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Austria and the Spanish Succession: 1700-1714

Successes against the Turks on Austria's eastern frontier enable the emperor Leopold I to turn his attention, in the early years of the 18th century, to the great crisis confronting the Habsburg dynasty in the west. For nearly 200 years there have been Habsburgs on the throne in both Vienna and Madrid. Now, in 1700, the Spanish king dies without an heir.

Both Leopold and the French king, Louis XIV, have grounds to claim the entire Spanish inheritance for their dynasty. Everyone else in Europe is determined that neither house shall enjoy the whole of Spain's wealth.

The War of the Spanish Succession outlasts Leopold I (who dies in 1705) and his eldest son Joseph I (who dies in 1711). The terms of the eventual treaty in 1714 between France and Austria are agreed by Leopold's second surviving son, Charles VI.

Although Spain and Spanish America are lost to the Habsburgs under this treaty, Austria acquires some valuable territories - the Spanish Netherlands (henceforth to be known as the Austrian Netherlands) and the Spanish possessions in Italy. These include Milan, which remains Austrian with certain interruptions until 1859, and Naples, which reverts to Spain in 1738.

Charles VI and the Pragmatic Sanction: 1720

The great issue dominating Austria in the years after the War of the Spanish Succession is again a problem of succession - this time relating to the remaining Habsburg territories, ruled from Vienna. The emperor Charles VI has a son, born in 1716, but the child dies before the year is out. A daughter, Maria Theresa, is born in 1717. Another daughter, Maria Anna, follows in 1718. The emperor has nieces (daughters of Joseph I) but no nephews.

Several European powers have an interest in further dismantling the Habsburg empire, and a woman on the throne of Austria may seem an excuse to do so. Charles VI's foreign policy becomes devoted to the task of ensuring that his elder daughter is accepted as his heir. And this means achieving acceptance by the European powers of his Pragmatic Sanction of 1713.

The Pragmatic Sanction (the term for an edict by a sovereign on a matter of state) declared that the Habsburg inheritance is indivisible, and that the line of succession will be any as yet unborn son of his, followed by his eldest surviving daughter and then the daughters of his brother Joseph I.

Over the years Austrian diplomacy succeeds in persuading the European powers to accept the Sanction. Every state of any significance does so (France, Spain, Great Britain, Holland, Russia, Prussia), but all to little avail when Charles VI dies and is succeeded by Maria Theresa. It is Austria's misfortune that a dynamic and ambitious young king has just inherited the throne of neighbouring Prussia. Given a chance, Frederick II is not the man to be held back by a Pragmatic Sanction.

Frederick the Great and Silesia: 1740-1745

Charles VI dies unexpectedly on 20 October 1740. Less than two months later, on December 16, Frederick II astonishes Europe by marching a Prussian army into the rich Habsburg province of Silesia. The king of France, Louis XV, hearing the news, describes the young Prussian as a madman. Frederick himself says that the opportunity presented by Charles VI's death has the effect of giving 'free rein to his fever'.

The new Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa (twenty-three to Frederick's twenty-eight) is also a woman of strong resolve, but Habsburg armies prove no match for Frederick's Prussians.

Frederick's first victory over the Austrians (at Mollwitz in April 1741) persuades the French and Bavarians to join in against Maria Theresa. Their intervention is of great help to the Prussian adventurer, since it fragments Austria's response. But Frederick shows no interest in becoming involved in a wider European war. He continues to occupy Silesia and to fight battles only in defence of it. Three victories in 1745 display his military skill to such advantage that his contemporaries accord him the title by which he is known to history, Frederick the Great.

Meanwhile his young antagonist, Maria Theresa, has been demonstrating her greatness in a different context.

French and Bavarians:1741-1742

From the summer of 1741 Maria Theresa has French and Bavarian forces to cope with, as well as the Prussians. The elector of Bavaria, the Wittelsbach ruler Charles Albert, is married to a younger sister of Maria Theresa. He now claims her father's title as Holy Roman emperor (a dignity agreed to be for men only) together with a share of the Habsburg inheritance. It suits the French to support him, eager as they always are to diminish Habsburg power.

From June 1741 French and Bavarian armies push through upper Austria and into Bohemia. In November they enter Prague. Maria Theresa, who has to flee from Vienna, is advised on all sides to come to terms. Instead she withdraws, in fighting mood, to the Hungarian border.

In Bratislava the young queen gives a passionate address to a Hungarian parliament, beseeching the nobles and gentry for their help. They are sufficiently moved to promise her 100,000 men.

In the event only 20,000 ill-trained Hungarians are moblized, but Maria Theresa's spirit and strategic sense saves her throne. She leaves Frederick for the moment in undisturbed possession of a large part of Silesia. In the resulting lull, the Austrian armies can give full attention to the French and Bavarians. They drive them back so successfully that by the end of January 1742 the Austrians are in the Bavarian capital, Munich (though Prague is not recovered till December).

Continuing warfare in Germany during 1743 leaves the Austrians in possession of Bavaria, but also points up an anomaly. French forces have been supporting the Bavarian claimant against Austria, and British armies have joined the fray on the side of the Austrians. Indeed there is a direct clash between French and British in June 1743 at Dettingen (a victory for George II on the last occasion when a British king leads an army in battle).

Yet officially France and Britain are not at war with each other. They are merely marching in support of their allies. This changes in 1744.

France's declaration of war on Britain in 1744 shifts the focus of hostilities away from central Europe. Britain, eager that Austrian armies shall concentrate on France, persuades Maria Theresa to come to terms with her real enemy, Frederick the Great. By the treaty of Dresden in 1745 she cedes the greater part of Silesia to Prussia.

For the next few years Maria Theresa remains in the war as a half-hearted ally of Britain against France. Frederick has sufficient time on his hands to build the rococo summer palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam, in 1745-7. Both monarchs await the eventual settlement, which comes in 1748 at Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle.

Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle: 1748

The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle makes certain adjustments between Austria and Spain in the patchwork of Italy. Otherwise, with one exception, it restores to their previous owners the territories occupied during the eight years of the War of the Austrian Succession. Bavaria, occupied by the Austrians, has already been returned to the elector. Now the Austrian Netherlands, taken by the French, revert to Austria.

The exception is Silesia. Its sudden seizure by Frederick the Great launched the war in 1740. Now the international community recognizes his sovereignty over the region, the possession of which adds about 50% to the population of Prussia.

This is a loss which Maria Theresa of Austria has to accept, but it will rankle. Nevertheless her own possession of the Habsburg inheritance, another cause of the war, is now secure and recognized. Moreover fate has already brought back to Vienna a lost Habsburg dignity.

Maria Theresa's brother-in-law, the elector of Bavaria, succeeds in being elected Holy Roman emperor and is crowned in 1742 as Charles VII. But he dies just three years later. This time the electors choose Maria Theresa's husband, who in 1745 becomes the emperor Francis I. The imperial dignity, after a very brief spell with the Wittelsbachs, is safely back in Vienna.

Preliminaries to war: 1748-1756

In the aftermath of the War of the Austrian Succession two intense rivalries threaten the precariously established peace. One is between the developing empires of France and Britain. This leads to outbreaks of warfare in India in 1748, in America in 1755 and in the Mediterranean in 1756 - when the French seize the British naval base of Minorca (an event leading to the execution of Admiral Byng).

The other deep hostility results from the unfinished business between Austria and Prussia. The enmity of Maria Theresa of Austria against Frederick the Great of Prussia centres on the province of Silesia, seized by Frederick in 1740.

The loss of Silesia remains a very sore point with Maria Theresa, and much of her policy is now directed towards its recovery. Reforms in Austria's government and army are one part of her plan. Another is the achieving of a diplomatic realignment before the next conflict.

France and Austria (the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties) have been Europe's chief rivals for nearly two centuries. Maria Theresa and her chancellor, von Kaunitz, now plan to change this alignment - in a previously unimaginable reversal which becomes known as the Diplomatic Revolution. They achieve the impossible. A defensive alliance between Austria and France is signed at Versailles in May 1756.

In addition to her new alliance with France, Maria Theresa has a more active pact with Russia. The empress Elizabeth offers, in April of this year, to send 80,000 Russian troops to support an attack on Prussia.

An Austrian move to recover Silesia is clearly in preparation, when it is suddenly thwarted by the most decisive ruler in Europe.

Frederick on the warpath: 1756-1763

Frederick II of Prussia precipitates war in Europe in 1756 just as he had in 1740, in the War of the Austrian Succession. On that occasion he seized the rich territory of Silesia, and the treaty of 1748 allowed him to keep it. This time, knowing Austria's burning desire to win it back, he launches a pre-emptive strike.

On 29 August 1756 Frederick marches with 70,000 Prussian soldiers into Saxony (lying between Prussia and Austria). This sudden act of aggression takes the Saxons entirely unaware and launches the war.

The dispute between Prussia and Austria turns out to be only a minor element in the very broad canvas of the Seven Years' War. The world-wide conflict between France and Britain becomes the dominant feature of the war.

After some years of initial success, Prussia declines into an extremely weak position - battered by Austria's powerful allies France and russia. But in 1762 Russia changes sides, transforming Prussia's position. The terms of the peace treaties ending the war are therefore disappointing from Austria's point of view.

The peace treaty agreed at Hubertusburg between Prussia and Austria maintains the recent status quo in central Europe. Frederick the Great, twice the aggressor, is again allowed to keep Silesia.

This conclusion strengthens the influence of Prussia within the German empire and reduces that of the official imperial power, Habsburg Austria. It also leaves Poland flanked by two increasingly powerful neighbours, Prussia and Russia, who since 1762 have been in alliance. The development does not bode well for Poland's future. Austria too attends the feast, when it begins in 1772.

Three partitions of Poland: 1772-1796

Over a period of a quarter of a century Poland is dismembered and consumed by her neighbours. The process begins during the confusion of a war between Russia and Turkey. In 1769 Austria takes the opportunity of occupying part of Poland, to the south of Cracow.

Frederick the Great follows suit in 1770, sending troops to seal off the coastal region between the two main parts of his realm (Brandenburg and the kingdom of Prussia). This valuable area, known as Polish royal Prussia, has long been part of the Polish kingdom. Frederick claims that he is acting only in precaution against an outbreak of cattle plague. But acquiring royal Prussia would neatly unify his territory.

The first official annexation of Polish land is cynically agreed in 1772 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Russia, at war with Turkey, has an interest in keeping Prussia and Austria in benign mood. She accepts the proposal that each of them should annexe part of Poland. Russia's influence in the kingdom means that she can force acceptance of the arrangement on the Poles.

By the treaties of 1772 Austria acquires the region round Lvov. Frederick secures royal Prussia (with the exception at this stage of the port of Gdansk). And Russia takes a slice of northeast Poland.

The next two partitions occur when Russia finds new excuses to intervene in Poland's internal affairs. Russian armies enter the kingdom during a disturbance in 1792, and are on hand again to tackle a national insurrection in 1794.

On both occasions Polish armies offer strong resistance to superior Russian forces. But force prevails. After a two-month siege, and a massacre of Poles in the suburbs, Warsaw falls in September 1794 to a combined Russian and Prussian army.

The second partition, agreed in 1793, benefits only Prussia and Russia. Prussia now receives Gdansk and a swathe of land stretching south almost to Cracow. Russia takes a vast slice of eastern Poland, amounting to some 97,000 square miles.

This is greater than the territory which Poland now retains, in a strip from the Baltic coast down to Cracow and Brody. A few years later, in treaties of 1795 and 1796, this final Polish remnant is divided between the three predators. Prussia is extended east to include Warsaw. The Austrian frontier moves north to the same area. Once again the lion's share, in the east, goes to Russia.

Joseph II: 1780-1790

Maria Theresa dies, in 1780, between the first and second partitions of Poland. She is succeeded by her son, Joseph II (he has been Holy Roman emperor since 1765, on the death of his father Francis I).

Joseph's foreign policy is dominated by Austria's new rivalry with Prussia for authority among the numerous German states of the empire. His main ambition is to absorb Bavaria, where the Wittelsbach line dies out in 1777. He is frustrated in this intention by Prussian opposition in the brief War of the Bavarian Succession (in 1778). Instead Bavaria becomes linked with the Palatinate, reuniting the two ancient Wittelsbach territories.

The failure of Joseph's foreign policy is counterbalanced by an immensely energetic programme of reform within the Austrian empire. He applies, as vigorously as his enemy Frederick II, the principles of enlightened despotism.

Joseph forces upon his subjects measures of administrative reform which pay scant regard to local sensibilities. He centralizes functions which have traditionally been regional, and - for efficiency's sake - insists upon German as the official language even in proudly distinct regions such as Hungary.

In Joseph's programme of social reform the law and its penalties are thoroughly overhauled. Torture is outlawed and the death penalty abolished. In 1781-2 serfs are emancipated and peasants guaranteed freedom of movement and the right to marry without their lord's permission. Marriage itself is made a civil contract. In keeping with the anti-clerical spirit of the time, monasteries are dissolved and their wealth is used for programmes of public benefit.

While some are pleased by these reforms, others - frequently more powerful - are profoundly displeased. Many of Joseph's measures are ineffective, or are repealed before his death in 1790.

The unpopularity of Joseph's measures is forcefully expressed in the Austrian Netherlands, where the emperor's representatives and troops are expelled from Brussels in 1789. The Belgians are inspired in their uprising by the dramatic events of this year in Paris.

Joseph II dies in 1790. He is followed briefly as emperor by his brother, Leopold II. It is Leopold who decides, in 1792, that the events in France demand active intervention.

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