150 years ago, the answer to the German question was predetermined on a battlefield in Bohemia. Reflections on a historical landmark and its impact on today world politics
Awareness of both history and world politics is not the unique selling point of the united Germany’s public conscience. There is pretty much distance to the Prussian heritage on the one side, while on the other, world politics, as my generation was taught on high schools and universities in the Nineties and Zeroes, is supposed only to have existed until the so called turnaround in 1990, when German reunification seemed to make cease the cold war between the U.S. and Russia.
Nowadays, a quarter century after the wende and precisely one and a half centuries after Königgrätz, we know this to be wrong.World politics are more vital than maybe ever before, and Germany’s role as a nation has turned out to be the crucial point of the European question and the process of European unification. Man does not live in a sous vide, but unfolds himself as product of his circumstances which determine his action and feeling, and so do politics. Political life is embedded in a long and deep stream of conditions. Its longue durée is reaching behind decades, even centuries, and rarely, this is proved so properly as in the case of Königgrätz.
The great game between Atlantic and Eurasian world is on for three hundred years
When it came to the monumental and longtime foreseen breakup between Austria and Prussia in 1866, the great game between England and Russia, the two most powerful countries in the European world, was already on for more than a century. Thomas Piketty recently has shown how the contemporary distribution of wealth is rooted in the early 18th century. The same has to be said on world politics. The 18th century marks Europe’s great awakening from the long winter sleep it had been sleeping until then. This awakening was kicked off at once by the beginning of western European expansion to overseas and by Russia’s establishment as successor of the Byzantine empire which had fallen down in 1453 and which had been Europe’s link to the Eurasian world for a thousand years in the early modern period.
At about 1700, the claims thus were set, and the games could begin. England finished its empire building by submitting large parts of North America, while Russia under the rule of the rude, but skilled tsar Peter the Great stepped forwards to the West, seeking for an ally as entry to the western world. There were two natural allies determined to this role, the already mighty Habsburg monarchy in the south and the tiny, but vigorous electorate Brandenburg, which had relaunched itself as kingdom of Prussia in the North.
Half a century later, in the middle of the frictions of the seven years war, things were ordered more accurately. England, which first had supported Prussia under its heroic and western educated king Frederic the Great, made peace with France, until then the catholic traditional enemy of the Puritanic British monarchy, in 1762, while Russia, until then eager to swallow the little Prussia and to set a step into middle Europe, switched sides and by this not only saved Frederic his crown and country, but clandestinely determined its role as Russia’s first and most important western ally, as the historian Jacob Burckhardt called it one hundred years after.
Making peace with Prussia and allowing it by this to develop further as a now full ranking member of the west European political system, Russia did not cease expansion. On the contrary, it turned its view on the Eurasian theater again and started to conquer new territories which until then adhered to the faltering Ottoman Empire whose decline had begun – again – in 1700, when prince Eugen had defeated the Turks beleaguering Vienna and expelled them from the Northern Balkans. The tsarina Catherine the Great attacked Poland, conquered a part of the Ukraine which wittily was named Novorossija (new Russia) and even planned to deliver Greece and Romania from the Ottoman yoke, of course on the purpose to incorporate them into a larger Russian Empire then reaching from the Siberian deserts to the banks of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
How Europe became pivotal to world politics
However, Catherine’s ‘Greek project’ was a failure, as was British domination on North America. In the 1770s, once again the claims were reset: the British were expelled from North America by the colonists uprising who no longer wanted to get orders from an absolutist central power seated 6.000 kilometers away from them. The Russians, on their side, failed at moving into central Europe beyond the glass ceiling which started at the Baltic sea and went down through Eastern Europe to the Aegean Sea in the South. After the Roman expansion in the antiquity and the Islamic expansion during the middle ages, Europe for a third time became pivotal as the future battlefield of atlantic-eurasian confrontation.
As often in history and in life, being put under double pressure unleashes all the powers concentrated in the target area of this pressure. 1770 was the final kickoff not only of the great game between Atlantic and Eurasian world, personified the one by first England, then America, the other by Russia, later the Soviet Union; it was, too, the kickoff of industrialization which rapidly transformed Europe from the almshouse of the world to its wealthiest and most prosperous region. The tiny peninsula on the western banks of the gigantic tectonic plate generously called Eurasia (although most of it is not Europe, but Asia), almost from one day to another revealed itself as the tipping point of world politics. Not only economic and social life profoundly were transformed; even more, European politics became the battlefield of two concurring conceptions of reordering the world at all, and thus became the promised land of a novus ordo seclorum to be scripted by either the Atlantic or the Eurasian block. –
It was in the light of this geopolitical framework, that, in the morrow of July 3rd 1866, two Prussian armies from different directions moved on to an obscure Bohemian town called Königgrätz to the final duel with their Austrian rivals, a duel which everyone in the world knew it would be decisive. It was in the light of a seldom situation of international detente, that Otto von Bismarck, the then prime minister of the kingdom of Prussia, a Pomeranian ‘junker’, sufficiently brutish and highly skilled at once, could launch this attack which most of the observers in media and politics blamed to be silly and suicidal. Like a soccer match between two teams equal in the rank, the whole thing was unsafe for many hours, until, at about high noon, the avant garde o the 1st Prussian army eventually arrived on the battlefield and by this completed the encirclement plan cunningly set by the Prussian chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke. The Austrians, at once surrounded from three sides by Prussian troops, had to withdraw – not only from the battlefield, but from Germany, leaving the solution of the German problem officially to Prussia in the ceasefire of Nikolsburg, which was stipulated three weeks after they disastrously were defeated at Königgrätz (or, as the French and British called it, Sadowa). Prussia now was the master of central Europe, and Bismarck, the Pomeranian cuirassier, was its mastermind.
German unity a product of both Atlantic and Eurasian benevolence, 1866 as well as 1990
The whole show would not have taken place, had not Russia, as we said Prussia’s traditional ally since the 18th century, concludingly allowed Bismarck to act as he acted. Ten years before, Russia’s tsar Nikolaj I had been terribly disappointed by Austria opposing its expansionary plot concerning the Black Sea and the Balkans in the Crimean War (1853-56) and switching from the reactionary Russian to the western block formed by England and France who together with Austria eventually stopped the Russians on the Crimea. Austria, however, took away little earning from this ‘betrayal’ of its old friend Russia. Prussia, on the opposite, now could act independently in order to fulfill its historical mission: unifying Germany.
It was in 1867, barely a year after the decisive victory at Königgrätz, that the North German confederation was proclaimed, a Prussian dominated alliance of all German states except Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hessen, which was the first modern German national state in history at all. The final unification which took place four years later in the middle of the France-German-War at the notorious kaiserproklamation at Versailles, juristically was not but the declaration of accession of the four mentioned states to the North German Confederation (which then consequently was renamed into German Empire). More than Sedan, Metz and the defeat of the highly armed, but unhappily acting French in 1870/71, it was the Prussian victory at Königgrätz which accomplished the German unification and thus set the claims for the development of Europe in the further one and a half centuries.
In 1866, the German question turned out to be a European question
For from now on, world politics had to reckon on Germany. From now on, Europe had not only one (France), but two strong and vigorous national states, both gifted with the benefits of industrialization and enlightenment, both eager to establish Europe as the world dominating continent. The German question turned out to be a European question – a question, which was to be discussed not only by the European powers themselves, but, in far more broader terms, eventually by the two wing powers of world politics, England, later the U.S., in the West and Russia in the East. It was only in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution and the U.S. entry to the 1st world war, when this picture turned out to be the actual bigger picture of 1866, but it is the bigger picture, and we have to look at it, then and now.
Look at the bigger picture
Europe never was strong unless it was embedded into a larger political system. During the most time of the antiquity, there was no Europe in the contemporary meaning of the word at all. Then, in the course of the Roman expansion, the benchmarks of what we are used to call western Europe carefully were set. Europe then was not an independent subject of politics, but merely the western wing of the Roman Empire. This Roman Empire, however, was an oriental Empire, offspring and successor of the past oriental Empires of Assur, Persia and Greece, with a Greek idiom called Latin as lingua franca and its power center in the triangle of the east mediterranean Sea, Syria and North Africa. Spain and later Gallia (France) were not but an atlantic appendix to this oriental-levantine conglomerate.
During the middle ages, after the breakdown of Rome under the Germanic invasion, Europe was, as we have said it already, sleeping a long but uncomfortable sleep of meaninglessness, from time to time harassed by another oriental expansion, this time managed by the Islam which has sprung off from the debacle of Roman imperial power in the East in the 7th century, in the aftermath of the destruction of the central power two centuries before. Only with the kickoff of overseas expansion in the 15th and 16th century, motivated by the indescribable state of poverty and indolence Europe had been in for thousand years, the continent started to develop a sort of geopolitical self-confidence.
European overseas expansion in the early modern period leading to the Atlantic-Eurasian setting
This process, however, did not result in the establishment of a powerful and united Europe, although numerous attempts were made on this purpose; but, as we have lined it out above, in the establishment of an Atlantic and an Asian Empire, the United States of America (which just played on more effectively the role played for so long time by Britain) and Russia. When Germany hat accomplished its mission of unification in the semi decade 1866/71, it was clear to everyone that it would now attempt to form Europe into an independent continent block (with itself as spiritus rector, naturally), able to act as arbiter mundi towards both the Atlantic and the Eurasian side. It is clear, too, from the posterity’s point of view, that Germany necessarily had to fail at this target as France under Napoleon had failed at it fifty years before.
Instead, two world wars later, the wing powers U.S. and Russia split up Europe, finally suffocating all continental attempts of establishing Europe as central power of the world (the first had been made by Napoleon, the second and third by imperial and then Nazi Germany). By dividing Europe on the conference of Yalta in early 1945, however, they did not solve the European problem, but merely postponed it on their agenda. As a result, Europe became now what it had been dreaming on for so many centuries: the most prosperous and peaceful region of this earth, while the wars of the new age were now fought on other, seemingly peripheral territories.
History did not come to an end, neither did world politics
However, history did not come to an end, in neither 1945 nor 1990. Shortly after the reunification of 1990, which definitely was not the work of some East German up-risers, but arose from a secret agreement of the U.S. and Russia, both tired of investing millions of men and trillions of dollars into maintaining the European status quo, the great game between West and East turned out not to be over at all. Operation desert storm in 1991, Nine Eleven in 2001 and now the Syrian war in 2011 are the three most obvious benchmarks of the clandestine (to European eyes, because to those of all others, things were maybe clear from the beginning) continuation of the classic great game, now fought again on its traditional oriental theater instead of the feeble and highly dangerous European, where each mainfest armed confrontation would have turned out shortly into a nuclear holocaust.
The U.S. and China as wing powers of world politics
Of course, there has been a further shift in international relations, influencing the setting of the great game, too. It is no longer Russia, but China, which will dominate the Eurasian plate, whereas in the West, the U.S., rid of the ‘European burden’, do no longer act simply as the leader of the free world and loyal and generous stepson of Britain, but as the independent western wing power it actually is, as England has been before it for some centuries. Both countries, the U.S. and China, are supranational nations, which grants them an inestimable advantage towards Europe, both are ruling with ancien regime methods regarding inner and foreign politics, both are acting as motors of the digital change. Finally, both are assuring, with more or less success, the stability of their middle classes, for it is the middle classes which always has taken the lead in political, cultural and economic progress (thus, the process of European expansion in the early modern period was a project of the then European ‘middle class’, and its first and most durable result was the creation of a stable and ever growing middle class of merchants, bankers, manufacturers and artists in Europe).
The globalization claim must not deceive Europe about its own geopolitical situation which is maybe more feeble than it has been ever before. As long as there will be men, there will be families, and as long as there will be families, there will be need for settling down in a surrounding economically and politically agreeable. It is capitalism which has brought so much comfort and prosperity to the world, especially to Europe, and it is a financial crisis (i.e. a crisis of capital) mixed with a refugee crisis which now is rattling Europe’s fundaments to the ground.
To Europe, the cold war was in fact a cold peace
As long as the forces were gathering, Europe could grow and flourish, in a long run from the early 18th till the late 20th century, benignly shielded by those forces’ – England’s and Russia’s – mutual interest in it. It was a unique constellation of ambiguity which allowed Bismarck in 1866 to go over the top and forcing Europe to acknowledge German unification and, by this, at least to try to upgrade Europe to a power of its own. Have a look on the picture above: the king of Prussia, uncle to the then tsar of Russia, gives shake hands to his son, the crown prince, son-in-law of the then queen of England. Both, England and Russia, were more or less benevolent to the project of German unification and thus let Bismarck do his work, in 1866 as well as in 1870 when Russia stood still at Prussia’s eastern flank, while England, against many expectations in France, did not intervene on French ground against the German troops. A century later, both again – albeit England now was called America – were benevolent enough not to make perish Germany (and with it sooner or longer Europe), but to impose a cold war on Europe, which actually was a cold peace, bringing wealth, social rise and global mobility to millions of Europeans.
The world powers’ benevolence toward Europe is over
Today, war is no longer a measure of politics, due to the nuclear shift in warfare. Terrorism and financial disarray are. The era of the world powers’ benevolence towards Europe is over. Contemporary wars, especially as they concern Europe, are asymmetric wars, their battles are state bankruptcy and social default. Europe’s nation building during the 19th and 20th century in a certain way was only leased from the well calculating benevolence of the great powers, and the same – with regard to the era of European reconstruction from 1945 to 1990 – has to be said on Europe’s social welfare system. A unified Europe, however, concertedly acting on world politics, has not turned out from 1990’s political shift. The oriental crisis is a crisis fought between the U.S. and Russia over predominance on the ‘Eurasian Balkans’, as Zbiginiew Brzezinski has named them, and the grand economical guidelines, however, are drawn by the U.S. and China. The E.U.’s impact on those issues, on the contrary, may be neglected.
Europe is falling apart, Great Britain is about to leave the E.U., and there is growing reactionary opposition from mostly right-wing parties in all over Europe against the refugee movement from the devastated orient towards Europe. If there was any European mission connected to Königgrätz, it now is highly in danger. Europe in the end is only a conglomerate of national states, not unlike the oriental world with its numerous different ethnic and religious groups, although on a higher development level. Some Europeans may be dreaming of a Europe of regions, ignoring however that a Europe of regions can only exist successfully in a broader political framework.
The world powers are of nothing more afraid than of a United States of Europe
The idea of a ‘United States of Europe’, however, is widely repelled by people and political elites as well. By the ones, because they are afraid of their nation’s ‘sovereignty’ (somewhat completely old fashioned in the 21st century’s Europe); by the others, because they are knowing (or at least suspecting) that nothing would frighten (and thus call to action) more the great powers, the U.S. on the one, Russia and China on the other side, than a finally united Europe which thus would be secured against foreign attacks and inner disorder as well, besides of forming an economy stronger than that of China and almost as strong as the U.S. American.
Thus, the day of Königgrätz sheds its light still on the constellation of nowadays world politics. It shows how entangled the course of German and European politics is in the global agenda, and how endangered they are in the light of a globalization which not only takes place on economic, but on political ground, too. The further destiny of Europe will possibly be decided in the next ten to twenty years, with an outcome as unsafe and thrilling as that of Königgrätz one hundred fifty years before today.
© Konstantin Sakkas, 2016
Header: Emil Hünten, the battle at Königgrätz, 1866. Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin/Germany. – The picture shows the Prussian crown prince Frederick William, commander in chief of the 1st Prussian army who led the decisive attack this day, awarded the Pour le mérite on the very day of the battle by his father, king William I. Left behind the latter, the Prussian prime minster Otto von Bismarck.