Po and Rhone by Frederick Engels 1859


By now we have seen where the theory of natural frontiers advanced by the Central European great-power politicians leads us. France has the same right to the Rhine that Germany has to the Po. If France should not annex nine million Walloons, Netherlanders and Germans in order to obtain a good military position, then neither have we the right to subject six million Italians for the sake of a military position. And this natural frontier, the Po, is after all only a military position and that is the only reason, we are told, why Germany should maintain it.

The theory of natural frontiers puts an end to the Schleswig-Holstein question with a single slogan: Danmark til Eideren! [Denmark up to the Eider!][202] After all, what are the Danes asking but their Po and their Mincio, whose name is Eider, their Mantua, Friedrichstadt by name?

By the same right that Germany claims the Po, the theory of natural frontiers requires for Russia Galicia and Bukovina and a rounding out to the Baltic Sea, which includes at least the entire Prussian right bank of the Vistula. In a few years it could with equal right demand that the Oder be the natural frontier of Russian Poland.

The theory of natural frontiers, applied to Portugal, must extend that country to the Pyrenees and include all of Spain in Portugal.

The natural frontier of Reuss-Greiz-Schleiz-Lobenstein[203] will likewise have to be extended at least to the border of the German Confederation and beyond that to the Po and perhaps to the Vistula, if the laws of eternal righteousness are to be carried out, and Reuss-Greiz-Schleiz-Lobenstein has as much claim to its rights as Austria has.

If the theory of natural frontiers, that is, frontiers based exclusively on military considerations, is correct, what shall we call the German diplomats who at the Congress of Vienna brought us to the brink of a war of Germans against Germans, lost us the Meuse line, exposed Germany’s eastern frontier and left it to foreigners to set the borders of Germany and divide it? Truly, no country has so much reason to complain of the Congress of Vienna as Germany has; but if we apply the rule of natural frontiers, what does the reputation of the German statesmen of that time look like? And it is precisely the same people who defend the theory of natural frontiers on the Po that live on the legacy of the diplomats of 1815 and continue the tradition of the Congress of Vienna.

Would you like an instance?

When Belgium broke away from Holland in 1830,[204]’ the same people who are now making the Mincio a question of life and death raised their voices. They raised a hue and cry over the dismemberment of the strong Dutch border power that was to have been a bulwark against France and in fact-what superstition remains after all the experiences of twenty years!-had to undertake to erect a thin band of fortresses to surround Vauban’s ring of fortresses, which at least is an imposing example of its kind. As if the great powers feared that one fine day Arras and Lille and Douai and Valenciennes would march into Belgium, with all their bastions, demilunes and lunettes, and make themselves at home there! At that time the spokesmen for the same narrowminded trend we are opposing moaned that Germany was in danger, since Belgium was nothing more than a helpless appendage of France, an inevitable enemy of Germany, and that the valuable fortresses built with German money (i.e., money taken from the French) to be a protection against the French are now open to the French against us. The French border had been advanced to the Meuse and the Scheldt, and beyond; how long would it take until it was pushed forward to the Rhine? Most of us still remember these lamentations very clearly. And what happened? Since 1848, and particularly since the Bonapartist restoration, Belgium has turned more and more resolutely away from France and towards Germany. By now it might even count as a foreign member of the German Confederation. And what did the Belgians do as soon as they got into a kind of opposition to France? They razed all the fortresses which the wisdom of the Congress of Vienna had imposed on the country, as being completely useless against France, and erected atound Antwerp an entrenched camp large enough to take in the entire army and enable it, in the event of a French invasion, to wait there for English or German help. And they were right.

The same wise policy that in 1830 wanted to keep Catholic, mainly French-speaking Belgium chained by force to Protestant, Dutch-speaking Holland, that same wise policy has sought since 1848 to keep Italy by force under Austrian oppression and make us Germans responsible for Austria’s actions in Italy. And all this only through fear of the French. All the patriotism of these gentlemen seems to consist in falling into a state of feverish agitation as soon as France is mentioned. They seem never to have recovered from the blows the old Napoleon dealt them fifty and sixty years ago. We are certainly not among those who underestimate the military power of France. We know very well, for example, that so far as light infantry is concerned and experience and skill in waging a small war, and certain aspects of artillery, no army in Germany can compare with the French. But when people start throwing phrases around about Germany’s twelve hundred thousand soldiers, as though those soldiers were standing there all ready and prepared like chessmen with which Doctor Kolb can play a game with France over Alsace and Lorraine [205] — and when these same people then tremble in their boots at anything that happens, as if it went without saying that those twelve hundred thousand men could not help being cut to pieces by half the number of Frenchmen, unless the said twelve hundred thousand slunk into impregnable positions — then it is really high time to lose patience. It is high time to remember, as against this policy of passive defence, that even if Germany may by and large depend on a defence with offensive counterblows, still no defence is more effective than an active, offensively conducted one. It is time to remember that we have often enough shown ourselves better in attack than the French and other nations.

“Moreover, it is the inherent nature of our soldiers to attack; and that is quite right,”

said Frederick the Great of his infantry; Rossbach, Zorndorf and Hohenfriedberg can testify as to how his cavalry could attack.[206] How accustomed the German infantry of 1813 and 1814 was to being aggressive can be best seen from Blücher’s well-known instructions for the beginning of the 1815 campaign:

“Since experience has shown that the French army cannot stand up to the bayonet attacks of our massed battalions, the rule is always to make such attacks when the object is to overrun the enemy or take a position.”

Our finest battles have been offensive battles, and if there is one definite quality of the French soldier that the German soldier is lacking, it is demonstrably the art of holding up defensively in villages and houses; in the attack the German compares well with the French soldier, and has shown that often enough.

As for the policy itself, apart from the motives underlying it, it consists of the following: First, under the pretext of defending alleged or absurdly exaggerated German interest, to make us hated by all the smaller countries on our borders, and then to be indignant that they tend more to attach themselves to France. It took five years of Bonapartist restoration to divorce Belgium from the French alliance into which the policy of 1815, continued in 1830, the policy of the Holy Alliance, [207] had forced it; and in Italy we have created a position for the French that certainly outweighs the line of the Mincio. And yet the French policy towards Italy has always been narrow, selfish, exploitative, so that with any kind of honourable treatment on our part the Italians would unquestionably have been more on our side than on France’s. It is well known how from 1796 to 1814 Napoleon and his governors and generals drained them of money, produce, art treasures and men. In 1814 the Austrians came as “liberators” and were greeted as liberators. (just how they freed Italy is shown by the hatred that every Italian has for the Tedeschi today.) So much for the actual practice of French policy in Italy; as for the theory, we need only say that it has a single basic principle: France can never tolerate a unified and independent Italy. This principle has held good down to Louis Napoleon, and to make sure there is no misunderstanding, La Guéronnière has to proclaim it now once again as an eternal verity. And in the face of such a narrow-minded philistine policy on the part of France, a policy that claims the right to intervene at will in the internal affairs of Italy, in the face of such a policy do we Germans need to fear that an Italy no longer under direct German domination will always be an obedient servant of France against us? It is really laughable. It is the old hue and cry of 1830 over Belgium. For all that, Belgium came over to us, came unasked, and Italy would have to come to us in the same way.

It must also be kept definitely in mind that the question of the possession of Lombardy is a question between Italy and Germany, but not between Louis Napoleon and Austria. Vis-à-vis a third party like Louis Napoleon, a third party intervening in his own interest, which in other respects is anti-German, what it comes to is simply holding a province that will only be given up under compulsion, a military position that will only be abandoned if it can no longer be held. In this case the political question retreats immediately behind the military question; if we are attacked, we defend ourselves.

If Louis Napoleon wants to appear as Paladin of Italian independence, he can get along without a war against Austria. Charité bien ordonnée commence chez soi-même. The “department” of Corsica is an Italian island, Italian despite the fact that it is the fatherland of Bonapartism. If Louis Napoleon were first to cede Corsica to his uncle Victor Emmanuel, we might then be ready to talk. Until he has done that, he would be well advised to keep his enthusiasm for Italy to himself.

There is no power of any importance in Europe that has not incorporated parts of other nations into its territory. France has Flemish, German and Italian provinces. England, the only country that has really natural frontiers, has gone out beyond them in every direction, has made conquests in every country and is now in conflict with one of its dependencies, the Ionian Islands, just after putting down a colossal rebellion in India with authentically Austrian methods.[208] Germany has half-Slavic provinces and Slavic, Magyar, Wallachian and Italian annexes. And over how many languages is the White Tsar in Petersburg master!

Nobody will venture to say that the map of Europe is definitively established. But any changes, if they are to endure, must increasingly tend by and large to give the big and viable European nations their real natural frontiers to be determined by language and fellow-feeling, while at the same time the remnants of peoples that can still be found here and there and that are no longer capable of national existence, remain incorporated into the larger nations and either merge into them or are conserved as merely ethnographic relics with no political significance.[209] Military considerations can apply only secondarily.

But if the map of Europe is to be revised, we Germans have the right to demand that it be done thoroughly and impartially, and that Germany should not be asked, as has been the custom, to make all the sacrifices alone, while all the other nations benefit without giving up anything whatever. We can do without a good deal that lies at our borders and involves us in matters in which we should do better not to meddle directly. But the same applies to others, in exactly the same way; let them show us the example of unselfishness, or be silent. But the sum and substance of this entire study is that we Germans would make a very good deal if we could trade the Po, the Mincio, the Adige and all the Italian rubbish for unity, which would protect us from a repetition of Warsaw and Bronzell, and which alone can make us strong internally and externally. If we have this unity, the defensive can come to an end. We shall no longer need any Mincio; “our inherent nature” will once more be “to attack”; and there are still some sore points where this will be necessary enough.

Footnotes from MECW

202 Denmark up to the Eider! — the slogan advanced by the members of the Danish liberal party of the 1840s to 1860s (Eider Danes) who supported the union of Schleswig (up to the River Eider), populated mainly by Germans, with Denmark.

203 Under this name Engels ironically unites here two dwarf German states, Reuss-Greiz and Reuss-Gera-Schiciz-Lobenstein-Ebersdorf, belonging to the elder and younger branches of the Reuss dynasty.

204 By decision of the Vienna Congress of 1815 Belgium and Holland were incorporated into the united Kingdom of the Netherlands, Belgium being actually under the control of Holland. Belgium became an independent constitutional monarchy as a result of the 1830 revolution.

205 The Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung, whose editor-in-chief was Dr. Gustav Koll), was at the time in favour of Germany seizing Alsace and Lorraine.

206 At the battle of Rossbath on November 5, 1757 during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), Prussian King Frederick II’s army defeated the Franco-Austrian forces.

On August 25, 1758, at Zorndorf, Frederick II gave battle to the Russian army, as a result of which both armies suffered serious losses without achievinganything.

At the battle of Hohenfriedeberg on June 4, 1745, during the War ol tile Austrian Succession (1740-48), the Prussian army commanded by Frederick I defeated the Austro-Saxon forces.

Prussian cavalry played an important role in all these battles.

207 The Holy Alliance — an association of European monarchs founded in September 1815 on the initiative of the Russian Tsar Alexander I and the Austrian Chancellor Metternich to suppress revolutionary movements and preserve feudal monarchies in the European countries.

208 On the national liberation movement in the Ionian islands, see Note 103.

In 1857-59 India was the scene of a big popular uprising against the British. It flared up in the spring of 1857 among the Sepoy units of the Bengal army and spread to large areas in Northern and Central India. Its main strength was in the peasants and the poor urban artisans. Directed by local feudal lords it was put down owing to the country’s disunity, religious and caste differences and also because of the military and technical superiority of the colonisers.

209 Engels’ views on the historical destiny of small nations were inaccurate: he held that as a rule small nations were not capable of independent national existence and were bound to be absorbed, in the course of centralisation, by larger, more viable nations. Correctly noting the tendency towards centralisation and the creation of large states, which is inherent in capitalism, Engels did not give due consideration to another tendency, namely, the struggle of small nations against national oppression, for their independence and the establishment of their own states. History has shown that many small nations proved capable of independent national development and played a considerable role in the progress of humanity.