On July 3, 1866, the Kingdom of Prussia defeated the Austrian Empire at the decisive Battle of Sadová in Bohemia, which sealed Prussian supremacy in Central Europe and eventually led to the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871.
The centuries-long rise of the Austrian House of Habsburg in Central Europe began with King Rudolph’s victory at the Battle on the Marchfeld in 1278, which assured the Habsburg Monarchy’s possession of the Duchies of Austria and Styria, and the final obtainment of the Imperial crown by Emperor Frederick III in 1452.
Meanwhile, after being officially declared one of the seven electorates of the Holy Roman Empire in 1356, the Margraviate of Brandenburg eventually grew out of the Imperial borders in 1618, when the Hohenzollern electors became dukes of Prussia. In 1700, Emperor Leopold I allowed Frederick of Prussia to crown himself “King in Prussia”.
By the start of the 18th century, the Kingdom of Prussia had indeed become one of the great players in European politics, with a highly effective Prussian Army that, sooner or later, had to collide with the Habsburg claims to power.
Two generations later, the newly crowned King Frederick II of Prussia, who had inherited from his devoutly Calvinist father a large and modernized Prussian army, launched an invasion of the rich Habsburg province of Silesia, forcing Maria Theresa to cede the bulk of the Silesian lands to Prussia.
Prussia’s unexpected victory over the Habsburg Monarchy marked its rise to the status of a European great power and the leading state of Protestant Germany. In addition, the Silesian Wars and their wider pan-European conflicts provoked a broad realignment in the European diplomatic system, establishing the Austria–Prussia rivalry that would define German politics in Central Europe for the next century.
After 1815 and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon, the German states, along with the non-German speaking Kingdom of Bohemia, were reorganized under Austrian leadership into the German Confederation. But Prussia started contesting Austrian supremacy and established the Erfurt Union, a short-lived union of German states which ended under immense pressure from the Austrian Empire with the “Humiliation at Olmütz”.
The Battle of Sadová and Prussian hegemony
Austria and Prussia’s struggle for supremacy in Central Europe continued throughout the 19th century and culminated in 1866 with the Austro-Prussian War, mainly fought in Bohemia, and the decisive Battle of Sadová, which took place near the town of Hradec Králové.
Prussia’s victory resulted in the abolition of the German Confederation, a shift in power away from Austrian hegemony, the gradual unification of all of the northern German states and the eventual proclamation of the German Empire, the Second Reich, in 1871.
Popular Czech folk song Cannoneer Jabůrek (Kanonýr Jabůrek) tells the story of a valiant cannoneer taking part in the battle of Sadová who continues to fight, despite the enemy’s cannonballs tearing off both his arms and blowing off his head. The humorous song is sung in Jaroslav Hašek’s satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk, which also mocks the futility of war.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.