Erik Durschmied
The Hinge Factor

The Austro-Prussian War of 1865 has always been overshadowed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. But it was conflict that set the stage for Prussian military expansionism, which ended with the creation of the German Empire of the Hohenzollern in the mirror hall of Versailles. Had Austria been victorious at the Battle of Koniggratz, Otto von Bismarck's role in history would be but a footnote describing someone whose vision had exceeded his capacity, and his grandiose scheme for a German unification would have been pushed back, or even never have taken place. There would have been no Kaiser Wilhelm I and II, and probably no World War One and Two. German marching orders would never have become the model of military effectiveness throughout the world.

Bismarck's strategy was simple: to keep the armies of that vainglorious French emperor, Napoleon III, long enough away from the battlefield to defeat the Austrians and gain Prussian control over Germany. This called for a fast and decisive victory. But one that would not humiliate Austria. He needed Vienna to remain neutral in case of a war against France, and furthermore, as his future ally against Russia along its Eastern border. It took speed and daring. For this, Bismarck had wisely picked his military instrument to impose his political will, General Count Helmuth von Moltke.

Austria was a huge empire made up of many ethnic tribes, races, languages and religions. There had been uprisings in Poland, Hungary and Italy against the iron rule imposed by Vienna. All these revolts were brutally put down by the armies of Emperor Franz Josef. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Austrian Army had become the central institution of a 600-year-old Hapsburg monarchy tottering towards dissolution. The army alone bears responsibility for losing wars against two relatively inferior enemies, Italy (1859) and Prussia (1866).

The overriding factor in these defeats was the incompetence of the Austrian officer corps who had wasted the long years of Metternichian peace on ceremonial drill instead of teaching their men how to use a rifle, and paid little attention to morale, except to authorise double wine rations before going into battle. Money was lavished on superfluous officers and a stifling bureaucracy. Administration of the army was as ineffective as it was corrupt, available funds being used up on salaries instead of purchasing modern weapons.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.