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Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3


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But now Count Mensdorff found himself in a difficulty. The attitude of the Italian army on the frontiers of Venetia was believed at Vienna to have grown so menacing that it was impossible for Austria to replace matters on a peace footing in Venetia, short of a positive understanding with Italy similar to that which seemed on the point of being concluded with Prussia. We have the distinct assurance of General La Marmora, in the work just quoted, that at this time Italy had made no concentrations of troops whatever - had, in fact, taken no warlike step of any kind. But lie admits that the impression to the contrary which prevailed at Vienna was a bona fide one, and accounts for its existence in a very curious manner. It was, he thinks, the English Government - the warm and importunate advocate of European peace - which, misled by reports from English diplomatic agents in Italy, who had imagined some inconsiderable movements of troops that were really directed against brigands to be part of a scheme for concentrating the Italian army near the frontier, had conveyed, of course, with the most friendly intentions, this false information to the Austrian Cabinet. However this may have been, the effect of the erroneous persuasion as to Italian armaments which Austria had taken up in overclouding the prospects of peace was soon apparent. It must be remembered that Austria, not having recognised the Italian kingdom, had no minister at Florence, nor Italy at Vienna; direct means, therefore, for clearing up such a misconception the moment that it had arisen, were wanting. On the 26th April, Count Mensdorff wrote to the Austrian Minister at Berlin, declaring that the intentions of Austria continued to be sincerely pacific and conciliatory, but stating that as the Italian army had been "placed in a condition to attack Venetia," common prudence obliged Austria to strengthen her military position in that country. Count Bismarck had good reason to know that the belief of the Austrian Cabinet that Italy had been concentrating her troops on the borders of Venetia was groundless, for on the 23rd April La Marmora had telegraphed thus to Count Barral: " You can declare in the most formal manner that there has not been the least concentration of troops, neither at Piacenza, nor at Bologna, nor anywhere else." But on the 27th April, La Marmora dispatched a circular to all the representatives of Italy at foreign courts, repeating in the most solemn manner the declaration that Italy had made no warlike preparations, but announcing the present determination of the King's Government, in consequence of the alarming nature of the military preparations of Austria, to take those military measures of precaution which the defence of the country required. These important documents from Florence evidently governed the reply of Count Bismarck to the Austrian note of the 26th inst. On the 30th April, he wrote that the Prussian Government was grievously disappointed by the tenor of the Austrian despatch, having expected that the re-establishment of the normal status quo would have extended to all movements of troops conducing to the war effective state. Prussia could not recognise the motives alleged for arming in Italy, for all sources of information agreed in stating that no warlike preparations had taken place in the kingdom of Italy. If, indeed, quite recently, any steps of the kind had been taken, they could have had no other cause than the Austrian armaments. Prussia could only consent to continue the negotiations for disarmament, if Austria would include her southern forces under the terms of whatever arrangement might be concluded. To this Austria replied (May 4) that the negotiations for a simultaneous reversal of the steps which both countries had taken in the direction of war must now be considered as exhausted. The scheme of reciprocal disarmament thus fell through, chiefly, if General La Marmora is right in his conjecture, owing to the unlucky piece of false information which the English Government imparted to the Austrian, about the imaginary concentration of troops in Italy.

Besides disarmament, two other important subjects were debated in the correspondence between Austria and Prussia in these critical weeks. One related to Schleswig- Holstein, the other to the reform of the Confederation. In her proposals on the former subject, Austria was bidding for the support of the German princes; in her proposals on the latter, Prussia was bidding for the support of the German people. Anxious to withdraw from her hazardous position in the duchies, but to make her withdrawal in such a way as would augment her popularity with the minor German states, Austria invited the Prussian Government, in a note dated April 26, to make in the Diet a joint declaration that the two Powers would cede the rights acquired by them under the Treaty of Vienna to that claimant of the sovereignty of the duchies whom the Diet recognised as having a predominant right to the succession. Although some collateral offers, such as that Prussia should have full and permanent possession of certain strategic points in the duchies, at Kiel and elsewhere, were added to the main proposal, in order to make it more palatable to the con- dominant Power, Count Mensdorff probably expected a refusal, and he was not disappointed. Count Bismarck, in his reply (May 7), professed in the strongest terms Prussia's intention to adhere faithfully to the Treaty of Vienna and the Gastein Convention, but maintained that by those instruments the intervention of any third party, not excepting the Diet, in the affairs of the duchies was precluded. (But this could only be maintained, at least with reference to Holstein, on the assumption of the truth of the immoral view of the Prussian law officers, that all previous public right in the duchies was cancelled by the Treaty of Vienna.) The note went on to say that Prussia, while repudiating the interference of any third party, was always ready to treat with Austria as to the conditions on which she would be disposed to cede her share of the rights accruing to her by the Treaty of Vienna.

This reply, Sir A. Malet justly observes, though it " apparently brought the question back to the original starting-point of the discussion, proved in reality that matters were come to a dead-lock, and that in fact no agreement was possible."

The other subject discussed was the reform of the Confederation. The Prussian envoy proposed in the Diet on the 9th of April that, within a period to be precisely fixed, the Diet should decree the convocation of a National Assembly to be elected by universal and direct suffrage, for the purpose of receiving and deliberating on the proposals of the German Governments for the reform of the Confederation. This proposition, which caused great surprise and excitement in Germany, was referred by a Dietal vote of the 21st of April to a committee of nine; at the same time the Diet requested Prussia to state the nature of the proposals which it intended to submit to the Assembly when convened. Count Bismarck sharply replied (April 27) that the determination of the date at which such a Parliament or Assembly should meet was of the essence of the Prussian proposition; the modes of procedure habitual to the Diet would, he knew, lead to the indefinite adjournment and final miscarriage of the project; however, he would bring under the notice of the committee such information as would show to what regions of political life the Prussian proposals would extend. This promise he redeemed on the 11th of May by laying before the Committee of the Diet the heads of the changes which Prussia deemed necessary. These included the completion of the central power by means of a freely-elected German Parliament, the concession to the central power so reorganised of a wide legislative competency, the removal of all fetters on German trade, an improved military system, the formation of a German navy, &c. But the proposals did not embrace the exclusion of Austria from Germany, nor the organisation of a North German army under the leadership of Prussia, though these were the "reforms" which Count Bismarck had really at heart, far more than any other. Probably he foresaw the impossibility, in the midst of the increasing stir and excitement, of subjecting such proposals to serious discussion; but he might consider that his object had been in great part gained by the mere fact of having brought them forward; for the Liberal and progressive party throughout Germany would thereby be induced to look to Prussia as the only German Power from which the advocacy of serious and fundamental reforms was to be expected.

Two or three days before the dispatch of Count Bismarck's confidential communication to the Committee of the Diet, the decree had been issued for the mobilisation of the whole Prussian army!

Italy, though she had enlarged her army, had not made any distinctly warlike preparations before the appearance of General La Marmora's circular of the 27th April. From that time war was looked upon as inevitable; and in order to enlist the national feeling more fully in its favour, a decree was published at Florence on the 8th May ordering the formation of twenty volunteer battalions, to be placed under the immediate command of Garibaldi. Great were the excitement and enthusiasm in Italy. Garibaldi left Caprera, and repaired to Como, where a concentration of volunteers had already commenced; here such numbers flocked to his standard, that at the end of May the number of battalions had to be doubled. Yet all this time the mind of the Italian Premier was agitated by the most anxious misgivings. The expression in the treaty with Prussia, " alliance offensive and defensive " (for which Count Bismarck had desired to substitute the words " alliance and friendship," but had been defeated by the persistence of the Italian plenipotentiary), had appeared to the Government of Florence to afford ample security that Italy could under no circumstances be left alone to measure swords in a single combat with Austria. Yet when, alarmed by the preparations which Austria was making in Venetia, La Marmora sent pressing instructions to Count Barral to ascertain what Prussia would do in the event of Austria's attacking Italy, the answers that he received were not altogether reassuring. King William seems to have feared that Italy might purposely provoke Austria, make it impossible for her to refrain from war, and so force the hand of Prussia; and, accordingly, Count Bismarck said to General Govone, about the beginning of May, that " the King would never sign a stipulation which should place Prussia at the mercy of Italy." He added that the King did not think that the obligation to make war was reciprocal, according to the text of the treaty; Italy had bound herself to attack Austria if Prussia took the lead; but Prussia had bound herself by no corresponding obligation to Italy. The Italian diplomatists were alarmed by this language more than, to all appearance, they ought reasonably to have been. Count Barral telegraphed to Florence on the 2nd May that he thought Italy must now rely on herself and France rather than on Prussia; and La Marmora declares, in the work already quoted, that as Prussia was thus playing fast and loose with her engagements, he should have deemed it justifiable in Italy to do the same, had her obvious interest been to abandon Prussia. But there was surely something extravagant in this mistrust, something which did injustice to the Prussian character and to the known integrity and honour of the Prussian Minister. Count Bismarck, whatever faults he may be justly charged with, was the last man in the world to lead an ally into an embarrassing position and then desert him. But he made no protestations, and only appealed to the common sense of the Italian Government. He authorised Govone to declare to his chief that the Prussian Government believed that the eventuality of war between Prussia and Austria would be inevitably brought about by the force of circumstances, and would attach itself to the impossibility of permitting the struggle to commence between Italy and Austria, without Prussia taking part in it at the same moment. And when Govone asked whether, since the signature of the King of Prussia could not be obtained to a military convention binding him to take the field, should war break out in Italy, his Government could give the assurance that they considered themselves bound in honour to Italy, Bismarck replied, " You can tell General La Marmora that we shall make of that condition [that Prussia should take the field if war broke out in Italy] a Cabinet question; for what remains, trust to the irresistible march of events." Some days later (May 7), Bismarck repeated to Count Barral that, " according to the letter of the treaty, Prussia was not strictly bound to attack Austria if Austria attacked Italy; but that it was for Prussia a moral engagement; and that the King, to whom he had spoken on the matter, answered that his loyalty caused him to regard it as a duty." What could have been plainer than such declarations as these? Yet La Marmora talks in a magniloquent style about not abandoning his ally in spite of his most serious delinquencies (" gravissimi torti "); and Govone, in a memorandum dated May 7, while admitting that Bismarck assured him that "in no case would Italy be left alone to face Austria, angry and armed," cynically observes that he only said so because he had heard some rumour of a plan of separate accommodation between Austria and Italy.

There was indeed such a plan, and General La Marmora's revelations make us acquainted with its exact scope. Although the General declares that he himself rejected it from the first, it is clear that General Govone was not altogether disinclined to it; it seems not to have been quite out of the question for Italy to entertain it; and this is perhaps the reason why Italian statesmen lay so much stress on what they regard as the (hypothetical) bad faith of Prussia towards Italy. On the 5th of May, General La Marmora received a telegram in cipher from Paris, of which the first words were, " Decipher for yourself." After he had done so, he found the purport of the telegram (which was from the Chevalier Nigra) to be this - that Austria was willing to cede Venetia to the Emperor Napoleon, who would at once transfer it to the King of Italy, on condition that she should be left free to recoup herself at the expense of Pruss'a. La Marmora telegraphed back that his first impression was that it was a question of honour and good faith for Italy not to break her engagements with Prussia. Again (May 6) came the tempting voice from Paris, saying that the Emperor had told Nigra that Prince Metternich was formally authorised to sign the cession of Venetia in exchange for a simple promise of neutrality. We have no ground for supposing that La Marmora wavered for an instant; but, if his resolution had been momentarily shaken, other telegrams soon arrived, of a nature to confirm him in it. On May 6, Count Barral telegraphed that he had been just informed by Count Bismarck that the Prussian army might now be regarded as entirely mobilised; and on the 9th, Nigra telegraphed from Paris that Govone had just arrived from Berlin, and was under the full conviction that Prussia had absolutely decided to draw the sword, at latest, towards the beginning of June, and would, in any case, declare war if Italy were attacked. Setting against the risks of war the odium which the acceptance of the French proposal, involving as it did a direct breach of faith with Prussia, would bring down upon the young Italian kingdom, and the painful and inconvenient consequences which might ensue from Italy's debt of obligation to France being so greatly extended, the Italian Premier wisely determined to be true to his first faith; and the project for the cession of Venetia to France vanished for the present into space.

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Pictures for Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3

Francis Joseph I
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The Crown Prince of Prussia
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