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.