One nation. A single, unified nation powerful enough to plunge Europe and the world into two of the most devastating wars in history. That is the legacy of Germany. Two world wars are all we remember of a unified Germany. But, we never remember the struggle that took place to create such an entity. As Geoffry Wawro covers well in this book, the Austro-Prussian War was the turning point in German history that allowed Prussia to become the major figure in German affairs and start to unify the German confederation under one power, ending years of Austrian interference. Although wading through the tactical and strategic events of this war in detail, Wawro does not lose sight of the very important political aspects of this war, which began Germany’s unification in earnest. This unification of Germany would prove to be one of the most influential events in Europe, with its effects being felt well into the next century. A unified Germany, and others’ fear of it, would be one of the stumbling blocks that would lead to the first “Great War” and quickly after it, another one. But without Prussia’s ascendance to the top of the German states, both World Wars might not have happened. So it is about time to lavish some of the attention given those two wars on one of its major causes, which Wawro does a great job of.
Geoffry Wawro himself is a rather young writer. A recent graduate of Yale, Wawro’s book is an expansion on his doctoral dissertation, which won him a fellowship from the Austrian Cultural Institute in 1994 for Best Dissertation on Austrian Culture. This fellowship allowed him to spend two years converting his dissertation into this book. Although young and relatively new to book writing, Wawro shows a good grasp of the tools necessary to be a successful writer. He has another book, on the Franco-Prussian of 1870, in planning.
Wawro builds his book chronologically, beginning with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. He describes the problems associated with the German people’s attempts to unify after the allied defeat of Napoleon. He then goes on to detail how Austria and Prussia both vied for supremacy in the confederation of German states. He focuses mainly on the direct confrontations between the two nations and the abilities of their leaders. Wawro appears almost to be a Germanophile as he fawns over the ingenious political strategies of Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, while constantly berating the sub-par performance of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. He also uses the beginning of the book to describe past Austrian domination in Italian affairs, and the animosity that was building between these two states. He reviews the history of Austrian interference in Italy that drove the Italians into a military alliance with Prussia, and eventually into the war. Although he is less enamored of Italy’s leaders, he still holds them above the Austrian leaders whom he portrays as foreign interlopers trying to prevent Italian unity as much as German. He moves through the months and years quickly, going from one crisis to the next until the three nations were on the brink of war, with Austria facing a double-edged sword, Italy in the south and Prussia in the north.
The main force of the book is Wawro’s retelling of the war; planning, mobilization, and engagements. He uses a whole chapter to detail all three nation’s problems in organization and preparedness. He repeatedly praises the Prussians for their efficiency in mobilization of troops and superior strategy. Wawro humbles both the Austrians and Italians as he berates both nations’ military state in supplies, manpower, technology, and strategy. He takes special interest in pointing out the ineptitude of Italian and Austrian generals and the political intrigue and maneuvering that got them their commands. As the war begins he first covers the Prussian advance from the north and their quick defeat of the Austrian allies, before their new envelopment tactics on a poorly placed and poorly led Austrian army. He showers praise on this new Prussian tactic that proved unbeatable against an Austrian army that ignored its natural defenses, limited its own mobility, and whose generals ignorance and laziness allowed it to be swallowed up by a superior Prussian force. He then focuses on the belated Italian attack, which was a case study in ineptitude, as both Italian and Austrian commanders bungled from one battle to another. Eventually, he covers the main battle of Custoza which the Austrians barley winning, mostly due to their superior firepower and weapons. After repulsing Italy, the Austrians then sent reinforcements to the north, which is where Wawro then takes his book. He finishes be explaining how the Prussian army moved further and further south by enveloping, breaking, and then chasing down the Austrian army at every instance. Eventually, the immobile and demoralized Austrians retreated and the Prussians marched on Vienna where the Austrians were forced to sue for peace.
After discussing the devastating terms laid on the Austrians and their allies by Prussia, Wawro goes on to discuss their political aftermath. He shows how once Prussian dominance was established in the German confederation and Bismarck had absorbed the opponents to Prussian rule, Prussia tossed Italy aside and forced them to sign a separate peace. After Austria was defeated, Prussia turned its back on the lesser powers of Europe and focused on unifying the rest of Germany in the west. Wawro discusses Prussian policy after the war with a heavy focus on their turn towards the west, foreshadowing their war with France in 1870. Prussia had defeated its biggest foe to this point and as was recognized by the Austrian minister of state in 1866, and quoted by Wawro in this book, ‘Prussia will not neglect the opportunity to show the world –and especially France- the immense power of its new position” (p. 296).
Not only does Wawro provide a “blow-by-blow” account of how the Prussian-Italian alliance eventually defeated the Austrian army, but he also goes to great lengths to explain why. Throughout the book Wawro reiterates several times how superior Prussian technology, tactics, and leadership carried the war. He gives an in-depth look at how Hapsburg complacency and inefficiency, especially by the Austrian generals, blundered away the war. Even before his discussion of the war, he derides Austrian preparedness and pales them in comparison with the Prussians. As for the war, he does not get so deep into the tactics of every battle without explaining the strategic problems and poor judgments that led to it. He gives a biting, almost vindictive, criticism of the inept Austrian army. Their lack of supplies and training, horrible morale, ignorance of technology and tactics, and need for innovative leadership is all scrutinized. He explains how the Austrian General Staff foolishly placed themselves away form their natural defenses, cutting their mobility and offensive capabilities to nothing. Their laziness and reluctance to engage the Prussian enemy, hoping to draw them into one decisive battle, is particularly scathed by Wawro. He places the Prussians and their innovative tactics on a pedestal, showing again and again how their strategy of envelopment, along with their superior weapons, overwhelmed the Austrians, first in Bavaria and Saxony and then against the Austrian North Army at Koniggratz. He does not treat the Italians much better, and does not focus much of the book on the southern front, except for the major battle at Custoza where he chides both sides repeatedly. Wawro finishes the book sounding almost germanophilic, but his thesis holds true without. Prussia defeated Austria through the overwhelming force of superior Prussian weapons and tactics, coupled with the inexcusable complacency and ineffectiveness of the Austrian Army and General Staff.
Wawro’s selected audience for this book is most likely that portion of history students known as “armchair historians”. This is a perfect book for those who are fully into the field of history but consume their free time with it. However, the general public would shy away from a book with so much detailed tactical information. Although Wawro provides good maps of troop placements and battles, which he uses to back up his points about Austrian and Italian mistakes, he clearly still assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader as to Austrian, Italian, and German geography. Also, Wawro’s bibliography is a long list from Austrian archives and the few published works are almost all in German or Austrian. Thus, Wawro would overwhelm the common readers while historians of this time would likely not discover anything new in this book. More scholarly than popular, Wawro’s book is perfect for the “at-home” historian.
Wawro’s book serves it purpose well. A former dissertation, the book is converted nicely into a format perfect for those with an interest in the subject. Although a bit of pro-Prussian bias lurks throughout, Wawro accomplishes what the title promises, a thorough recollection of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Again, I would not recommend it to just anyone on the street because the author is writing to a more scholarly audience than that. However, the book is enjoyable and enlightening as to the tactics of mid-nineteenth century warfare, and is a good read for anyone with a real interest in the field.