The Austro-Prussian War: Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866, by Geoffrey Wawro, Cambridge University Press, $64.95.
The popular image of the 19th century after Napoleon is one of unremitting–and somewhat boring–peace; it wasn’t. Wars were fought, some of them big, and not just on the North American continent. To some extent, incomplete history is to blame. the Austro-Prussian War in the summer of 1866 (which actually should be called the Austro-Prussian-Italian War) is a case in point, and at last we have a book, admirable but overpriced, that tells the entire story.
Prussia’s military majordomo, General Helmuth von Moltke, utilized the rapid movement of the railroad and the instant communication of the telegraph to make, in Geoffrey Wawro’s words, “rapid, prolonged movement and concentration of units possible.” In other words, Blitzkrieg. But Moltke’s genius would not have been rewarded without what Wawro calls the “awful ineptitude” of the Austrian staff; an ineptitude that was communicated to every level of their army. In Austria (and in other European nations as well) military efficiency was obstructed by courtiers, ministers and parliaments. Moltke made sure that didn’t happen in Prussia.
His brilliance at Koniggrätz on July 3, 1866–the Austrians suffered 44,000 casualties, almost five times those of the Prussians–is the centerpiece of this book, and the battle has never been better described or analyzed. (How many know, that Koniggrätz was at the time the largest battle ever fought, with 450,000 Prussians and Austrians involved?) But equally noteworthy are episodes rarely recorded, such as Moltke’s campaigns against those independent German states allied with Austria and Italy, which saw Austria’s only significant victory, the battle of Custoza, and “inelegant brawl” amid vineyard terraces and man-high wheat. It could have been a significant victory but wasn’t, because the Austrians failed to pursue the fleeing Italians; only the stink of flesh rotting in the sun ultimately forced them to move. In the end, however, the victorious Prussians forced Austria to cede territory, which included Venice, to Italy. As one Austrian general mourned, “We have sunk to the level of Turkey.”