The Austrian-Prussian War, also known as the Seven-Week War, was an armed conflict between Austria and Prussia that took place from June 15 to July 26, 1866, in central Europe. It began with a dispute over the German duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, which had been occupied by Prussia and Austria in 1864. Rivalry between these two German-speaking countries had erupted when they tried to exert hegemony in central Europe. The result of this short war was a Prussian victory, which led to the Franco-Prussian War and the unification of the German states and Prussia into the German Empire, under William I.
Since he was appointed Prime Minister of Prussia by William I, Otto von Bismarck began to contrive ways to achieve the unification of the German states under Prussian leadership. Having assured funds for the Prussian Army, Bismarck turned his attention to the long-standing rivalry with Austria. As early as 1856, he had written: “Germany is too small for both of us. Both of us plow the same contested field”. He approached the problem obliquely by engineering a war with Denmark in 1864 for the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Afraid to let Prussia expand on its own, Austria joined in the conquest and for a time both powers shared these provinces. However, it was compromise bound to cause dispute, which was exactly what Bismarck wanted. He won the Italians over to Prussia’s side by offering to restore Venetia to them, a region the Austrians had seized in 1797. He also gained the support of the German states by dangling the prospect of a national parliament. Then, on June 8, 1866, he ordered the Prussian troops in Schleswig to expel the Austrians from Holstein.
The Austrian-Prussian War, which Bismarck cleverly manipulated into being, was decided within weeks. After a series of smaller engagements, the Prussians crushed the Austrians at the Battle of Königgrätz on July 3, 1866. Nevertheless, Bismarck was magnanimous in victory, overruling the generals who wanted to march into Vienna. “The dispute with Austria is decided,” he declared. “Now we have to win back the old friendship.” By the terms of the peace, Prussia annexed Austria’s wartime allies of Hanover, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel, and Frankfurt am Main, eliminating the corridor between the eastern and western provinces of Prussia. These states joined Schleswig-Holstein in a new union called the North German Confederation. Thus, the balance of power in central Europe had shifted to Prussia.
During the Austrian-Prussian War, the Prussian soldiers were equipped with the Dreyse needle rifle, a breech-loader which could be shot from a prone position, and which fired up to five times faster than muzzle-loaders. Although it was prone to misfire, the Dreyse gave the Prussians the edge on the battlefield and this, along with their powerful artillery and superior planning, enabled them to win a crushing victory over the Austrians at Battle of Königgrätz in 1866, which freed Bismarck, the German Chancellor, to pursue his goal of a united Germany.