Prussia's participation in the Third Coalition is often disregarded – and it is generally believed that an active Prussian war participation was was imminent. But the Prussian decision-makers, particularly in the King's inner circle became, late 1805, determined to throw Prussia into the war against France. Officially, Berlin sought to build a diplomatic bridge between the belligerent parties – Count Haugwitz, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, was sent on a diplomatic mission to Napoleon – but Prussia mobilised simultaneously in great haste – and Prussian units sought to coordinate movements with its allies. It was therefore only a question of time before Prussia would participate actively in the war against France. Prussia's change from neutral to de facto belligerent, created a hectic atmosphere in Berlin. The Danish Legation in Berlin, which followed developments closely, gives an interesting insight into Prussian participation in the Third Coalition – including the reactions to the collapse of the coalition after the Battle of Austerlitz.
On the brink of war with France
When the Third Coalition was a fact in late August 1805, Prussia kept itself out of it in the first place. It was not because the Prussians had completely rejected the diplomatic level. The British and especially the Russians had made efforts after the outbreak of war in May 1803 to convince Berlin to join a new coalition against France. And these were not completely without success. In May 1804 the Russian side had achieved Prussian support for a declaration against further French claims on German territory. (1) But Prussia was neutral, a state of affairs that had been maintained since the end of the War of the First Coalition in 1797. And it was probably not without importance that King Frederick William III, in his shelter of neutrality in Berlin, had been able to observe how his former ally Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire had fared, namely that Austria had come out of the Second Coalition with sizeable territorial loses – at that at the expense of France's strengthened position in the German territory. From the Prussian side, the foreign affairs agenda had therefore been characterized by efforts, which were concentrated on strengthening Prussia's neutral position – safeguarding the territorial extent and influence – and not jeopardising it. In those efforts Berlin had for example sought to strengthen the neutrality by a Prussian-Danish neutrality co-operation, which in spite of persistent negotiations came to nothing.(2)
The situation therefore in the late summer of 1805 was that, while most of Europe was preparing for war, Berlin adopted a policy of wait-and-see. But it became difficult for King Frederick William III to remain neutral. In the first place, French diplomatic efforts had succeeded in keeping Prussia in neutrality by proposing Prussian occupation of Hanover.(3) In the same time the diplomatic pressure was intensified by the allies, since Prussia's position was essential in the efforts of waging the war against France: permission to march through Prussia was a condition.(4) In early October 1805 the unexpected French violation of Prussian neutrality – by marching French troops through Ansbach and Bayreuth – slowly moved Prussia towards a participation in the Third Coalition. But the decisive event came during the Russian Tsar, Alexander I's stay in Potsdam from late October to the beginning of November 1805. (5) And the Tsar did not leave Prussian soil to rejoin his army until he had achieved definite concessions from the Prussian King. The result of Alexander and Frederick William's negotiations was the Treaty of Potsdam, whose content was that Prussia should offer mediation between France and the coalition on the basis of the Treaty of Lunéville. The agenda was to achieve a number of (it must be said, quite unattainable) French territorial concessions, against the threat of Prussian accession to the Third Coalition – if France did not accept all the allied demands. (6) In Potsdam a time limit of one month for a French answer was agreed – and it was Count von Haugwitz, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was destined for this precarious diplomatic mission. A mission that even Haugwitz himself did not believe in. (7)
The Danish Minister in Berlin, Count Baudissin, who had just returned to Berlin after the conclusion of the Prusso-Russian agreement, noticed the change in foreign policy.(8) On Nov. 9th he reported to Christian Bernstorff, the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, that he clearly felt the atmosphere in Berlin had changed, he wrote:
“J'ai trouvé à mon arrivé l'opinion publique si diamétralement opposé à ce qu'elle était il y a quatre mois, que je ne reconnais plus Berlin. Les gazettes ont également changé de ton […] Le nouveau système de concert et d'alliance avec les Cours Impériales se professe à l'unanimité. On declare sans ménagement contre la France.” (9) (I found on my arrival that public opinion was so diametrically opposed to what it had been four months ago that I didn't recognise Berlin. The papers had also changed their tone. […] The new system of concert and alliance with the Imperial court was professed by all and sundry. Everyone speaks openly against France.)
Baudissin had in addition, after his return to Berlin, been informed by Karl August von Hardenberg, the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs, on the state of foreign policy affairs. Hardenberg informed the Danish Minister on the matter of Haugwitz's diplomatic mission – that this initiative was based on a common Prussian-Russian understanding, which was the result of the negotiations in Potsdam between the Prussian King and the Russian Tsar. Baudissin quoted the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs for having added to the information on the current state of Prussian foreign affairs that:”[…] (en appuyant sur les mots) La paix ne s'obtiendra que les armes à la main”. (10) (“(emphasising his words), Peace can only be had if we carry arms.”) Baudissin estimated therefore, after the conversation with Hardenberg that the Prussian government had already decided to take an active part in the Third Coalition against France. (11)
The Danish Minister confirmed his estimation of the Prussian government's course in his subsequent reports. On Haugwitz's mission he wrote, among other things, on Nov. 16th that:
“[…] je sais que ces Messieurs [l'entourage du roi] envisagent la guerre générale comme inévitable et la commission du comte de Haugwitz comme une démarche ne pouvant produire aucun résultat”. (12) (“I know that these gentlemen (the King's entourage) consider general war inevitable and see Count Haugwitz's commission as an enterprise which can produce no good results.”)
And as early as from Nov. 9th he reported diligently on Prussian army preparations and movements, which in their extent and character could only be interpreted in one way – Prussia was de facto at war with France.
Expectations as to the allied cause
Concurrently with the intensification of Prussian military preparations the Danish Minister could report on the expectations as to the outcome of the war with France. He was personally convinced that the allied powers would prevail. He based this supposition, among other things, on his own observations. (13) On his journey back to Berlin he had had the opportunity to size up a Russian regiment, which quartered in Mecklenburg. On this encounter with the Russian soldier, he wrote:
“C'est à l'unanimité qu'on m'a fait l'éloge de la disipline, de l'ordre et du bon esprit militaire des troupes […] Leurs officiers réunissent les procédés les plus honnêtes à la meilleure conduite. Le soldat quoique soumis à la subordination la plus sevère et la plus exacte, n'en est pas moins l'objet de l'attention suivie et vigilante de ses chefs. Le traitement des malades doit être parfait. La ration des troupes payée par l'Empereur est d'un demie livre de viande et de trois livres de pain par jour, et on a le plus grand soin de faire constamment vivre le soldat chambrée. Le régiment que j'ai vu à Baitzenburg n'était pas trop élevé; les hommes paraissaient forts, robustes, endurcis à la fatigue, ayant la tenue, la démarche et la tournure très militaire […] leurs armes me semblent très légères, la baïonnette fort longue.” (14) (“Without exception, people everywhere have spoken to me praising the discipline, order and good military spirit of the troops […] Their officers combine the fairest procedures with the best conduct. Although subject to the most rigorous and exacting control, the soldiers are nevertheless the object of the closest attention and vigilance. The treatment of the wounded is probably perfect. The rations for those troops who are paid by the emperor include half a pound of meat and three pounds of bread per day, and the greatest care is taken to make sure that the soldiers are warm. The regiment I saw in Baitzenburg was not particularly renowned. But the men looked strong, tough, inured to fa-tigue, and had very military uniforms, bearing, and aspect […] their arms look to me to be very light, the bayonettes very long.”)
The expectations were futher raised by the reports from the theatre of war which reached the Prussian capital. Archduke Charles was in the offensive in Northern Italy, while the Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov bravely defended his positions in Central Europe. (15) And the report on the annihilation of the French fleet at Trafalgar, which had reached Berlin on Nov. 19th, was not without effect either.(16)
Concurrently, reports on the Grande Armée told that the French forces were suffering from diseases and lack of supplies. The fact that these reports could be inaccurate, exaggerated, and contradictory had no effect whatsoever upon the immediate enthusiasm and sensation that they created in Berlin. Therefore, seen from the Prussian capital everything looked promising for the allied cause.
Towards a major battle
Meanwhile, on Nov. 16th, the Danish Minister reported that information had been received that General Kutuzov, who commanded one of the Russian armies, was retreating towards Brünn – which did not go unnoticed in Berlin. On the reactions to this piece of information, he wrote:
“Je n'ai pas besoin de dire que ces événements ont causé une forte sensation sur l'esprit du Roi, mais je crois pouvoir garantir, qu'ils n'influeront point sur ses dispositions”. (17) (“I hardly need tell you that these events had a great effect upon the King's spirits, but I think that I can guarantee that they will have no influence whatsoever upon his dispositions.”)
On Nov. 23rd the Danish Minister reported that it seemed that a major battle was inevitable, since Kutusov had decided to hold a position between Vienna and Brünn. And on Nov. 26th the Prussian Minister informed the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs regarding the combined Austro-Russian army and its position around Olmütz. On Nov. 30th he reported that news from the allied headquarters made expectations of a forthcoming, memorable battle. The Danish Minister reported in addition that it was the Prince of Mecklenburg's belief that everything suggested a great allied victory. And the Danish Minister noted, moreover, that the march of Prussian forces would be determined by the outcome of the forthcoming battle. If the battle was won Prussian forces would move to the west – but if Napoleon's étoile gave victory to the French side, the Prussian forces would probably move towards the south. (18) On Dec. 3rd the Danish Minister reported that news of Nov. 27th recounted that the allied had started offensive operations, seeking to engage the French in battle. Czar Alexander, Emperor Francis, and Grand Duke Constantine had joined the Austro-Russian army, supreme command of which had been given to General Kutuzov. In the same report Baudissin announced from Berlin that even the Prussian Queen was now supportingparticipation in the war. Moreover, he told about Prussian troop movements – and that even the garrison of Berlin was commanded to leave the capital. On Dec. 7th the Danish Minister reported that the latest news from allied headquarters, dated Dec. 1st, was that the allied plan was to prevent Napoleon's access to Vienna – a plan the Danish Minister found risqué. Furthermore, he wrote that initiatives from Napoleon were expected on Dec. 2nd, since he properly would seek to mark the anniversary of his coronation as Emperor of the French.
First news of the Battle of Austerlitz
The first news concerning the Battle of Austerlitz reached Berlin on Dec. 7th. (19) And it was ghastly news which the Danish Minister brought to Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs. He wrote on Dec. 8th that it was reported that the allied Austro-Russian army had been beaten and that the rest of the army was withdrawing. Russian casualties were considerable, and the defeat had been caused by a risky plan to cut off Napoleon's access to Vienna. (20)
On Dec. 9th, however, strong contradictory information was circulated concerning the outcome of the battle all over in Berlin. It was reported that a letter from the Russian Czar to the Prussian Queen had been received the very same morning, which told that the outcome had not been completely in French favour. Kutusov had succeeded in, after fierce fighting, recapturing the lost Russian artillery and some of the Russian prisoners of war. The fighting had been taken up again on Dec. 3rd, in which Kutosov had managed to rout the French army under Napoleon. And that the allied army was still holding its positions at Austerlitz as late as Dec. 5th.
However, the following day the Danish Minister had to report that the information received on Dec. 9th was a pure fabrication – and that man behind it was Maximilian von Alopeus, the Russian Minister. Baudissin then reported that worse news was now expected from Austerlitz. He wrote about the reactions in Berlin:
“En attendant ces mauvaises nouvelles ont produit un grand bien; elles ont prouvé au public, que la perspective d'un avenir incertain et peu rassurant, qui occupait douloureusement toutes les âmes honnêttes, n'avait point abattu le Roi, et qu'elle n'avait surtout aucunement influé sur ses déterminations. S.M. a regardé la perte d'une bataille en Moravie comme un grand revers, mais non comme un malheur sans remède, et Elle n'a douté ni des moyens, ni de l'énergie, ni des ressources de ses alliés […] On a tenu ensuite dimanche matin un grand conseil de guerre, et on a fait différé le départ d'un des maréchaux-généraux des logis pour l'armée, probablement pour attendre, si les nouvelles ultérieures dicteront des changements dans les déterminations et les plans d'opérations. En attendant les armées marchent en avant et celle du Prince de Hohenlohe doit se rapprocher déjà à grands pas des frontiers de la Franconie”. (21) (“In the meantime, this bad news has had a most excellent effect ; it has proved to the public that the prospect of an uncertain and worrying future, which was weighing painfully upon the hearts of decent folk, has not in the least depressed the King and has in no way influenced his intentions. H.M. saw the loss of the battle in Moravia as a great setback, but not an incurable disaster, and He doubts neither the means nor the energy and resources of his allies […] A great council of war was subsequently held on Sunday morning, and the departure of the maréchaux-généraux des logis was held back, probably to enable them to wait in case later news dictated further changes to the intentions and operation plans. In the meantime, the armies are marching on, and that of the Prince de Hohenlohe must be rapidly closing on the borders of Franconia.”)
On Dec. 12th a report from Haugwitz dated the 6th of December had been received in Berlin, saying that an Austro-French ceasefire had been agreed on Dec. 4th. With the same courier the French Minister, Laforest, received reports of a complete allied defeat in the Battle of Austerlitz and that advances had been made from the Austrian side to enter preliminary peace negotiations. Those had already been engaged, since Napoleon and Francis had all ready met. The French Minister had also received Napoleon's proclamation of Dec. 3rd. (22) Meanwhile, Baudissin did not think that the French notifications were reliable and he had on Dec. 12th the occasion to confront Hardenberg personally with their content. The Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs could not make any comments regarding the actual situation, but he had instead recited a report from Count Finckenstein dated Dec. 6th, which did not tell about a ceasefire, but that the allied withdrawal was caused by lack of supplies. But what did Hardenberg really know on the outcome of the battle? The Danish Minister gives the impression that the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs did know a lot more than he wanted to tell, he wrote:
“[…] Monsieur de Hardenberg me protesta qu'il ignorait entièrement quelle était dans ce moment-ci la position politique de la Prusse tant à l'égard de la France que vis-à-vis de l'Autriche et de la Russie, et qu'il en était réellement embarassé; que toutefois les déterminations du Roi son Maitre ne pourraient souffrir encore aucune altération, et qu'il espérait que cet état d'incertitude ne serait que de peu de durée.” (23) (“Monsieur Hardenberg has protested to me that he had no idea whatsoever at this moment of Prussia's political position, whether with respect to France or to Austria and Russia, and that he really was at a loss about it; but that nevertheless, the plans of the King his master could not be altered again, and that he hoped that this state of uncertainty would last but a little time.”)
In Baudissin's report of Dec. 14th there were more details about the meeting with Hardenberg on Dec. 12th. The Danish Minister reported among other things that he had met Count Metternich, the Austrian Minister, when he was leaving the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Metternich drew Baudissin's attention to the fact that he just had received new Austrian notifications on the battle – and he promised the Danish Minister that he would tell him about the content in writing. The Danish Minister received Metternich's information on Dec. 13th. In the light of the written information Baudissin was able to report that the allies had not been beaten – quite the reverse. But the content of this information was neither in agreement with Haugwitz's report nor French notifications – for which reason the Danish Minister was forced to realise that the information from the Austrian Legation only opened up further uncertainty and speculation about the outcome of the battle. (24)
Speculation concerning the outcome of the battle kept the Third Coalition alive a little longer in Berlin. The Austrian Legation had reacted vigorously to Haugwitz's report – the content was categorically refused. And the Russian Minister pronounced himself à outrance against Haugwitz, while Hardenberg pressed to end Prusso-English negotiations for a subsidy treaty. But they had to acknowledge the foreign policy realities in the Prussian capital. The Danish Minister did not know how and with whom a notification had been received, which could not be ignored or exposed to speculations, which clearly appear from the reactions at the Prussian Court. Baudissin reported on these reactions:
“C'était au moment de dîner. Le Roi n'en parla qu`à M. de Möllendorff. Les personnes admises à l'honneur de dîner avec Leurs Majestés remarquèrent bien que la Reine avait beaucoup pleuré, que le Roi avait l'air [tari] mais elles quittèrent le palais sans savoir précisément la cause dont elles avaient observé l'effet. Enfin celle-ci fut connue vers le soir avec tous les détails, et elle produisit une sentation aussi forte qu'extrême.” (25) (“It was during dinner. The King spoke only to M. de Möllendorff. Those who received the honour of dining with Their Majesties saw that the Queen had been weeping a great deal, and that the King had a [tired] air, but that they left the palace without knowing the exact cause of these things. The cause was finally known with all the details towards the evening, and it produced a sensation which was extremely strong.”)
Hardenberg found, however, the occasion to assure the Danish Minister that Prussian forces – no matter what – would continue the march towards the enemy's frontiers. Furthermore, the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs stuck to the opinion, in an official note, that the combined Austro-Russian army under the command of General Kutusov in no way had been beaten, but was on the march to ensure itself supplies. He had, however, admitted the existence of a Austro-French cease-fire – but was of the opinion that the cause should be explained in the needs that followed a fierce battle: the necessity of burying the dead. He still refused that Napoleon and Francis had met after the battle. (26) And Baudissin complemented the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs' estimation of the situation by reporting that the Prussian officer, Colonel Phull, had been given orders to report to Alexander and Francis the Prussian King's constant belief and interest in the allied cause. (27)
Realisation of the worst
In Baudissin's report of Dec. 16th it was, however, clear that not only had the Battle of Austerlitz been lost to the allied cause, but it seemed that the direct consequence was that the Third Coalition had fallen apart. One of the Danish Minister's sources for this evaluation of the state of the coalition was the Austrian Major-General Stutterheim's remarks on the outcome of the battle and the consequences of this for foreign politics. (28) Stutterheim, who personally had held a command in the battle of Austerlitz, had been sent to Berlin to prepare the Prussian government for the change in Austrian foreign policy. Baudissin wrote about Stutterheim and his presence in Berlin as follows:
“Le Général, en dinant hier chez le Roi, a donné différents détails de la bataille du 2, et il n'a laissé aucune occassion, où il pourrait donner à connaître que la bonne harmonie existent entre les deux Cours alliés a fait place à l'éloignement, à l'aigreur et à la méfiance. Nous ignorons encore le but de la mission de M. de Stutterheim, mais il parait non-douteux qu'il est chargé de préparer le cabinet de Berlin au changement de système de sa Cour”. (29) (“When he dined with the King yesterday, the general gave various details concerning the battle of the second, and he did not let pass any occasion whereby he could underline that the sweet harmony which once existed between the two courts had given way to estrangement, bitterness and distrust. We do not yet know what the aim of M. de Stutterheim mission was, but it seems not to be doubted that he has been ordered to prepare the Berlin cabinet for the change of system at his court”)
Although Stutterheim was not popular in Berlin, it was no longer possible to ignore the situation relating to Prussian foreign politics, since other pieces of information reaching the Prussian capital were pointing in the same direction as the Austrian Major-General remarks. At first, the Prussians hoped that it would still be possible to keep an anti-French coalition alive – consisting of Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain. Much expectation had been put into the notification that Grand Duke Constantine would arrive to Berlin, but Constantine made it very clear on his arrival that he was not on a diplomatic mission. And when it was confirmed in Berlin that Alexander really was on his way to St. Petersburg, the destiny of the Third Coalition was sealed. This was a very bitter realisation for the Prussian government – and especially for Hardenberg. Prussia could do nothing other than remains neutral – at least until a new coalition could be formed. The showdown with France had been merely delayed for 10 months.
Prussia and the Battle of Austerlitz
Baudissin's reports from Berlin show that the Prussian government – and particularly the Prussian King – was already in late 1805 determined to throw Prussia into the war against France. Prussia's role is therefore not to be neglected in evaluations of the Third Coalition – despite the fact that Prussia did not officially become belligerent. All conditions were there, as the Danish Minister correctly evaluated, for seeing Prussia as a de facto belligerent. Although the events and particularly the reactions of the Austrian government to Austerlitz prevented an active Prussian participation, this should not make us minimise Prussian decision-makers' firm resolution to participate in the war against France. Prussia's participation in the Fourth Coalition and the declaration of war on France in October 1806 speaks its own clear language in this respect.
Baudissin's reports are not only interesting in a clarification of Prussian foreign politics, in relation to the Third Coalition, but they are also a fine example on the role that the communication conditions played in the determination of foreign policy agendas in the era of Napoleon. The slow communication and the absence of fast and reliable information rendered decision making difficult – but it also made it possible to delay and confuse the actual situation of foreign politics hereby creating a temporal liberty of action, which could be utilised when attempting to force an agenda through. Hardenberg's, Metternich's and Alopeus' lack of will to admit (30) – or at least lack of will to consider the truth of the first notifications – especially those from Haugwitz, the former Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs (31) – shows that the Third Coalition's actors in Berlin were so determined to carry through their agenda that they (using communication conditions of the time) attempted to keep the Third Coalition alive after its destiny had been sealed in the Battle of Austerlitz.