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.
The continental side of the conflict concluded in 1748 with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle. First and foremost, the treaty recognized the right of Maria Theresa to the Austrian throne. Secondly, it codified many of the territorial gains that existed by the end of the war; Prussia was given Silesia, and Austria was forced to further cede several Italian principalities to Spain. The French lost the most, being forced to retreat from the Austrian Netherlands and return colonial possessions taken from the British in India and North America.
While the main actions happened in central and eastern Europe, the inclusion of Great Britain, Spain, and France meant the war naturally spilled over into North America. The North American dimension of the conflict actually predated Prussia's invasion of Silesia; Spain and Great Britain had been fighting the War of Jenkins' Ear since 1739. The war got its name after a British captain appeared before Parliament with an amputated ear which he claimed was cut off by Spanish colonial sailors when they attacked his ship. This conflict was largely a naval battle off the coasts of Central America and various Caribbean Islands, and little actual territory changed hands as a result.
England and France also fought in North America during the War of the Austrian Succession, though it was by far the least formal affair of the war. In what is today eastern Canada, border disputes between local French and British officials and settlers often led to bloody raids and attacks on settlements and villages. A detachment of colonists from the British colonies in New England did manage to conquer the French-controlled Cape Breton Island during the conflict, though this was returned to France as part of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle.
The War of the Austrian Succession created the pretexts for more future conflict than it solved. Some historians rightly point to the War of the Austrian Succession as the precursor to the even bloodier and more global Seven Years' War, which began less than a decade later. While it did secure Maria Theresa on the Austrian throne, the Prussian occupation of Silesia would provide the impetus for Austria's military buildup and Prussia's preemptive invasion in 1756.
Likewise, it only stopped North American hostilities between France and Great Britain for a time, since war broke out again in the colonies in 1754. The war did, however, further destabilize an already ailing France. By 1748, France had lost most of the land in Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries that it had gained in the past 150 years, and the French monarchy only had a skyrocketing national debt to show for it. Eventually, all of these issues left unresolved by the War of Austrian Succession would rear their heads again in the 18th century, be it a few short years later in the Seven Years' War or as late as the French Revolution at the end of the century.
Successful completion of this lesson could enable you to:
- Recall the Austrian monarchy disagreement that began the war
- Identify the areas of Europe and the Americas where battles broke out
- Recognize the principal players in the war