Piedmont and Prussia: Parallels

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), Kindle Loc. 9621-9685 (pp. 510ff):

For nearly half a century after 1815, Prussia stood on the sidelines of European power politics, steering in the lee of the great powers, avoiding commitments and shying away from conflict. It avoided antagonizing its powerful neighbours. It acquiesced in Russian tutelage over its foreign policy. Prussia was the only major European power to remain neutral during the Crimean War (1854–6). To some, it even seemed that Prussia’s status as a member of the concert of the great European powers was obsolete. Prussia, a Times leader article observed in 1860,

was always leaning on somebody, always getting somebody to help her, never willing to help herself [… ] present in Congresses, but absent in battles [… ] ready to supply any amount of ideals or sentiments, but shy of anything that savours of the actual. She has a large army, but notoriously one in no condition for fighting. [… ] No one counts on her as a friend; no one dreads her as an enemy. How she became a great Power, history tells us; why she remains so nobody can tell.

And yet, within eleven years of this blistering appraisal, the Kingdom of Prussia had reinvigorated its armed forces, driven Austria out of Germany, destroyed the military might of France, built a new nation-state and transformed the European balance of power in a burst of political and military energy that astonished the world.

It was no coincidence that the unifications of Italy and Germany were accomplished within a decade of each other. The cultural prehistory of the German nation-state extends back into and beyond the eighteenth century, but the chain of events that made its foundation a political possibility began with the second Italian war of unification. On 26 April 1859, the Austrian Empire declared war on the north Italian Kingdom of Piedmont. This was a conflict that had been planned in advance. During the summer of 1858, the Piedmontese Prime Minister Camillo di Cavour had negotiated a defensive alliance with Emperor Napoleon III of France. In the spring of 1859, Cavour provoked Vienna by massing Piedmontese troops near the border with Austrian Lombardy. The resulting Austrian declaration of war activated France’s obligations under the secret treaty. French troops rushed southwards across the Alps in the first major mobilization by railway. Between the end of April and the beginning of July, the joint French-Piedmontese forces occupied Lombardy, winning two major victories against the Austrians at Magenta (4 June) and Solferino (24 June). Piedmont annexed the Duchy of Lombardy; the duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany and the papal territory of Romagna were coaxed into a union with Turin. Piedmont now controlled the north of the peninsula and things might have stayed that way, had it not been for an invasion of the south by a band of volunteers under the command of Giuseppe Garibaldi. The Kingdom of Naples quickly collapsed, clearing the way for the unification of most of the peninsula under the rule of the Piedmontese monarchy. An Italian kingdom was proclaimed in March 1861.

The Prussian monarch, William I, and his foreign minister, Alexander von Schleinitz, responded to these events with the usual Prussian circumspection. As the Franco-Austrian conflict loomed, Prussia stuck to the middle ground, adopting neither the ‘conservative’ option of an alliance with Vienna, nor the ‘liberal’ option of a partnership with France against Austria. There were the usual efforts to make incremental gains in Germany at Austria’s expense. Berlin promised, for example, to assist Austria against France, but only on the condition that Prussia be placed in command of all the non-Austrian Confederal contingents. This proposal, which recalled the security initiatives of Bernstorff and Radowitz during the war scares of 1830–32 and 1840–41, was rejected on prestige grounds by the Austrian Emperor. At about the same time, Berlin deployed heavy troop concentrations to the Rhineland to deter Napoleon III from extending the sphere of his operations to western Germany. There was nothing particularly remarkable or unexpected about these measures. In responding thus to the Italian crisis (and the accompanying French war scare), the Prussian government worked within the well-worn grooves of a tentative dualist rivalry that sought to avoid direct confrontation while embracing the opportunity to expand Prussian influence at Austria’s expense.

Yet it is clear in retrospect that the Italian war set Prussian national policy on a new footing. It was obvious to contemporaries that there were parallels between the Italian and the German predicament. In both cases a strong sense (within the educated elite) of historical and cultural nationhood coexisted with the fact of dynastic and political division (though Italy had only seven separate states to Germany’s thirty-nine). In both cases, it was Austria that stood in the way of national consolidation. There were also clear parallels between Piedmont and Prussia. Both states were noted for their confident bureaucracies and their modernizing reforms, and both were constitutional monarchies (since 1848). Each had sought to suppress popular nationalism while at the same time manoeuvring to extend its own influence in the name of the nation over the lesser states within its sphere of interest. It was thus easy for small-German enthusiasts of a Prussian-led union to project the Italian events of 1859–61 on to the German political map.

The Italian war also demonstrated that new doors had opened within the European political system. Most important of these was the estrangement between Austria and Russia. In 1848, the Russians had saved the Austrian Empire from partition at the hands of the Hungarian national movement. During the Crimean War of 1854–6, however, the Austrians had made the fateful decision to join the anti-Russian coalition, a move that was seen in St Petersburg as rank treachery. Vienna thereby irretrievably forfeited the Russian support that had once been the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Cavour was the first European politician to show how this realignment could be exploited to his state’s advantage.

The events of 1859 were instructive in other ways as well. Under Napoleon III, France emerged as a power prepared to challenge by force the European order established at Vienna in 1815. The Prussians now felt the ancestral threat from the west more keenly than ever. The shock effect of the French intervention in Italy was heightened by memories of the first Napoleon, whose ascendancy had begun with the subjugation of the Italian peninsula and continued with an invasion of the Rhineland. The Prussian mobilization of 1859 may not have been the disaster some historians have described, but it did nothing to allay the sense of vulnerability to a resurgent Bonapartist France. As for the Austrians, they had fought bitterly to keep their Italian possessions, inflicting 18,000 casualties on the Franco-Piedmontese at Magenta and Solferino. Would they not also fight to defend their political pre-eminence within a divided Germany? Prussia’s position was in some respects worse than Piedmont’s, for it seemed clear that the middling states of the ‘third Germany’ (unlike the lesser north Italian principalities) would support Austria in any open struggle between the two potential German hegemons. ‘Almost all Germany for the last forty years has [… ] cherished a hostile spirit against Prussia,’ William wrote to Schleinitz on 26 March 1860, ‘and for a year this has decidedly been on the increase.’

The Italian war was thus a reminder of the centrality of armed force to the resolution of entrenched power-political conflicts, and the view gained ground within the military leadership that Prussia would have to reform and strengthen its army if it was to meet the challenges facing it in the near future. This was not a new problem. Since the 1810s, financial constraints had meant that the size of the army had not kept pace with the growth in the Prussian population. By the 1850s, only about one-half of the young men of eligible age were being drafted. There were also concerns about the quality of the Landwehr militia created to fight Napoleon by the military reformers Scharnhorst and Boyen, as its officers were trained to much less exacting standards.

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Filed under Austria, France, Germany, Italy, military, nationalism, Russia, war

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