Seven Years’ Wars – Political Overview


Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz (1711-1794)

The idea of an Austrian alliance with France had been first outlined by Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz (1711-1794) in March 1749. Kaunitz had been the Austrian representative at Aachen the previous year, and his experience of being undermined by secret Anglo-French talks convinced him that Britain was unreliable and that Austria must seek new options. There was apprehension in both Vienna and Paris, but the news of the Anglo-Prussian rapprochement in 1755, soon led to an Austro-French agreement on 1 May 1756. The first Treaty of Versailles was a defensive alliance, but the almost immediate agreement of Russia to join an anti-Prussian coalition added an offensive element, as the Russians promptly launched an open military build-up.

This `diplomatic revolution’ marked the final end of the `old system’ of an anti- French coalition that had both dominated European politics and stabilized the Reich since the beginning of the century. It also placed Prussia in a position of great potential weakness. Frederick was threatened now both by a revived Austria and also by Russia, and he was no longer able to count on instability in the Reich generated by France. When Frederick failed to secure guarantees from Austria that Silesia would not be attacked, he himself opened hostilities by invading Saxony. Yet Frederick almost immediately found himself in very real difficulty, for the conflict tested Prussia’s resources to the limit and it very nearly destroyed him.

The Prussian invasion of Saxony at the end of August immediately turned the defensive Austro-French alliance into an offensive league in the second Treaty of Versailles on 1 May 1757. This was now formally joined by Russia with an army of 80,000 men, as well as by several German princes, including Saxony (and Poland, which was united with it) and, finally, Sweden. Some, such as the Palatinate and Bavaria, were clearly motivated by money rather than anything else; others were genuinely afraid of Brandenburg-Prussia and the threat of annexation. For many, Prussia’s blatant breach of the law of the Reich was crucial. The end result was that, while in 1740 the Reichstag had refused to become involved, it now decided within a month on a formal Reichskrieg against Prussia. Austria’s aim, as Kaunitz put it, was to `reduce the house of Brandenburg to its original status of a second-rate minor power’. Recovering Silesia was now part of a wider ambition to solve for good the problem that had led to its loss in the first place.

In the event, neither objective was achieved. Prussia survived the war, but it did so for reasons that cannot be entirely ascribed to Frederick the Great’s military prowess or to the strength of the Prussian state. Austria failed to press home her initial advantage in the Reich by not succeeding in outlawing the King of Prussia: the emperor’s insistence that the Hanoverian Elector and British king must also be included aroused the opposition of the Corpus Evangelicorum. Neither Austria nor Russia was willing to see the other succeed and thus gain the advantage in any distribution of territory. France was soon distracted by major losses in Canada and progressively withdrew her support for any action in the Reich.

Britain too lost interest in the war after her victories against France in India in 1757, in North America in 1759-60, and at Minden in 1 August 1759, when British-Hanoverian forces under Ferdinand of Brunswick routed de Broglie’s forces. The transition from George II to George III in October 1760 also marked a change in policy, sidelining Hanover and the Reich and focusing increasingly on the American colonies. The loss of the annual British subsidy of £670,000 paid from 1758 to 1761 and the withdrawal of the British-financed western `army of observation’ placed Prussia under huge pressure to conclude the war. Russian involvement ended after the death of the Czarina on 5 January 1762, and while the short reign of Peter III brought some temporary assistance to Frederick, the succession of Catherine II on 28 June 1762 did not bring about the renewal of the Austro-Russian alliance.


Peter III – One of the ‘Miracles of the House of Brandenburg’

Meanwhile, the protracted military confrontation in Europe had brought no clear resolution. Prussian-German nationalist historiography turned Frederick’s campaigns into early wars of German unification. Yet there were relatively few stunning victories. The real triumph was that his army survived the long years of conflict at all. After his initial successful invasion of Saxony, he scored a significant success against the Austrians at Prague on 6 May 1757, though this was balanced by Austria’s success at Kolin on 18 June. By the autumn, it seemed that Frederick might be defeated, though he turned the tide emphatically by defeating the French army (reinforced by the small Reichsarmee) at Rossbach (5 November) and the Austrians at Leuthen (5 December). Rossbach caused the French to reappraise their policy in the Reich and marked the start of French withdrawal from the war. Maria Theresa, however, remained implacable.

These victories were enough to keep Frederick in the war but not enough for him to win it. The following year saw his forces under serious assault from Russia in the east and from Austrian forces in Saxony. Only the British achieved a notable success in the west, pushing the French forces under Marshal de Broglie back across the Rhine. In 1759, the fighting did not resume until the summer, but now a more coordinated Russo-Austrian offensive inflected serious damage on Prussian forces, culminating in the rout of his main army at Kunersdorf near the Oder in the Brandenburg Neumark on 12 August. Frederick feared for Berlin and on the evening of the battle believed that all was lost. He even thought of abdicating in favour of his younger brother, and the best military commander, Prince Henry of Prussia. The first `miracle’ of the house of Brandenburg was that the Russians failed to advance on Berlin: they held back, partly because Austria failed to provide military reinforcement, for neither Austria nor France wished to see Russian influence in Germany grow.

Frederick was thus able to divert his remaining forces to the south-west to deal with the Austrian and Reich troops that had pushed into Saxony. He failed to repel the Austrians entirely, and he failed to take Dresden, though in July 1760 his cannon destroyed much of the centre of the city. Subsequent victories over Austrian forces at Liegnitz (15 August) and Torgau (3 November) re-established Frederick’s position, however, and effectively ensured that Prussia would retain Silesia.

During 1760, diplomacy gradually became more important than military action. Active fighting still continued, particularly between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Both Prussia and Austria, in particular, still sought to end the conflict in a winning position. A succession of Austrian and Russian successes in 1761 again placed Frederick under severe pressure, allowing Austrian troops back into Saxony and parts of Silesia and leaving Russian forces in occupation of Prussian Pomerania. This time, Frederick was saved by another `miracle’: the death of the Russian Czarina Elizabeth on 5 January 1762. The new ruler, Peter III, immediately made peace with Prussia in May 1762, in which Sweden soon followed. Although Peter was supplanted by his wife, Catherine the Great, only a few months later, and Catherine did not ratify the treaty with Prussia, she remained neutral for the rest of the war. At the same time, the Anglo-Prussian alliance crumbled as Britain pursued talks with France that culminated in the Preliminary Peace of Fontainebleau in 3 November and the Treaty of Paris on 10 February 1763. France agreed to major losses in North America and India, with no compensation in Europe, while Britain settled for the restoration of the status quo in the Reich. The withdrawal of French troops from Prussia’s Lower Rhine territories of Kleve, Guelders, and Moers, relieved pressure from the west.

The effective withdrawal of Britain, France, and Russia left Austria and Prussia. Frederick was able to achieve further military victories against the Austrian and Reich armies in the autumn of 1762. But, in truth, both Austria and Prussia were exhausted, and they agreed a truce at the end of November 1762. Talks initiated by the Saxon crown prince, Friedrich Christian, led relatively quickly to the conclusion of the Peace of Hubertusburg on 15 February 1763. Prussia retained Silesia and Glatz and the frontiers agreed at the Peace of Dresden while promising in secret clauses to support the election of Maria Theresa’s son Joseph as King of the Romans and to support the succession of a Habsburg in the Duchy of Modena. Saxony was reinstated in its entirety and won troop transit rights through Silesia.


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