Analyse the shifting balance of power in German affairs in the 1850’s

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Last updated: November 13, 2019

Between 1851 and 1853, Austrian statesmen sought to consolidate and exploit the position of supremacy in German affairs that had been manifested at Olmutz. Prussia had been discredited politically in what was basically the end of their hopes of dominating a united German nation and, more importantly, a surrender to Austria, its main opponent for control of Germany. However, this was really one of few areas in which Austria had managed to establish an advantage over Prussia, as the 1850’s were a time of Prussian ascendancy and Austrian descendancy.The Prussian government became a dominant force economically. The Prussian government worked via the zollverein toward the perpetuation of the free trade area. The majority of industries expanded and the Prussian economy benefited as a result. The Austrian foreign minister, Count von Buol, believed that Austria should conclude an alliance with the western powers as a safety net against nationalist uprisings and sentiment in Italy.

This policy required an understanding with Prussia.However, Prussian opinion was deeply divided, with conservatives following a pro-Russian policy, while the liberals favoured France and Britain. In the end, neither of the German powers played any military role in the Crimean war, although Austria did maintain a friendly attitude towards the allies. Austria attempted to close the gap, which Prussia was creating in the economy.

The economic advantages of alliance with protectionist Austria were not even half as attractive as those that were to be achieved by joining the free trade Zollverein.The Austrian government tried to combat this with the Austro-German customs union with the German states that were still not members of the Zollverein. Austria also became isolated in Europe after their failure to repay the debt that they owed Russia in the Crimean war. This had broken the ‘holy alliance’ between the two great legitimist powers. In the years following Schwarzenberg’s death in 1852, Austria became militarily involved with problems in South-eastern Europe, at a time when the Austrian economy was in serious difficulties.

Taxation was not sufficient to finance the newly formed central administration or to maintain the army, which was not as advanced as the Prussian army after they had developed the needle gun which was able to fire more bullets a minute than any weapon which Austria possessed. In contrast, the Prussian economy at this time was very prosperous. Capital was readily available due to the increase in foreign trade, the mining of coal and iron developed at a spectacular rate, which provided the basis of an industrial economy. Government legislation played an important role on this.

The mining laws of 1851 and 1860 freed mine owners from strict state supervision and halved taxes upon their output. The railways were also flourishing and the length of line in Germany more than doubled in the 1850’s. After the Crimean war, Prussia was economically stable and industrially expanding, whereas Austria was economically and financially vulnerable. Prussia, who had maintained their neutrality during the war, benefited politically as well as economically, and managed to maintain good relations with other European powers.Austria on the other hand, only remained neutral in name, and gained no friends by her policy of wavering diplomacy. By 1856, Austria had lost the friendship f Russia and failed to gain that of either Britain or France.

The Prussian army had been in need of some freshening up for some time, and with their money which had been gained via their economic dominance, they set about improving their armed forces. In terms of numerical strength, the reforms put forward by Moltke in 1862 put Prussia on an even keel with Austria. 63000 men were called up each year, for a total period of seven years, three of which were active.The superior organisation of the Prussian army was also an important factor. The Prussian general staff had its origins in the War academy, founded in the Napoleonic era. It produced both officers of great expertise and professionalism and it guaranteed a uniformity of practice and doctrine in all branches of the army. By contrast, Austria had no such system and their high ranking officers more often than not held their position due to their social standing, which in return meant that the army was disorganised, because the men in charge hadn’t really got any idea about what they were doing.

Basic training was so bad that at the start of the Italian campaign in 1859, 2 out of 3 troopers were unable to load and fire their musket. Without doubt, the Prussian army led Europe into the application of industrial developments to military purposes. In both 1866 and 1870, this swift concentration of troops was a crucial factor. In 1866, Prussia’s five railway lines assembled its troops on Austria’s north frontier within five days, whereas it took Austria 45 days to mobilise her troops, and in 1870, it managed to move troops from East Prussia to Lorraine in 36 hours.To conclude, this period was one of Prussian development, and one of Austria losing the respect of her peers and her standing in Europe fell considerably. Prussia’s better economic policy meant that it was able to produce a better standard of living for its inhabitants and for the members of the Zollverein, and that it was able to supplement developments in transport and the army, whereas Austria’s economy bean to struggle and it was unable to make the necessary developments to the army.

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