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The Proposed Peace Congress

Frederick Engels

The readiness with which Louis Napoleon assented to the proposal of a Congress for the discussion of the Italian question[241], was rather ominous than otherwise for the peace of Europe[a]. If a monarch, whose every act for the last six months has unmistakably pointed toward war, all at once turns around, and jumps at a proposal seemingly calculated to preserve the peace; then our first conclusion is that there are things behind the scenes which, if they were known, would take away the semblance of inconsistency from his course of action. This has been the case with regard to the European Congress. What at the first glance seemed to look like an attempt to preserve the peace, now turns out to be a new pretext for gaining time to complete the preparations for war. It is but recently that the Congress was proposed, and while nothing is decided as to the place where and the conditions on which it is to meet, while its meeting, if it should ever occur, is postponed to the end of April at the earliest, the French army is ordered to form a fourth battalion to each regiment, and six French divisions are to be placed on the war footing. These are facts worthy of consideration.

The French infantry, beside Chasseurs, Zouaves, Foreign Legion, native Algerian troops and other special corps, consists of eight regiments of the Guard and a hundred regiments of the line. These hundred regiments of the line are formed, on the peace footing, of three battalions each, two for active service and one for a dépôt; the regiment thus numbers from 1,500 to 1,800 men present under arms. But beside these, it includes the same, or even a larger number of men, on furlough, who, when the regiment is placed on the war footing, are at once required to join their colors. In this case, the three battalions become, together, from 3,600 to 4,000 men strong; and leaving from 500 to 600 for the depot battalion, the two active battalions would count from 1,500 to 1,700 men each, a strength which is quite unwieldy. To make this force of trained men really available, it thus becomes necessary to form at once a new active battalion in every regiment, by which the strength of the battalion, the tactical unity, becomes reduced to about 1,000 men, which is the average figure now adopted in most European armies. The formation of the fourth battalions is therefore necessarily a preliminary step to placing the French army on the war footing, and is alone capable of furnishing the organizations requisite to receive the available number of trained men. This circumstance gives a peculiar significance to the formation of these fourth battalions; they mean readiness for war. The mode in which they are created is very simple: the 5th and 6th companies of the three existing battalions (each having six companies) are combined into a fourth battalion, while from the remaining four companies the necessary officers and men are drafted to form two new companies for each battalion. The new battalion goes into depot while the third battalion is transformed into an active one. Together with guards, chasseurs, and other special corps, the number of battalions in the French army will then be about 480, a number sufficient to absorb about 500,000 men; and if this should not suffice, the fourth battalions may be formed into active ones, and be replaced in the depots by newly-formed fifth battalions. This process was actually in course of execution at the close of the Russian war, when the army counted 545 battalions.

That the step taken by the French Government has indeed no signification, except immediate readiness for war, is proved by another measure which has closely followed it. Six divisions have received orders to place themselves on the war footing—that is to say, to call in their men on furlough. A French division of infantry consists of four regiments or two brigades of the line, and one battalion of foot chasseurs, or thirteen battalions in all—making about 14,000 men. Although the six divisions are not designated, it is not difficult to guess to which of them the order applies. There are, in the first instance, the four divisions now already on the Rhône, among which is the division of Gen. Renault, just returned from Algeria; then the Bourbaki division, now under orders of embarkation in Algeria; and finally a division of the army of Paris, which, it is reported, has received orders to hold itself in readiness to march at a moment's notice. These six divisions include about 85,000 infantry, which, with the requisite artillery, cavalry and train, would form an army of rather more than 100,000 men, and may be considered as the main body of what is to be in the approaching campaign the army of Italy.

Now, considering the universal clamor for peace in France, the violent national and anti-French agitation in Germany, and the attitude of England, Louis Napoleon seems to have hesitated to take such a step as the mobilization of his army, without, at the same time, doing something to make people believe that he had not irrevocably resolved on war, but would be content with any improvement in the situation of Italy which could be obtained by means of a Congress. A glance at the history of the military preparations will confirm this view, and develop new reasons why such a sham was an element in his plans.

No sooner had the reception of New-Year's Day at the Tuileries shown that his intentions were to provoke difficulties with Austria; than what we might call a race of armaments began between France and Sardinia on one side, and Austria on the other. This latter power, however, at once proved that she had the best of it. With astonishing rapidity a whole army corps was in a few days thrown into Italy, and when the reports of French and Sardinian concentrations of troops took a still more menacing character, the men on leave belonging to the army of Italy were in three weeks collected and reincorporated with their regiments, while the men on furlough and the recruits belonging to the Italian Provinces were also called in and sent to the garrisons of their respective corps in the interior. The quietness and rapidity with which all this was done, afford the best possible proof of the perfection of the Austrian military system, and of the thorough efficiency of the Austrian army. The old reputation of the Austrians for slowness, pedantry and unwieldiness had certainly been very effectively reversed by the way the troops were handled by Radetzky in 1848-49, but such smooth working of the mechanism and such readiness at the shortest notice could scarcely have been expected. Here no new formations were required; the active battalions in Italy had but to receive their complement of men, to be raised to their full strength, while the transformation of depot battalions into active battalions, and the organization of fresh depots are going on far away in the interior of the monarchy, and without in any way delaying the completion of the active army.

It is also true that Sardinia did not require any new formations; her organization was sufficient. But with the French it was different. The process of mobilization required a good deal of time. The creation of the fourth battalions had to precede the calling in of the men on furlough. Then Louis Napoleon had to keep in view the probability of a war with the German Confederation, in case of an attack upon Austria. While Austria, therefore, open to attack on her Italian or southern frontier only, and covered by Germany toward the west, could throw a very large portion of her forces into Italy, and enter upon war at once, if required, the French Government had to concentrate all its strength before it could venture on offensive operations; there-fore, the new levy of recruits of 1859 and the 50,000 volunteers, on which France generally counts in case of war, had to be got together first. All this would require a considerable time; and a hurried embarking in a campaign, was, therefore, not at all in the interest of Louis Napoleon. Indeed, if we refer to the celebrated article of the Constitutionnel on the French army, which, it will be remembered, came direct from Louis Napoleon himself[b], we shall find that he there fixed the epoch when the French forces will amount to some 700,000 men, at the end of May. Up to that period, then, Austria would have a relative advantage over France; and as matters were in a fair way of precipitating themselves toward an open rupture, this Congress became a capital means of gaining time.

There is another point to be considered. The fact that Russia has a finger in this pie cannot now be doubted. That she desires to humiliate Austria is certain; that an imbroglio in Western Europe gives her freedom of action on the Danube in order to recover whatever she lost by the Peace of Paris, is evident; that she has views of her own with regard to the Rouman Principalities, and Servia, and the Slavonic populations of Turkey, is proved by her recent policy in those countries[242]. There can be for her no better means of taking revenge on Austria, than to revive, while Austria is at war, the Panslavic agitation among the millions of Austrian Slavonians. To do all this, and more, if opportunity offers, she, too, must concentrate her troops and prepare the ground; and for this she requires time. And, moreover, to assume a passively hostile attitude toward Austria, a pretext is wanted, and an opportunity for picking a slight quarrel can nowhere be found so well as in such a Congress. This Congress, therefore, should it ever take place, instead of being a serious, or at least honest attempt at maintaining peace, will prove nothing but "a delusion, a mockery and a snare"[c]; and it can scarcely be doubted that all the great powers are perfectly convinced by this time that the whole affair will be a mere formality, gone through to blind the public and to cloak ulterior projects which are not yet ripe for the daylight.

Written early in April 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5618, April 23, 1859 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1452, April 26, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Le Moniteur universel, No. 81, March 22, 1859.—Ed.

[b] See this volume, pp. 171-76.—Ed.

[c] Quoted from the speech by the Lord Chief Justice Th. Denman at a trial in September 1844.—Ed.

[241] In March 1859 the Russian Government proposed that an international congress should be held to discuss the Italian question. Britain, France, Prussia and Piedmont supported the idea, but the congress did not take place because of the Austrian demand to debar Piedmont from participation in it and to make it disarm.

[242] Under the Peace of Paris (see Note 143↓) Russia was deprived of the Danube estuary region and part of Southern Bessarabia and was compelled to give up its protectorate over the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.

Later, in order to strengthen its influence in the Balkans, Russia supported the national liberation movement of the Balkan peoples against the Turkish rule. Together with France it supported Moldavia's and Wallachia's desire to form a united Rumanian state. Russia also backed the dynastic coup d'état in Serbia in late November 1858, as a result of which the Karageorgević dynasty whose foreign policy was oriented on Austria and Turkey was replaced by the Obrenović dynasty.

[143] This peace treaty was signed at the Paris Congress on March 18 (30), 1856 by France, Britain, Austria, Sardinia, Prussia and Turkey on the one hand and Russia on the other; it ended the Crimean war of 1853-56.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.274-278), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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