Memorial Days

The Peace of Nikolsburg: Bismarck's Greatest Achievement?

For the 200th birthday of Otto von Bismarck (April 1, 1815 - July 30, 1898).

“Even after a century, Nikolsburg appears to be the glamorous high point in Bismarck's career. To prepare for victory and then to pause at the height of the success, to be measured, to reconcile the defeated and to work for it with passion - there can be no greater glory for a statesman. "(Paul Sethe (1901-1967); 7, p. 107).

“And so whatever goes down in history as fact, what the majority of those who ascribe competence to one another think is most appropriate. What remains unanswered is how close these statements come to the ideal description, because from our perspective it cannot counter them. "  (Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Singer (1, p. 72).

In the Grail World we have already mentioned several times that historiography is mostly in the hands of humanities scholars, in whose horizons there is too little space for scientific approaches. It is not uncommon for the influences of diseases or technical innovations on historical development to be underestimated and then incorrect conclusions to be drawn. (See. "When diseases made history"; "The most powerful invention in world history", both under "History").

Today we want to look at a typical event that is often misinterpreted: The preliminary peace (armistice) of Nikolsburg.

The history

After the Napoleonic Wars, the "Congress of Vienna"[1] created a reasonably stable peace order. But the development continued. The industrial revolution reached the continent from England. Industry and raw materials - at that time mainly coal and iron ore - gained in importance, the economic and thus the military equilibrium shifted.

For many centuries, land was the most valuable possession. All states strove to expand their territories. A policy that was actually outdated in the industrial age, but is still practiced worldwide. Because hardly any state is ready, z. B. to grant an ethnic group - whether Abkhaz, Kurds, Ossetians, Palestinians, Tibetans, Chechens, Uyghurs or other ethnic or religious minorities - an autonomous status, or even to release them from its ruling association. Seen in this way, the disintegration of a great power like the Soviet Union into smaller states, without war or civil war, was a unique historical event.

In the middle of the 19th century, France, Austria-Hungary and Prussia were competitors as major leading powers in Central Europe. According to the thinking of the time, sooner or later these rivalries had to be fought on the battlefield.

For a united Germany

In the second half of the 19th century, many Germans longed for a unified state, but one that seemed unattainable. The uprisings of 1848 and 1849 were suppressed, and the democratic approaches in St. Paul's Church[2] failed.

Then Otto v. Bismarck, as Prussian Prime Minister, addressed the problem diplomatically and militarily. In the course of three wars he succeeded in founding the Second German Empire under Prussian leadership.

These wars of unification began with the German-Danish War of 1864, in which Austria and Prussia became members of the German Confederation[3], Were allies. The Kingdom of Denmark wanted, contrary to the treaty, to integrate the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg into the Danish core state. The war broke out and ended with Denmark's defeat. Then Prussia received the duchies of Saxony-Lauenburg and Schleswig. Holstein fell to Austria.

In 1866 Prussian troops marched into Holstein, which was occupied by Austria. This aggression was the reason for the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Prussia left the German Confederation.

The battle of Königgrätz

In the second of the German Wars of Unification, now between Austria and Prussia, most of the German states, including Bavaria and Saxony, were on the Austrian side as members of the German Confederation. But the Prussian troops seemed superior. They overran Saxony, and after a few weeks it happened on July 3, 1866 near Königgrätz[4] in Bohemia to a much-noticed decisive battle. It was the biggest battle in Europe since the Napoleonic Wars, involving half a million soldiers.

The Prussian troops were equipped with breech-loaders - the needle gun - and were able to repel opponents who were armed only with muzzle-loaders in important phases of the battle by firing more quickly. In return, the Austrian artillery was superior to the Prussian.

In fact, tactical and strategic decisions made the difference. The Austrians and their allies had to retreat after the costly battle, largely in disarray. Many were taken prisoner. The Prussian troops had won a clear victory (2).

Far more people died from disease than from weapons
Before the importance of hygiene was recognized, in all wars there were far more deaths among combatants and civilians from epidemics and a lack of cleanliness than from enemy action. Even after World War I, two and a half times as many people died from Asian flu than during the war.
In 1866, too, far more people were killed by cholera than in combat, as Stefan Winkle describes:
“The forced marches of the Prussians through Bohemia and Moravia left the epidemic 'like a trail of feces' everywhere. Scarcely had the part of Lower Austria between Pressburg and Krems been occupied during the advance on Vienna than cholera began to spread there too. The campaign threatened to take on the character of an epidemic ...
That and not the 'feeling of consideration for the Austrian brother people' was one of the main reasons why Bismarck opposed the continuation of the war after the Battle of Königgrätz and urged an accelerated conclusion of peace. In the short campaign of 1866, the Prussian army lost 4,450 soldiers to wounds and 6,427 to cholera. The civil population of Prussia suffered 120,000 cholera victims in the same year. " (8, p. 210 f.).

A historic peace treaty

After this battle the war was ended very soon, under conditions favorable to the defeated Austrians. The Prussian king would have loved to move into Vienna at the head of his troops, and he also wanted to expand his empire at the expense of Austria and her allies. His chancellor pushed through other decisions. Historians almost unanimously praised Bismarck's foresight. He thought further than his king and offered defeated Austria the favorable preliminary peace of Nikolsburg.

In the final peace treaty of Prague, Austria lost its influence on the German states. The North German Confederation[5] with Prussia as the leading power was founded. The political weights in Central Europe shifted. The prerequisites for a common struggle of all German states in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 were given. In 1871, the establishment of the Second German Empire, which is considered to be Bismarck's work, became possible.

In the historical analyzes of the war of 1866, an important aspect is regularly underestimated or even disregarded: The Prussian troops suffered badly from cholera and were hardly able to fight after the Battle of Königgrätz. Had the Austrians been informed about the condition of the Prussian troops, the war could have ended differently. Then German history would have been different ...

Peacemaker Bismarck?

How do modern historians see Bismarck's achievement as a peacemaker?
Here are a few examples:
Golo Mann praises Bismarck's foresight:
“After he had dragged his king into the war against Austria with the most diligent cunning and nerve-racking patience, he now dragged him out of the war, again under the most terrible strains of nerves. The good monarch would have been only too happy to have entered Vienna as a victor and would have been only too happy to have stolen a fat piece of land from the enemy in accordance with the old custom. Bismarck looked at St. Petersburg, where people became restless. He looked to Paris, where people became very restless and offered the mediation of peace, which Austria asked for. Despite the rush of victory in the present, he thought of the dangers and desires of the future. " (6, p. 348).
Paul Sethe mentions cholera, but does not recognize it as the decisive compulsion to make peace. From his point of view, the peace treaty of Nikolsburg is the high point in Bismarck's career:
“The king insisted on what he believed to be right. As an outward sign of victory, however, he wanted to move into Vienna at the head of his troops, which should have wounded the Austrians deeply ...
Then the war would have continued with an army victorious but badly weakened by cholera - and with a lurking, grumbling French on the flank….
But it wasn't just statesmanlike foresight, it was an elemental feeling too [Bismarck] moved not to try a new armed conflict. He couldn't forget the dead from Königgrätz. " (7, p. 106/07).
In Ernst Egelberg's extensive biography of Bismarck it says:
“All too soon those laws of war had an effect on the Prussian side, according to which the conqueror weakened himself through his own efforts and the difficulties of occupying a large country increase geometrically, while the extent of the occupied territory arithmetically increases. The supply of the Prussian troops with food and feed, with shoes and clothing became more and more difficult and had become inadequate; the spread of cholera in our own army - bad consolation that it was no better in the opposing camp - took on frightening forms ... " (3, p. 609).
"Back then, as he later summarized, Bismarck struggled to gain the king's insight that Prussia also saw the 'Austrian state, which had been excluded from Germany, as a good piece of the European chessboard and the renewal of good relations with it as a chess move to be kept open for us' must. 'If Austria were badly damaged, it would become the ally of France and every adversary; it would even sacrifice its anti-Russian interests in revenge against Prussia. Wilhelm only knew how to trump such clear political arguments in a moralizing way and stubbornly insist on military satisfaction for the army and atonement in the form of territorial annexations. It was difficult for Bismarck to make it clear to the king that Prussia should not exercise the office of judge, but rather make politics. " (3, p. 611).

In the last sentence one recognizes with Bismarck, as a diplomat of the 19th century, a different attitude to power politics than it became the rule in the 20th century. Since 1918, the winners - as the morally superior - have seen and see themselves as entitled to rob and humiliate the vanquished. As Winston Churchill said prophetically in a parliamentary speech in 1901:
"Democracy is more vengeful than cabinet politics, the wars of nations are more terrible than those of kings." (5, p. 37).
Did Churchill come to this conclusion through an analysis of the cruelest of the wars of the 19th century after the fall of Napoleon, the American Civil War? (Cf. "Slavery ended, racism stayed" in "Brief, terse, curious" page 446)

The aftermath of Bismarck's successes

Bismarck was a power politician whose outstanding foreign policy successes changed the consciousness of Germans. The German Empire did not come into being from below, with democratic means, i.e. through the will of the people, but as an authoritative state with structural weaknesses.

Towards the end of his Reichstag speech on February 6, 1888, Bismarck spoke about a threatening attitude by Russia:
“We can easily be bribed by love and benevolence - perhaps too easily - but certainly not by threats.
We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world, and it is the fear of God that makes us love and cultivate peace. "
Almost everyone knows the first part of the sentence "We Germans fear ...", which Bismarck soon regretted. The following part "and the fear of God ..." is omitted in many quotes in order to highlight Bismarck as a provocateur and warmonger.
(Quoted from Büchmann, “Geflügelte Words”, Berlin, 1964).

For a power politician - i.e. for almost all diplomats of the 19th century - the ethical and cultural goals of philosophers of the Enlightenment like Kant, Fichte and Hegel had to take a back seat to a state politics of interests and power, as practiced by almost all states for centuries would.

Socialist ideas were enemy images for the bourgeoisie. In Germany, the people were largely blinded by Bismarcks' successful course and, to make matters worse, they got a big man-addicted Kaiser Wilhelm II, who provoked rival powers.

The well-known historian Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) raised his warning voice in vain:
“The gains in power were values that would be lost again in the next storm in world history; but the enslavement of the German personality, the German spirit, was a fate that can no longer be done well."(4, p. 326).
Such warnings were drowned in the hurray of a press that even then preferred to speak by the mouth of the majority instead of uttering unpleasant truths.

The claim that the German Reich founded by Bismarck, due to its design flaws - z. B. Democratic deficits and fragmentation in individual states - could not last, I do not necessarily share. Neither is the thesis of the Prussian-German Empire as a forerunner of Hitler's central state.

With some foresight on the part of the successors of Bismarck, more understanding for the problems of the time and the concerns of other powers, a more harmonious further development was entirely possible.

The First World War - the basic catastrophe of the 20th century - and the catastrophic collapse of three empires and a sultanate, could have been prevented.

The two world wars with their sufferings, and the instabilities they triggered, which continue to have an effect to this day, were the consequences of human failures by the rulers and politicians of the great powers, not inevitable natural events.

Bismarck's performance from today's perspective

Bismarck was the outstanding statesman of his time. He is often referred to as the only really great German diplomat. With clever, long-term planning, he knew how to pursue his goals in an extremely clever way. He succeeded in persuading his own king and duping domestic and foreign opponents. The empire he created was one of the most modern and successful states at the end of the 19th century (1). Due to the economic and political rise of Germany, the balance of powers shifted. Europe became more unstable.

Bismarck's political construct of the empire then turned out to be too complicated for his successors, who neither had his foresight, nor his diplomatic skills, nor correctly recognized the complicated situation of the German Empire in the midst of jealous and suspicious states.

The successes of the German economy aroused the envy of powerful competitors, and the clumsy, saber-rattling demeanor of Kaiser Wilhelm II contributed to the political isolation of Germany.

So it is difficult today to do justice to Bismarck. The judgments about him fluctuate between total rejection and highest recognition. Sometimes they take too little account of the fact that he was a child of his time and, in fairness, cannot be measured solely by the standards of the 21st century.
Foreign policy was his forte; domestically he had deficits. From today's point of view (as I said, not necessarily from the 19th century), it is objectionable that he did not shrink back from wars, that he was not a democrat but a monarchist, neglected social problems (after all, he introduced the world's first social insurance), one tolerated exaggerated nationalism, did not take decisive action against discrimination against minorities, got caught up in a culture war with the Catholic Church and failed to recognize the importance of the labor movement. What speaks for him is that he was not a colonialist and only half-heartedly gave in to the desire to found German colonies, under strong pressure from the public and the emperor.

The highly praised Nikolsburg preliminary peace, however, was mainly enforced by cholera, less it was political consideration for the defeated opponent. Bismarck's historical act is the state unity of Germany that he created, which, despite great losses in two world wars, still exists.

(1) Bödecker Erhardt, Preußen, Olzog, Munich, 2004.
(2) Craig Gordon A., Königgrätz, Paul Zsolnay, Vienna, 1966.
(3) Engelberg Ernst, Bismarck, Siedler, Berlin, 1985.
(4) Gagliardi Ernst, Bismarck's discharge, Volume 2, Mohr, Tübingen, 1941.
(5) Hughes Emrys, Churchill, 2nd edition, Arndt, Kiel, 1986.
(6) Mann Golo, German History of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Fischer, Frankfurt, 1958.
(7) Sethe Paul, German History in the Last Century, Heinrich Scheffler, Frankfurt, 1960.
(8) Winkle Stefan, Scourges of Mankind, Artemis and Winkler, Zurich, 1997.

[1] Congress of Vienna = the assembly of European princes and statesmen 1814/15, which decided on the reshaping of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. The Austrian State Chancellor, Prince Metternich, chaired the meeting.
[2] After the March Revolution of 1848, the first democratically elected National Assembly met in Frankfurt's Paulskirche. This pre-parliament wanted to unite all members of the German Confederation into one German Reich. This “Greater German solution” failed due to resistance from Austria. Even a “small German solution” without the German-speaking countries of Austria-Hungary could not be implemented. In May 1849, uprisings that wanted to force an imperial constitution passed in Frankfurt failed. The first all-German parliament, the “cradle of German democracy”, had failed.
[3] The German Confederation was founded as a result of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as a confederation of 39 predominantly German-speaking countries, including 35 principalities and 4 free cities. The most important members were Austria and Prussia. After the war of 1866, Austria had to agree to the dissolution of the German Confederation and renounce its influence in Germany.
[4] In Prussia the site of the battle was named after the nearby fortress Königgrätz, in France after the village of Sodowa.
[5] After the war of 1866, Prussia annexed a large part of the areas north of the Main. Now the North German Confederation was created with 22 members and almost 30 million inhabitants. The southern German states remained outside the North German Confederation, but allied with it in 1870 against France.