The Concert of Europe Opens

In 1815, with victory over the First French Empire, the British Empire, dominant in Europe, also becomes the world’s first super power, its mastery of the globe uncontested and its economic power unrivaled. A defeated France, though soon to recover and to continue to play an equally dominant role in Europe for many decades, has seen the height of its power during the reign of Napoleon. The influence of Prussia is clearly inferior. Germany is a divided nation not yet at the height of its power, split between the ambitious and militaristic Kingdom of Prussia and a multitude of other, smaller states grouped together in the German Confederation.

Austro-Prussian War

Despite Britain and France’s dominance in early 19th century Europe, the five Great Powers remain deadlocked, a balance of power seemingly bizarre but for the fact that it represented the result of decades of careful orchestration. Throughout the 18th century, until the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Powers engaged in the Stately Quadrille, constantly changing their alliances to avoid the hegemony of one nation or alliance.  At the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, the great powers formed the Concert of Europe, again trying to maintain a power equilibrium and achieve a lasting peace. Though this policy proves largely successful, the common goals of the Great Powers will soon be replaced by bitter competition. The Eastern Question, the German Question, the Great Game and the Italian Independence movement will create tensions and spark wars between the Great Powers [1]. Under the masterful leadership of Otto von Bismarck, Prussia will benefit the most from these rivalries and magnify its power enormously, further destabilizing Europe and thus causing the First World War.

young bismarck

Bismarck’s Appointment

When Kaiser Wilhelm I appointed Otto von Bismarck as Minister President and Foreign Minister in September 1862, the moment was opportune for an increase in Prussian influence. Prussia’s large industrial base, which had been growing since the start of its Industrial Revolution in 1815; strong economy, which had been greatly benefiting from the establishment of the Zollverein in 1818; and newly reorganised army, which had already been considered one of Europe’s best since the days of Frederick the Great, would also all play crucial roles in the realization of Bismarck’s ultimate objective. In addition, the relationships among the other Great Powers had been destroyed by both the Crimean War and the Second War of Italian Independence, leaving Bismarck, a true master of diplomacy, free to pursue his dream of a unified Germany, with little fear of an alliance forming against Prussia [2]. A year and a half into his term Bismarck, backed by Austria, initiated the Second Schleswig War against Denmark. Victory brought the territorial gains of Schleswig, Holstein and Saxe-Lauenburg, and he had only just begun to advance Prussia’s position amongst the Great Powers in Europe [3].


The Austro-Prussian War

It is a testimony to Bismarck’s grand ambition, as well as Prussia’s rising military, industrial and economic power, that in 1866 it marched to war against Austria, Bismarck having taken advantage of a dispute with that nation over the administration of Schleswig-Holstein to decide the German Question in Prussia’s favour. Though Bismarck would later claim that starting the war had been part of his master plan for the eventual unification of Germany, it is more likely that he simply took advantage of the developing situation, turning it to Prussia’s benefit [4]. Furthermore, the timing of the declaration of war, on 14 June 1966, was perfect. Bismarck had set up an alliance with the Kingdom of Italy committing it to war if Prussia entered one against Austria in the next three months, thus ensuring that Prussia would not face Austria’s full strength [5]. It was also highly unlikely that the other European powers would join the war on Austria’s side. Britain, still relying on a policy of Splendid Isolation, had no economic or political stake in a war between Prussia and Austria, France’s Napoleon III had allegedly guaranteed Bismarck French neutrality, and Russia was still bitter about Austria’s support of anti-Russian alliance during the Crimean War [6].

dreyse needle gun

In addition, the Prussian military possessed five key advantages over that of its Austrian rival. Prussian universal conscription, involving three years of active service, ensured that the infantry had a much better standard of training than their Austrian counterparts. The Prussian infantry also had the advantage of being issued the Dreyse needle gun, a breech-loading rifle that far outclassed the Austrian muzzle-loading Lorentz rifle [7]. The Prussian army itself was organised so that the vast majority of reservists lived within a few hours of their regimental depots, allowing a very rapid rate of mobilisation. By contrast, Austrian regiments were deliberately stationed much farther from where they were recruited, a policy designed to prevent army units taking part in the separatist revolts that plagued the ethnically diverse Austrian Empire, but which also ensured that reservists would take much longer to mobilize. Prussia’s more extensive rail network was another key element in the conflict, allowing the Prussian Field Army to concentrate its troops twice as fast as the Austrian army.Lastly, Austria was heavily in debt, its economy suffering from the Second War of Italian Independence, while Prussia’s economy was growing quickly, allowing its army to enter the conflict both well armed and supplied.

Austro-Prussian War

For Bismarck, a skilled diplomat and opportunistic expansionist, the moment for war could not have been more opportune. In the north, Prussian armies marched into the Austrian province of Bohemia, while in the south, Italy began its third independence war by invading Austria’s remaining Italian possessions. Three weeks after the declaration of war, Prussia dealt Austria a decisive defeat at the Battle of Königgrätz; Austria sought peace four weeks later, bringing open hostilities to a close [8]. The Peace of Prague, signed one month later on 23 August 1866, put an official end to both the Austro-Prussian War and the Third War of Italian Independence. Defeat dealt Austria’s Habsburg rule a severe blow. 

Part 2:

prussia map



[1] W.N. Medlicott, Bismarck, Gladstone, and the Concert of Europe (London: The Athlone Press, 1956), 2-8.

[2] W.E. Mosse, The European Powers and the German Question 1848-71 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 213.

[3] W.N. Medlicott, Bismarck, Gladstone, and the Concert of Europe, 7.

[4] W.E. Mosse, The European Powers and the German Question 1848-71, 215.

[5] Ibid, 235.

[6] Ibid, 213.

[7] R.G. Grant, Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders (New York: DK Publishing, 2010), 239.

[8] W.E. Mosse, The European Powers and the German Question 1848-71, 239.