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Bismarck’s Diplomatic and Military Gamble through British Eyes (February-August 1866)

In early 1866, the situation between the two European powers Austria and Prussia was very tense. Bismarck made no bones about Prussia’s unwillingness to defer to Austria any longer. To court public opinion, he announced plans in April for a fundamental reform of the German Confederation. These plans included provisions for a national parliament to be elected by universal manhood suffrage. The conflict that finally broke out in mid-June 1866 has been called the Austro-Prussian War, the German Civil War, and the Seven Weeks’ War. On July 3, 1866, the Battle of Königgrätz decided the war in favor of Prussia. In the preliminary peace agreed at Nikolsburg on July 26, 1866, and the Peace of Prague on August 23, 1866, Bismarck placed no territorial demands on the Habsburg Empire; he preferred a sizable indemnity, annexations in Northern Germany, secret military alliances with the middle-sized German states, and the establishment of the North German Confederation (1867-1870) under Prussia’s leadership. In the following excerpts, we see Bismarck’s diplomatic and military gamble through the eyes of the British ambassador to Prussia, Lord Augustus Loftus (1817-1904). Like many others, the British initially regarded Bismarck’s policy as reckless and likely to lead to Prussia’s defeat; later, Loftus conceded that no other state seemed capable of charting a path toward German unification. Loftus was entirely typical of other diplomats of his time in his frequent use of French.

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Lord Augustus Loftus was appointed British ambassador at the court of Prussia in December 1865. When he took up his appointment in mid-February 1866, he wrote:

I found on my arrival at Berlin the political atmosphere very “loaded” – “Il sentait la poudre,”* as a Frenchman would say.


On March 7, 1866, Loftus received the following letter from the British Foreign Minister, Lord Clarenden:

[ . . . ] Austria will face war rather than the humiliation which Prussia seeks to inflict upon her; and in adopting that course I think she is perfectly right. A disastrous war is better than voluntary disgrace. But in the name of all that is rational, decent, and humane, what can be the justification of war on the part of Prussia? [ . . . ]

I wish you would take an opportunity of saying to M. de Bismarck that [ . . . ] we earnestly beg of him to pause before he embarks in a war of which no man can foresee the results or the termination.

It is impossible that any well-founded complaints which Prussia may have against Austria should not be capable of being settled by negotiation [ . . . ]

I know not upon what means of resistance Austria can reckon, or what support she would find in Southern Germany, but I am sure than any grievous injury to her, such as would destroy the present equilibrium of power, would be a misfortune for the rest of Europe, and as such would be resented – in fact, the more the question is considered, the more certain it seems that Prussia will array against her the public opinion of Europe, as an aggressive and unreasonable Power; and we have no wish for that. Setting aside family ties, Prussia is the great Protestant Power of Europe, with which we naturally have kindred feelings, and it would be with deep regret that we should see her regarded as a common enemy, because a willful disturber, of the peace of Europe; and still more if, in the course of events, we found ourselves compelled to take any part against her.

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