This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See digital samples, here.
Otto von Bismarck’s great dream was, first, to unite all of Germany under the Hohenzollern king of Prussia and, second, to make a united Germany the greatest power in Europe.
The chief hindrance to the first goal was Austria.
For over four hundred years, the Austrian Habsburgs had been the undisputed leaders of all the German states—a position they still kept in the German Confederation. Austria would allow no other German state to equal her—especially Prussia. But many Germans objected to Austria because she had a large population of non-Germans and was, moreover, the champion of the German Catholics. Bismarck thought conflict between Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria would come sooner or later, and he was intent to bring it on as soon as possible.
A conflict with Denmark gave Bismarck the opportunity he was looking for. In response to the Danish King Christian IX’s annexation of the states of Schleswig and Holstein (which were considered parts of Germany), Prussia joined Austria in a war against Denmark. The war ended in the Treaty of Gastein (signed August 14, 1865), which placed Holstein under Austria’s rule and Schleswig under Prussia. This arrangement was meant to be temporary; the Austrian emperor, Franz Josef, favored making Schleswig and Holstein one, independent state in the German Confederation. Bismarck, however, was secretly planning to annex both states to Prussia. He also wanted to use disagreements with the Habsburgs over the states to provoke a war between Prussia and Austria.
Meanwhile, Bismarck wanted to make sure he need fear nothing from France in a war with Austria. In October 1865, at Biarritz on the southwest coast of France, Bismarck made Napoleon III think that, if he did not interfere in the war with Austria, Prussia would allow France to annex Belgium. Napoleon agreed not to interfere in a war with Austria, but not just to get Belgium. A war, Napoleon thought, could keep Germany weak by exhausting Austria and Prussia.
With Napoleon taken care of, Bismarck turned to Italy. He promised to give Austrian-held Venezia to King Vittorio Emanuele if the king agreed to ally himself with Prussia against Austria. Like Napoleon, the Italian king agreed and signed a secret alliance with Prussia. All was now prepared for war.
Bismarck next had to provoke a war with Austria. With brilliant but underhanded skill, he pricked and annoyed Austria over Schleswig and Holstein. Finally, the irritated Habsburg court formally asked the Hohenzollern court if it still intended to abide by the Treaty of Gastein. If Prussia did not give a “satisfactory answer,” Austria threatened to go to the diet of the German Confederacy in Frankfurt and ask it to call up the federal armies against Prussia.
This was just the opportunity Bismarck had been waiting for. He ordered the mobilization of the Prussian army. He loudly declared that Austria had broken the Treaty of Gastein. He then ordered the Prussian army to invade Austrian-held Holstein. When, on June 14, 1866, the Austrian-led German diet ordered the mobilization of the federal army, the Prussian envoy stood up and declared the federal constitution broken and invited all German states to join Prussia in a new confederation—one that would not include Austria.
The war that followed lasted no longer than seven weeks (for which it is called the Seven Weeks’ War). On one side were Prussia and her ally, Italy; on the other were Austria and most of the states of Germany, including Bavaria, Hanover, Saxony, Württemburg, and the grand duchy of Hesse. As he had promised, Napoleon III (beholding the German conflict with glee) did not interfere. In Italy, the Austrian army was everywhere victorious; but in Germany, the machine-like Prussian army, under Moltke’s supreme command, beat back the Austrians time and again. At last, at a battle fought near the towns of Sandowa and Königgrätz in Bohemia on July 3, 1866, the Prussian army completely overwhelmed the Austrians.
The Battle of Königgrätz basically ended the Seven Weeks’ War. The Habsburg court asked Napoleon III to bring about a peace with Prussia, and he agreed. To his dismay, Napoleon realized that he had made a mistake in staying neutral; Prussia, he saw, had grown quite powerful. The French emperor now wanted to prevent the unification of Germany under the powerful Prussians, and he used his influence on the south German states to make sure they did not unite with Prussia and the north.
The result was the Treaty of Prague, signed on August 23, 1866. The treaty dissolved the German Confederation and in its place set up a northern confederation and a southern one. The northern confederation would consist of 22 states north of the Main River, with a common diet and the Prussian king as its president. The southern confederation would be formed by Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse—but not Austria. The Treaty of Prague cut off Austria entirely from Germany. Bismarck had thus achieved his first goal.
Ever the clever diplomat, Bismarck showed both harshness and kindness following the Seven Weeks’ War. In punishment for the war, Bismarck annexed several northern German states to Prussia, including the kingdom of Hanover. He thus formed a continuous, compact Prussian kingdom covering most of northern Germany from the French to the Russian borders. He was far kinder to the southern German states, and even Austria, for he hoped in time to gain their friendship. Except for Venezia, which the Treaty of Prague gave to Italy, Austria lost no territory, and Bismarck drastically cut down the indemnities she had to pay. Bismarck even resisted Wilhelm I’s attempts to take some of Saxony’s land, for he hoped to secure Saxony’s friendship.
Bismarck wanted to have all of Germany on his side in the next great conflict he was preparing—war with France.
A March for Germany's Dismemberment
Der Königgrätzer Marsch, a military march composed by Johann Gottfried Piefke in 1866 to commemorate Prussia’s triumph over Austria.