Po and Rhone by Frederick Engels 1859


Since the beginning of this year it has become the slogan of a large part of the German press that the Rhine must be defended on the Po.

This slogan was fully justified in the face of Bonaparte’s war preparations and threats. It was sensed in Germany, with correct instinct, that although the Po was Louis Napoleon’s pretext, in any circumstances the Rhine could not but be his ultimate goal. Nothing except a war for the Rhine border could provide a lightning-conductor against the two factors inside France that threatened Bonapartism: the “superabundant patriotism” of the revolutionary masses and the seething discontent of the “bourgeoisie”. It would engage the former in a national undertaking and give the latter the prospect of a new market. That is why the talk about liberating Italy could not be misunderstood in Germany. It was a case of the old proverb: He beats the sack and means the donkey. If Italy was to play the part of the sack, Germany had no desire in this case to act as the donkey.

In the present case, the maintenance of the Po therefore meant merely that Germany, threatened by an attack involving, in the last instance, the possession of some of its best provinces, could not by any means dream of giving up one of its strongest, in fact its strongest military position without striking a blow. In this sense the whole of Germany was indeed interested in the defence of the Po. On the eve of a war, as in war itself, one occupies every position that can be used to threaten the enemy and do him damage, without engaging in any moral speculations as to whether it is consonant with eternal righteousness and the principle of nationality. One simply fights for one’s life.

However, this way of defending the Rhine on the Po should be clearly distinguished from the tendency on the part of very many German military men and politicians to regard the Po, that is, Lombardy and Venice, as an indispensable strategic complement and, so to speak, an integral part of Germany. This view has been put forward and defended theoretically particularly since the campaigns in Italy in 1848 and 1849, for example, by General von Radowitz in St. Paul’s Church and by General von Willisen in his Italienischer Feldzug des Jahres 1848. In non-Austrian South Germany the theme has been treated particularly by Bavarian General von Hailbronner, with a predilection bordering on enthusiasm. The main argument is always a political one: Italy is totally incapable of staying independent; either Germany or France must rule in Italy; if the Austrians were to pull out of Italy today, the French would be in the Adige valley and at the gates of Trieste tomorrow and the entire southern border of Germany would be exposed to the “hereditary enemy”. Therefore, Austria holds Lombardy in the name and the interests of Germany.

As we see, the military authorities for this opinion are among the foremost in Germany. Nonetheless, we must decidedly oppose it.

Yet this opinion has become an article of faith defended with true fanaticism in the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung, which has set itself up as the monitor of German interests in Italy. This Christian-Teutonic paper, for all its hatred of Jews and Turks, would rather see itself circumcised than the “German” region of Italy. What is after all only defended by politicking generals as a splendid military position in Germany’s hands is in the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung an essential component of a political theory. We mean the “Central European great power theory”, which would make Austria, Prussia and the rest of Germany into a federal state under the predominant influence of Austria, Germanise Hungary and the Slavic-Romanian Danubian countries by means of colonisation, schools and gentle violence, thus shift the centre of gravity of this complex of countries more and more to the southeast, towards Vienna, and incidentally reconquer Alsace and Lorraine as well. The “Central European great power” is intended to be a kind of rebirth of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and seems, among other things, to aim at incorporating the once Austrian Netherlands[183] and also Holland as vassal states. The German’s Fatherland would extend about twice as far as the German tongue is now heard; and when all this had come to pass, Germany would be the arbiter and master of Europe. Moreover, the conditions for all this coming to pass have already been assured. The Romanic peoples are in an acute state of decadence: the Spanish and Italians are already totally ruined, and the French are now also experiencing their disintegration. On the other hand, the Slavs are incapable of forming a genuine modern state and have the world-historical vocation of being Germanised, in which case a rejuvenated Austria is once again the principal instrument of Providence. The Teutons are therefore the only race that still has moral strength and historical capacity, and among them the English are sunk so deep in insular egoism and materialism that their influence, trade and industry have to be kept off the mainland of Europe by powerful protective tariffs, by a kind of rational continental system. In this way German moral earnestness and the youthful Central European great power can hardly fall to attain world supremacy on land and sea in a short time and inaugurate a new era in history, in which Germany would at long last play first fiddle again and the other nations would dance to its music.

The land belongs to the Russians and French,
The English own the sea.
But we in the airy realm of dreams
Hold sovereign mastery.

We would not dream of going into the political aspect of these patriotic fantasies here. We have only outlined them in context in order that all these wonderful things might not, at some later time, be brought up against us as new proofs of the necessity of “German” rule in Italy. The only thing that concerns us here is the military question: Does Germany require for its defence permanent rule over Italy and in particular total military possession of Lombardy and Venice?

Reduced to its most essential military expression the question is: In order to defend its southern border, does Germany require possession of the Adige, the Mincio and the Lower Po, with the bridgeheads of Peschiera and Mantua?

Before we undertake to answer this question, we state expressly that when we speak of Germany here we mean by that a single power whose military forces and actions are directed from a single centre — Germany as a real, not an ideal, political body. On any other presuppositions there can be no question of the political and military requirements of Germany.

Footnotes from MECW

183 Under the Peace Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, Alsace and part of Lorraine, which had hitherto belonged to the Habsburgs, were transferred to France; Lorraine as a whole was annexed to France in 1766.

The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (982-1806) included, at different times, German, Italian, Austrian, Hungarian and Bohemian lands, Switzerland and the Netherlands, forming a motley conglomeration of feudal kingdoms and free towns with different political structures, legal standards and customs.

The Austrian Netherlands — the territory of the present Belgium and Luxemburg, which belonged to the Austrian Habsburgs from 1714 to 1797.