Humiliated and worn by the many insurrections within the borders of her conglomerate Empire, Austria began to lose power and influence in Europe, and gradually fell from that high place which once she had held as the arbiter of Europe. The chance then came to Prussia to assert herself as the leader of the thirty-eight German States created by the Congress of Vienna. Prussia’s rise to greatness during the Eighteenth Century made her a great military power. Though the Napoleonic wars had weakened her and cost her thou-sands of her best soldiers, yet she showed remarkable recovery after her power and independence had been crushed by Napoleon in 1806. As a consequence of the overthrow of Jena (1806) Prussia had been dismembered, and Napoleon believed that he had secured her future weakness by compelling her to engage not to keep on foot an army of more than 42,000 regular troops during
-the next ten years. This restriction of her army was intended to bar the recovery of Prussia by allowing her lost possessions time to accustom themselves to new masters. The measure adopted by Napoleon to this end proved to be the means of ultimately making his beaten and humiliated foe the greatest military power in Europe.
The great statesman, Baron Stein, came into power in 1807, and at once began to work out his purpose of throwing off the French yoke, and regaining independence for his country. He sought to create a middle class of peasant-proprietors, and to prepare the way for the conversion of an absolute monarchy into a representative government. Serfdom and all feudal usages were abolished, and the sale and transfer of land were made entirely free. Local self- government was granted to the towns, and ancient restrictions on trade were swept away. The offices of state were reformed, and adapted to modern practical requirements. While Stein was the civil, the able General Scharnhorst, a man equally scientific and practical, was the military regenerator of Prussia. He formed a plan for evading the intended effect of the army restriction imposed by Napoleon. This plan consisted in a system of short service, by which continual drafts of men entered the army, and, after acquiring the necessary drill, returned to private occupations, leaving their places vacant for others. In this way, while the number of men in arms and with the colors never exceeded the limit imposed, the whole male population was being trained to effective service in war. The operation was conducted so quietly as to escape notice until its effects came to light, with disastrous result to Napoleon, on the great uprising of Germany in 1813. The Prussian army thus received a new constitution and spirit, and acquired a truly national feeling. The system of short service was the germ of the famous Prussian Landwehr, or militia, so renowned in the recent history of Europe. In the midst of these reforms, the jealousy of Napoleon compelled Baron Stein to resign his post at the end of 1808, but his work was carried on by Hardenberg. After 1815 the policy of reform was checked, for a time, by the king, Frederick William III, who joined the “Holy Alliance.” Nevertheless, compulsory education was made a fundamental principle of the State in 1816, and religious toleration was established.
That the German States were one in sentiment was realized even by the Congress of Vienna. But the old system of a combination of German States under an Emperor who was held to represent the Caesars had been dashed to pieces by Napoleon’s Confederacy of the Rhine. The Congress of Vienna, finding Germany a mass of incohering principalities, ordained that the thirty-eight States should be united in one great confederation under the presidency of the Emperor of Austria, as the most powerful monarch among the number. There was constituted a Diet, which met at Frankfort, but was without power except in matters of the internal peace of the States and the guarding against foreign attack.
With Prussia’s rise to greatness, she resented the dominance of Austria, claiming that the Eastern Empire contained more Slays than Germans, and hence was not German in spirit. Prussia saw her opportunity and took a step toward German unity by the scheme of commercial policy known as the Zollverein, or Customs Union. Each State had imposed its own levies, and in journeying along the Rhine alone, goods had to pass twenty-seven customhouses. The removal of these vexatious hindrances to commercial intercourse must largely promote the interests of Germans and gain favor for the State under whose auspices it was effected. Prussia organized the Commercial League, whose members collect no custom duties upon goods passing from one State to another. Austria was left out of the arrangement.
To no man does Prussia owe her present position in the affairs of the world more than to Otto von Bismarck, who in 1847 entered the service of the monarchy. His career, and many of the Prussian internal reforms, are dealt with in the volume, “Foreign Statesmen,” and so will not be mentioned here. In 1861, when Frederick William died, and his brother became King William I, Bismarck’s voice was potent with the King, and he became his Prime Minister almost immediately, and together King and Minister labored for the aggrandizement of Prussia and the German States. In this they were aided by the great strategist, Count Von Moltke. (See volume, “Famous Warriors.”)
For ages Austria had been supreme in Germany, and she had been wont to treat Prussia with scant ceremony as a manifest inferior. But Prussia compact, wisely guided, and long in the enjoyment of peace increased in power, while Austria burdened with distant and dissatisfied provinces, wasted by costly wars, and frustrated in her career by injudicious government was steadily dwindling. A long diplomatic strife was maintained over trivial differences evolved from the growing animosity of the two governments. But it was obvious that the high dispute in the hands of diplomats was merely ripening for its inevitable solution by the sword. Bismarck had secured the “benevolent neutrality” of France and Russia in the long foreseen conflict. The active friendship of Italy could be safely assumed. Meanwhile, the Emperor, with his Minister and the General, had prepared for the long-expected struggle by a reform of the army, involving great expenditure, and causing much dissension between the Parliament and the Crown, or the ministry of Bismarck, who went so far as to deny the right of the people to control the financial expenditure through their representatives. Bismarck and the King prevailed, and Prussia, in the end, accepted the result as justifying the arbitrary means adopted a suspension of the Nation’s constitutional right.
While the great controversy was at some distance from its close, Bismarck succeeded in inducing Austria to join him in wresting from Denmark the Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. Prussian and Austrian armies took the field together in 1864. The Danes made a gallant resistance against overwhelming force, and maintained their works at Düppel for three months, until they were stormed by the Prussian troops. In the end Denmark was deprived (Treaty of Vienna, October, 1864) of Schleswig-Holstein, and part of Jutland. The plunder was easily acquired, but grave difficulties arose in regard to its distribution. Bismarck took measures which pointed to the absorption of all the territory by Prussia. Austria favored its erection into an independent State, under Prince Frederick of Augustenberg, who might be trusted to rule it according to Austrian desires. In the sitting of the German Diet, June, 1866, Austria, disregarding a convention made for joint occupation, placed the whole matter at the disposal of the Bund, and then proceeded to convoke the States. While .inviting Austria to send troops into Schleswig, Prussia marched her own troops into Holstein, thus dividing the spoils. Instead of responding to this invitation, Austria withdrew her forces altogether from Holstein, under protest, and then, calling attention to this “act of violence” on the part of Prussia, proposed that the Diet should decree “federal execution” against the enemy of the Empire. This eventful resolution was carried by a great majority (June 14, 1866), whereupon the Prussian Plenipotentiary, in the name of his Government, declared the German Confederation dissolved for-ever, and withdrew from it.
Prussia then sent identical notes to Saxony, Hanover, and Hesse-Cassel, who had supported Austria in the Diet, and, the terms not being accepted, the Prussian troops at once took possession of the Kingdoms. War was begun against Austria. In this struggle of seven weeks a decisive victory remained with Prussia, thanks to the promptitude of her movements, the admirable training of her troops, the strategy of Moltke, and the rapidity of fire from the breech-loading rifle, the famous “needle-gun,” invented by Dreyse. The effect of the latter demoralized the brave Austrians, and caused the immediate adoption of breech-loaders in all the chief armies of Europe. The Austrian artillery vindicated its former renown, and the cavalry showed heroic devotion at critical times. The military lesson of the war was that the infantry is now, with its new arm, the irresistible arbiter of battle. The great conflict was in the South, against the Austrian army under Count Benedek, in Bohemia. In pushing back the Austrians, as they strove to oppose, first, the passage of two great Prussian armies from Saxony and from Silesia into Bohemia, and then the junction of those forces, the Prussians won several important victories during the last week of June. The decisive battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa), in the northeast of Bohemia, was fought on July 3. In this famous conflict an Austrian army of over 200,000 men, strongly posted, was attacked by 130,000 Prussians under Prince Frederick Charles, the operations being directed, as throughout the whole campaign, by the keen and imperturbable von Moltke. The Prussian attacks on the right and center were repulsed, and matters were looking serious, when the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick William arrived, as directed, on the Austrian right rear with a fresh force of 100,000 men, including the Prussian guards. The blow was as terribly decisive as the arrival of Blucher’s troops in a precisely similar quarter of the field, at Waterloo, and the Austrian army was defeated with the loss of many guns.
In Italy matters had gone well for the Austrian forces. On June 24 the Italian army, under the King, was defeated at Custozza by Archduke Albert, and driven back across the Mincio. On July 20 the Austrian admiral, Tegethoff, inflicted a severe defeat on the Italian fleet at Lissa, one of the Dalmatian Islands. These successes pleased Austrian pride as regarded Italy, and smoothed the way to a beneficial end for the Italians.
After Sadowa the victorious Prussians marched toward Vienna, and the Austrian Government yielded to superior force, and concluded the Treaty of Prague (August 23, 1866). Venetia and the east of Lombardy were given up to Italy; the old German Confederation was dissolved; a new North German Confederation (headed by Prussia), to the exclusion of Austria altogether as a Germanic power, was formed. Hesse-Cassel, Nassau, Han-over,, Schleswig-Holstein, and Lauenburg were annexed, as new provinces, to Prussia, raising the population of the Kingdom to about twenty-four millions. It was exactly sixty years since the old German Empire had been extinguished by Napoleon. This new confederation, which was the stepping-stone to German unity, included twenty-one states, the chief being Prussia, Saxony, Brunswick, Oldenburg, the Mecklenburgs, Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, and Saxe-Coburg, Prussia having the command of the armies and the power of peace and war to the north of the Main. The King of Prussia also acquired, by separate treaties, the command of the armies of Bavaria, Würtemberg, and Baden; and this had important consequences, four years later, in enabling Germany to take prompt action against France in 1870. Bismarck was appointed Chancellor of the Confederation and President of the Federal Council. The army of Saxony was to be under the orders of Prussia in case of war. The result of the Seven Weeks’ War had been the establishment of Prussia as the leading power in Germany, and as probably the chief military power in Europe a position hitherto supposed to belong to France. The Prussian successes in the war of 1866 were regarded in France with great jealousy, in having conduced to the German unity which French policy had always striven to thwart, and in having raised to so powerful an eminence the State which France had struck down sixty years before. The attitude and conduct of Louis Napoleon and his government toward Prussia became restless, irritating, and intrusive; and though war was for the time averted in a dispute about Luxemburg, it was certain that a struggle for continental supremacy was not far distant.
Since the great war of 1866 the history of Austria has been chiefly concerned with the attempt to arrange the conflicting claims and rights of the diverse races who constitute the Empire. First the dispute with Hungary had to be settled. The political independence of Hungary was recognized, the Emperor being crowned King at Pesth in accordance with the old rites (1867). The Emperor Franz Joseph became King of Hungary as well as Emperor of Austria, and the two nations, by the Ausgleich, are independent except that they have the same monarch and are united in foreign affairs. Within the Empire there has been a large development of constitutional freedom, the first Parliamentary ministry being formed in Cisleithania, at the end of 1867. Education has been freed from the control of the Church, civil marriage is permitted and press laws have been relaxed. The Slav element has been a source of much worriment and during 1896, 1897, and 1898 the Austrian Parliament has been the scene of much disorder caused by apparently irreconcilable differences between the races forming the conglomerate Empire. Although the chief aim of foreign affairs has been to be on good terms with both Germany and Russia, Austria entered into the Triple Alliance in 1887. Under the treaty of Berlin (1878) Austria acquired Bosnia and Herzegovina, now finally lost to the fast-decaying Turkey.