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Why was Prussia able to win the war with Austria in 1866? Essay

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1866 saw a complete change in the political structure of the German speaking nations, Prussia finally broke free of the shackles imposed on her by a dominant Austria.

Since the 15th century, Austria had always been considered the natural leader of the German states. The Habsburg family had always been accustomed to ruling and dominating, Habsburgs had been Kings or Dukes of Austria, Hungary, Spain, Italian States, France. It can be seen here that the Habsburg family and therefore Austria (Franz Joseph I, was a Habsburg) had a traditional role as head of the German states.

Throughout the 19th century, Austria had always been ultra-conservative, Metternich is a prime example of 19th century ultra- conservatism. Austria aimed to keep power and continue to dominate despite the role of an increasing powerful Prussia. Someone once said, “The one thing people in power are afraid of is losing that power,” the ultra-conservative policies of Metternich and the Habsburg government in the Vormarz period shows this point perfectly. They censored newspapers in order to silence liberals and nationalists, they created the Bund out of the ashes of the Holy Roman Empire and they refused to acknowledge the power of Prussia. Even up to 1866, these conservative attitudes lingered throughout the Habsburg empire.

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Prussia, on the other hand, was always accustomed to following Austria’s lead. Prussia grew significantly from 1848 to 1866 but until Bismarck the King Fredrick William IV, always took the traditionalist approach rather than breaking away from a weakened Austria. Prussia never got the respect it deserved from Austria and it is not surprising due to the indecisiveness of Fredrick William IV.

Prussia was a slightly backward country during the Vormarz period and although it was called a great power it did not have the imperial force of Russia, Britain or Austria for example. Many Prussian were peasants and the Prussian government relied on the Junker class also many of the Junker looked to Austria for guidance, they did not behave like a great power in the Vormarz period, they along with the smaller German countries behaved like client states to Austria.

The Erfurt Union of 1849 showed to Europe that Prussia may be breaking away from Austria and beginning its own period of ascendancy. This vision was limited due to the continuing dominance of Austria and the indecisiveness of Fredrick William IV, Austria was willing to use force to crush the Erfurt scheme and Fredrick William IV was not willing to use force to defend it hence it was doomed. This shows the positions of Austria and Prussia perfectly, Austria wanted to continue its control over Germany and was willing to use force to do so but Prussia accustomed to second placed wanted more power but refused to fight for it, so in the period 1848-62 nothing critically changed.

Bismarck, Von Roon and William I are the real forces of change in central Europe, with there ascendancy to power a new era in Prussian history begins. This starts with reforms but ends with an armed conflict with Austria in 1866, but why was Prussia able to win the Seven Weeks War?

Prussia was economically strong for many reasons, firstly was the creation of the Zollverein in 1834. The Zollverein was a customs union which allowed free trade throughout the German states except the Austrian Empire. Prussia created the Zollverein in 1834 in order to make herself richer and to encourage trade but as a by product of this it had made Prussia the natural leader of Germany’s economy because the Zollverein relied on Prussia.

Secondly, since the early 1850’s, Prussia had developed massive industrial power specifically in Silesia, Saar and the Ruhr. Examples of this industrial power can be seen by the growth of the Krupp, Siemens and Borsig companies. All three of these began in the mid 19th centuries and prospered due to the demand of their products e.g. Borsig’s trains and Krupp’s weapons and steel. Prussia had the capacity for massive industrial production through this it made Prussia wealthy and economically stable.

Also Prussia had large reserves of Coal and Iron, the essentials of an industrial society, with these reserves in the Saar, Silesia and the Ruhr, coal could easily be transported by railway to the new factories present in Prussian territory. The main factory for the Krupp company was located in Essen which is in the Ruhr valley of Germany which has a large coal reserve. It could be said that without the large coal and iron reserves Prussia’s industrial strength would have been no-where near as large.

Iron and Coal are needed to make weapons, locomotives, steel and a great many other things, with these in abundance in Prussia, they would have the advantage over others.

The economic factors led to a military victory against Austria in 1866 because the armed forces were well funded from the prosperity of the Prussian industry e.g. by tax, through this funding soldiers were well paid and fed and they could also afford the best equipment. With better industry, a new technology took off, this period is considered by many historians as the age of the railway, with the need to transport goods faster, Prussia developed a railway system second only to the United Kingdom. Prussia did not just have well armed happier troops but also a way of mobilising them quickly. You can see clearly that the economic factors are the foundation stone to Prussia’s victory but it is not by a longshot the only reason for Prussia’s victory.

During the 1850’s, Prussia began to reform its army after mobilising over Hesse-Kassel highlighted many weaknesses in the Prussian Army. Albrecht Von Roon, began reforming the army in order to make it stronger and more efficient, firstly he proposed to increase the annual conscription rate to 63000, he then proposed to create new infantry and cavalry regiments and to change the amount of service needed. This made the new Prussian armed forces large, also with more regiments it was more mobile because it would be split into smaller more manageable segments and also made it constantly strong. These reforms were important because it brought Prussia a more modern outlook on war and with Railway and new breech loading guns it made it a more powerful army.

The change in the regimental structure in the army went hand in hand with the introduction of railways because in regiments the army could be easily transported by rail and then quickly outflank or reinforce. Von Molke saw and used this firstly against Austria then more critically against France (1870-71).

Von Molke himself also aided Prussia’s military strength. Some Historians believe that Bismarck is the greatest statesman of all time but it could also be argued that Helmut Von Molke was one of the greatest generals of all time. He was known as a strategic genius, he may have been cautious but he used to railway as a unique way of deploying troops he also anticipated Austria’s moves perfectly.

As Prussia continued to industrialise throughout the 1850’s, many advances were made in weapon technology. Throughout the 18th century, the majority of soldiers were armed with flintlock muskets and a minority were armed with flintlock rifles. In the 1860’s new breech loading (side loading) weapons were available. They were faster to reload because ammunition was put into the side rather then down the barrel. Some nations were very quick to employ this new technology notably Britain, France and Prussia but others were more concerned with other matters other than war e.g. Austria. The countries who did not have this new weapon technology relied on weapon designs that were over 50 years old so they were at an obvious disadvantage.

Prussia was able to win the Seven Weeks War because of military strength because she had instituted reforms which made the army more fluid and larger, through advanced tactics and strategy she had developed a comprehensive plan to defeat Austria. Prussia was equipped with new Dreyfus needle guns (breech loading) while the Austrians were still using flintlock muskets. So it could be said that the Prussian were much more prepared for war than Austria due to the actions of Von Roon and Molke and so were easily able to win a war when it finally came.

Prussia was also able to win the Seven Weeks War because of the international situation of the 1860’s. In 1854, Russia had aimed for territory conquest and aimed her sights on Ottoman territory in the Balkans, the Ottomans and Russians entered into a state of war which reached a stalemate. Britain and France did not want Russia to become too powerful so entered the war on the Ottomans side, Russia called upon its ally Austria to join the war on her side but she refused because she would have no support from the Bund, Bismarck had made sure of that. Without any allies Russia was forced to surrender after the Allies attacked the Crimea. This action by Austria had isolated her internationally she now had lost the friendship of Russia by remaining neutral and had not gained the friendship of Britain and France, is this perhaps what Bismarck had planned when he resisted Austria in the Bund over the Crimean War?.

The Crimean War had ruined any chance of an alliance with anyone for Austria, without any allies she had the possibility of fighting a war on several fronts. Bismarck exploited this massively, his foreign policy of his early years can be seen in this context. He tried to appease Russia over the Polish Revolt by offering Prussian support and allowing Russian troops to cross the border and catch rebels. This is done to either guarantee Russia’s neutrality or a possible alliance against Austria (an alliance could cause Austrian to fight a war from north and east).

Bismarck then went to the new state of Italy and requested an alliance against Austria in exchange for the province of Venetia once Austria was defeated, the Italian government agreed this, (This alliance made Austria fight a war on Northern and Southern fronts). Finally Bismarck met Napoleon III at Biarritz where he negotiated French neutrality in exchange for Belgium territory and a little territory in Western Germany. This prevented Prussia from being flanked in the same way he had organised for Austria.

The Crimean war causes Prussia to win the Seven Weeks War because it isolated Austria and many countries disliked Austria now because of her attitude e.g. Russia, this meant that there would not be an alliance against Prussia if war broke out because Austria had no friends. On the other hand, Prussia had gained the friendship of Russia, Italy and France. Although only Italy agreed to attack Austria, France and Russia wouldn’t attack Prussia. Austria would now be forced to fight a war on two fronts, generally a losing situation. International relationships helped Prussia win the Seven Weeks War because they had orchestrated a system of alliances to outflank Austria.

Nationalism in Germany both aided and hindered Prussia’s victory in the Seven Weeks War because many German Nationalists favoured a Kleindeutschland solution and a Prussian victory over Austria would lead to this scenario and therefore they supported Prussia during the Seven Weeks War, this attitude is shown in the organisation known as the Nationalverein.

Although some Nationalist believed in a Kleindeutschland many did not, this included the smaller German States who were opposed to Prussia in the War of 1866, this shows that Nationalism was not a single feeling but depended on which social group you were from.

Another reason why Prussia is able to win the Seven Weeks War was because of the decadent state of Austria. For 400 years, Austria had kept an iron grip over German affairs suppressing any attempt to change the balance of power e.g. mobilisation over Hesse-Kassel. Since 1855, she had fallen behind in economics and military status. Austria was not as gifted as Prussia in regard to coal and iron, she did have reserves particularly in the north but not the volume that resided in Prussian territory. She did not have the resources to afford such a complex new industry and economy let alone a brand new army. The main reason for Prussia’s economic growth was coal and iron and without these how could Austria compete?

The Habsburgs were still very conservative in nature and so were reluctant to reform this applied to the economy and taxation system, many parts of the economy had remained the same for hundreds of years so it became decrepit and inefficient, the Austrian empire was in financial difficulties throughout this period due to this. This was a totally contrast to the Prussia economy which was recording record growth every year whilst the Austrians we falling further and further behind.

Also the Austrians had a very multicultural empire and this is considered by some as the age of nationalism. How could an empire stand against a foreign power when there was dissolution inside the empire particularly between the ethnic Germans and Hungarians. Austria was deeply divided and the Austria government did nothing to resolve this except using its strong iron fist once again.

Prussia was able to win the Seven Weeks War because Austria was financially weak and she relied on a poorly run economy and taxation system in need of rapid reform, whilst in contrast Prussia had a relatively new economy powered by coal and iron, Prussia was making large amounts of money and they were able to buy new equipment and they were able to afford a total overhaul of the army (von Roons reforms). Austria was getting weaker and weaker because of a poor economy and Prussia were getting more powerful because of its resources. With more money Prussia was able to afford weapons and a good army and crush the decadent Austrian army in the field.

Otto von Bismarck helped Prussia to win the war of 1866 due to his will for a powerful and dominant Prussia. Bismarck saw that Prussia had the power to dominate Germany and become the natural leader like Austria once was. Bismarck saw that Austria was weakened and Prussia was strong, strong enough to replace Austria. Bismarck saw how decadent the Austrian Empire was because of his confrontational attitude over Schleswig-Holstein. Unlike Fredrick William IV at Olmutz, Bismarck was no longer willing to back down to Austria when Prussia was as or possibly more powerful than her. He saw that by defeating Austria he could fulfil his aims for Prussia.

With Bismarck’s will, Prussia manipulated the international situation for her own ends e.g. Bismarck opposing Austria in the Bund over the Crimean War. Bismarck had engineered the perfect conditions for war before actually beginning it, an example of this success is the length of the war, it was only seven weeks long, this is quite surprising considering the size of both of these nations, but this also shows that the planning was brilliant, due to Bismarck diplomatically and Molke militarily. Without Bismarck’s vision then the diplomatic side of the planning may never had gone ahead and no matter how brilliant a general Molke was he would be unlikely to win against a coalition against Prussia.

Prussia was able to win the Seven Weeks War because due to Bismarck’s vision the conditions for war were set perfectly in Prussia’s favour through diplomacy and intelligence. Bismarck had correctly calculated Austria’s actions and it had paid off, but would this have happened without Bismarck?

To conclude, there are a number of reasons why Prussia won the war of 1866, perhaps the most significant is the economic conditions of both Austria and Prussia, Austria was weak and was getting weaker and Prussia was becoming richer and more powerful, through powerful economics Prussia was able to build a modern powerful army while Austria couldn’t afford to reform its own, therefore Prussia’s army would be stronger and therefore there is one reason why Prussia won the Seven Weeks War.

Another significant reason is the diplomatic situation partly due to Bismarck and partly due to Austria’s selfishness, Bismarck had engineered a war on two fronts for Austria whilst securing Prussia against the same thing. Austria had alienated herself and so she had no friends to count on when Prussia attacked whilst Prussia had Italy.

The Seven Weeks War of 1866 is a turning point in German history it marks a point where Prussia takes over from Austria as the dominant power in Germany. It puts Prussia into the saddle of a united Germany and therefore puts Germany into the saddle of Europe.

David Ireland L6PDB


Germany 1848-1914 Whitfield

Europe Reshaped 1848-78 Grenville

The Unification of Germany 1815-90 Stiles and Farmer

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