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Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

Position of Austria and Prussia in Schleswig-Holstein in 1805: Divergent Views of the two Powers: Meeting of the Sovereigns: Convention of Gastein: Sale of Lauenburg - Opinion of the Prussian Law Officers on the Question of Succession in Schleswig- Holstein - Political Objects of Count Bismarck: His Interview with Napoleon at Biarritz - Proposals of the Secondary Powers - Disagreement between the two Powers about Holstein: Correspondence: Apprehensions of War - Circular of Count Mensdorff to the German Courts; Reply of Count Bismarck: General Govone at Berlin - Treaty between Prussia and Italy - Armaments: Mutual Recriminations: Austria Refuses to Disarm in Venetia: Scheme of Disarmament Breaks Down: Failure of an Attempt to come to an Understanding about the Duchies: Prussian Proposals for the Reform of the Confederation - Hopes and Fears of Italy: Overtures of Austria for the Cession of Venetia; They come to Nothing - Prussia Demands from Saxony the Reason of her Arming: Proceedings in the Diet - Efforts of the Neutral Powers for the Preservation of Peace: A Congress Proposed by France, England, and Russia: The Project Fails- Meeting of the Diet on June 1: Speech of the Austrian Envoy; Reply of the Prussian Envoy: Prussian Government Protests; Orders Manteuffel to Enter Holstein; Withdrawal of General Gablenz: Prussian Military Calculations: Feelings of the King: Prussian Circular on the Reform of the Confederation - Session of the Diet on June 14: Prussian Envoy declares the Confederation to be dissolved: Prussia sends a Summons to Hanover, Saxony, and Hesse Cassel; it being rejected, she Declares War against those States.
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While the strife of parties was raging in the lobbies and galleries of the House of Commons, during the Reform debates of 1866, a warfare of a more decisive kind was in course of preparation in Germany. We have seen how, at the close of 1864, the first symptom of ill-will between the allied Powers which had cut with the sword the Schleswig-Holstein knot made itself apparent. The positions of Austria and Prussia in the duchies were radically different. Prussia was perfectly at her ease; the continuance of a provisional state of things caused her no annoyance, but, on the contrary, was for her advantage, since the more time was given the greater was the chance of the partisans of the annexation of Schleswig- Holstein to the powerful and aspiring state close to its borders increasing in numbers and influence. Again, a disagreement with her ally could not cause Prussia much concern, since her troops in the duchies, more numerous from the first, were close to their own resources, and could in a very short time be reinforced to any extent required; while the Austrians, in the event of a rupture, were at such a distance from their resources that the best thing they could hope for was a prompt and successful evasion. To Austria, on the other hand, every day during which the joint occupation was prolonged brought fresh cause of trouble and anxiety. However long she might keep her troops in the duchies, not an acre of them, she knew well, could ever fall to her share; the expense of the occupation was considerable; and a quarrel with Prussia must instantly, as she clearly foresaw, render her position untenable. Her policy, therefore, was to get the Schleswig-Holstein question settled as soon as possible, and settled in the way that would least benefit Prussia, and be most for the advantage of Austria's position in Germany. The Austrian Government thought that they saw their way to such a satisfactory settlement when they observed the continued loyalty and enthusiasm with which the German population of the duchies clung to the Prince whom they regarded as their rightful Duke, and also noted the strength of the desire which animated the Governments of the middle and many of the minor states to favour the erection of an independent state, and disappoint the ambition of Prussia. The Prussian Minister seemed himself to waver, in the face of the compact opposition which the disclosure of the designs of Prussia upon the duchies had called forth. In February, 1865, he sent a despatch to Vienna, in which he expressed the willingness of the King that Schleswig-Holstein should become an independent German state, but upon condition that its military force should be at the disposal of Prussia, and that to the same Power certain fortresses in the duchies, with suitable territory attached to them, should be made over. These proposals were rejected by Count Mensdorff. In the Diet it was proposed, on the 27th March, by Bavaria, Saxony, and Electoral Hesse, that Austria and Prussia should, provisionally, hand over Holstein to the Prince of Augustenburg. The Prussian envoy, M. de Savigny, raised objections; and when the Diet had voted for the motion (April 6), declared that Prussia would not recognise any right in the Diet to decide in favour of the pretensions of the Prince of Augustenburg - at any rate, before inquiring into the validity of the Prussian and Oldenburg claims to the succession. Austria, averse as she naturally was to quarrel with Prussia, qualified her adherence to the motion by the statement that she supported it only in so far as it could be executed without disturbing the existing understanding with her ally. But, in spite of all efforts, the divergent interests of the two Powers were continually creating fresh difficulties. Prussia transferred her naval station on the Baltic from Dantzic to Kiel, and declared her intention of fortifying the harbour; the Austrian commissioner protested, and ordered up two Austrian ships-of- war to Kiel; yet his Government gave way, and Prussia established herself firmly at that important harbour. On the other hand, the sort of protection which Austria afforded to the Prince of Augustenburg, and the encouragement which she gave to his adherents, were extremely offensive to the Prussian Government. It was clearly seen both at Berlin and Vienna that the plan of joint administration would no longer work; if war was to be staved off, some different modus vivendi must be established in the duchies. As yet there was nowhere a desire for war; accordingly, a meeting was arranged between the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria at Gastein, in the Tyrol. Hither came the sovereigns in August, attended by their chief ministers; an understanding was speedily arrived at, and the Convention of Gastein was the result.

By this convention, dated August 14, 1865, it was agreed that the joint occupation should cease; that - although the right of sovereignty of either Power over both duchies, as acquired by the Treaty of Vienna, remained inviolate - Austria should for the future confine her troops and officials to Holstein, and Prussia hers to Schleswig; that the Powers would propose to the Diet to erect Rendsburg into a Federal fortress; that the duchies should join the Zollverein, or German Customs- union; and that the Emperor of Austria would cede to the King of Prussia his sovereign rights over Lauenburg, acquired by the before-cited Treaty of Vienna, in exchange for the sum of 2,500,000 Danish rix-thalers. The Prussian Chambers, the members of which were still for the most part favourable to the Augustenburg claim, disliked this convention, and let it be understood that they would not vote the money required for the purchase of Lauenburg; but the King of Prussia paid the stipulated sum out of his private purse, and the convention was carried into effect without delay, Austrian troops withdrawing from Schleswig, and Prussian troops withdrawing from Holstein. General Manteuffel was appointed Prussian Governor of Schleswig, and Austria placed General von Gablenz in the similar post in Holstein.

The Gastein compromise was useful, inasmuch as it put an end to a reciprocal position, which, by its very nature, bristled with incentives and temptations to war; it placed the rival Powers at a little distance from each other, and gave a breathing time, which, had the desire for peace been sincere on both sides, might have been utilised for the achievement of a lasting and honourable! settlement of the matters in dispute. But it was by this time evident that Prussia did not intend, under any circumstances, to relax her hold upon the duchies, and as this did not suit the interests - to say nothing of the sense of justice - of the Austrian Government, the discord soon became as serious and as menacing as before. In October, the opinion of the Prussian law officers on the question of the Schleswig-Holstein succession was delivered to the Prussian Government. It was to the effect that all prior rights to the succession in Schleswig and in Holstein were quashed and rendered null by the Treaty of Vienna of the preceding year. The sword, in the view of these willing tools of despotism, had swept away all previous rights, and was itself the source of right for the present and future; beyond it, and the state of things which it had created, you could not go; Prussia and Austria were masters of the duchies under the treaty, and had only each other to reckon with touching the disposal of the prize. The iniquity of this opinion will be understood when we remind the reader of one or two facts in the previous history of the Schleswig-Holstein dispute. Denmark ceded Schleswig and Holstein to Austria and Prussia at the close of a war in which she had been worsted. But in what character did Prussia and Austria receive them? The answer is plain, if we consider how the war arose. Prussia and Austria did not attack Denmark with the avowed purpose of despoiling her, and enriching themselves at her expense; had they done so, even the men of Manchester would hardly have wished to prevent this country from making an armed intervention. On the contrary, they attacked with the holy names of justice, historic right, and the faith of treaties on their lips; they claimed the right of using foul means, because Denmark had not proved amenable to fair means; they attacked her, in a word, on the ground that she had not fulfilled the engagements which she made to them in the diplomatic correspondence of 1851 - 2. Now, when Austria and Prussia exacted these pledges from Denmark, they were not, as our narrative has shown, acting independently, but in virtue of an authority delegated to them by the German Bund. Therefore, when they made war on Denmark on account of the non-fulfilment of those pledges, they were still acting as agents for the Bund; on no other supposition can their conduct find any sort of justification. Finally, when they conquered, do not logic and common sense certify at once that it was for the Bund that they conquered, not for themselves? that, in disposing of the duchies, they were morally bound to regard themselves as trustees for the benefit of the whole of Germany, and were not at liberty to entrench themselves within the mere letter of the Treaty of Vienna?, That Austria took some such view of the relation in which she stood to the duchies and to the Bund is manifest from the whole tenor of her conduct; at the same time it must be admitted that, since she could never hope to profit territorially by the conquest, she was under no great temptation to act otherwise. Prussia, to whom annexation was easy, was under a strong temptation to substitute might! for right in the future stages of the question, and she yielded to the temptation. In so doing she obtained a striking immediate success; but we do not yet see the end.

Count Bismarck, after having obtained this opinion from the law officers, proceeded with sure and unwavering step to the accomplishment of his designs. There seems no reason for supposing that at this time he was bent on war with Austria; at least, if he could have effected his main object with the help of the secondary German Powers, he would probably have preferred this course to war. That main object was the exclusion of Austria from the German Confederation, to the end that the dualism which had for centuries done so much to neutralise the power of Germany might be abolished, and that a reorganised Confederation, of which Prussia would be the acknowledged head and soul, might gather up and develop all its forces for any conflict which the future might have in store. A deep resentment against France - which after Jena had so manifoldly humbled and insulted his country - rankled in the soul of every Prussian; and Bismarck was, of course, no exception to the rule. How or when the opportunity of retribution would be given, neither they nor he could tell; but they doubted not that it would come some day; and he, the boldest and most profound political thinker in the north of Europe, was bent upon preparing Prussia to take advantage of it, and upon levelling with the dust all barriers that obstructed her unimpeded action. Austria, then, was to be excluded from Germany; and this was to be effected, if possible, by Prussia's coming to an understanding with all the minor states, and proceeding, with their consent, to the rupture of the old Confederation, and the formation of a new one in which Austria would find no place. But how if the minor states refused to see the matter in this light, and Austria herself would not consent to be excluded? In that case, the arbitrament of war alone remained, and Bismarck did not shrink from the prospect. One point alone was doubtful and disquieting - what would France do in the event of war breaking out between Prussia and Austria? A nation of nineteen millions, pitted against a nation of thirty-five millions, requires, besides any allies that she can obtain, a tranquillising assurance that if, in a forward movement into the enemy's country, she should expose her flank to a powerful neighbour, that neighbour will not seize the opportunity of making a diversion, or even of massing his troops in a menacing attitude near his frontier. Count Bismarck resolved to seek an interview with Napoleon, in order, if possible, to gain some security that Prance would be neutral in the event of war. But the French Government had published a circular severely censuring the Convention of Gastein as "an abuse of power, perverting all notions of right and the conscience of the people; " and the King of Prussia thought it beneath his dignity to open confidential communications with the French Court till this language had been withdrawn or modified. Count Bismarck found some means of inducing the French Cabinet to modify the terms of its circular, and then visited Biarritz. What passed in the interviews between him and Napoleon is not yet publicly known; but the result proved that the success of the Prussian statesman was complete. On his return through Paris, Bismarck saw the Italian Minister, the Chevalier Nigra, and told him that war between Prussia and Austria was inevitable. " He showed himself full of confidence that France would not be hostile to it; " and so deeply had he reflected on all the conditions of the political problem, so keenly did he realise the importance to Prussia of the Italian alliance, in distracting the attention and dividing the forces of Austria, that he playfully said to Nigra that " if Italy did not exist, it would be necessary to invent her." The French Emperor is supposed to have approved of the project of alliance between Prussia and Italy; and it is certain that he looked forward with pleasure to the severance of Venetia from the Austrian Empire as one result of the anticipated war. But how was France to be indemnified if she observed a friendly neutrality? It is universally believed that Count Bismarck, without absolutely pledging his Government, held out such hopes of territorial extension for France, either on the side of the Rhine, or in the form of an annexation of Luxemburg or some part of Belgium, to be actively aided by Prussia, as induced the French Emperor to regard the Prussian programme with favour and hopeful anticipation, and readily to give the desired promise of neutrality. Napoleon would the less care to exact a distinct promise from Bismarck in regard to territorial indemnification, because he, like the rest of Europe at the time, did not share in the superb confidence which the negotiator expressed of the ability of Prussia to overpower Austria; he must have reckoned on the war lasting for a considerable time, with mutually exhaustive results, in which case France might play the part of a mediator, and, while performing that dignified office, not lose sight of her own interests in the general re-adjustment. However this may have been, Count Bismarck returned in high spirits to Berlin; and the extent to which the Prussian Rhine frontier was denuded of troops, when the stress of war came, proved of itself that the Prussian Government knew that it might reckon upon absolute non-intervention on the side of France - at any rate, during the earlier weeks of the struggle.

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Pictures for Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

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