The War of Austrian Succession: Summary and Effects on the World

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  • 0:08 War of Austrian Succession
  • 0:41 Background
  • 1:52 War in Europe
  • 4:04 Colonial Wars
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the War of the Austrian Succession and the ramifications it had on Western Europe and the pretexts for the later conflict it created.

War of the Austrian Succession

Sometimes people can be selfish; sometimes they'll keep a treat all to themselves or even take the last piece of pizza when no one's looking. Countries, too, can be selfish and act in their own self-interests even when supposedly having allies. The War of the Austrian Succession, which took place from 1740 to 1748, is a perfect example of this. Although the original conflict was over who would take the Austrian throne, the fight that ensued involved most of the European powers of the mid-18th century who all fought for their own, personal interests.


The whole reason the Austrian throne was contested in the first place was the interests of Austria's neighbors. The previous Hapsburg King of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, had sought to secure the line of succession for his daughter, Maria Theresa, in case he had no surviving male heirs. Many of the major European states agreed to recognize Maria Theresa as Queen of Austria and sovereign of all Hapsburg territories, but reneged on their deal as soon as Maria Theresa succeeded to the throne in 1740. France, Spain, and several German states denied the ability of accession through the female line, and instead claimed Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, to have the strongest claims to the Austrian throne.

There was very little chance of anyone ever actually recognizing Charles Albert's claims. These claims were made largely to make trouble for Austria, since her enemies had sensed a weakness in the Austrian monarchy. In turn, Prussia and France made a secret alliance that aimed to exploit the situation and invade and claim Austrian possessions in central Europe for themselves. Fortunately for Austria, after France formally declared war on Austria in 1744, it gained de facto allies in Great Britain and Holland, who were already at war with France.

War in Europe

The war began in December of 1740, when Frederick II of Prussia (known to history as Frederick the Great) invaded the neighboring Hapsburg-controlled province of Silesia. Maria Theresa was ill-prepared to fight a war because her father had left the Austrian throne in debt and without a strong, well-equipped military. As a result, Frederick was able to quickly overrun the country. By 1742, Maria Theresa was forced to formally recognize Prussian possession of Silesia in June at Breslau.

While Maria Theresa spent time recouping for a renewed fight for Silesia, fighting between Great Britain, Holland, Spain, France, and their allied German states continued on the continent. In June of 1743, for example, an outnumbered British force led by King George II himself scored a huge victory over the French at Dettingen in Bavaria.

By 1744, Maria Theresa was ready to renew the fight for Silesia, and Austria's invasion of Silesia caused France to formally declare war on Austria. The Austrian and Prussian forces maneuvered around each other. Fighting between the two sides would be fierce, often with Frederick II himself leading his own forces into battle. By the end of 1744, Frederick had stopped Austrian incursions into Silesia. In 1745, he smashed the Austrian forces at Hennersdorf, forcing the Austrians to retreat to Bohemia, securing Prussian possession of Silesia for the remainder of the war.

The English, Dutch, and Austrians continued to fight France, Spain, and Bavaria for three more years, with both sides trading victories in southern Germany and northern Italy. Frederick II largely kept Prussia out of this later fighting, since his sole goal of annexing Silesia was achieved in 1745.

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