June 14th in German History: The Austro-Prussian War Begins

An oil painting of a battlefield, with several mounted cavalry in black; an indistinct city burning on the horizon.
The Battle of Konningratz. By Georg Bleibtreu.

While the Franco-Prussian war was the final step towards German Unification, the Austro-Prussian war was probably the second most important single event in that process. As I have mentioned before, the Austro-Prussian war saw Prussia defeat the Empire of Austria in six weeks, thus supplanting it as the dominant power in Germany. The war began on June 14th, 1866, and ended on July 22nd 1866.

The pretext for Prussia’s declaration of war on Austria resulted from Austria’s joint occupation of the formerly Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein. Austria had allowed the estates of the duchies to call up electors for a united assembly, which Prussia declared, on January 26th, was in breach of their agreement. The following months saw the two sides mobilize their forces. In April Prussian Minister-President Otto von Bismarck made an alliance with Italy. The German Diet ordered a partial mobilization against Prussia on June 14th, thus beginning the war. Austria had more of the German states on its side, but Prussia’s alliance with the Kingdom of Italy drew Austrian troops south. Prussia sued the railroad to quickly move its troops to invade Saxony and Bohemia. There, the Austrian army was gathering its forces to invade Silesia, part of modern-day Poland that Austria had lost to Prussia over a century before. At the Battle of Sadowa, the numerically superior Austrians were outmaneuvered thanks in large part to the organizational work of Chief of Staff Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal. Further, Prussian infantry were armed with breach loading rifles, which were superior to the muzzle loading rifled muskets that Austrian troops were issued. Chief of General Staff Helmuth von Moltke commanded Prussian forces at that battle, and orchestrated the near complete destruction of the primary Austrian army. Austria’s German allies did relatively little in the war, with only Hanover ever defeating Prussia in the field. In Italy, Austria won a few battles but lost part of its Italian lands to invasion. On July 22nd, Prussia made peace with Austria, forcing Italy to seek an armistice on August 12th.

Although Austria herself lost very little land as a result of the Peace of Prague, the treaty that formally ended the war, its position in Germany collapsed just as Prussia’s rose. Prussia annexed most of Northern Germany and incorporated the rest into the North German Confederation the next year. It also signed defensive alliances with the states of Southern Germany. Austria lost all influence in Germany and was forced to cede Venice to Italy. This defeat led to the reform of the Empire to create Austria-Hungary. Prussia’s increase in power and influence would allow it to defeat France five years later, resulting in the formation of Germany under Prussian rule.

June 12th In German History: The Birth of Otto Skorzeny

Otto Skorzeny portait.jpg
Otto Skorzeny

The Second World War has not shortage of skilled soldiers and daring exploits. One man, however, is rises above the others. Otto Skorzeny led several commando operations during the Second World War ranging from daring resuces to covert infiltration. His efforts aided the German war effort greatly, making him perhaps the single most significant soldiers of the war.

Skorzeny was born on June 12th, 1908, in Vienna. In addition to his native German, he spoke French and was proficient in German, skills which would prove useful in his military career. While at university he received a scar an his cheek from a fencing accident. Soon after, he joined the Austrian Nazi party in 1931. However, he would save the President of Austria, Wilhelm Miklas, from being shot by Nazis during the Anschluss in 1938. He joined the SS in 1939 and fought on the Eastern Front. In 1942 he received the Iron Cross after he was wounded by shrapnel. While recuperating, h formulated doctrine for commando operations and was assigned to head a school which would instruct soldiers in sabotage and other types of unconventional warfare. In 1943 he was appointed commander of Waffen Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal, an SS commando unit. His first mission, an attempt to create a partisan movement in Iran, was a failrue. However, his second missoon would be a resounding success. Following the Allied Invasion of Sicily, the Grand Council of Fascism deposed Benito Mussolini and the King of Italy had him arrested. Otto Skorzney and 16 other SS soldiers were assigned as part of a task force meant to rescue Mussolini from a ski resort in the Appinine Mountains. Although Skorzney was no the leader of the operation, it would be his unit, packed into gliders, that would arrive first at the target. Skorzeny was able to get Mussolini’s 200 guards to surrender without a shot and they escaped in an overcrowded plane. Thanks to Heinrich Himmler’s propaganda efforts, Skorzeny received most of the credit for the operation. In 1944, Skorzeny an operation to capture the son of Hungarian dictator Mikolos Horthy, who was negotiation a surrender with the Soviets. The missions was a success and its forced Horthy to resign, allowing the Germans to install a puppet government. His last famous mission was carried out during the Battle of the Bulge. Operation Fall Grief was the mission to infiltrate Allied lines and prevent bridges over the Meuse river from being destroyed. English-speaking troops using captured jeeps and uniforms were meant to carry out the operation under Skorzeny’s direction. Although the infiltration was initially successful, the limited amount of captured equipment along led to the capture of many of the operatives and the overall failure of the operation. As a result of the operation, Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated a manhunt for Skorzeny, putting up wanted posters in Allied territory. After the war, he was tried for war crimes for ordering his men to wear captured uniforms. However, he was acquitted in 1947 as the men took their uniforms off before entering combat. In 1948, he escaped from prison while awaiting a denazification trial. He first moved to Spain, and in 1952 became an advisor to Egyptian dedicator Muhammad Naguib. He continued to engage in political activity, being one of the co founders of a Spanish neo-Nazi group. In 1975, he died of lung cancer.

Otto Skorzeny has become somewhat famous for his various exploits during World War II. However he should not be idolized. He was a member of the SS and never at any point renounced Nazism. While he himself did not take part in the Holocaust or engage in the killing of civilians during battle, he was a high-ranking members of an organization that did both. He should be remembered both for his military success and his moral failings as to only remember the first would be to forget the evil he was accomplice to and to only remember the second would do injustice to his accomplishments, which were objectively impressive.

June 11th in German History: Klemens von Metternich Dies

Klemens von Metternich - Wikipedia
Klemens von Metternich

I have discussed Klemens von Metternich before on this blog. Here, I discussed his life on May 15th, the day he was born. Metternich was the Foreign Minister of the Austrian Empire and then its Chancellor. As I have discussed the course of his life already, today, on the anniversary of his death on June 11th, 1859, I will dedicate more time to its impact.

Klemens von Metternich either played a direct role or had influence over almost every important event in 19th-century European History. During the Napoleonic Wars, he worked to preserve Austria against the military victories of Napoleon. However, he moved quickly to declare war on Napoleon after his failed invasion of Russia. During the Congress of Vienna, Metternich advocated for lenient treatment of France. His main goal was to preserve a conservative and stable Europe so as to prevent another revolution from tearing the continent apart. To this end, he organized a series of treaties that mandated that European powers crush revolutions within their own borders and in other nations. Further, within Germany, he had the Carlsbad Decrees issued, which prohibited German states from implementing liberal reforms like a constitution. These acts were successful in preventing liberal reform and revolution for over thirty years. Metternich also worked to preserve Austrian supremacy in Central Europe. In this, he was successful as Austria remained the preeminent power in Germany, Italy, and the Balkans until his death.

Near the end of his life, Metternich’s conservative Europe fell apart. He was forced to resign as Chancellor in 1848 even though the liberal revolutions of that year were suppressed. Further, after he died, Prussia took power in Germany, defeating Austria in the Six-Weeks war. Metternich’s efforts were thus only stopgap measures. They stopped the march of liberalism and the decline of Austria for a few decades. However, even Metternich could not stand against the fundamental course of history.

June 10th in German History: The Surrender of Norway

A few months ago, I discussed the start of operation Weserbung, the German invasion of Denmark and Norway during World War II. Today, the Norwegian military ceased resistance to the invading German forces, effectively surrendering the country to Germany. Norway would be yet another in a series of countries, beginning with France and ending with Greece, to fall quickly to the Nazi’s advance during the early years of the Second World War.

Norway attempted to stay neutral in World War II. However, it was an object of intense focus for both Germany and the UK because of ts control of part of the Danish Straights. If the UK had access through these straights, it could intercept German trade convoys carrying iron and tungsten from Sweden south to German factories. Hitler was extremely concerned with this possibility, and so ordered that Norway be invaded so as to ensure the safety of the iron ore trade. The German invasion of Norway was conducted primarily through amphibious assaults which landed troops in Norwegian cities. British attempts to establish a front failed, and Allied forces were evacuated from the country. Britain was too preoccupied with the Fall of France to dedicate sufficient quantities of men and material to Norway. The poorly equipped and relatively small Norwegian army was unable to put up a concerted resistance and so surrendered two months after the invasion began in April. The Germans quickly set about creating an occupation government, initially creating an administrative council to administer the country. However, the Norwegian parliament and king refused to negotiate with Germany, and so in 1942 Hitler installed Vidkun Quisling, leader of the Norwegian Fascist Party, as a puppet. Most of the real power would rest in the hands of Reichskommisar Josef Terboven. Norway suffered greatly from the occupation, losing most of its international trade. Further, Germany took most of its factory output, and stationed 300,000 soldiers in the country. Many Norwegian Jews were deported to concentration camps, and at least 765 died. There was some collaboration with the Quisling regime, particular when it came to ensuring continued economic activity. Most notably, 15,000 Norwegians volunteered to fight for Germany. However, a far more significant Norwegian resistance movements formed. By the end of the war, there were 40,000 native members of the resistance. They gathered intelligence, sabotaged German positions, and most importantly destroyed a heavy water pant, setting back the German nuclear program. Although Norway may have surrendered on June 8th, 1940, its people would inflict great damage on its German occupiers.

The Fall of Norway was yet anther victory for Nazi Germany. However, like France, Yugoslavia, and Poland, Norway would not make occupation easy for the Germans. Norwegians would fight both in the resistance and in the remnants of the Norwegian army in exile. Even in victory, Germany would be forced to expend resources that it sorely needed to prevent its eventual defeat.

June 9th in German History: The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna is Signed

I have discussed the Congress of Vienna several times on this blog before. Nevertheless, I think that it is worthwhile to today focus entirely on the Final Act of the congress. This act would create post-Napoleonic Europe and set the stage for the rest of the nineteenth century. This act was signed on June 9th, 1815.

The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna essentially combined all of the previous treaties signed and so organized the many agreements made during the congress. It was signed by the victors of the Napoleonic Wars, namely Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, and also by the defeated nations, mainly France. An important note is that it was signed by the Bourbon monarchy of France which at the time was not really in power, as Napoleon had yet to be defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The victors had differing desires on what they wanted Europe to look life after the war. Both Prussia and Russia wanted to annex territory and retain territory they had taken during the war, and Austria was chiefly concerned with ensuring a conservative and stable Europe. Britain, on the other hand, wanted to ensure stability by limiting territorial gains in order to prevent any one nation from gaining too much power. Britain was able to ensure that France would not lose any territory in Europe that she had held before 1792 and was able to limit the gains of the other powers. As part of the act, Russia was allowed to retain its annexation of Finland and annexed most of the Duchy of Warsaw, a state Napoleon had created. Prussia was given parts of Saxony, much of the Rhineland, and parts of Poland, namely Danzig. Austria gained Lombardy, part of Northern Italy, and Venice. Germany overall was consolidated from 300 states into 34 and the German Confederation, a loose alliance was created under the leadership of Prussia and Austria. The Netherlands gained modern-day Belgium and Sweden gained Norway, although both nations would soon lose their respective gains. Britain gained many French, Spanish, and Dutch colonial possessions. The Final Act also condemned slavery.

Europe was thus consolidated, smoothing out many of the territorial disputes that had existed before the wars, although it left many ethnic groups under the rule of foreign monarchs. The resulting tensions were just one of the many long-term destabilizing factors that the Final Act would precipitate. The Congress of Vienna would not end Russia’s expansionist ambitions, resolve the power struggle between Austria and Prussia, and failed to prevent colonial conflicts between powers. Further, it did not succeed in preventing liberal revolution in Europe. Nevertheless, it did create a largely stable continent that would not see a conflict of the scale of the Napoleonic Wars for nearly another century. This may have been the best outcome that could possibly have resulted from the machinations of elder statesmen who viewed people and territory as spaces on a map to be divided without concern for their sovereignty.

June 8th in German History: Robert Schumann is Born.

Robert Schumann - Wikipedia
Robert Schumann

On this blog, I have discussed many famous German composers. Germany seems to have no shortage of influential classical musicians who left their mark on European culture. One such individual was Robert Schumann, who was born on June 8th, 1810.

Robert Schumann demonstrated an interest in the piano at an early age. His father encouraged his musical studies, but when he died he was forced by his family to study law. However, he instead chose to focus his studies on music and learned from the piano master Friedrich Weick. Unfortunately, in his early twenties, he sustained an injury to the hand that prevented him from pursuing a career playing the piano, and he instead focused on composition. He spent the 1830s composing various pieces. Most of his work was part of the romance movement. In 1838 he composed Kreislerania, a notable piece. In 1840 he married Clara Weick, daughter of his former teacher, against the wishes of her father. In the 1840s he continued to compose, but suffered from several illnesses, both mental and physical. He wrote one of his most famous works, the music to Manfred by Byron, in 1849. He was a poor conductor, and so continued to work primarily as a composer. His mental health deteriorated throughout the 1850s until he was confined to a sanitorium in 1854. He died on July 29th, 1856. there are several theories as to what illness caused his death training from syphilis to a brain tumor. Clara lived until 1896 and made efforts to popularize her husband’s music. She and the composer Brahms, a friend of Schumann, may have destroyed some of his later works in the belief that they were tainted by his madness.

Schumann certainly made important musical contributions, but the most interesting part of his life may be his precipitous descent into insanity. He composed brilliant works of music, but become increasingly deranged as his mind deteriorated. His work became increasingly reflective of his mind as his friends and family rejected the work they thought would reflect poorly on him.

June 7th in German History: King Frederick Wilhelm III Dies.

Friedrich Wilhelm III., König von Preußen (unbekannter Maler).jpg
Frederick Wilhelm III

If Prussian kings feature at all in history classes, only Frederick the Great and maybe his father Frederick Wilhelm I receive mention. This is understandable, as those are the two most important Prussian monarchs. However, the omissions of the many other Prussians kings can lead to the conclusion that they were relatively unimportant. This, of course, is simply untrue. All absolutist monarchs are historically influential simply by virtue of the power they hold. Further, King Frederick Wilhelm III was important in his own right. He led Prussia through the Napoleonic Wars and although his was something of a mediocrity, his impact on history shows that one does not have to be exceptionally capable to be historically important.

Frederick Wilhelm III was born in 1770 and was the son of Frederick Wilhelm II. He was shy and reserved as a child, and neglected by his father, resulting in an inferiority complex. His instruction by tutors made him pious, which would influence his policies as king. Like most monarchs at the time he served in the military and even fought against France during the early phases of the revolution. In 1793 he married Louise, who became a popular queen, enhancing the image of the monarchy. Upon assuming the throne in 1797, he initiated several reforms and cut expenses of the court which his father had made disreputable. However, he was too distrustful to delegate authority, which reduced the effectiveness of his reign. Frederick initially stayed neutral in the Napoleonic Wars, but the queen convinced him to declare war on France in 1806. France quickly destroyed the Prussian army and at the treaty of Tilsit forced Prussia to give up territory and pay for French troops to occupy parts of Prussia. Following this defeat Frederick seemed to give up hope of defeating France, but several ministers set about reforming the Prussian army and in 1813 Frederick Wilhelm declared war on France after Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. This time, Prussia, along with Britain, Russia, and Austria, defeated France and Prussia regained most of the territory it had lost and annexed new lands as well. Following the war, Frederick revoked promises to issue a constitution and implemented reactionary policies in line with most other European monarchs. Following the war, his only main initiative was the unification of the Prussian churches into the Prussian Union of Churches. He restructured religion so as to create common doctrines, liturgy, and church architecture. This attempt met with resistance, especially from old Lutherans, and many left Prussia as a result. For the most part though, the alter twenty years of Frederick Wilhelm III’s reign were uneventful, and he died on June 7th, 1840.

Frederick Wilhelm II is an interesting case of an uninspiring man leading a nation through one of the most eventful periods in history. His decision to stay out of the fight against Napoleon until 1806, while maybe the result of cowardice, certainly benefited Prussia and when he entered the war, having been convinced by the queen to do so, Prussia suffered one of its greatest disasters. His term as a peacetime king so few great events, and it would be up to his successors to make Prussia the leader of Germany and superior in Europe.

June 6th in German History: D-Day

The Atlantic Wall - 11 Amazing Facts About the Nazi Defences at ...
German troops of the Atlantic Wall prepare to defend against Allied forces.

On June 6th, 1944, troops from Britain, the US, Canada, and many other nations landed in German-occupied Normandy. Their aim was to create a second front in Western Europe to take pressure of the Soviet Union and accelerate the downfall of Nazi Germany. Against them stood the forces of the Atlantic Wall, the series of fortifications guarding the coasts of France against invasion.

Britain and the United States had long planned to launch an amphibious invasion of Northern France. Initially, they intended to conduct the invasion in 1943 or even 1942, but were forced to push the date to 1944 as resources were draw away to the Italian theater and unforeseen technical and logistical difficulties presented themselves. However, the Allies remained committed to the invasion, and amassed vast quantities of men and material for an invasion in 1944. Against them were forces under the command of Gerd von Rundstedt and Erwin Rommel. Under their command were the static forces manning the fortifications on the beaches and reserves of infantry and tank units intended to contain and eliminate any beachhead. One key problem the Germans had was predicting the site of the Allied landings. The Allies convinced the Germans that the landings would occur at Pais-de-Calais instead of at Normandy. Further, German High Command engaged in debate as to where to place the Panzer divisions so as to best repel an invasion. Rommel wanted to place them as close to the beaches as possible so as to sweep the landings back into the sea, while Runsdet wanted to keep them farther away so as to protect them from naval bombardment. Hitler’s solution pleased no one: he placed some divisions under Rommel and some under Rundstedt, and kept four under his command and commanded that they could not be sued without his permission. To ensure the success of their landings, the Allies planned to use extensive areal bombardment of the beaches and also of railroads and roads leading to them. Further, the would use both the french resistance and their own paratroopers to disrupt German movements and communications. The landings were initially planned to occur on June 5th, but bad weather forced postponement until the next day. On that day, the weather was still poor but Eisenhower and Montgomery, the British and American commander respectively, decided to go ahead. The beaches – Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword- were all captured on the first day. Allied casualties were high, roughly 4,400 dead, but they were far lower than expected. The Allies benefited from total air supremacy, poorly trained German defenders, naval bombardment from ships in the English Channel, and the slow German response resulting from the disruption of communications, bombing of troops movements, and Hitler deciding to sleep in. The Allies, however, failed to connect all of the beaches or capture several major objectives including the Port of Caen.

Although the Allies failed to achieve their day one objectives, D-Day was ultimately successful. I allowed Allied forces to liberate France and then go onto invade Germany. It sapped German strength and forced them to pull troops from the Eastern Front. Germany was thus unable to hold the Soviets back, and would soon lose an entire army group in operation Bagration. While most German leaders realized the war was lost before D-Day, June 6th, 1944, was the beginning of the end.

June 5th In German History: The Allied Control Council Takes Over Germany

Headquarters of the Allied Command Council at Kammergericht

Following the Second World War, Germany was left without a functioning government. In order to ensure a peaceful Germany and secure their control over the country, the four major combatants in the European theater- the US, France, Russia, and the UK- formed the Allied Command Council on June 5th, 1945, to administer the various postwar measures including denazification of Germany, transfer of territory, and the arrest and trial of war criminals.

The Allied Control Council was formed on the same day that the Allies signed a treaty formally ending Nazi government. While the regime may have ended, pro-Nazi sentiment still existed within Germany. A central mission of the Council was to eradicate this sentiment. To this end, the Council removed officials from public office who were determined to be active Nazis, abolished the administrative unit of Prussia, and prohibited the dissemination of Nazi literature. The Council also charged war criminals, deported German-speaking minorities from non-German nations to Germany, and issued directives pertaining to the administration of occupied territory. Within the Council, Britain and the United States came to support the reunification of the occupation zones and the reestablishment of Germany. The Soviets were staunchly against this, and the French also initially refused to allow cooperation between their zone and the British and American ones for fear of Germany rising again. The Americans and British pushed ahead with the restoration of economic connections between their zones, eventually merging them into one zone, dubbed Bizone. The Soviet protested this, and following the introduction of the Deutschmark the Soviet rpresentative walked out of a Council meeting on March 20th, 1948, ending Russian participation in the body. The Council would continue to engage in relatively minor operations like the running of Spandau Prison, but the running of Germany would be taken over by the East German and West German governments. On October 2nd, 1990, the Council held its last meeting in which it permitted German unification and for the West German government to take formal control over Berlin. Following this, the Council ceased to exist.

The Allied Occupation Council is an interesting institution. It is one of the few examples of an occupying authority set up jointly by victorious powers in war. That it was not meant to facilitate the annexation of Germany shows how much political norms had changed. That the US and Britain were willing to allow Germany to rebuild its government, its industry, and eventually its army shows just how powerful self-interest is as motivation. The western Allies quickly forgot their hatred of the Germans, as they had a new enemy to fight in the Soviet Union.

June 4th in German History: The Battle of Hohenfreidberg

Hohenfriedeberg - Attack of Prussian Infantry - 1745.jpg
Attack of the Prussian Infantry, by Karl Rochling.

German History has no shortage of important battles. From the Battle of Sadowa to the Battle of Metz to the Battle of the Bulge, German History has often been determined by the clash of arms. One lesser-known, yet still important, battle was the Battle of Hohenfreidberg. That battle saw the Army of Frederick the Great defeat an Austrian Army, ensuring that Prussia would keep the region of Silesia and thus its status as a rising power.

A map of the battle.

The Battle of Hohenfreidberg occurred on June 4th, 1745. It was one of the last battles of the Second Silesian War, which itself was part of the War of the Austrian Succession. That war was fought over whether Maria Theresa would ascend to the throne of the Austrian Empire. The war was initiated by France and Prussia joined, hoping to gain territory from Austria. Specifically, Prussia wanted to take the resource-rich territory of Silesia, now part of Poland. After the Battle of Mollwitz, Prussia secured control over the region. However, the Austrians, commanded by Prince Charles of Lorraine, wanted to take the region back, in part because Maria Theresa demanded that it should be done. The Austrians marched a force of 62,500 500km to the town of Striegau and had a river that covered their front with the exception of the left flank north of the town. The Prussian Army of 58,500 was encamped south of Strigeu, but Frederick intended to surprise the Austrian army and so marched by night leaving burning campfires behind him. The Prussians first attacked the forces of Saxony, an Austrian ally, in their positions on the left flank north of the town and quickly routed them before they were able to deploy. The Prussians then routed a portion of the Austrian cavalry but were unable to quickly break the Austrian infantry with their own. However, the Bayreuth Dragoons were able to spot a hole in the Austrian lines and charged through it, shattering the Austrian infantry. At the cost of 94 wounded and killed, the Bayreuth Dragoons took 2,500 prisoners, but the rest of the Austrian army to flight, and captured 67 standards. Overall, the Austrians suffered 14,000 killed, wounded, and captured to Prussia’s 5,000 casualties.

The Battle of Hohenfreidberg secured Frederick the title of The Great. Frederick’s aggressive military doctrine was credited with inspiring the Bayreuth charge, and his own surprise attack on the Saxons was applauded by observers. The battle showed that Prussia could defeat a numerically equal Austrian Army, and further disgraced Charles of Lorraine. After two more battles, one against the Saxons and another against the Austrians under Charles, the peace of Dresden was signed in 1745. This peace acknowledged Prussian control of Silesia. Aside from the economic benefits derived from owning the region, Prussia was also elevated in prestige and reputation. It became acknowledged as the second most powerful German state, behind only Austria, and a rising power within Europe. Its King, now called Frederick the Great, would go on to win yet more wars for Prussia and cement his status as the greatest Prussian monarch.