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Middle Ages
16th - 17th century
18th century
     Nations at war
     Prussia and Austria, 1740-48
     Prussia and Austria, 1756-63
     Eastern turmoil
     French upheavals

20th century
To be completed

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Nations at war: 1700-1721

By the last decades of the 17th century the dominant European power is France, brought to a pinnacle of prestige by that most absolute of monarchs, Louis XIV. The main concern of France's neighbours and rivals is to keep this mighty force in check.

But to the north and east of the continent powerful forces are stirring too. Russia is flexing her muscles, against the Swedish empire to the west (for control of the Baltic) and against the Ottoman empire to the southeast (for access to the Black Sea).


Events in the very first year of the new century lead to major conflicts on both fronts. Between February and August in 1700 the armies of Denmark, Saxony and Russia successively invade different parts of Sweden's empire, launching a war which last for twenty-one years - usually referred to as the Northern War.

And in November the king of Spain, Charles II, dies.


Charles II of Spain has no children. In recent years there has been much effort by Europe's diplomats to influence his choice of an heir. The general fear is that the wealth of Spain (particularly that which derives from its Spanish colonies) will upset the balance of European power if added in its entirety to the existing hand of any one of the major players.

When it is discovered that the king of Spain has left everything to a grandson of the king of France, the War of the Spanish Succession becomes inevitable.


When the dust has settled on the first two European wars of the century, the chief territorial gain has been Russia's. Peter the Great now has access to the Baltic, having taken from Sweden the site on which his magnificent new capital of St Petersburg is already under construction. Further down the coast he has also acquired territories corresponding to modern Estonia and Latvia.

In the Mediterranean there have been changes of ownership in the patchwork quilt of Italy, and Britain has been ceded by Spain two useful strategic bases - Gibraltar and Minorca.


But the War of the Spanish Succession has also had one major effect in central Europe - not yet perhaps as evident as the territorial changes. In 1701 the Austrian emperor, Leopold I, needing the allegiance of Prussia in the forthcoming war, has allowed the elector of Brandenburg to call himself king in Prussia, as Frederick I. In the treaties of 1713, at the end of war, the other European nations ackowledge this new royal status.

In this same year Frederick is succeeded by his son, Frederick William I. He will turn Prussia's administration and army into the most efficient in Europe, bequeathing to his own son, Frederick II, a military machine which will have much influence in the coming years.


Prussia, Austria and others: 1740-1748

The next bout of war between the continental powers follows the accession in 1740 of two young monarchs on central European thrones. In May the 28-year-old Frederick II succeeds to the throne of Prussia; in October the 23-year-old Maria Theresa inherits the crowns of Austria and Hungary. The first woman in the Habsburg imperial line inevitably provokes an international crisis, and Frederick seizes his opportunity.

In December Frederick marches into the Austrian province of Silesia, starting the War of the Austrian Succession. Eight years later the conflict is finally settled with few changes to the map of Europe - except that the youthful aggressor is allowed to retain Silesia in the peace agreed at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.


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.


Prussia, Austria and others: 1756-1763

Frederick II of Prussia precipitates war on the continent of Europe in 1756 just as he has in 1740 (in the War of the Austrian Succession). On that occasion his motive was to seize the rich territory of Silesia, and the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle has allowed him to keep it. This time, knowing Austria's burning desire to win it back, he is interested more in a pre-emptive strike.

On 29 August 1756 Frederick marches with 70,000 Prussian soldiers into Saxony (lying between Prussia and Austria). This act of aggression surprises the Saxons and launches the new war. It will last for seven years, merging with an existing imperial conflict between France and Britain, before peace is finally restored.


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.


Eastern turmoil: 1768-1795

In the last few decades of the 18th century the main unrest in Europe is in the eastern part of the continent. Previously European friction has centred on Germany: within the German empire itself (particularly in the Thirty Years' War); on the western borders of Germany, in France's attempts to expand towards the Rhine; and to the north of Germany, in struggles for the Baltic.

This pattern remains true even in the Seven Years' War, with the majority of the battles fought on German soil. It is in the aftermath of that war that the focus shifts east, when the region from the Baltic down to the Black Sea is flanked by four major powers.


Two of the four, Austria and Turkey, are ancient powers now slightly past their prime. The other two, Prussia and Russia, have grown greatly in strength during the 18th century. The quartet is made up of two profoundly hostile couples - Prussia and Austria (competing to lead the German world), and Russia and Turkey (rivals for control of the Black Sea). In the middle, almost as if placed there as a victim, is a large but weak nation, Poland.

Prussia and Austria have fought two wars between 1740 and 1763. Russia and Turkey fight two between 1768 and 1791. Poland is devoured in three stages, between 1772 and 1795, in a process sufficiently enticing to tempt even the hostile powers into brief cooperation.


French upheavals: 1789-1815

Western Europe is unusually peaceful during the quarter century leading up to the French Revolution. But for the next twenty-six years, from 1789, the continent is convulsed by ideas and armies emanating from France.

During the first three years of the French Revolution, while the ambitious middle classes compete to overthrow the ancien régime, the turmoil is confined within the borders of France. But in 1792 the country is invaded by guardians of the old order, a joint army of Austrians and Prussians.


The resulting French Revolutionary Wars merge imperceptibly into the Napoleonic Wars. Apart from one year of peace (the peace of Amiens, 1802-3), there are battles across the continent and on the high seas for a continuous twenty-three years.

During the early part of this time French republican ideals are forcibly carried abroad, resulting in offspring such as the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands (from 1795) and the Helvetic Republic in Switzerland (from 1798).


Subsequently a similar pattern is followed, though with a different political complexion, as Napoleon creates kingdoms for his brothers - placing Louis on the throne of Holland in 1806, and making Joseph king of Spain in 1808.

Meanwhile he has himself joined Europe's elite club of emperors, previously limited to the Habsburg and Romanov dynasties. Napoleon places a new imperial crown on his own brow in a spectacular ceremony in Notre Dame in 1804.


Diplomatic U-turns are legion during this entire period of turmoil in Europe, as nations veer between positions of hostility, neutrality or alliance in their relations with France. The only consistent enemies through thick and thin are France and Britain.

Not until the battle of Leipzig in 1813 (as also at its replay at Waterloo in 1815) are all Napoleon's powerful neighbours united in their opposition. In 1814 they foregather in Vienna to decide how to reassemble the continent in which he has caused such mayhem.


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