The Austro-Prussian War

Romanticism was the emotional reaction to the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment and the first Industrial Revolution. By the end of the Romantic Era in the mid nineteenth century, there was no greater zeitgeist in Central Europe than the unification of the German people. Since the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages, the German people have been ruled by dozens of small independent dukes and princes. Other nations had united and formed great empires, such as France, Great Britain, and Russia. Now it was the Germans’ turn. In 1866, it wasn’t a matter of if or when, but who would lead it: the Prussians on the North German Plain or the Austrians of the Austrian Empire.

The multiethnic Austrian Empire wasn’t a melting pot. It was more of a garden salad with each ethnicity separate from the others, but all in the same bowl covered in a bit of Habsburg dressing. In 1866, the empire was wracked and weakened by 30 years of nationalist revolutions. Prussia was almost the exact opposite. He had been at peace with only limited wars since the Age of Napoleon half a century before. Furthermore, Prussia on the vulnerable North German plain had for centuries known that the only defense it had against its enemies was the quick mobilization of his army. The technology in the mid-19th century finally allowed that mindset to become a strategic advantage.

Under the direction Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke (the Elder) the Prussian army developed a General Staff dedicated to the operational and logistical details necessary to fighting a modern war. This led to a mobilization plan that was regional and four times as fast as Austria. Furthermore, Prussia had extensive railways and telegraphs which allowed those mobilized troops to concentrate quicker. Finally, the Prussians were equipped with the Dreyse Needle Gun, the world’s first bolt action rifle, which was far superior to the muskets and muzzle loading rifles of the Austrian army. (For comparison, imagine if the entire Union army in the contemporary American Civil War had been equipped with Spencer repeating rifles).

Prussia’s pragmatic chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, deftly negotiated the European isolation of Austria and then on 16 June 1866, engineered a dispute with Austria over the succession of the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. The resulting Austro-Prussian War of 1866 lasted just seven weeks, and only so because Austria continued well after defeat by the Prussians against Garibaldi and his crusade to unite Italy. As a result, Prussia would unite all of the North German states under its rule. It was the first step to Kaiser Wilhelm I forming the German Second Reich in 1870.

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