The War against Denmark

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Painting of the Danish attack at the Battle of Dybbøl by Vilhelm Jacob Rosenstand (1894)

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Danish illustration showing the Austrian steam frigate Schwarzenberg burning.

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Military clashes in Schleswig/Slesvig.

We have already encountered Schleswig-Holstein and the ways in which it brought about conflict locally between Danish and German nationalism and war between the Bund, Prussia and Denmark in 1848–49. The matter had finally been subject to international regulation under the terms of the Treaty of London of 1852. Neither side was happy: Danish nationalists wanted to incorporate Schleswig directly into Denmark while German nationalists wanted to bind it to Holstein and form a new German state out of the two Duchies.

In 1848 direct action to alter the status quo had come from the German side and the major European powers, especially Britain and Russia, had taken the Danish side. One major difference in 1863, when the problem re-emerged, was that now the initiative was taken by Denmark. Denmark had drawn up a charter in March 1863 which laid down that the successor to Frederick VII would succeed to rule over Schleswig as well as Denmark. Frederick died on 15 November 1863. His successor, Christian, claimed Schleswig and signed a constitution to that effect. This went against the 1852 treaty.

This enraged German nationalists who insisted instead that the two Duchies be formed into one state under the Duke of Augustenberg and that this state should become a member of the Bund. (The Duke’s father had resigned his claim and had been compensated for that as part of the preparation for the 1852 treaty. The Duke now declared that he was no longer bound by that resignation, given the action of the Danish monarchy.) The Bund decided upon military intervention against Denmark and in November federal troops from Saxony and Hannover occupied Holstein. The differences from 1848 were that Denmark could not be presented this time as a victim, France was more active, Britain was less interventionist and Russia was concerned to maintain good relations with Prussia and Austria because of the Polish issue. The powers also became impatient when Denmark refused to negotiate any compromise on its new position. Denmark was under pressure from its own nationalist opinion and did not think that ultimately the major powers would abandon it.

Thus when Austria and Prussia determined bilaterally upon an invasion of Schleswig in January 1864, insisting that they were doing so in defence of the Treaty of London and not to advance any German national cause, this was not opposed by the other powers. Bismarck had found a way of Prussia acting decisively on a matter dear to German nationalism but the manner of action – with Austria, independently of the Bund and avowedly to restore the 1852 arrangement – had the effect of uniting the medium states and nationalist opinion in condemnation of the policy.

The advantages for Austria were that this policy distanced Prussia from nationalist support, ensured that the Prussian government remained locked in conflict with the liberal majority in parliament and seemed to go a long way towards restoring the cooperative domination of the two states over German affairs which was always the Austrian default position. There was also the hope that such cooperation in north Germany might lead on to cooperation elsewhere, for example in undoing some of the results of the 1859 war. The disadvantages were that Austria undermined its own policy of bidding for liberal and national support in Germany and became entangled in an affair in distant northern Germany in which it had no direct interest and which it could not control.

Denmark was no military match for Austria and Prussia. The war gave the Prussian Chief of Staff, von Moltke, an opportunity to test the efficacy of the army reforms. Many people in Prussia were simply proud as Prussians to see their army winning battles and taking control of new territory.

In the mid-19th century Denmark’s national aspirations were aroused (and thwarted) by the conflict with Germany over what had become known as the Schleswig-Holstein question. Having lost Norway, the Danish monarchy held dearly to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as two of the three pillars of its kingdom of Denmark, this despite the fact that the majority of Holstein’s people were German, both culturally and linguistically, and that Schleswig was divided between a Danish-speaking and a German-speaking population. It was when the German liberals in Schleswig began speaking out against autocratic rule and demanding a separate constitution and an affiliation to Holstein and the German Confederation that a Danish National Liberal movement also emerged. These Danish nationalists demanded that Schleswig be incorporated into Denmark. In 1848, when Denmark’s National Liberal government officially adopted this policy (known as the Eider Policy after the Eider River that formed the southern boundary of Schleswig), the Schleswig-Holsteiners took up arms. Backed by the Prussian military, the rebellion proved too much for the Danish army, even with aid from Sweden. The negotiated end of the revolt, while reaffirming Danish rights to Schleswig-Holstein, also forced Denmark to pledge that it would not attempt to tie Schleswig closer to itself than to Holstein, which in effect meant that Denmark had to abandon the Eider Policy. Finally, Denmark agreed that the constitution adopted by the Danes in June 1849 was to apply only to itself, leaving the future of the two duchies in a political limbo the Prussians clearly hoped one day to change.

That day came early in 1864, when Prussian troops under Prince Frederick Charles (1828–85), in cooperation with an Austrian force, once again invaded Schleswig-Holstein. The Danes’ position was hopeless. Though they mobilized some 70,000 men, only 48,000 were ever in the field at one time. Meanwhile, Prussia could commit nearly 64,000 and Austria 20,000. Thus, it was no surprise that the invasion force met with little resistance, nor that by August 1, 1864, Denmark had sued for peace, relinquishing its rights to the duchies. By the Treaty of Gastein, concluded in 1865, Schleswig and Holstein were put under joint Prussian-Austrian rule.

The intransigence of Denmark and its unfounded faith in international intervention led to the loss of the two Duchies. Now the idea began to grow in Prussia, and certainly in Bismarck’s mind, that the final outcome might be Prussian annexation of the two Duchies. He had already broached the subject at a Crown Council meeting as early as February 1864. For Bismarck this was vastly to be preferred to a return to pre-1864 arrangements or the formation of yet another small German state which, in Bismarck’s view, simply added to the nonsense of all other such states.

At what point the matter could also be used to engineer a direct conflict with Austria over the relative position of the two states in Germany is less clear. Already by May 1865 the possibility of war had arisen. The Gastein Convention settled that crisis and made clear the impotence of the other German states or nationalist opinion.

Moltke strongly implied in his memoirs and correspondence that the war of 1866 was deliberately planned by the Prussian government. (Moltke 1925, 1: 34–5; and 3: 51; letter to his brother in May 1861 in Moltke 1956: 289–90. See also his memoranda of April 1866 in Förster 1992: 106–27.) Certainly Bismarck had long insisted that Germany must be divided into a Prussian and an Austrian sphere of influence and that the current arrangements for a shared hegemony over the Bund were not tenable. There were many precedents for such a policy of regional expansion within a ‘national’ zone at Austrian expense. It was, after all, what Frederick the Great had achieved with the invasion and annexation of Silesia in 1740, what Prussia had aimed for over Saxony in 1814–15, what Radowitz had sought in 1849–50 and what Manteuffel had briefly outlined in 1861. Furthermore, there was nothing new about claiming that this policy was in the interests of Germany, not just Prussia. Frederick the Great had justified his policy in just this way and would in the later period of his reign invoke a ‘patriotic’ defence of the Holy Roman Empire. The big difference was that there was now a much more popular and powerful national movement which would insist that reality matched such rhetoric and that expansion could not simply be dynastic annexation.

This national movement was now articulated in numerous organisations and associations and supported by a range of newspapers and periodicals and dense networks of political writers and parliamentary parties and speakers. 1848–49 had crystallised the main issues and the need for conceptions of national unity to combine with practical political and economic programmes. By the early 1860s there was an intense anticipation of German unity and, in the elite middle-class circles which dominated the public sphere, the ‘national’ had become almost a ‘natural’ category, even if a nation-state had never before existed and people remained unclear or even despairing of how it was to be realised.

Still, whatever the precedents might be, no matter what the shifts in the balance of power between Austria and Prussia in the early 1860s, and however dominant might be elite public opinion favouring Prussian leadership in bringing about a national state, confronting Austria was a high-risk policy. Frederick had only succeeded in taking Silesia after two long wars involving all the major powers and had come within a hair’s breadth of complete defeat and occupation. Prussia had backed down in 1814–15 and 1850 when faced with possible war against Austria and other states, especially as the prospect of clearcut and swift victory, indeed of victory at all, seemed remote. Was Bismarck taking the same kind of gamble in 1866 as Frederick had in 1740, a gamble which his more immediate predecessors had refused to take? Or was there some essential difference this time?

Further reading: John Henry Stopford Birch, Denmark in History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975); Philip G. Dwyer, Modern Prussian History: 1830–1947(New York: Pearson Education, 2001); Bent Ryng, Danish in the South and North (Copenhagen: Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1981).

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