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  • James Houser

July 3, 1866 - The Austro-Prussian War & the Battle of Koniggratz

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 3, 1866. The Prussian Army isn’t supposed to win this battle. They’re outnumbered, attacking over bad ground, and most of Europe thinks they’ve made a dumb move by launching a war against Austria. But what happens at Koniggratz will shock everyone. It is Europe’s introduction to modern warfare and will shape the face of the world. Welcome to the most important battle you may never have heard of.

What is a Prussia? Let’s start there. No one would have picked Brandenburg, a small German principality in the swampy northeast, or its squalid little fishing-village capital Berlin as the centers of a future superpower. But the rulers of Brandenburg were ambitious, and slowly strung together a series of territories stretching from the Rhine to the Russian border, acquiring the title of Kings of Prussia along the way. Prussia was notable for its large, well-trained army, and King Frederick the Great’s daring and visionary leadership made it one of Europe’s real powers.

Most of the territories that formed Prussia were part of Germany. The problem is that there was no Germany – not really. People spoke German, or thought of themselves as German, but there was nothing called “Germany.” The modern German-speaking lands were divided into over 500 semi-independent states, ranging from as small as a single town to the large territories of Bavaria, Saxony and Austria. The closest thing to a single unifying entity in the land of “the Germanies” was the Holy Roman Empire – a downright medieval structure ruled over by an Emperor, who exerted almost no real authority in the Empire.

Austria and its Habsburg Dynasty had dominated the Imperial throne for centuries. This gave it little real power in “the Germanies,” but massive influence. Austria had its own collection of territories, including Hungary, huge chunks of Italy and the Balkans, and Czechoslovakia. Austria was disturbed and concerned by the rise of Prussia, a strong, aggressive power that challenged its influence and prestige in Germany. Austria and Prussia had become bitter enemies by the time of the French Revolution.

Of course, the French Revolution brought its own problems, mainly in the form of some dude named Napoleon. Napoleon’s France invaded Germany in 1805 and defeated Austria so badly that they were forced to disband the Holy Roman Empire altogether, ending a millennium-old political entity with the stroke of a pen. Suddenly both Prussia and Austria faced a serious competitor for German influence. When Prussia tried to resist Napoleon, they got blown out too in 1806. It took a large coalition to put Napoleon back in his place, and this left Prussia and Austria as frenemies, forcing smiles as they shook hands in an alliance to keep the French out of Germany.

Something was different in the wind, though, as the modern age came around. The current flavor of the week was nationalism – German nationalism. The wars of resistance against the French, the flowering of German literature and art from men like Goethe and Beethoven, and the birth of the romantic era and its rediscovery of the German past planted an idea in some people’s minds – what if the German people were not destined to live apart? What if they had a chance to make a single nation, a single country, one empire – a GERMANY?

Both Prussia and Austria resisted this, of course. Austria was painfully aware that any united German power would likely be dominated by Prussia, and Prussia was painfully aware that a “Germany” would create as many problems as it solved. When the Revolutions of 1848 broke out and threw Europe into chaos, various German revolutionaries and nationalist groups at one point or another offered the throne of a “united Germany” to Frederick William IV of Prussia and Franz Josef of Austria. Both refused, and used their armies to crush the German revolutionaries and nationalists. Though it seemed like a beginning, this was actually an end – an end to the Germans unifying on popular terms. When Germany did unify, it would not be by speeches or constitutions, but by the point of a sword.

The man to bring it about would be the Chancellor of Prussia, a huge, bewhiskered conservative named Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck is rightfully a towering figure in German history, the man who brought Germany together – and, in many ways, sowed the seeds of its destruction. He was a brilliant politician, scheming and manipulative, a conservative who built the most progressive welfare state in Europe as a way of outflanking the left. Bismarck was the foremost advocate of “realpolitik,” or the unashamed use of force in diplomacy and politics. He was authoritarian, centralizing, and realistic. One famous quote of his – “Politics is the art of the possible” – says a lot about him.

Bismarck saw German nationalism as a means to an end, the end being Prussian dominance of Europe. Instead of the liberal, dreamy notion of a federal German republic like the Revolutionaries of 1848 wanted, Bismarck would unite Germany on HIS terms – force, pressure, and control. In a speech in 1862, he stated that “the great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”

To unite Germany by “iron and blood” meant picking a fight with Austria. The German states, including Austria and Prussia, were bound together in a loose conference known as the “German Confederation,” which had replaced the Holy Roman Empire, and Austria dominated this conference. In 1864, Prussia and Austria allied in a war against Denmark to drive the Danes from German territory, but their occupation of those territories had brought old rivalries out to the fore. Bismarck bullied his way into military control of the territory, then persuaded Austria into an agreement that proved unworkable. When Austria pushed back against this agreement, Prussia could declare war without seeming like the aggressor – just as Bismarck had envisaged.

“Blood and iron” only worked if the Prussians had a military that could back it up. Ever since Prussia had been blown out by Napoleon in 1806, most of Europe had regarded the former “army with a state” as a lesser military power than France, Austria, or Russia, and poor combat performance in 1848 and 1864 did not help this perception. Behind the scenes, though, the Prussian Army was becoming the most formidable force in the world. The man behind the curtain was Helmuth von Moltke.

Moltke was Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army, which to other nations looked like a desk job, but he was the real controller of the King of Prussia’s legions. Moltke had built the General Staff, the first of its kind, a cadre of brilliant young planners and organizers designed to turn the Prussian military into a well-oiled machine. Moltke made maximum use of modern technology such as the quick-firing Dreyse rifle, telegraphs, the extensive Prussian railway network and quick-firing artillery to modernize the Prussian Army, but the General Staff was what made this military machine into a steamroller. The General Staff officers were assigned to every major commander to help plan and control the movement of troops, which gave the Prussian military organism a real nervous system unlike any other in the world.

The Austrians were not so lucky. They had taken the wrong lessons from their 1859 war with France: mainly, that their troops were just not *brave* enough. They committed to shock tactics, infantry trained to attack with the bayonet and cavalry trained to charge with the lance and saber. Their generals were older, less revolutionary, distrustful of technology; their railroads were less extensive thanks to an underdeveloped economy. It would take them weeks to muster their army for war, while it would take the Prussians days.

None of the Prussian advantages would matter if another nation joined Austria in the war, but Bismarck took care of that. He persuaded and flattered Napoleon III of France into staying out, and he had taken advantage of bad Austrian-Russian relations to arrange a treaty with the Tsar. Britain didn’t care. Austria DID have the support of the other small German states, but Bismarck had gotten the support of Italy, which wanted to take Venice back from the Austrian overlords.

Bismarck had successfully provoked Austria towards war, and had made sure no other powers jumped on the scales to tip the balance. With Austria violating the treaty, and the German states siding with Austria, Bismarck declared the German Confederation dissolved, and on June 15 invaded the smaller German states. The Seven Weeks’ War had begun.

It was the Seven Weeks’ War because Helmuth von Moltke had meticulously planned every step of the war. He used the Prussian railroads to rapidly transport almost 300,000 men to invade Bohemia within days of the declaration of war, overrunning Austrian-allied Saxony in the process. Three Prussian armies marched through the mountain passes of Bohemia to confront the main Austrian army assembling near Prague. Other armies marched into the Austrian-allied German states to hold them off until Moltke could defeat the Austrians.

Moltke’s scheme was to advance on a wide front and concentrate his forces only on the eve of battle. The General Staff officers were important to accomplish this, as they had to keep the headstrong army commanders on script and sticking to the plan. King Wilhelm I’s aggressive son Prince Frederick Charles, the Red Prince, commanded the 1st Army. He was well-known for always looking for a fight, no matter what, in the best Prussian tradition.

The Austrian forces faced two Prussian armies marching on them from different directions, the Red Prince's 1st Army from the west and Crown Prince Frederick’s 2nd Army from the east; if Austrian general Ludwig von Benedek had concentrated his whole army on any one of them he probably would have won. But Moltke’s rapid movements and coordinated efforts confused Benedek, who was a better supply officer than a field commander. Benedek’s orders were transmitted slowly, and in the war’s opening battles his tactics proved terrible. The accurate Prussian rifle fire tore into Austrian regiments, and they were able to build up forces much faster than their enemies due to the staff officers’ coordination.

Benedek, after marching around in confusion for two weeks, finally decided to pull all his forces together along the Elbe River near the town of Koniggratz. The Prussian 1st Army followed, with King Wilhelm as a figurehead “commander” but Moltke quietly at his side directing matters. Moltke had a plan to trap and annihilate the Austrian army with its back to the Elbe River; as his 1st Army pinned them down, the 2nd Army would advance behind the river and cut off the Austrian escape routes, forcing Benedek to surrender. It did not work out that way.

On July 3, 1866, Wilhelm, Moltke and Bismarck all joined the 1st Army, facing Benedek’s Austrians in a strong defensive position. Unbeknownst to Moltke, the Crown Prince was still some 20 miles away – they were trying to join hands from two different directions, Frederick Charles coming from the west and Crown Prince Frederick from the east, and the order had gotten lost in transit. In the driving rain, Moltke ordered a dawn attack. As the ground turned to mud, the rain turned to steam on the cannons, and the rifle smoke into a terrible smog, the Prussians rushed forward to begin the Battle of Koniggratz.

The aggressive Red Prince sent in his Prussians too fast, and despite their quick-firing rifles ran into a blistering hail of bullets and artillery shells. They were met by a savage Austrian counterattack and heavy cannon fire. It was an enormous, terrible battle, marked by confusion, mud, and sheets of fire unseen in European warfare. By 11am, the Prussians were thrown back, bleeding and twisting. Had the Austrians attacked then, the Prussians might have been routed. Who knows what would have happened then – to Germany, to Europe, to the world. But Benedek, paralyzed by indecision, did nothing.

Moltke sent a courier to find the Crown Prince, and the rider galloped twenty miles to deliver the order. As soon as he got the notice, Prince Frederick and his able Chief of Staff, Graf Leonhard von Blumenthal had his troops almost jogging to the fight. Just as the Austrian army surged forward in its victory, and the Prussian King and Bismarck began to panic, Moltke was able to calm them. The Crown Prince would come.

At 2:30 PM, Frederick and 2nd Army emerged from the fog and rifle smoke and struck the Austrian right rear like a jackhammer. At the same time, Moltke’s artillery opened a heavy bombardment that concealed the sound of the attack, so that Benedek didn’t even realize what was happening until the Prussian Army was rolling up his line like a carpet. By nightfall, the Austrians were completely defeated – but not destroyed. Benedek had lost a quarter of his army, 45,000 men – but they were trapped on the Elbe, at the mercy of the Prussians.

Koniggratz ended the Seven Weeks’ War in one single, bloody day. A remarkably quick and decisive war, it had immediate and enormous consequences. By the Treaty of Prague, signed two months later on August 23, 1866, the German Confederation was completely dissolved. Austria was permanently excluded from German affairs, Prussia annexed many of Austria’s North German allies, and the remaining German states were forced into a North German Confederation led by Prussia itself. Bismarck chose not to take any Austrian territories – but did secure Venice for Italy – since he believed that this would prevent unnecessary bitterness, and open the possibility of an alliance with Austria in the future. Bismarck’s blood and iron had brought Prussia to the top of Germany.

In military terms, the modern world was here. The technology of railroads, rifles, and economic mobilization had been used in previous European wars and the American Civil War, but it had never been displayed so shockingly or quickly as Prussia did in 1866. After the sudden victory at Koniggratz, all the European nations – and America – would imitate the lightning-in-a-bottle of Moltke’s reforms, particularly the General Staff. It had been planning, control and coordination that had won the Battle of Koniggratz, and this was how wars would be fought until the present.

1866 was the pivotal year in German history. Prussia’s victory over Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War had secured its dominance among the German states, and in four years Bismarck would transform this dominance into the German Empire. All of European history ever since has twisted on this point.

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