both opponents to weaken in their exhausting confrontation (Austria and Prussia were supposed to fight for a long time), and then get Belgium and Luxembourg without much risk, putting military pressure on the weakened winner. However, Bismarck outplayed the aging Napoleon III.

Thus, Bismarck had a quiet rear - Russia, outplayed the French ruler, left Vienna without any serious allies and forced Austria to disperse troops on two fronts - against Prussia and Italy.

The division of Schleswig and Holstein was deliberately chosen by Bismarck as a good excuse for a war with Austria. 14 August 1865 was a convention in Gastein, according to which the duchy of Lauenburg was transferred to the full ownership of Prussia (for the payment of 2,5 million thalers in gold), Schleswig entered into the management of Prussia, Holstein - Austria. Holstein was separated from the Austrian Empire by a number of German states, including Prussia, which made the position of the Austrians in this area very shaky, especially in case of bad relations with Berlin. In addition, the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck complicated the matter by the fact that Austria and Prussia jointly owned the ownership of the entire territory of both dukes, Schleswig and Holstein. As a result, the Austrian administration was to govern in Holstein, and the Prussian administration in Schleswig.

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I made a compromise proposal during the war with Denmark. Vienna will gladly cede all its “complex” rights to Holstein in exchange for the most modest territory on the Prussian-Austrian border, cut from the lands of Prussia. However, Bismarck refused outright, he needed a reason for conflict. The Austrians understood this and began to look for allies, knocking together an alliance from the German states that were afraid of the policies of Bismarck.

Bismarck accused Austria of violating the conditions of the Gastein Convention - Vienna did not stop anti-Prussian agitation in Holstein. Then Austria put this question before the Allied Diet. Bismarck warned the Diet that this question concerns only Austria and Prussia. Nevertheless, the Allied Diet continued to discuss this problem. As a result, the Prussian Chancellor annulled the convention and submitted to the Allied Diet a proposal for the transformation of the German Union and the exclusion of Austria from it. This happened on the same day as the conclusion of the Prussian-Italian Union, 8 on April 1866 of the year.

Bismarck decided to wage war under the broad slogan of creating the North German Union. He put forward the official program of such unification, with a sharp restriction of the sovereignty of individual German states, with the creation of a single common parliament elected on the basis of universal secret male suffrage and with the unification of all the armed forces of the Union under the leadership of Prussia. It is clear that this program, with complete dominance of Prussia and the elimination of the foundations of sovereignty, aroused fear for its future and pushed away most of the medium and small German monarchies. Bismarck’s offer was rejected by the Sejm.

As a result, Bismarck turned most of the medium-sized and small states of the German Union against Prussia, the independence of which he signed the death sentence. In the approaching war, this added four corps to Austria, albeit of poor quality, without general command. On the other hand, Bismarck won the field of ideology: he started a war for a great idea, and not a fratricidal war for dynastic interests, in order to tear off a piece of land from a neighbor.

In addition, Bismarck found the most painful place in Austria. It was a threat to the collapse of the empire into national parts. He envisaged the possibility of war on the complete destruction of the enemy. The Iron Chancellor did not strive for the complete destruction of Austria, but the struggle could take shape in such a way that without complete defeat of the Austrian Empire, it would be impossible to unite Germany. Therefore, Bismarck directed his efforts to cause a powerful explosion inside Austria itself - to organize the Hungarian national uprising. To this end, a talented Hungarian revolutionary general Klapka and cadres of Hungarian emigration were invited to Prussia. They were to form the Hungarian contingent in the Prussian army. At the same time, Bismarck supported with money and the organization of an armed uprising in Hungary itself. In emigration, the representation of this organization was entrusted to Count Chucky, inside Hungary the organization was led by Komaromi. In the event of a war dragging on, the Hungarian movement could become a serious problem for Vienna. However, the war ended too quickly and did not manage to fully implement this plan, stopping halfway through. As a result, the threat of an uprising in Hungary in the rear was one of the main reasons that Vienna capitulated.

14 June 1866, the Bismarck declared the German union "invalid." As a result, the rest of the German states decided to create a union executive body directed against the offender - Prussia. On the same day, at the suggestion of Austria, supported by the majority of small German states, the German Union Sejm decided to mobilize the Allied army against Prussia. The formal declaration of war by Austria occurred on June 17, after the Prussians launched the invasion of Hannover, Hesse and Saxony on June 16.

Thus, Bismarck, who was very worried about the external justification of the planned war, turned the case around so that Austria was the first to mobilize. In practice, the war against Prussia was fought by a coalition of the majority of the Germanic states under the leadership of Austria. But all the great powers remained neutral. Italy acted on the side of Prussia.

"Iron and Blood": how Prussia defeated Austria

O. Bismarck (right) and H. Moltke Sr. (left) at Königgrets (Sadove)

To be continued ...
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  1. parusnik
    parusnik 5 July 2016 07: 19
    Thank you, but after yesterday's article by Denis Brig ... somehow read without interest ..
  2. Aleksander
    Aleksander 5 July 2016 07: 48
    Russia would support Austria, and in 1870 and France, in spite of all the insults of the Crimean War, there would be no strongest united Germany and WWI.
    A united Germany is a constant threat to peace, then what now ....
    1. netslave
      netslave 5 July 2016 08: 37
      A very dubious statement about the PMV. For the development of the economy, capitalism requires constant expansion, which cannot be infinite. In a multipolar world with a large number of players, a clash of their interests inevitably develops into a big war. The only question is how these players will be divided into team unions.
    2. The comment was deleted.
    3. Chiropractor
      Chiropractor 5 July 2016 13: 07
      Quote: Aleksander
      Support Russia Austria,

      yes, come on Russia, support all those who spit on you, you are strong, you owe everything and the rest are weak, so what’s kicking you, there’s nobody else to kick them, the weak can not forgive kicks and start a war, and you will forgive everyone and help ...

      Russia has its own interests, it should act primarily on the basis of this fact.
    4. NordUral
      NordUral 5 July 2016 18: 42
      They would have beaten the same France, or, rather, the Austrian Empire.
  3. alpamys
    alpamys 5 July 2016 10: 39
    Quote: Aleksander
    Russia would support Austria, and in 1870 and France, in spite of all the insults of the Crimean War, there would be no strongest united Germany and WWI.
    A united Germany is a constant threat to peace, then what now ....

    July 15, 1924. Russia, when will you wake up? The old world longs for your liberation deed! Russia, you are the hope of a dying world. When will the day come? "

    Joseph Goebbels, personal diary.

    “Now Russia has understood the horrors of the 'great' revolutions of England and France for herself. However, the horrors of Russia surpassed everything known so far in their scale.
    since the revolution, all of Russia, with its wealth and population, has become Jewish.
    The retribution of the Russian people will fall upon them, and then in all of Russia there will not be a single Jew who would remember those “glorious days” when he, with all his blood-smeared gang, danced on what was supposed to be the corpse of the great Russian nation. "

    Alfred Rosenberg, article "Jewish Bolshevism", "Völkischer Beobachter", November 26, 1921

    "But in Russia, however, there are still many forces ready to resist. These people are cold-bloodedly poisoned, but once again they go on the offensive, once again the Aryan Russian people enter the battle. The last decision becomes possible."

    Heinrich Himmler "SS as an anti-Bolshevik combat organization."
  4. Robert Nevsky
    Robert Nevsky 5 July 2016 15: 01
    It is a pity that Empress Catherine the Great did not join Prussia to Russia. There were dynastic prerequisites for this.
    Otherwise, the Germans did not learn anything from the two world wars. Again they are torn in the blitzkrieg in the east, and again they will be - kaput! soldier
    1. Kenneth
      Kenneth 6 July 2016 19: 28
      East Prussia if you do not mind.
  5. Orionvit
    Orionvit 5 July 2016 16: 16
    The Germans actually fought with the Germans. The Austrians, although they consider themselves a separate nation, are essentially the same Germans. Another question is that when the Austrian army was created, as they say, God laughed at it. Throughout its history, the Austrian army has not won a single battle, not to mention wars.
    1. kagorta
      kagorta 5 July 2016 23: 07
      I wonder how they are so beaten, they created an empire)?
  6. tiaman.76
    tiaman.76 5 July 2016 18: 06
    thanks in sufficient detail and interesting
  7. Mihail55
    Mihail55 6 July 2016 05: 15
    Interesting article! He knew little about these events, to what extent politics is at all times similar. Cheating ... cheating ...
  8. Turkir
    Turkir 12 July 2016 08: 33
    So, in 1848, a revolution began in the Austrian Empire, also called the "spring of peoples". National liberation movements intensified. In 1849, the Hungarian uprising was suppressed with the military help of Russia,

    I like Samsonov’s articles. Selection of interesting moments in history.
    A small note.
    Soviet historians in every uprising saw national liberation movements and revolution.
    In 1848, the uprising of the Hungarian persecuted can hardly be called a revolution or a national liberation movement. Croats and Serbs and other Slavic peoples also entered into Austria-Hungary.
    The Hungarian "revolutionaries" wanted not only to secede from Austria, but also for the Slavic population to become part of the already independent Hungarian kingdom. For the Slavs, freedom is not needed.
    Good freedom fighters.