18th Century Powers: Prussia and Austria

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  • 0:02 A Prussian Kingdom
  • 1:29 Meanwhile in Austria
  • 2:24 The War of Austrian Succession
  • 3:57 The Seven Years' War
  • 5:49 Two Nations Reformed
  • 6:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine Prussia and Austria in the 18th century. We will study their development, learn about the conflicts between them and see how their monarchs tried to reform their governments and societies.

A Prussian Kingdom

Prussia was a strange little country. For most of its life, it was all split up. Ducal Prussia in the East was held by the Elector of Brandenburg, while royal Prussia in the West was part of Poland. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Hohenzollern family held firm control over both Brandenburg and Ducal Prussia, but it was always seeking to expand and collect more territory. In 1701, Elector Frederick III received the title 'King in Prussia' as a reward for helping the Holy Roman Emperor and Austrian ruler Leopold I, and the Kingdom of Prussia officially began.

Over the next several decades, Prussia grew in power, politically and militarily. The next king, Frederick William I, who reigned from 1713 to 1740, built up a massive army. He started out with about 38,000 soldiers in 1713, but by the time of his death, Prussia was a military powerhouse with over 80,000 well-trained soldiers.

The king's successor, Frederick II, at first seemed unlikely to make good use of all that military might. The new king styled himself as an 'enlightened' monarch. He studied the ideas of the Enlightenment, wrote essays on political philosophy, played and composed music and patronized the arts. Frederick II, however, was no wimp. He had an aggressive side, as we shall soon see.

Meanwhile in Austria

Meanwhile, in Austria, Leopold I of the Habsburg family held sway until 1705. He was followed quickly by two sons, Joseph I, who died in 1711, and Charles VI. Charles VI soon faced a problem. His only son died in infancy, and he was left with two daughters. His late brother, Joseph I, also only had two daughters. With no male heirs, Charles was left wondering who would reign in Austria.

To solve his dilemma, he passed a law establishing the Austrian succession. If he ever had any more sons, they would take the throne first, then his daughters and finally Joseph's daughters. The other European rulers quickly agreed, figuring that this arrangement might work to their advantage. They wondered if a woman would ever be strong enough to rule Austria. They would soon find out.

The War of Austrian Succession

Charles VI died on October 20, 1740, and his 23-year-old daughter, Maria Theresa, assumed the Austrian throne. Frederick of Prussia decided that this chance gave him the perfect opportunity to show his aggressive side. He had been eying the Austrian territory of Silesia to the South, and on December 16, he marched in and took it. He soon discovered that Maria Theresa wasn't about to accept such action laying down. She gathered an army and set out to fight. The War of the Austrian Succession was on.

Frederick won the first battle, and before long, he convinced France and Bavaria to join him. Great Britain sided with Austria. Maria Theresa found herself in a tough spot when France and Bavaria pushed deep into Austrian territory in the summer of 1741, but she wasn't about to give up. Instead, she recruited a large group of ferocious Hungarian soldiers and drove her enemies all the way back into Bavaria. She could not, however, force Frederick out of Silesia, so in 1745, she decided to let him keep it, hoping to neutralize him.

The war didn't end for three more years, because Britain and France were busy slugging it out. Finally, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, signed in 1748, settled the conflict. Austria gave up Bavaria but retained nearly all of its traditional territory, except Silesia, which Frederick was allowed to keep. Maria Theresa was not happy. She wanted Silesia back.

The Seven Years' War

Frederick knew that Maria Theresa was intent on regaining Silesia, but he wasn't about to let her have it. He watched closely as the queen made an alliance with her former enemy, France, and cut a deal with Russia for 80,000 troops. Frederick decided that he had better not wait any longer, and he made a preemptive strike against Maria Theresa on August 29, 1756, by marching 70,000 soldiers into Saxony, a small state between Austria and Prussia. Thus, the Seven Years' War began.

Frederick allied with Britain this time, but the island nation was willing to provide funding only. It had its own fight with France to pursue. Frederick quickly found himself in a tight spot. He was surrounded by enemies, and the Russians were breathing down his neck. Then, suddenly, the Russians backed off. Their general remembered that the future Russian emperor, Peter, was a fan of Frederick, and he didn't want to tick off the man who would pretty soon be his boss. This Russian hesitation opened the door for several Prussian victories in 1757 through 1759.

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