Austro-Prussian War

From New World Encyclopedia

The Battle of Königgrätz by Georg Bleibtreu.

The Austro-Prussian War (also called the Seven Weeks' War or the German Civil War) was a war fought between the Austrian Empire and its German allies, and Prussia with its German allies in 1866, that resulted in Prussian dominance in Germany. In Germany and Austria, it is called Deutscher Krieg (German War) or Bruderkrieg (War of Brothers). In the Italian unification process, this is the Third Independence War. Prussian domination of Germany may have contributed to the causes of the two world wars, since Prussia had developed as a military power. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's instincts were more autocratic than democratic and his vision for Germany was as a dominant and imperial power. His sense of the superiority of the German race also had consequences during the Third Reich. An Austrian victory would have included the German states in a multi-national Empire, within which a more pluralist worldview might have prevailed. This war created the geo-political reality within Europe that lasted until World War I.


For centuries, the Holy Roman Emperors, which mostly came from the Habsburg, family had nominally ruled all of Germany, but the powerful nobles maintained de facto independence with the assistance of outside powers, particularly France. Prussia had become the most powerful of these states, and by the nineteenth century was considered one of the great powers of Europe. After the Napoleonic Wars had ended in 1815, the German states were reorganized in a loose confederation, the Deutscher Bund, under Austrian leadership. French influence in Germany was weak and nationalist ideals spread across Europe. Many observers saw that conditions were developing for the unification of Germany, and two different ideas of unification developed. One was a Grossdeutschland that would include the multi-national empire of Austria, and the other (preferred by Prussia) was a Kleindeutschland that would exclude Austria and be dominated by Prussia.

Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck became prime minister of Prussia in 1862, and immediately began a policy focused on uniting Germany as a Kleindeutschland under Prussian rule. Having raised German national consciousness by convincing Austria to join him in the Second War of Schleswig, he then provoked a conflict over the administration of the conquered provinces of Schleswig-Holstein (as formulated by the Gastein Convention). Austria declared war and called for the armies of the minor German states to join them. Formally, the war was an action of the confederation against Prussia to restore its obedience to the confederation ("Bundesexekution").


Most of the German states sided with Austria against Prussia, perceived as the aggressor. These included Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Nassau.

Some of the northern German states joined Prussia, in particular Oldenburg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and Brunswick. Also, Italy joined with Prussia, because Austria still occupied the territory of Venetia, which Italian redentists wanted in order to complete Italian unification.

Notably, the other foreign powers abstained from this war. French Emperor Napoleon III, who expected an Austrian victory, chose to remain out of the war to strengthen his negotiating position for territory along the Rhine, while Russia still bore a grudge against Austria from the Crimean War.

Course of the war

The first major war between two continental powers in many years, this war used many of the same technologies as the American Civil War, including the use of railroads to concentrate troops during mobilization and the use of telegraphs to enhance long distance communication. The Prussian Army used breech-loading rifles that could be loaded while the soldier was seeking cover on the ground, whereas the Austrian muzzle-loading rifles could be loaded only while standing (thus offering no cover).

The main campaign of the war occurred in Bohemia. Prussian Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke had planned meticulously for the war, and chose to mostly ignore the minor states in favor of a concentration against Austria. He rapidly mobilized the Prussian army and advanced across the border into Saxony and Bohemia, where the Austrian army was concentrating for an invasion of Silesia. There, the Prussian armies led personally by Wilhelm I converged, and the two sides met at the Battle of Königgrätz (Sadová) on July 3. Superior Prussian organization and élan decided the battle against Austrian numerical superiority, and the victory was near total, with Austrian battle deaths nearly seven times the Prussian figure. It is worth noting that Prussia was equipped with Johann Nicholas von Dreyse's breech-loading needle-gun, which was vastly superior to Austria's muzzle-loaders. Austria rapidly sought peace after this battle.

Except for Saxony, the other German states allied to Austria played little role in the main campaign. Hanover's army defeated Prussia at Langensalza on June 27, but within a few days they were forced to surrender by superior numbers. Prussian armies fought against Bavaria on the Main River, reaching Nuremberg and Frankfurt. The Bavarian fortress of Würzburg was shelled by Prussian artillery, but the garrison defended its position until armistice day.

The Austrians were more successful in their war with Italy, defeating the Italians on land at the Battle of Custoza (June 24) and on sea, at the Battle of Lissa (July 20). Garibaldi's "Hunters of the Alps" defeated the Austrians at battle of Bezzecca, on July 21, conquered the lower part of Trentino, and moved towards Trento. Prussian peace with Austria-Hungary forced the Italian government to seek an armistice with Austria, on August 12. According to Treaty of Vienna (1866), signed on October 12, Austria ceded Venetia to France, which in turn ceded it to Italy.


In order to forestall intervention by France or Russia, Otto von Bismarck pushed the king to make peace with the Austrians rapidly, rather than continue the war in hopes of further gains. The Austrians accepted mediation from France's Napoleon III. The Treaty of Prague on August 23, 1866, resulted in the dissolution of the German Confederation, Prussian annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau, and Frankfurt, and the permanent exclusion of Austria from German affairs. This left Prussia free to form the North German Confederation the next year. Prussia chose not to seek Austrian territory for itself, and this made it possible for Prussia and Austria to ally in the future, since Austria was threatened more by Italian and Pan-Slavic irredentism than by Prussia.

The war left Prussia dominant in Germany, and German nationalism would compel the remaining independent states to ally with Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and then to accede to the crowning of King Wilhelm as German Emperor. United Germany would become one of the most powerful of the European countries. German unification had taken almost a thousand years to achieve, following the disintegration of Charlemagne's empire.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Jelavich, Barbara. Modern Austria: Empire and Republic, 1815-1986. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0521316251
  • Sked, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire, 1815-1918. New York: Longman, 2001. ISBN 0582356660
  • Wawro, Geoffrey The Austro-Prussian War: Austria's War with Prussia and Italy in 1866. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0521629519


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