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Relationship Between Austria and Prussia

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The relationship between Austria and Prussia at the Frankfurt Diet before the 1848 Revolution had been cordial because Prussia had recognized Austria's supremacy without reservation. After the revolution, and especially after Olmuetz, their relationship changed considerably. Vienna expected another Prussian attempt toward German unification and was determined not only to resist but to expand Austrian power and influence throughout the German Confederation. Austrian Prime Minister Schwarzenberg's plan was to unify Germany under Austrian leadership and to create a central European empire -- Mitteleuropa. Berlin, on the other hand, was equally determined to achieve parity with Austria in the Confederation, and military and economic leadership in north Germany. 1

In many ways Bismarck's appointment to Frankfurt constituted the fulfillment of his hopes and dreams; at the same time, he continued to long for the peaceful country life. "To be Landrat in Schoenhausen is still my ideal," he wrote to his friend Kleist-Retzow at the time. But when, after one year in Frankfurt he had to go to Vienna, he wrote to Johanna, "I long for Frankfurt as if it were Kniephof." 2

When he came to Frankfurt he was exceedingly suspicious of Austrian aims and intentions. He was convinced that however Prussia might try, she could never appease Austria and that there was simply not enough room in Germany for the two powers to exist side by side. He believed Austria would use any means to subdue Prussia, including allying herself to France, Russia, Prussian liberals, or south German ultramontanes, or involving Germany in a foreign war, if these acts would maintain her supremacy in the Germanies. To forestall these possibilities, Bismarck felt that Prussia had to bring about a solution to the German question whenever the European situation was in her favor. The Prussian government was reluctant to face this issue squarely; while trying to assert itself north of the Main, it was, at the same time, afraid of offending Austria and her many sympathizers throughout the Germanies. Consequently Prussian policy toward Austria vacillated between defiance and compliance. At the Diet, Bismarck's role was a difficult one: preventing Berlin from showing weakness or compliance toward Austria, and simultaneously challenging Austria more forcefully than his instructions permitted. He tried to influence his government to consider the possibility of alliance with Russia and France against Austria, an act which would exert pressure on Austria from outside Germany. By strengthening Prussia's military and economic position through the Customs Union, railroad, postal, and banking agreements, and currency, trade, and military conventions with the lesser states, Bismarck hoped to make Prussia the center of the unity movement in Germany.

On July 15, 1851, Bismarck, who at the time of his appointment had been given the rank of counselor of legation (geheimer Legationsrat), became Prussia's minister of the Federal Diet. Von Rochow, who had instructed Bismarck in his new duties, left Frankfurt to return to his post at St. Petersburg, and from August 27 on, Bismarck was on his own. In his first encounter with Count Thun, the Austrian representative, Bismarck made a point of impressing on the count and the representatives of the other German states that, henceforth, Prussia was to be treated as Austria's equal. When Thun appeared in his shirtsleeves for a meeting, Bismarck took off his jacket; and when the Austrian, alone among the assembled diplomats, lit a cigar, Bismarck took one of his own and asked the surprised Thun for matches. 3 These were petty moves, but they stressed a point which was not lost on the representatives of the lesser states.

More serious were the discussions over the Prussian Customs Union and Austria's desire to join it. Because Austria's membership appealed to regional as well as national interests among the lesser states, Prussia could not oppose Austrian membership outright. Instead, the Prussian government decided to procrastinate. This decision was made easier by discussions within Austria. The industrialists demanded protective tariffs for their goods within the Customs Union, while the Austrian government aimed for free trade. Meanwhile, Prussia strengthened her position by concluding trade treaties outside the Customs Union with Hanover, Oldenburg, and Schaumburg-Lippe ( September 7, 1851). At a conference in Vienna during January-February 1852, Austria tried unsuccessfully to persuade the lesser German states to support her inclusion in the Union. While these states opposed Prussian political pressure, their economic ties with and through the Customs Union were too strong to be broken. 4 In Frankfurt, Bismarck rejected all Austrian attempts to set up a competing central European Customs Union project and threatened Prussia's withdrawal from the Diet should Austria succeed. He also opposed Austria's intention to enact a stringent federal press law which would have banned all newspapers that advocated socialism, communism, or the overthrow of the monarchy. Bismarck's objections were not based on his belief in freedom of the press but on his opposition to the creation of a strong federal executive which would threaten the interests of Prussia. 5 And though a majority of delegates were in favor of the Austrian proposal, Bismarck was able to defeat it because a Unanimous vote was needed to pass it.

At about the same time, Bismarck used the temporary absence of an Austrian representative -- Thun was exchanging places with Prokesch, the Austrian minister in Berlin -- to press for a revision of voting procedures at the Diet in favor of equality of members, more liberal access to the archives, and a more equitable administrative procedure which, until then, had heavily favored Austria and her allies. Prokesch, the new Austrian representative, a well-known historian and archeologist but a poor diplomat, was not able to stand up to Bismarck's reasonable and well-formulated arguments, 6 especially when they were supported by a majority of the delegates. As a result, a good number of Bismarck's proposals were adopted. 7

Austria's acquiescent attitude did not signal a change of policy at the Diet so much as recognition of a change in the European diplomatic situation. The approaching Crimean War made it mandatory for Austria to keep the situation in Germany under control and to oppose Russian moves on the lower Danube, which threatened Austria's economic and political interests in this region. Austria was prepared to join Britain and France in their support of Turkey against Russia, and this in turn meant Russian enmity and the possibility of RussianPrussian collaboration unless Prussia could be persuaded to support and follow Austria's policy.




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