in this article, we will talk about The Austro-Prussian War Europe has always been home to conflicts and power struggles across the map. For a continent so big and intertwined, and with frequently shifting borders all throughout history, it’s no surprise that war would often become inevitable. In the case of Central Europe, as the second half of the 19th century came around, the clash for dominance and consolidated power over the region would be between the mighty Austrian Empire and the rising state of Prussia.
Prussia, at this time, was part of the German Confederation and was becoming the most powerful and influential of the incorporated states next to the Austrian Empire. Its leaders were the Hohenzollern family and in particular, King Wilhelm I alongside Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. On the other end, over the border in Austria, Emperor Franz Joseph I of the Habsburg dynasty held the throne.
Although these rulers were developing a little bit of a rivalry between themselves, with both sides hoping to claim control of Central Europe, they did have a brief moment of cooperation during the Second Schleswig War. Prussia and Austria decided to invade the Danish-controlled land of Schleswig-Holstein together and were successful in co-occupying the territory after the end of the war.
A new crisis erupted in 1866 though after Prussia took umbrage at political decisions made by the Austrian governor of Holstein. This sparked disputes between both sides and eventually led to Austria sending in precautionary troops along the Prussian border. In response, the Prussians partially mobilized five of their divisions at the end of March.
Both parties now began preparing for war with each other, and Otto von Bismarck of Prussia had the idea to reach out to a more southern ally On April 8th, Italy agreed that if Prussia went to war against Austria in the next 90 days, it would join the German state in an attempt to push back against Austria’s power. This deal would secure the soon-to-come declaration of war from Bismarck and his allies.
Austria was aware of this newfound friendship though and began mobilizing its own troops along the Italian border on April 21st. Italy then called for a general mobilization 5 days later, and Austria did the same on the following day. Now it was Prussia’s turn, although its general mobilization occurred in a step-by-step process between the 3rd and 12th of May.
As all three sides were becoming more and more ready for battle, multiple German states began to form alliances with Austria. In hopes of counteracting this, Prussia invaded Hanover, Hesse, and Saxony on June 15th with the goal of routing their neighbors before they could put any real support behind Austria. Five days later, just as they had promised, Italy declared war on Austria and came to Prussia’s aid.
On June 27th, Prussia faced their first loss at the Battle of Langnsalza against Hanover, although this victory for the latter was short-lived, as the rest of Prussia’s troops eventually surrounded them and forced them to surrender. The Austrian commander, Ludwig Benedek was hesitant to take his own troops into direct conflict.
and showed major signs of indecisiveness, even as his Prussian counterparts moved with meticulousness and extreme confidence. The Austrians, despite outnumbering the Prussians, were becoming surrounded and pushed back as their enemies fought with intelligent aggression. By the start of July, Benedek had given up hope and ordered a withdrawal of his men. He sent a plea to Emperor Franz Josef, begging him to make peace with the Prussians to avoid what he predicted would be a “catastrophe” for the Austrian army.
Much to Benedek’s dismay, the emperor flat out refused. Now, the main portion of the war was about to take place… On the 3rd of July, the Prussian Army of the Elbe and the Prussian First Army were ready to attack the Austrian Army at the Battle of Königgrätz While the Austrian’s numbered around 215,000, the Prussians only added up to about 124,000.
Nonetheless, it was the Prussians who proved most offensive. As mist cleared from the air and the night’s rainfall came to an end, the Austrian Army opened fire on the Prussian right flank, which was under the command of Herwarth von Bittenfield. For what seemed to be the first time, the Prussians were now hesitant. Bittenfield was unsure of whether a full attack would be wise at this point and eventually ordered.
Brigadier General von Schöler to fall back into a defensive position with seven battalions of the advance guard. Meanwhile, General Edward Frederick Charles von Fransecky led the Prussian 7th Division into the Swiep Forest and eventually ran into 2 Austrian Corps. Somehow, the 7th Division proved successful in clearing the forest, and King Wilhelm ordered the First Army to join General Fransecky as he led his men into Sadowa, which was shortly captured.
Still, as the Prussian 8th and 4th divisions tried to cross the Bystrice River and join their fellow troops, they were stopped in their tracks by heavy Austrian artillery fire. Oddly though, Benedek opted not to order a cavalry charge at the same time, which allowed the Prussians to maintain some level of resistance. The Austrians still had significantly better weaponry for long-range, and of course, still outnumbered their adversaries.
In a lucky advantage for the Prussians though, the Austrians had not been prepared for the kind of close combat that they found themselves in against the 7th Division back in the forest. This is where the tide began to turn in favor of the Prussians… As the Austrians with their muzzleloading small arms clashed with the Prussians and their breechloading needle guns, the situation began to support the latter, who were able to operate their weaponry.
while on the move and didn’t have to stay standing while reloading. Although the Prussians were temporarily pushed back, the Austrians made yet another mistake when Benedek refused to launch a full-blown counterattack against both Prussian armies. Instead, the Prussians fought back harder than ever and managed to wipe out Austria’s battalion.
under Colonel Carl von Pockh as the Prussian Second Army entered the battle, led by none other than the crown prince himself. The Austrian II and IV Corps continued to fight as best as they could, but the Prussians were more unified than ever before, and the Austrian defense was crumbling. As the final fragment of the prince’s nearly 100,000 strong Second Army arrived and clashed with the Austrians, the latter began to realize their fate.
They were taking mass casualties and eventually Benedek himself decided to inform the emperor of the catastrophe that was occurring, just as he had warned of earlier. The battle was over, and the Prussians had come out on top… As the Austrians retreated, some of the Prussian forces chased them towards Vienna and clashed with them along the way. These smaller skirmishes continued until July 22nd, ending only when an armistice was finally reached.
The Peace of Prague was then signed on August 23rd and officially ended the Austro-Prussian War. Luckily for the Austrians, this treaty was actually very fair to the Empire. Otto von Bismarck was a strategic man and had decided that the best option for Prussia would be to maintain a strong Austrian Empire and essentially create an ally for themselves against the rest of Europe, whom Bismarck did not trust.
Initially, King Wilhelm starkly disagreed with his Prime Minister and refused to do away with any harsh terms against Austria. It wasn’t until Bismarck threatened not only to resign but even to jump out of the fourth story Nikolsburg Castle window, that the king gave in and agreed to give some favor to their adversary. No new territory was taken from Austria itself, at the request of Bismarck, but the Austrians were forced to give up Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, and some parts of Hesse and Bavaria to the Prussians.
Nonetheless, the end of the war and the signing of this treaty confirmed Prussia’s newfound authority throughout the region and confederation, and soon, the German states would become united under Emperor Wilhelm I – without Austria Before that though, a Treaty of Vienna had been signed on October 3, 1866, after the Third War of Italian Independence, which had occurred throughout the Austro-Prussian War after Italy came to Prussia’s defense.
This treaty confirmed an earlier armistice between the nations and forced the Austrians to hand over Venetia to the Italians and a large chunk of Friuli to the French, who would then transfer power to the Italians as well. These were significant losses for the Austrian Empire of course, but they were still mild in comparison to what Prussia.
and Italy as its ally could have demanded if not for the insistence of Bismarck, which would later come in handy at the outbreak of World War One While the events leading up to the Austro-Prussian War had almost seemed to symbolize a new, stronger relationship between Prussia and Austria, this outcome would never come to fruition. The war, instead, drew a wedge between Austria and Prussia, and even between the latter and some of the Southern German states.
Through many mistakes made by Austrian military leadership, and some luck on the part of the Prussians, the struggle would prove the dominance of Prussia in Central Europe, and within the German Confederation. Not only that, but Prussia’s victory only strengthened its authority and influence, which would continue to grow for decades to come. And although the resulting dissolution of the German Confederation and division between Austria and Prussia would end any hope of a united Germany that incorporated Austria, the Germans would not quit trying for many years to come.