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Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 5


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The record of an interesting conversation which passed, some days before the advance of Manteuffel into Holstein, between General Govone and Count Bismarck, and which the former embodied in a letter (May 22) to the Italian Premier, casts a strong light on the military position of the two Powers at that time, and on the calculations of the cool and far-seeing intellects that were marshalling the forces of Prussia. Two army corps, said Bismarck, were near Neisse in Upper Silesia; a third was being concentrated at Görlitz; three more were in course of concentration on the Saxon frontier, facing Dresden; a seventh, facing Leipzig. This imposing mass of troops was about to be further reinforced by the two corps from the Rhineland. (In point of fact, of about 60,000 men who were stationed along the east bank of the Rhine, not more than 10,000 were left, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities.) Prussia calculated that at the beginning of June 200,000 Austrian troops, and not more, would be already concentrated and ready, and that Prussia would have from 280,000 to 290,000 to oppose to them. Govone thought that the Prussian troops were rather too scattered, and Bismarck asked him to speak to General Moltke on the subject. Moltke explained the weighty considerations which had governed his judgment in determining upon the dispositions which Govone had criticised; and the latter proceeds to say that " the impression which remained to him from the conversation which he had with General Moltke was that he felt confidence in the issue, and believed that in the first days of June (whatever appearances of delay the proposal of a Congress might just then present) the armies would come to blows, it not being possible to prolong a situation so formidably armed as that which would prevail from the 4th of June and onwards."

The King of Prussia appears to have been unfeignedly distressed at the prospect of going to war with his imperial brother; he spoke of it, says Count Barral, " with large tears in his eyes." He even attempted in the last days of May to open secret and personal negotiations with the Emperor of Austria; but they came to nothing. But he was shocked and incensed by the declaration made by the Austrian envoy in the Diet of June 1, that Austria would convene the Holstein Estates; for he looked upon this as a clear breach - as indeed it was - of the Convention of Gastein. To a precise and narrow mind the infringement of a positive agreement, though the matter of it be of slight importance, is more offensive than a far more gross violation of equity in which forms and technicalities are observed. From this time Count Bismarck had little cause to complain of the irresolution and backwardness of the King.

Count Mensdorff replied (June 9) to the Prussian note of June 3, denying that the rights of the Confederation could be infringed by any agreement made between Austria and Prussia. (This was true, and was a justification of the conduct of Austria in submitting the question of the future of Holstein, as a member of the Confederation, for the decision of the Diet; but it did not justify her in convoking the Holstein Estates.) The Austrian Minister proceeded to say that his Government protested against the self-righting measures (selbsthülfe) which Prussia had resorted to in Holstein as a violation of Article XI. of the Constitutional Act, and reserved to itself the right of taking whatever steps might be necessary for the maintenance of the dignity and safety of Austria, and the defence of the rights of the Confederation. The article appealed to says that " should there be ground for apprehending the use of force between Confederates, or should such have taken place, the Diet has the duty of taking preliminary steps for staying all self-righting, and for putting a stop thereto if begun." In virtue of this article, an extraordinary sitting of the Diet was held, at the instance of Austria, on June 11, to consider the proposal of Austria that the armed force of the Confederation should be mobilised, with the view of keeping in order the unruly Confederate, who persisted in " helping himself." This memorable meeting was practically the last ever held by that unwieldy body which the statesmen of 1815 had substituted for the Holy Roman Empire. But before we narrate its incidents, we must speak of a remarkable circular which Count Bismarck had dispatched on the previous day (June 10) to all the German Governments.

This circular contained the definite and final proposals of Prussia for the reform of the German Confederation, and comprehended ten articles. By the first, " the territory of the Confederation was to consist of those states which had hitherto been included in it, with the exception of the dominions of the Emperor of Austria and of the King of the Netherlands." The other articles provided for the constitution of a German Parliament, the creation of a German navy, and the reorganisation of the Federal army. There was to be an Army of the North, commanded by the King of Prussia; and an Army of the South, commanded by the King of Bavaria. This last provision was an attempt to disarm or weaken the apprehended hostility of Bavaria in the approaching war. To call such a scheme a " reform " of the Confederation was surely an abuse of words. To exclude from Germany that state which was the chief treasure-house of ancient German traditions - around which clustered the mighty memories of the old Reich, the thought of Rudolf of Hapsburg, Frederic Barbarossa, and Henry the Fowler - that state which was the nearest existing representative of the old civilising Germany, which nearly ten centuries before had founded the Mark of Brandenburg itself as an outpost of Germanism against the Wends; such an act was Revolution, not Reform. By it, when extorted from Austria at the sword's point, the dualism which had paralysed Germany in its exterior relations was doubtless abolished; but by it no less was the hold of the German race on the great Danube valley fatally weakened, and the sovereignty in that region, with the command over its future, transferred to the Magyars and Sclavonians. Such a proposal, to which neither Austria nor any friend of Austria could for a moment listen, may be regarded as equivalent to a declaration of war.

In the sitting of June 11, Austria moved that all the Federal contingents, save those of Prussia, should be mobilised and placed on their full war establishment, concentrated within fourteen days, and then ready to take the field within twenty-four hours. Austria knew that the majority of the German Governments were favourable to her, and the scope of this motion was to get their contingents mobilised in a legal and regular manner, and brought into line with the Austrians against Prussia. The Prussian envoy naturally protested against such a motion being even taken into consideration, declaring that both in form and substance it was subversive of the fundamental ideas of the Confederation. The voting on the motion was fixed for the 14th June, and on that day it was adopted by the Diet, by a majority of nine votes to six. Thereupon, M. de Savigny rose, and, after a few remarks on the Holstein question, said that, by the declaration of war pronounced against a member of the Confederation by the Austrian proposition, and the vote of the Governments adhering to her - which, according to Federal law, was impossible - the King's Government held the breach of the Federal compact to have been consummated. " The envoy consequently declares, in the name and by the orders of His Majesty the King, that Prussia regards the hitherto existing Federal compact as dissolved and no longer obligatory." Prussia, however, did not undervalue the national necessities for the sake of which the Confederation had been formed, and therefore she was willing and desirous to enter into a new Confederation with any German states which were prepared to accept the basis of reform sketched in the Prussian circular of the 10th June. Finally, having protested against the disbursement of any Federal moneys without the consent of his Government, the Prussian envoy left the assembly.

The die was cast, and war was inevitable; yet in what manner, and at what precise point, it would break out, was probably suspected by few, if any, persons outside of the diplomatic world. But the revelations of General La Marmora show that Bismarck had meditated the precise stroke with which Prussia should commence operations for weeks before. On the 13th May, Count Barral telegraphed to Florence that Count Bismarck had again told him that "the hostile attitude of Hanover would probably oblige Prussia to direct the first military operations against the kingdom of Hanover." Again, on the 22nd May, he told General Govone that Prussia would be completely ready for war in a very few days, and that then " war might break out, either through a hostile decision of the Diet, or owing to armaments to which Hanover, or some one of those little states which cut the Prussian monarchy in two, might choose to proceed." Now, poor little Hanover, so far from being forward, was sadly backward in her preparations for war, as events soon proved when she was surprised by the Prussian ultimatum of June 15. But there were two advantages to be gained by attacking Hanover and other small states that were friendly to Austria. First, the military advantage. A glance at the map will show that Hanover and Hesse- Cassel did truly " cut the Prussian monarchy in two; " so that it was of the utmost importance to the celerity and security of the movements of her armies that Prussia should at the outset overpower and occupy those countries. Secondly, there was probably what may be called a sentimental advantage. King William had a sort of superstitious aversion from attacking Austria, for the sovereign of which he certainly entertained a feeling of warm friendship; but in the case of Hanover and Saxony there was no such obstacle, and it was perhaps easy to convince the King that the safety of Prussia required that their military preparations should be suppressed with a high hand.

On June 15, the day after the memorable vote in the Diet, Prussia sent an identical summons to the Governments of Hanover, Saxony, and Electoral Hesse, which had voted for the Austrian proposal, requiring that they should immediately reduce their troops to the peace establishment, as it had existed on the 1st March, and should agree to join the new Prussian Federation on the basis of the reform proposed on the 10th June. If these Governments declared, within twelve hours, their agreement to these demands, Prussia undertook to guarantee their sovereign rights within the boundaries of the proposed Federation; otherwise, Prussia announced her intention of declaring war.

Saxony at once refused; the two other Governments hesitated, and made no distinct reply. On the evening of June 15, Prussia declared war against these three states. No formal declaration of war was made against Austria, but at a later date the intention to commence hostilities was communicated to the Austrian outposts.

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Pictures for Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 5

Francis Joseph I
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William I
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Biarritz
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The Crown Prince of Prussia
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