Finding the solution to, er, what was that again?

The 19th century British politician and Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, famously observed that ‘only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.’ Largely based on that quotation the ‘Schleswig-Holstein question’ has become a metaphor for something both totally intractable and utterly boring.

I cannot pretend that I completely understand what the Schleswig-Holstein question was (though I believe it was about which country should rule the province, located between Denmark and Germany), but I do know who solved it. The issue was finally settled by force of arms; more specifically, it was concluded by the outcome of the battle of Königgraetz, the location of which was, as I’m sure you would have expected, in what is now the Czech Republic. In fact, Königgraetz is now known by its inhabitants as Hradec Králové, and I’m sure you will wish to know that every May it has an Air Ambulance Show, and in August Europe’s biggest Hip-Hop festival.

But why am I interested in Königgraetz, or Hradec Králové? Because the decisive military action in the battle fought there at the end of the Austro-Prussian war in 1866 was led by my great-great-great-grandfather, General Ferdinand von Prondzynski. The battle was won for Prussia, and as a result the Hapsburgs gave up all rights to Schleswig-Holstein, and it became Prussian. In his personal diaries, my ancestor revealed how difficult it had been to motivate his troops to fight, because like Lord Palmerston they didn’t know or had forgotten what the dispute was actually all about, and why they were fighting in Bohemia for a province a thousand kilometres away in Northern Germany. He wrote: ‘No strategy can be successful when those expected to implement it have no idea why it is important.’

I don’t really know how the General made the Schleswig-Holstein question seem important to his troops, but it appears he did. Still, ever since reading his notes I have been convinced that strategy is something more than, and more important than, a management plan. And I’m sure there are lessons in that somewhere for universities.

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5 Comments on “Finding the solution to, er, what was that again?”

  1. Al Says:

    Wow
    Surely deserves a blog for itself!!

  2. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    Still, ever since reading his notes I have been convinced that strategy is something more than, and more important than, a management plan.

    Well, a typical management plan is a long sequence of impressive but ultimately vacuous prose, designed to confuse and disorient the readers enough to get them to agree to engage in a course of action just long enough for the plans instigator to benefit to the tune of a bonus and/or kudos before moving on to a more lucrative position elsewhere, whilst the readers who remain are left to pick up the pieces. A strategy meanwhile is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal.

    And I’m sure there are lessons in that somewhere for universities.

    Don’t fight for followers of the Austrian School?

  3. peterhreid Says:

    Ah well Ferdinand, if you’d got me on to the Schleswig-Holstein Question at the i3 conference dinner I suspect you might have thought I was that professor who had gone mad. It isn’t completely utterly boring though and revolved around the succession crisis to the Danish throne in 1840-50s and the choice of a suitable candidate. The most logical canidate was the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel as he was descended from the Danish Royal Family and, as the Danish throne could pass through the female line, he would have been eligible. However, the desire to maintain the union of Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein was so great that a candidate had to be found who was capable of having a claim to the Duchies under in the male as they were subject to the Salic Law. This led to Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg being chosen (over his brother-in-law, the said Landgrave of Hesse). However, this was not acceptable to Prussia and a good number of others German States, not least the rival Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg and, of course, led to Königgraetz and the defeat of Austria. Perhaps General Ferdinand convinced his troops by highlighting that the battle was actually about the role and status of Prussia as the pre-eminent German power and that it would mark winning would mark the end Austria’s attempts to dominate the German States, rather than being about two Duchies and the Salic Law. That “bigger picture” thing perhaps? Are your ancestor’s diaries published? Although, I have to confess a bit of a soft spot for poor, old Emperor Franz Joseph.


    • What a shame I didn’t raise that with you, Peter – I am genuinely impressed. No, his diaries were not published, but I have them… He also had interesting, and very modern, thoughts about ethnic integration within armies. He was awarded the medal Pour-le-Mérite for his role in Königgraetz.

  4. peterhreid Says:

    It is arguable, with a considerable degree of justification, that Königgraetz made the subsequent defeat of France and the creation of the German Empire possible and that had Austria not been removed from the picture, the events of 1870-71 would have been radically different. I remember seeing a documentary about the Franz Joseph many years ago which gave an incredibly good account of Königgraetz. I’m currently reading Jonathan Steinberg’s biography of Bismarck which is very good (save for it needing a closer proof-read when it comes to nomenclature, a typical librarian comment if ever there was one) although I have to say is not a patch on Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom which, to my mind, is the best history of Prussia in English. Do your family still own the General’s Blauer Max? It is such a beautful and, of course, prized decoration. I recently acquired a star of the Order of the Black Eagle which has pleased me inordinately.


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