Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the course of the Seven Weeks’ War, Prussia defeated Austria’s forces and those of her German allies. As a result, Prussia acquired considerable territory through annexations and henceforth played a dominant role in the new North German Confederation. In return for supporting the Prussian cause, Italy received the province of Venetia from Austria.

Summary of Event

Following the end of the Danish-Prussian War over control of the two provinces of Schleswig Schleswig and Holstein Holstein , Austria and Prussia agreed in the Convention of Gastein (1865) to hold joint sovereignty over those provinces, with the understanding that Austria would administer Holstein while Prussia would control Schleswig. However, Otto von Bismarck, the minister-president (prime minister) of Prussia, immediately began to prepare the ground for a conflict with Austria. Already on friendly terms with Russia, Bismarck obtained the neutrality of France in the coming conflict during a meeting with Emperor Napoleon III Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] by hinting at some territorial compensation along the Rhine. In April of 1866, Bismarck got Italy to promise to attack Austria should an Austro-Prussian war break out within three months. He promised Italy Venetia in return. Thus, by mid-1866, Austria was left with allies only in the German Confederation. Austria;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and Austria[Austria] Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] [kw]Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War (June 15-Aug. 23, 1866) [kw]Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War, Austria and (June 15-Aug. 23, 1866) [kw]Seven Weeks’ War, Austria and Prussia’s (June 15-Aug. 23, 1866) [kw]War, Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ (June 15-Aug. 23, 1866) Austria;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and Austria[Austria] Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] [g]Germany;June 15-Aug. 23, 1866: Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War[3970] [g]Italy;June 15-Aug. 23, 1866: Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’War[3970] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 15-Aug. 23, 1866: Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War[3970] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 15-Aug. 23, 1866: Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War[3970] Benedek, Ludwig August von Francis Joseph I [p]FrancisJoseph I[Francis Joseph 01];and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Frederick III Falkenstein, Eduard Vogel von

When an Austrian violation of the Gastein Convention provided a pretext, Prussian troops occupied Holstein Holstein;and Prussia[Prussia] . On June 15, 1866, the German Confederation under Austrian prompting voted for immediate military action against Prussia. In response, Bismarck dissolved the German Confederation, and armies began to move in three theaters of war: Germany, Italy, and Eastern Bohemia.

While most contemporaries expected the war to last for some time, in part because the opposing forces were numerically about even, the rapid movement of the Prussian forces came as a surprise to Austria. The war plans worked out by General Helmuth von Moltke depended heavily on Prussia’s extensive rail network in combination with the telegraph. The Prussian armies were moved separately by rail to the theater of war to be united only shortly before battle. Moltke, assisted by an efficient general staff, could coordinate all troop movements by telegraph from Berlin.

On June 16, the Prussian West Army under General Eduard Vogel von Falkenstein Falkenstein, Eduard Vogel von invaded Hanover Hanover;and Prussia[Prussia] and Electoral Hesse and, after some initial setbacks, gained the upper hand during the Battle of Langensalza (June 27-29). After forcing the Hanoverians to surrender, the Prussian forces turned south toward Austria’s German allies. At the same time, three Prussian armies began to move south toward Saxony and Bohemia: the Army of the Elbe under General Karl Herwarth von Bittenfeld occupied Dresden and, like the First Army under Friedrich Karl, the Iron Prince, also moved south, pursuing the retreating Saxons. The Second Prussian Army, commanded by Crown Prince Frederick William, Frederick III moved south through Silesia and entered Bohemia through passes in the Riesengebirge.

Field Marshal August Ludwig von Benedek Benedek, Ludwig August von , the Austrian commander of the North Army, was, unlike the relatively inexperienced Moltke, a seasoned veteran of many campaigns. However, he lacked Moltke’s organizational and war-planning skills. Having spent most of his time in northern Italy, he was unfamiliar with the Bohemian terrain and was hampered by an inferior railroad system, serious command problems, poorly trained and often incompetent staff officers, and a general staff that was one in name only. His forces were further handicapped by old-fashioned muzzle-loading rifles, while the Prussians enjoyed breech-loading guns that enabled them to deliver a much greater rate of fire. A further challenge facing Austrian commanders stemmed from the fact that many of the troops, often poorly educated and drawn from all parts of the multilingual Habsburg empire, frequently could not follow the orders of their officers.

King William leading Prussian troops in the decisive Battle of Könniggrätz.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The Austrians possessed excellent artillery, however, and their superior cavalry fought with great distinction. In the Battle of Custozza (June 24), an Austrian army under Archduke Albert defeated a numerically larger Italian force. Later, in the naval Battle of Lissa (July 20), an Austrian naval squadron under Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff sank three Italian ironclads, whereupon the Italians left the scene. The Bohemian theater of war, however, presented some serious challenges for Benedek. Benedek, Ludwig August von Prior to the decisive Battle of Könniggrätz Könniggrätz, Battle of (1866) on July 3, a number of smaller engagements revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing armies.

In the Battle of Nachod on June 27, twenty-one thousand Austrians suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of ten thousand Prussians, in large part because many of the Austrian troops had not rested or eaten for twenty-four hours, while their Prussian opponents were rested and ready to do battle. However, in the Battle of Trautenau (Trutnov) on the same day, the Prussians suffered a defeat that Moltke attributed to a lack of reconnaissance and poor leadership. In the Battle of Skalitz (June 28), the Austrian side was hampered by confusion, insubordination, and the incompetent leadership of Archduke Leopold. The Austrians suffered more than five thousand casualties, while Prussian losses came to about one-fourth of that number. Another Austrian defeat on the following day at Gitschin (Jicin) was due in large part to communication and command problems that prompted Benedek Benedek, Ludwig August von at one point to ask Francis Joseph I, the Habsburg emperor, to make peace with Prussia at once. Francis Francis Joseph I [p]Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01];and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Joseph refused.

Realizing the hopelessness of the situation after the Battle of Könniggrätz, Könniggrätz, Battle of (1866) an anxious Napoleon III Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] sought to mediate and bring about an armistice as early as July 5. Prussian armies, however, continued their drive south in preparation for crossing the Danube River and marching on Vienna. Eventually, the parties agreed in the Armistice of Nikolsburg on July 26 that Austria would relinquish its role in German affairs and consent to the creation of a North German Confederation North German Confederation under the leadership of Prussia. The South German states would be allowed to retain their independence. The parties to the armistice also agreed to Prussia’s direct annexation of Schleswig Schleswig , Holstein Holstein , Hanover Hanover , Frankfurt, Electoral Hesse, and Nassau Nassau .

Bismarck, opposed to the wishes of his king, the belligerent William I, insisted that no Austrian lands be annexed, although he demanded that Austria and her southern German allies pay cash indemnities. However, when Napoleon III presented his claims for compensation, Bismarck rejected his requests out of hand. The provisions of the Armistice of Nikolsburg were confirmed by the Treaty of Prague on August 23, which formally ended the Seven Weeks’ War. A formal peace treaty between Austria and Italy was signed in Vienna on October 12. Austria agreed to the transfer of Venetia to Italy and officially recognized the Kingdom of Italy.

Significance

The Seven Weeks’ War resulted in a major realignment of political, economic, and military power in central Europe, establishing Prussia as the dominant nation in the German-speaking lands. Austria, having been effectively removed from German affairs, was compelled to look eastward and engage in long-overdue internal structural reforms. Designed to meet the demands of its restless subject nationalities, those reforms led to the Austrian Ausgleich in 1867. This political reorganization created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a dual monarchy consisting of two independent states with one ruler who would be both emperor of Austria and king of Hungary.

Prussia’s substantial territorial annexations after the war established a physical link between the eastern and the western halves of the kingdom. The addition of these rich lands with a population of some seven million people enabled Prussia to triple the size of its armed forces. The formation of the Prussian-dominated North German North German Confederation Confederation extended Prussia’s control to the River Main. The southern German states, already tied to Prussia in a customs union, entered into military alliances with Prussia, thereby providing Bimarck with the tools to pursue his next objective, the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership. Supported by the rising tide of German nationalism and confident of Napoleon III’s Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] diplomatic isolation, Bismarck pursued a course of action that culminated in the Franco-Prussian War, the defeat of France, and the proclamation of a German Empire in January of 1871 in the Palace of Versailles.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bucholz, Arden. Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Focuses on Moltke’s planning and execution of the Austro-Prussian conflict. Detailed information.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, William. The Origins of the Wars of German Unification. New York: Longman, 1991. Offers balanced treatment of the war of 1866, including its economic and ideological aspects. Maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craig, Gordon A. The Battle of Koeniggraetz. Prussia’s Victory over Austria, 1866. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1964. Judicious and well-written analysis of the conflict in Bohemia. Maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Showalter, Dennis E. Railroads and Rifles. Soldiers, Technology and the Unification of Germany. New York: Archon Books, 1975. Discusses impact of railroads and of improvements in weapons technology on Prussia’s military efficiency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wawro, Geoffrey. The Austro Prussian War. Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Comprehensive study, based on archival research. Maps and illustrations.

Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca

Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President

Danish-Prussian War

North German Confederation Is Formed

Battle of Könniggrätz

Austrian Ausgleich

Franco-Prussian War

German States Unite Within German Empire

Triple Alliance Is Formed

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