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Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2


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The secondary powers did not cease after the Convention of Gastein to urge upon Austria and Prussia various measures tending to establish a permanent and legal state of things in the duchies; but their proposals met with little encouragement. One of these motions - the object of which was to induce the two Powers to convene the Estates of Holstein, and empower them to take a part in the deliberations for the solution of the questions affecting the definitive reorganisation of the duchies - was discussed in the Diet on the 18th November, and called forth a joint reply from Austria and Prussia; this was the last occasion on which the two Powers acted in concert. The divergent views of the Governments naturally produced variance in the manner in which their representatives administered the duchies. While the Prussian Governor sternly repressed all movements or agitation in Schleswig relative to the question of succession, the Austrian Governor of Holstein allowed considerable latitude to the partisans of the Prince of Augusten- burg to meet and declare their wishes. Thus, when the Schleswig-Holstein associations (Vereine) made arrangements for a monster meeting at Altona on the 23rd January, General von Gablenz, after stipulating that agitating questions should not be discussed, allowed the meeting to be held. Count Bismarck seized the opportunity to write a despatch to the Austrian Government, which forms an important stage in that sequence of events which was slowly but irresistibly leading up to war. In this despatch (January 26, 1866), the Prussian Minister " appealed to the recollections of the meetings of Gastein and Salzburg, and remarked that he had allowed himself to hope that at that period Austria was not only convinced of the necessity of combating the revolution, but had agreed as to the mode of combat. The conduct of the Holstein Government could only be designated as aggressive. It ill became the Imperial Government openly to use against Prussia the same means of agitation against which they fought together in Frankfort. If at Vienna it was thought that they might tranquilly contemplate the revolutionary transformation of the people of Holstein, so distinguished for their conservative spirit, Prussia was resolved not to act in a similar manner. The King's Government saw no difficulty in putting an end to the agitation, the scandals, and injuries to the principle of royalty, going on in the duchies. The Prussian Government entreated the Vienna Cabinet to weigh the situation, and to act accordingly. If a negative or evasive reply were given, Prussia would at least be assured that, influenced by her ancient antagonism, Austria could not durably act together with her. This conviction would be a painful one, but Prussia needed to see her way." The concluding sentence obscurely pointed to the necessity under which Prussia might find herself placed, of forming new alliances, in case of being unable to act any longer in concert with Austria.

It is difficult to see how the conduct of the Imperial administration, in sanctioning the meetings of the partisans of the Prince of Augustenburg, could fairly be regarded as "aggressive," or as directed "against Prussia." Two years before, Prussia had professed, no less than Austria, an earnest desire to concede the succession in the duchies to whoever might be best entitled to it. What offence, then, could it be to Prussia, to allow the friends of one of the claimants freely to state the grounds of their partisanship? The truth is, that we see in these expressions the same spirit as that which dictated the opinion of the Prussian law officers. Prussia would now recognise no public law, no constitutional right, in Schleswig and Holstein, anterior in date to the Treaty of Vienna. The hereditary rights of the House of Oldenburg might be intertwined with the history of four hundred years; but they were swallowed up in the vortex of the Treaty of Vienna; that was now, in Prussia's view, the Magna Charta and Bill of Rights of the Elbe duchies, to support which was virtue and patriotism, to oppose which was to encourage " revolution." It was plain that the Prussian Government thought the time was come for taking advantage of the immense superiority of position which she possessed over her rival. Austria was not likely to go out of the duchies voluntarily; a quarrel must therefore be fixed upon her, which would afford some plausible pretext for turning her out.

Count Mensdorff, in his reply, said that Austria was well aware that she did not occupy Holstein as an acquisition, but that so long as the provisional government might last, she considered herself perfectly free in the administration of the duchy, and could admit of no control from any quarter. The publication of these two notes caused a profound sensation throughout Germany. War seemed to be inevitable, and all began to reckon up their military resources, and look round for allies. Soon after the receipt of Count Mensdorff's note, Count Bismarck informed the Austrian envoy, Count Carolyi, that the state of things contemplated by the conclusion of the Prussian despatch of January 26 was now established; that is to say, " that convinced of the impossibility of longer acting with Austria, Prussia resumed her liberty of action, and would only consult her own interests."

Many circumstances indicated a fixed intention on the part of Prussia to irritate Austria beyond endurance, while contriving adroitly to saddle her with the responsibility of taking the first steps in hostile preparations. A decree issued on the 11th March, in the name of the King of Prussia, peremptorily forbade, in either of the duchies, any attempt to set up forcibly a governmental authority in opposition to the sovereign rights of Prussia and Austria, threatening imprisonment with hard labour as the punishment of any overt act in the direction of such an attempt. This decree could not be reconciled with the Convention of Gastein, which confined the administration of the government in each duchy to one of the Powers. Again, Count Carolyi, under instructions from his Government, put the formal question to the Prussian Premier, whether Prussia intended to break the Gastein Convention. "No," was the blunt reply of Count Bismarck; he is said to have added, " If I had the intention, do you imagine I should tell you?" The tone in which the denial was made must have conveyed to the mind of the Austrian an impression the reverse of reassuring; he is reported about this time to have informed his Government that he considered war inevitable. Count Mensdorff - before this celebrated interpellation of Count Carolyi - had addressed (March 16) a confidential circular to all the German Courts, explaining the proposals and declarations which Austria intended, for her own security, to make in the Diet, should she be unable to obtain from Prussia definite and tranquillising assurances. Upon receiving Count Carolyi's report of the result of his interpellation, and of his impression respecting the intentions of Prussia, Austria began slowly and secretly to prepare for war. Her power of mobilising her army in a short time was greatly inferior to that of Prussia; if, therefore, she was not to be taken unprepared by a sudden declaration of war, it was necessary for her to commence at once the measures necessary for placing her army on a war footing. Prussia, on the other hand, through the able initiative of General von Roon, the Minister of War, had during the last four years reorganised her military system with such admirable skill, forecast, and completeness, that she could, starting from a profound peace, be, in an inconceivably short space of time, ready for a great war. What Austria could accomplish with difficulty in two months, Prussia, from her superior organisation, could perform with ease in three weeks. It was known also that the Prussian infantry were armed with breech-loading firelocks, and although the full superiority of the needle- gun over all muzzle-loaders could only be established by experience, the certainty that it rendered possible a much greater rapidity of fire than had ever before been known, must have caused anxiety to the Austrian military chiefs, and ought to have disquieted the Vienna Cabinet. Eight days after the dispatch of the Austrian note, Count Bismarck also (March 24) sent a circular to all the German Courts, marked with all the transcendent ability and lofty audacity which were characteristic of his genius. He spoke in it of Austria's armaments, and affected an alarm on that subject which he certainly could not have felt. He proceeded to treat of the political requirements of Germany, and it is easy to read "between the lines" his fixed conviction that, upon a wide view of national interests, it was necessary that Austria should be excluded from the German Bund. " We hoped," lie said, " and, at all events, will first endeavour, to find security for national independence in the basis of German nationality, and in strengthening the ties which bind us to the other German states. The conviction, however, forces itself upon us, as often as we contemplate this object, that in its existing state the Confederation is ill-adapted for such an end, and for the active policy which important crises may at each instant require. Its constitution was based on the supposition that the two great German Powers would always be at one. So long as Prussia upheld this state of things by continually giving way to Austria, it could subsist: serious antagonism between the two Powers it would not endure; a threatened breach it could neither obviate nor set aside." The conclusion to which such reasoning pointed was not obscure; the Bund has subsisted hitherto through Prussia's giving way to Austria; Prussia means to give way no longer; either, therefore, there must be perpetual war, or danger of war, or one of the two great Powers must be excluded from the Bund. But Germany and Prussia, as a later pregnant sentence of the circular declares, are inseparable; it is Austria, therefore - such is the clear, though suppressed conclusion - that must go. " The fate of Prussia involves the fate of Germany, nor can we doubt that if the power of Prussia was once broken, Germany would merely exist with a passive share in the policy of the nations of Europe. All German Governments ought to regard it as a sacred duty to prevent this, and ought to labour together with Prussia for that end." There are various expressions in the circular which show that Bismarck did not expect that the German princes would be convinced by his reasoning; but to this he was indifferent; he had more potent arguments in reserve.

Step by step, as though by an inevitable destiny, or unalterable concatenation of events, the fatal hour drew on. At the end of March, General Govone was in Berlin, charged by the Italian Prime Minister, General La Marmora, with the duty of negotiating a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, with Prussia. That Italy would forego the opportunity which a rupture between Prussia and Austria afforded her of obtaining by force the Venetian territories of the latter Power, was hardly to be expected; for such a chance, once let slip, might never have occurred again. But to Prussia also the alliance of Italy was of the highest importance. With her vast superiority of population, Austria, could her military force have been wholly concentrated against Prussia, though she might have lost battles, could not have been crushed and compelled to yield; such a consummation was only rendered possible by the division and dilution of her strength necessitated by the attack of Italy upon Venetia. Could even Austria have been content to cede Venetia itself, and take Venetia's money value, she might have rid herself of her Transalpine foe, and employed her whole strength in Bohemia. Secret overtures had been made at Vienna by the Italian Premier, in the autumn of 1865, for the cession of Venetia by purchase; but the Emperor conceived his military and ancestral honour to be involved, and absolutely rejected the proposal. On April 8, the treaty of alliance between Prussia and Italy was signed at Berlin. Prussia, under it, reserved to herself the right of declaring war within three months, in which case Italy bound herself to attack Austria; but Prussia did not bind herself, to declare war in Germany, or to help the Italians on their own ground, if Austria attacked Italy. Each Power bound itself not to make peace separately from the other, and to continue the war till Italy had gained Venetia, and Prussia secured a corresponding augmentation of territory in Germany. Already - between March 29 and 31 - orders had been issued for the mobilisation of the whole Prussian army, and the necessary movements were effected with extraordinary celerity. By the middle of May " the 490,000 men who formed the strength of this army stood on parade, armed, clothed, equipped with all necessaries for a campaign, and fully provided with the necessary transport trains, provision and ammunition columns, as well as field hospitals." Austria, though she had commenced her preparations earlier, was soon distanced by her opponent, and, when the war broke out, her arrangements were still far from complete. The King of Italy published a decree on the 25th March, increasing the Italian army by 100,000 men.

For several weeks after the treaty between Prussia and Italy had been signed, continual diplomatic fencing was maintained on the part of the two Governments. First there were criminations and re-criminations on the question of priority of armaments. On the 6th April, a note from the Prussian Foreign Office was sent to Vienna, insisting on the magnitude of the Austrian preparations, which could not be adequately accounted for by the alleged apprehension of disturbances in Bohemia, and ending with the ' declaration that nothing was farther from the views of the King than an offensive war. Yet only two days after this, as we have seen, the alliance was concluded with Italy. Nevertheless, there was a basis of truth in the statement as to the King of Prussia's inclinations; he was, in truth, earnestly, almost superstitiously, averse to being the -first to resort to arms; and Bismarck had infinite trouble to bring his royal master up to the point of commencing the war. This despatch of April 6th gratified the Austrian Cabinet; and Count Mensdorff replied to it in a conciliatory tone, pointing out that the Emperor had explicitly declared that he had never contemplated an attack upon Prussia, and expressing the hope that after this avowal Prussia would countermand the military preparations which it was admitted that she had made. The Prussian Minister, whose real intentions were far from pacific, replied (April 15) that as Prussia had not commenced to arm, so she could not be expected to take the initiative in disarming, but that she would follow pari passu any steps which Austria might take with that intention. Count Carolyi was then instructed to make this offer at Berlin - that the dislocation of troops, which Prussia had regarded as a step menacing to peace, should be countermanded by the Austrian Government on a given day, if Prussia would undertake to order on the following day the demobilisation of those portions of her army which had been recently mobilised. The Prussian Government (April 21) frankly accepted this proposal, saying that it did so with satisfaction, and requesting the Cabinet of Vienna to submit further proposals touching the proportion and time of the reductions. The real feelings of Count Bismarck we learn from a telegram from Count Barral, the Italian Minister at Berlin, sent on the previous day to the Italian Premier, General La Marmora, and published by the latter in his recent remarkable work, entitled " A Little More Light on the Political and Military Events of the Year 1866." Count Barral telegraphed, " The impression of the General [Govone] and myself is, that Bismarck is disappointed by the Austrian proposition, and visibly discouraged by the new pacific phase upon which the conflict is about to enter"

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Pictures for Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2

Francis Joseph I
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The Crown Prince of Prussia
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