Littell's Living Age/Volume 125/Issue 1615/Germany and Austria

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From The Spectator.


There is one peculiarity in the situation of Germany to which Englishmen do not as yet, we think, pay quite sufficient attention. It is very doubtful whether the statesmen and soldiers who guide the destinies of the empire — the emperor, Prince Bismarck, Count von Moltke, the Crown Prince, and Prince Frederick Charles — as yet think its military position safe. So sudden and complete were the victories of 1866 and 1870, so utterly were Austria and France prostrated, so perfect seemed the mechanism of the German military machine, that Englishmen scarcely understand how Germans can be anxious, and wonder why they cannot, like Englishmen and Americans, content themselves with the peaceful accumulation of wealth. No power dare attack them, and no power of the military kind ventures even to defy them. There is reason to believe, however, that this is not exactly the view taken by the great German chiefs themselves. They know perfectly well that, powerful as Germany is, she was indebted, both in 1866 and 1870, in some degree to fortune for her marvellous success. In 1866, the best German regiments in the Austrian army never met the Prussians at all, but were occupied with the Italians at Custozza. In 1870, the army of the Second Empire was in a situation unparalleled since the days of Louis XV., — undermanned, badly officered, led by generals who hated one another, and commanded, in the last resort by a man who had no orders to give, and was unable to secure attention to his advice. Nevertheless, that army fought one splendid battle, and but for Marshal Bazaine's self-seeking policy might, even at the eleventh hour, have altered the whole current of affairs. Such circumstances are not likely to repeat themselves, and as Prince Bismarck and Count von Moltke look around, they may see facts which, if interpreted as they would interpret them, may cause them serious disquietude. To the westward lies a military Republic full of wealth and resources, with an army on paper as numerous as the German, and in reality as numerous as any army Germany could move, unless her very existence were in danger, animated by an intense wish to retrieve her prestige, and a fixed determination at some future period to recover Lorraine. To the southward is an empire badly constructed, and essentially weak, but ruled by a most experienced prince, who during war would be absolute, who, for one great battle at least, would dispose of 400,000 men, nearly half of them Germans, and who cannot be believed willing to put up with his expulsion from an empire which in 1868 he acknowledged by his visit to Frankfort that he hoped to rule. To the northward is a peninsula which might under certain circumstances open the gate of Germany to a foe, and to the eastward a gigantic empire, ruled by a man whose successor may not be friendly, who must regard his empire rather than his own feelings, and who could order a quarter of a million of stubborn soldiers to move upon Berlin, a capital which on that side is not a hundred and fifty miles from a nearly defenceless frontier. Germany is hemmed in by first-class armies, and with all her gigantic strength might be overmatched by a coalition of these powers, or even of two of them; and it is no wonder that her rulers and her people, as yet scarcely aware of the greatness of their new position, scarcely exempt from the influences of their own past history, should restlessly watch the faintest indications of the coming of such a combination, or should even brood over plans which would, if successful, render it impossible.

That the best of these plans would be to remain quiet, to grow rich, and to acquire the confidence of Europe, is the conviction of most Englishmen, but it is not necessarily the conviction of men who at heart doubt whether European opinion ever seriously affects the policy of military states. The rulers of Germany may think that France can never be conciliated, that Austria may find it necessary to choose between a great victory or a near decease; that Russia, be her opinion what it might, would obey her czar's command; and that the only security for Germany is to grow till she is in her own strength beyond the reach of attack, even by a coalition. We English think this, and say this, as regards the sea, where we always profess ourselves bound to be ready to meet a combination; and Germany, in this view, is in the position of Great Britain, a powerful islandstate, isolated by circumstances, and surrounded by potential foes. That the German chiefs feel this dread in some fashion is evident from the recent military laws which place the whole population at their disposal, from the large concessions they would make to Denmark if she would enter the federation, from the anxious desire to remain more than friends with Russia, and from the frequent repetition of the threat that were the danger to increase, Germany would not wait to be attacked. The immediate danger is always represented as arising from the side of France, because Germans are more easily moved from that side, and because the war of 1870 makes such a statement reasonable, and consequently Englishmen always expect that any blow or menace of a blow from Berlin will be directed first against Versailles. But they may be mistaken in that opinion. The German chancellor, when reasoning on concrete facts, is the ablest, as well as the most daring, statesman in Europe, and he may hold a very different view of the situation; It is not France he dreads, but a coalition. He can fight France easily enough, if France has no ally. It is not victory he desires, but additional and permanent strength for Germany. To follow his thought, one must not watch telegrams or semi-inspired leaders, but look around, and see whether any great addition of strength is to be obtained for Germany; and if so, where. Clearly it is not to be obtained in France. Supposing the German government suddenly to insist that French armaments should stop, to demand Champagne as a material guarantee, and by a supreme exertion of strength to march once more on Paris, what would it permanently gain? Nothing, except a larger disaffected territory to garrison, an a larger population to be kept down by force. Russia would not be weaker because France was occupied, but stronger; the Hapsburgs would not be less hostile because Germany had her Poland, but more hopeful; Germany would not be more fitted for battle, but more distracted by new and most exhausting labour. Of course the extinction of France would end one of the German difficulties, but how is France to be extinguished without permanent military repression?

Nor is the advantage sought to be obtained in Russia. That Germany might beat Russia is conceivable, in spite of the recent improvements in the mobility of the Russian army, and the acquiescence of the people in the new conscription, and she might then reclaim the Baltic provinces; but the quick defeat of Russia is, from the tenacity of the national character and the vast depth of the czar’s dominions, nearly impossible, and a long campaign to the eastward would bring France into the field. It would, in fact, give the word for the very coalition we are assuming Germany to dread. The difficulty, too, of inducing the Hohenzollern family to attack relatives who have so often helped it, and who have shared with it the spoils of Poland, might prove to be insuperable: while the Baltic provinces, undefended and indefensible as they are to the east, might prove a most dangerous possession. While, therefore, we hold a spring on France unlikely unless provoked by Versailles, we deem one upon Moscow nearly beyond that list of possibilities which statesmen are warranted in taking into consideration. But is the third member of the coalition equally secure? It seems to us that if the German government really saw occasion to put everything once more to hazard — an occasion which we do not assume, and can hardly believe in — its temptation would lie southward, to spring rapidly and decisively on Vienna, and gain ten million more German subjects, before presidents or czars could seriously interfere. The risk involved in such an effort would be dreadful, for it could only be successful if victory were as immediate, crushing, and final as it was in the Seven Days' War; but then victor would not only not be barren, but would secure most of the results for which it is assumed that Germany longs, — security against coalitions and outlet to the southern world. No power could touch Germany if the Hapsburgs were once driven to Buda-Pesth, and no power save France would hold such influence in the Mediterranean. From Hamburg to Trieste all would be German. Of course if Austria were a burden such as northern France would be, Germany would gain nothing; but what chance would there be that Austria would be a burden, that the change once accomplished, the southern Germans would be disaffected to the empire to which for so many centuries they belonged? It must be a very small one. No man alive, certainly no outsider, can quite say what is the strength of the bond between the Hapsburgs and their people; but no one either will affirm that in this day loyalty counts for much, or can prove that any race is bound more strongly to its hereditary rulers than the population of Hanover were to the Guelphs. The German-Austrians might dislike and yet acquiesce in the change; and in the nineteenth century, with its conscriptions, the acquiescence of a population suffices to make its government strong.

We do not intend, we need not say, to accuse the German government of the smallest design against Austria. On the contrary, we have always argued that Germany could secure more, with far less danger, by a strict and hearty alliance with the House of Hapsburg, then by any other conceivable combination. The two empires, acting together and thoroughly armed, could maintain for the next century peace in central Europe. Nor, whatever may be Prince Bismarck's wishes, is there any probability that the Emperor William will attack a friendly power merely in order to avert a possible and remote risk of a future combination. We are only addressing ourselves to that large class of Englishmen who will look only to one point of the compass, who will believe that Prince Bismarck cares only about France, and who expect from day to day, as, for instance, the Standard reappears to do, to hear that a German army is encamped at Chalons. To such we say that they may be right, but that, if they are right, the German chiefs, while dreading a coalition — for it is only a coalition which could put Germany in tremor — think it best to strike at the best-guarded point, at the point where the fight would be sorest, and at the point where there is the least additional strength to be obtained as the reward of victory. Is that likely? It may be true, for Prince Bismarck may one day make a mistake, like another man; but it is much wiser to assume that he will not, that he will, if he breaks out of the ring, break out at the weakest point, and that if he chooses war, it will be war in which there is something to be obtained. It is indefinitely more probable that all the rumours of war which disquiet the Continent are spread to carry the new ecclesiastical laws, but if war is really intended, it is the Hapsburgs, of all men, who, as we calculate, have war to dread.