The New World of Great Powers

Among the institutions which took their basic shape in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and are still with us today, are those of resident diplomacy. Rulers had sent long messages to one another and negotiated, but there were always many ways of doing this and of understanding what was going on. The Chinese, for example, used the fiction that their emperor was ruler of the world and that all embassies to him were therefore of the nature of petitions or tributes by subjects. Medieval kings had sent one another heralds, about whom a special ceremonial had grown up and whom special rules protected, or occasional missions of ambassadors. After 1500, it slowly became the practice to use in peacetime the standard device we still employ, of a permanently resident ambassador through whom all ordinary business is at least initially transacted and who has the task of keeping his own rulers informed about the country to which he is accredited.

The Venetian ambassadors were the first notable examples. It is not surprising that a republic so dependent on trade and the maintenance of regular relationships should have provided the first examples of the professional diplomat. More changes followed. Gradually, the hazards of the life of earlier emissaries were forgotten as diplomats were given a special status protected by privileges and immunities. The nature of treaties and other diplomatic forms also became more precise and regularized. Procedure became more standardized. All these changes came about slowly, when they were believed to be useful. For the most part, it is true, the professional diplomat in the modern sense had not yet appeared by 1800, ambassadors were then still usually noblemen who could afford to sustain a representative role, not paid civil servants. None the less, the professionalization of diplomacy was beginning. It is another sign that after 1500 a new world of relationships between sovereign powers was replacing that of feudal ties between persons and the vague supremacies of pope and emperor.

The most striking characteristic of this new system is the expression it gave to the assumption that the world is divided into sovereign states. This idea took time to emerge; sixteenth-century Europe was certainly not seen by contemporaries as a set of independent areas, each governed by a ruler of its own, belonging to it alone. Still less were its components thought to have in any but a few cases any sort of unity which might be called ‘national’. That this was so was not only because of the survival of such museums of past practice as the Holy Roman Empire. It was also because the dominating principle of early modern Europe’s diplomacy was dynasticism.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the political units of Europe were less states than landed estates. They were accumulations of property put together over long or short periods by aggressiveness, marriage and inheritance - by the same processes and forces, that is to say, by which any private family’s estate might be built up. The results were to be seen on maps whose boundaries continually changed as this or that portion of an inheritance passed from one ruler to another. The inhabitants had no more say in the matter than might the peasants living on a farm which changed hands. Dynasticism accounts for the monotonous preoccupation of negotiations and treaty-making with the possible consequences of marriages and the careful establishment and scrutiny of lines of succession.

Besides their dynastic interests, rulers also argued and fought about religion and, increasingly, trade or wealth. Some of them acquired overseas possessions; this, too, became a complicating factor. Occasionally, the old principles of feudal superiority might still be invoked. There were also always map-making forces at work which fell outside the operation of these principles, such as settlement of new land or awakening national sentiment. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, most rulers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw themselves as the custodians of inherited rights and interests which they had to pass on. In this they behaved as was expected; they mirrored the attitudes of other men and other families in their societies. It was not only the Middle Ages which were fascinated by lineage, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the great age of genealogy.

In 1500 the dynastic map of Europe was about to undergo a major transformation. For the next two centuries, two great families were to dispute much of Europe as they were already at that date disputing Italy. These were the house of Habsburg and the ruling house of France, first Valois, then after the accession of Henry IV in 1589, Bourbon. The one would come to be predominantly Austrian and the other’s centre would always be France. But both would export rulers and consorts of rulers to many other countries. The heart of their quarrel when the sixteenth century began was the Burgundian inheritance. Each of them was then far from playing a wider European role. Indeed, there was not a great deal to distinguish them at that date in power - though much in antiquity - from other dynasties, the Welsh Tudors, for example, whose first ruler, Henry VII, had ascended the throne of England in 1485.

Only in England, France and perhaps Spain and Portugal could there be discerned any real national cohesion and sentiment to sustain political unity. England, a relatively unimportant power, was a well-developed example. Insular, secluded from invasion and rid, after 1492, of continental appendages other than the seaport of Calais (finally lost only in 1558), her government was unusually centralized. The Tudors, anxious to assert the unity of the kingdom after the long period of disorder labelled the ‘Wars of the Roses’, consciously associated national interest with that of the dynasty. Shakespeare quite naturally uses the language of patriotism (and, it may be remarked, says little about religious differences). France, too, had already come some way along the road to national cohesion. The house of Valois-Bourbon had greater problems than the Tudors, though, in the continued survival of immunities and privileged enclaves within its territories, over which its monarchs did not exercise full sovereignty as kings of France. Some of their subjects did not even speak French. Nevertheless, France was well on the way to becoming a national state.

So was Spain, though its two crowns were not united until the grandson of the Catholic monarchs, Charles of Habsburg, became co-ruler with his insane mother in 1516 as Charles I. He had still carefully to distinguish the rights of Castile from those of Aragon, but Spanish nationality was made more self-conscious during his reign because, although at first popular, Charles obscured the national identity of Spain in a larger Habsburg empire and, indeed, sacrificed Spanish interest to dynastic aims and triumphs. The great diplomatic event of the first half of the century was his election in 1519 as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He succeeded his grandfather Maximilian, who had sought his election, and careful marriages in the past had by then already made him the ruler of the furthest-flung territorial empire the world had ever seen, to which the imperial title supplied a fitting crown. From his mother he inherited the Spanish kingdoms, and therefore both the Aragonese interest in Sicily, and the Castilian in the newly discovered Americas. From his father, Maximilian’s son, came the Netherlands, which had been part of the duchy of Burgundy, and from his grandfather the Habsburg lands of Austria and the Tyrol, with Franche-Comte, Alsace and a bundle of claims in Italy. This was the greatest dynastic accumulation of the age, and the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary were held by Charles’s brother, Ferdinand, who was to succeed him as Emperor. Habsburg pre-eminence was the central fact of European politics for most of the sixteenth century. Its real and unreal pretensions are well shown in the list of Charles’s titles when he ascended the imperial throne: ‘King of the Romans; Emperor-elect; semper Augustus; King of Spain, Sicily, Jerusalem, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, the Indies and the mainland on the far side of the Atlantic; Archduke of Austria; Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Luxemburg, Limburg, Athens and Patras; Count of Habsburg, Flanders and Tyrol; Count Palatine of Burgundy, Hainault, Pfirt, Roussillon; Landgrave of Alsace; Count of Swabia; Lord of Asia and Africa.’

Whatever this conglomeration represented, it was not nationality. It fell, for practical purposes, into two main blocks: the Spanish inheritance, rich through the possession of the Netherlands and irrigated by a growing flow of bullion from the Americas; and the old Habsburg lands, demanding an active role in Germany to maintain the family’s pre-eminence there. Charles, though, saw from his imperial throne much more than this. Revealingly, he liked to call himself ‘God’s standard-bearer’ and campaigned like a Christian paladin of old against the Turk in Africa and up and down the Mediterranean. In his own eyes he was still the medieval emperor, much more than one ruler among many; he was leader of Christendom and responsible only to God for his charge. He may have felt he had a better claim to be called ‘Defender of the Faith’ than his Tudor rival Henry VIII, another aspirant to the imperial throne. Germany, Spain and Habsburg dynastic interest were all to be sacrificed in some degree to Charles’s vision of his role. Yet what he sought was impossible. To rule such an empire was a dream and beyond the powers of any man, given the strains imposed by the Reformation and the inadequate apparatus of sixteenth-century communication and administration. Charles, moreover, strove to rule personally, travelling ceaselessly in pursuit of this futile aim and thereby, perhaps, he ensured also that no part of his empire (unless it was the Netherlands) felt identified with his house. His aspiration reveals the way in which the medieval world still lived on, but also his anachronism.

The Holy Roman Empire was, of course, distinct from the Habsburg family possessions. It, too, embodied the medieval past, but at its most worm-eaten and unreal. Germany, where most of it lay, was a chaos supposedly united under the emperor and his tenants-in-chief, the imperial Diet. Since the Golden Bull the seven electors were virtually sovereign in their territories. There were also a hundred princes and more than fifty imperial cities, all independent. Another three hundred or so minor statelets and imperial vassals completed the patchwork, which was what was left of the early medieval empire. As the sixteenth century began, an attempt to reform this confusion and give Germany some measure of national unity failed; this suited the lesser princes and the cities. All that emerged were some new administrative institutions. Charles’s election as emperor in 1519 was by no means a foregone conclusion; rightly, people feared that German interests in the huge Habsburg dominions might be over-ridden or neglected. Heavy bribery of the electors was needed before he prevailed over the King of France (the only other serious candidate, for nobody believed that Henry VIII, although a runner, would be able to pay enough). Habsburg dynastic interest was thereafter the only unifying principle at work in the Holy Roman Empire until its abolition in 1806.

Italy, one of the most striking geographical unities in Europe, was also still fragmented into independent states, most of them ruled by princely despots, and some of them dependencies of external powers. The pope was a temporal monarch in the states of the Church. A king of Naples of the house of Aragon ruled that country. Sicily belonged to his Spanish relatives. Venice, Genoa and Lucca were republics. Milan was a large duchy of the Po valley ruled by the Sforza family. Florence was theoretically a republic but from 1509 really a monarchy in the hands of the Medici, a former banking house. In north Italy the dukes of Savoy ruled Piedmont, on the other side of the Alps from their own ancestral lands. The divisions of the peninsula made it an attractive prey and a tangle of family relationships gave French and Spanish rulers excuses to dabble in affairs there. For the first half of the sixteenth century the main theme of European diplomatic history is provided by the rivalry of Habsburg and Bourbon, above all in Italy.

The Habsburg-Valois wars in Italy, which began in 1494 with a French invasion reminiscent of medieval adventuring and raiding (decked out as a crusade), lasted until 1559. There were altogether six so-called ‘Italian’ wars and they were more important than they might at first appear. They constitute a distinct period in the evolution of the European states system. Charles V’s accession and the defeat of Francis in the imperial election brought out the lines of dynastic competition more clearly. To Charles the ruler of the Empire, they were a fatal distraction from the Lutheran problem in Germany, and to Charles the king of Spain the start of a fatal draining of that country’s power. To the French, they brought impoverishment and invasion, and to their kings, in the end, frustration, for Spain was left dominant in Italy. To the inhabitants of that country, the wars brought a variety of disasters. For the first time since the age of the barbarian invasions, Rome was sacked (in 1527, by a mutinous imperial army) and Spanish hegemony finally ended the great days of the city republics.

At one time, the coasts of Italy were raided by French and Turkish ships in concert; the hollowness of the unity of Christendom was revealed by a formal alliance of a French king with the Sultan.

Perhaps these were good years only for the Ottomans. Venice, usually left to face the Turks alone, watched her empire in the eastern Mediterranean begin to crumble away. Spain, enthralled by the mirage of dominating Italy and the illusions bred by a seemingly endless flow of treasure from the Americas, had abandoned her earlier Moroccan conquests. Both Charles V and his son were defeated in African enterprises and while defeat of the Turks at Lepanto in 1571 was only a momentary success, three years later they took back Tunis from the Spanish. The struggle with the Ottomans and the support of the Habsburg cause in Italy had by then overburdened even Spain’s wealth. In his last years, Charles V was crippled by debt.

He abdicated in 1556, just after the first settlement at Augsburg of the religious disputes of Germany, to be succeeded as emperor by his brother, who took the Austrian inheritance, and as ruler of Spain by his son, Philip II, a Spaniard born and bred. Charles had been born in the Netherlands and the ceremony which ended the great Emperor’s reign took place there, in the Hall of the Golden Fleece; he was moved to tears as he left the assembly, leaning on the shoulder of a young nobleman, William of Orange. This division of the Habsburg inheritance marks the watershed of European affairs in the 1550s.

What followed was the blackest period of Europe’s history for centuries. With a brief lull as it opened, European rulers and their people indulged in the seventeenth century in an orgy of hatred, bigotry, massacre, torture and brutality which has no parallel until the twentieth. The dominating facts of this period were the military pre-eminence of Spain, the ideological conflict opened by the Counter-Reformation, the paralysis of Germany and, for a long time, France, by internal religious quarrels, the emergence of new centres of power in England, the Dutch Netherlands and Sweden, and the first adumbrations of the overseas conflicts of the next two centuries. Only with the end of this period did it appear that the power of Spain had dwindled and that France had inherited her continental ascendancy.

The best starting-point is the Dutch Revolt. Like the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 (but for much longer) it mixed up outsiders in a confusion of ideological, political, strategic and economic quarrels. France could not be easy while Spanish armies might invade her from Spain, Italy and Flanders. England’s involvement arose in other ways. Though Protestant, she was only just Protestant, and Philip tried to avoid an outright break with Elizabeth I. He was for a long time unwilling to sacrifice the chance of reasserting the English interests he had won by marriage to Mary Tudor, and at first thought to retain them by marrying a second English queen. Moreover he was long distracted by campaigns against the Ottomans. But national and religious feeling were inflamed in England by Spanish responses to English piracy at the expense of the Spanish empire; Anglo-Spanish relations decayed rapidly in the 1570s and 1580s. Elizabeth overtly and covertly helped the Dutch, whom she did not want to see go under, but did so without enthusiasm; being a monarch, she did not like rebels. In the end, armed with papal approval for the deposition of Elizabeth, the heretic queen, a great Spanish invasion effort was mounted in 1588. ‘God blew and they were scattered,’ said the inscription on an English commemorative medal; bad weather completed the work of Spanish planning and English seamanship and gunnery (though not a ship on either side was actually sunk by gunfire) to bring the Armada to disaster. War with Spain went on long after its shattered remnants had limped back to Spanish harbours but a great danger was over. Also, almost incidentally, an English naval tradition of enormous importance was born.

James I strove sensibly to avoid a renewal of the conflict once peace had been made and succeeded, for all the anti-Spanish prejudices of his subjects. England was not sucked into the continental conflict when the revolt of the Netherlands, re-ignited after a Twelve Years’ Truce, was merged into a much greater struggle, the Thirty Years’ War. As its heart was a Habsburg attempt to rebuild the imperial authority in Germany by linking it with the triumph of the Counter-Reformation. This called in question the Peace of Augsburg and the survival of a religiously pluralistic Germany. It was seen, too, as an attempt to buttress an over-ambitious House of Habsburg. Once again, cross-currents confused the pattern of ideological conflict. As Habsburg and Valois had disputed Italy in the sixteenth century, Habsburg and Bourbon disputed Germany in the next. Dynastic interest brought Catholic France into the field against the Catholic Habsburgs. Under the leadership of a cardinal, the ‘eldest daughter of the Church’, as France was claimed to be, allied with Dutch Calvinists and Danish and Swedish Lutherans to assure the rights of German princes. Meanwhile the unhappy inhabitants of much of central Europe had often to endure the whims and rapacities of quasi-independent warlords. Cardinal Richelieu has a better claim than any other man to be the creator of a foreign policy of stirring up trouble beyond the Rhine, which was to serve France well for over a century. If anyone still doubted it, with him the age of Realpolitik and raison d’etat, of simple, unprincipled assertion of the interest of the sovereign state, had clearly arrived.

The Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 was in several ways a registration of change. Yet it showed traces still of the fading past. This makes it a good vantage-point. It was the end of the era of religious wars in Europe; for the last time European statesmen had as one of their main concerns in a general settlement the religious future of their peoples. It also marked the end of Spanish military supremacy and of the dream of reconstituting the empire of Charles V. It closed, too, an era of Habsburg history. In Germany a new force had appeared in the Electorate of Brandenburg, with which later Habsburgs would contend, but the frustration of Habsburg aims in Germany had been the work of outsiders, Sweden and France. Here was the real sign of the future: a period of French ascendancy was beginning in Europe west of the Elbe. In a still longer perspective it opened a period during which the underlying issues of European diplomacy were to be the balance of power in Europe, both east and west, the fate of the Ottoman empire, and the distribution of global power.

A century and a half after Columbus, though, when Spain, Portugal, England, France and Holland all already had important overseas empires, these were apparently of no interest to the authors of the peace of 1648. England was not even represented at either of the centres of negotiation; she had hardly been concerned in events once the first phase of the war was over. Preoccupied by internal quarrels and troubled by her Scottish neighbours, her foreign policy was directed towards ends more extra-European than European - though it was these ends which soon led her to fight the Dutch (1652-4). Although Cromwell quickly restored peace, telling the Dutch there was room in the world for both of them to trade, English and Dutch diplomacy was already showing more clearly than that of other nations the influence of commercial and colonial interest.

French ascendancy on the continent was founded on solid natural advantages. France was the most populous state of western Europe and on this simple fact rested French military power until the nineteenth century; it would always require the assembling of great international forces to contain it. France, however miserably poor its inhabitants may seem to modern eyes, had great economic resources, and was able to sustain a huge efflorescence of power and prestige under Fouis XIV. His reign began formally in 1643, but actually in 1661 when, at the age of twenty-two, he announced his intention of managing his own affairs. This assumption of supreme power was a great fact in international as well as French history; Fouis was the most consummate exponent of the trade of kingship who has ever lived. Only for convenience may his foreign policy be distinguished from other aspects of his reign. The building of Versailles, for example, was not only the gratification of a personal taste, but an exercise in building a prestige essential to his diplomacy. Similarly, though they may be separated, his foreign and domestic policy were closely entwined with one another and with ideology. Louis wanted to improve the strategical shape of France’s north-western frontier, but also (though he might buy millions of tulip bulbs a year from them for Versailles) he despised the Dutch as merchants, disapproved of them as republicans, and detested them as Protestants. In him lived the spirit of the militant Counter-Reformation. Nor was that all. Louis was a legalistic man - kings had to be - and he felt easier when there existed legal claims good enough to give respectability to what he was doing. This was the complicated background to a foreign policy of expansion. Though in the end it cost his country dearly, it carried France to a pre-eminence from which she was to freewheel through half the eighteenth century, and created a legend to which Frenchmen still look back with nostalgia.

Louis’s wish for an improved frontier meant conflict with Spain, still in possession of the Spanish Netherlands and the Franche-Comte. The defeat of Spain opened the way to war with the Dutch. The Dutch held their own, but the war ended in 1678 with a peace usually reckoned the peak of Louis’s achievement in foreign affairs. He now turned to Germany. Besides territorial conquest, he sought the imperial crown and to obtain it was willing to ally with the Turk. A turning-point came in 1688, when William of Orange, the Stadtholder of Holland, took his wife Mary Stuart to England to replace her father on the English throne. From this time Louis had a new and persistent enemy across the Channel, instead of the complaisant Stuart kings. Dutch William could deploy the resources of the leading Protestant country and, for the first time since the days of Cromwell, England fielded an army on the continent in support of a league of European states (even the pope joined it secretly) against Louis. King William’s War (also called the War of the League of Augsburg) brought together Spain and Austria, as well as the Protestant states of Europe, to contain the overweening ambition of the French king. The peace which ended it was the first in which he had to make concessions.

In 1700 Charles II of Spain died childless. It was an event Europe had long awaited, for he had been a sickly, feeble-minded fellow. Enormous diplomatic preparations had been made for his demise because of the great danger and opportunity which it must present. A huge dynastic inheritance was at stake. A tangle of claims arising from marriage alliances in the past meant that the Habsburg emperor and Louis XIV (who had passed his rights in the matter on to his grandson) would have to dispute the matter. But everyone was interested. The English wanted to know what would happen to the trade of Spanish America, the Dutch the fate of the Spanish Netherlands. The prospect of an undivided inheritance going either to Bourbon or Habsburg alarmed everybody. The ghost of Charles V’s empire walked again. Partition treaties had therefore been made. But Charles II’s will left the whole Spanish inheritance to Louis’s grandson. Louis accepted it, setting aside the agreements into which he had entered. He also offended the English by recognizing the exiled Stuart Pretender as James III of England. A Grand Alliance of Emperor, United Provinces and England was soon formed, and there began the War of the Spanish Succession, twelve years’ fighting which eventually drove Louis to terms. By treaties signed in 1713 and 1714 (the Peace of Utrecht), the crowns of Spain and France were declared forever incapable of being united. The first Bourbon king of Spain took his place on the Spanish throne, though, taking with Spain the Indies but not the Netherlands, which went to the emperor as compensation and to provide a tripwire defence for the Dutch against further French aggression. Austria also profited in Italy. France made concessions overseas to Great Britain (as it was after the union of England with Scotland in 1707). The Stuart Pretender was expelled from France and Louis recognized the Protestant succession in England.

These important facts assured the virtual stabilization of western continental Europe until the French Revolution seventy-five years later. Not everyone liked it (the emperor refused to admit the end of his claim to the throne of Spain) but to a remarkable degree the major definitions of western Europe north of the Alps have remained what they were in 1714. Belgium, of course, did not exist, but the Austrian Netherlands occupied much of what is now that country, and the United Provinces corresponds to the modern Netherlands. France would keep Franche-Comte and, except between 1871 and 1918, the Alsace and Lorraine which Louis XIV had won for her. Spain and Portugal would after 1714 remain separate within their present boundaries; they still had large colonial empires but were never again to be able to deploy their potential strength so as to rise out of the second rank of powers. Great Britain was the new great power in the west; since 1707, England no longer had to bother about the old Scottish threat, although once more attached by a personal connection to the continent because after 1714 her rulers were also Electors of Hanover. South of the Alps, the dust took longer to settle. A still disunited Italy underwent another thirty-odd years of uncertainty, minor representatives of European royal houses shuffling around it from one state to another in attempts to tie up the loose ends and seize the left-overs of the age of dynastic rivalry. After 1748 there was only one important native dynasty left in the peninsula, that of Savoy, which ruled Piedmont on the south side of the Alps and the island of Sardinia. The papal states, it is true, could since the fifteenth century be regarded as an Italian monarchy, though only occasionally a dynastic one, and the decaying republics of Venice, Genoa and Lucca also upheld the tattered standard of Italian independence. Foreign rulers were installed in the other states.


Western political geography was thus set for a long time. Immediately, this owed much to the need felt by all statesmen to avoid for as long as possible another conflict such as that which had just closed. For the first time a treaty of 1713 declared the aim of the signatories to be the security of peace through a balance of power. So practical an aim was an important innovation in political thinking. There were good grounds for such realism; wars were more expensive than ever and even Great Britain and France, the only countries in the eighteenth century capable of sustaining war against other great powers without foreign subsidy, had been strained. But the end of the War of the Spanish Succession also brought effective settlements of real problems. A new age was opening. Outside Italy, much of the political map of the twentieth century was already visible in western Europe. Dynasticism was beginning to be relegated to the second rank as a principle of foreign policy. The age of national politics had begun, at least for some princes who felt they could no longer separate the interests of their house from those of their nation.

East of the Rhine (and still more east of the Elbe) none of this was true. Great changes had already occurred there and many more were to come before 1800. But their origins have to be traced back a long way, as far as the beginning of the sixteenth century. At that time Europe’s eastern frontiers were guarded by Habsburg Austria and a vast Polish-Lithuanian kingdom ruled by the Jagiellons, which had been formed by marriage in the fourteenth century. They shared with the maritime empire of Venice the burden of resistance to Ottoman power, the supreme fact of east European politics at that moment.

The phrase ‘Eastern Question’ had not then been invented; if it had been, it would have meant then the problem of defending Europe against Islam. The Turks went on winning victories and making conquests as late as the eighteenth century, though by then their last great effort was spent. For more than two centuries after the capture of Constantinople, nevertheless, they had set the terms of eastern European diplomacy and strategy. That capture was followed by more than a century of naval warfare and Turkish expansion, from which the main sufferer was Venice. While it long remained rich by comparison with other Italian states, Venice suffered a relative decline, first in military and then in commercial power. The first, which led to the second, was the result of a long losing battle against the Turks, who in 1479 took the Ionian islands and imposed an annual charge

for trade in the Black Sea. Though Venice acquired Cyprus two years later, and turned it into a major base, it was in its turn lost in 1571. By 1600, though still (thanks to her manufacturers) a rich state, Venice was no longer a mercantile power at the level of the United Provinces or even England. First Antwerp and then Amsterdam had eclipsed her. Turkish success was interrupted in the early seventeenth century but then resumed; in 1669 the Venetians had to recognize that they had lost Crete. Meanwhile, Hungary became in 1664 the last Turkish conquest of a European kingdom, though the Ukrainians soon acknowledged Turkish suzerainty and the Poles had to give up Podolia. In 1683 the Turks opened their second siege of Vienna (the first had been a century and a half before) and Europe seemed in its greatest danger for over two centuries. In fact it was not. This was to be the last time Vienna was besieged, for the great days of Ottoman power were over.

In effect, the effort which began with the conquest of Hungary had been the last heave of a long-troubled power. Their army was no longer abreast of the latest military technology: it lacked the field artillery which had become the decisive weapon of the seventeenth-century battlefield. At sea, the Turks clung to the old galley tactics of ramming and boarding and were less and less successful against the Atlantic nations’ technique of using the ship as a floating artillery battery (unfortunately for themselves, the Venetians were conservative too). Turkish power was in any case badly overstretched. It had saved Protestantism in Germany, Hungary and Transylvania, but it was pinned down in Asia (where the conquest of Iraq from Persia in 1639 brought almost the whole Arab-Islamic world under Ottoman rule) as well as in Europe and Africa, and the strain was too much for a structure allowed to relax by inadequate or incompetent rulers. A great vizier had pulled things together in the middle of the century to make the last offensives possible. But there were weaknesses which he could not correct, for they were inherent in the nature of the empire itself.

More a military occupation for purposes of plunder than a political unity, the Ottoman empire was geared to continual expansion and the gathering of new resources in taxes and manpower. Moreover, it was dangerously dependent on subjects whose loyalty it could not win. The Ottomans usually respected the customs and institutions of non-Muslim communities, which were ruled under the millet system, through their own authorities. The Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Jews were the most important and each had their own arrangements, the Greek Christians having to pay a special poll-tax, for example, and being ruled, ultimately, by their own patriarch in Constantinople. At lower levels, such arrangements as seemed best were made with leaders of local communities for the support of the plunder machine. In the end this bred over-mighty subjects as pashas feathered their own nests amid incoherence and inefficiency. It gave the subjects of the sultan no sense of identification with his rule but, rather, alienated them from it.

The year 1683, therefore, although a good symbolic date as the last time that Europe stood upon the defensive against Islam before going over to the attack, was a less dangerous moment than it looked. Afterwards the tide of Turkish power was to ebb almost without interruption until in 1918 it was once more confined to the immediate hinterland of Constantinople and the old Ottoman heartland, Anatolia. The relief of Vienna by the King of Poland, John Sobieski, was followed by the liberation of Hungary after a century and a half of Ottoman rule. The dethronement of an unsuccessful sultan in 1687 and his incarceration in a cage proved no cure for Turkish weakness. In 1699 Hungary formally became part of the Habsburg dominions, after the first peace the Ottomans signed as a defeated power. In the following century Transylvania, the Bukovina, and most of the Black Sea coasts would follow it out of Ottoman control. By 1800, the Russians had asserted a special protection over the Christian subjects of the Ottomans and had already tried promoting rebellion among them. In the eighteenth century, too, Ottoman rule ebbed in Africa and Asia; by the end of it, though forms might be preserved, the Ottoman caliphate was somewhat like that of the Abbasids in their declining days. Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Arabia were all in varying degrees independent or semi-independent.

It was not the traditional guardians of eastern Europe, the once-great Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the Habsburgs, who were the legatees of the Ottoman heritage, nor they who inflicted the most punishing blows as the Ottoman empire crumbled. The Poles were in fact nearing the end of their own history as an independent nation. The personal union of Lithuania and Poland had been turned into a real union of the two countries too late. In 1572, when the last king of the Jagiellon line died without an heir, the throne had become not only theoretically but actually elective. A huge area was up for grabs. His successor was French and for the next century Polish magnates and foreign kings disputed each election, while their country was under grave and continuing pressure from Turks, Russians and Swedes. Poland prospered against these enemies only when they were embarrassed elsewhere. The Swedes descended on her northern territories during the Thirty Years’ War and the last of the Polish coast was given up to them in 1660. Internal divisions had worsened, too; the CounterReformation brought religious persecution to the Polish Protestants and there were risings of Cossacks in the Ukraine and continuing serf revolts.


The election as king of the heroic John Sobieski was the last which was not the outcome of machinations by foreign rulers. He had won important victories and managed to preside over Poland’s curious and highly decentralized constitution. The elected kings had very little legal power to balance that of the landowners. They had no standing army and could rely only on their own personal troops when factions among the gentry or magnates fell back on the practice of armed rebellion (‘confederation’) to obtain their wishes. In the Diet, the central parliamentary body of the kingdom, a rule of unanimity stood in the way of any reform. Yet reform was badly needed, if a geographically ill-defined, religiously divided Poland, ruled by a narrowly selfish rural gentry, was to survive. Poland was a medieval community in a modernizing world.

John Sobieski could do nothing to change this. Poland’s social structure was strongly resistant to reform. The nobility or gentry were effectively the clients of a few great families of extraordinary wealth. One clan, the Radziwills, owned estates half the size of Ireland and held a court which outshone that of Warsaw; the Potocki estates covered 6,500 square miles (roughly half the area of the Dutch Republic). The smaller landowners could not stand up to such grandees. Their estates made up less than a tenth of Poland in 1700. The million or so gentry who were legally the Polish ‘nation’ were for the most part poor, and therefore dominated by great magnates reluctant to surrender their power to arrange a confederation or manipulate a Diet. At the bottom of the pile were the peasants, some of the most miserable in Europe, in 1700 unendingly battling the feudal dues demanded of them, over whom landlords still had rights of life and death. The towns were powerless. Their total population was only half the size of the gentry and they had been devastated by the seventeenth-century wars. Yet Prussia and Russia also rested on backward agrarian and feudal infrastructures and survived. Poland was the only one of the three eastern states to go under completely. The principle of election blocked the emergence of Polish Tudors or Bourbons who could identify their own dynastic instincts of self-aggrandizement with those of the nation. Poland entered the eighteenth century under a foreign king, the Elector of Saxony, who was chosen to succeed John Sobieski in 1697, soon deposed by the Swedes, and then put back again on his throne by the Russians.

Russia was the coming new great power in the east. Tier national identity had been barely discernible in 1500. Two hundred years later her potential was still only beginning to dawn on most western statesmen, though the Poles and Swedes were already alive to it. It now requires an effort to realize how rapid and astonishing was the appearance as a major force of what was to become one of the two most powerful states in the world. At the beginning of the European age, when only the ground-plan of the Russian future had been laid out by Ivan the Great, such an outcome was inconceivable, and so it long remained. The first man formally to bear the title of ‘Tsar’ was his grandson Ivan IV, crowned in 1547; and the conferment of the title at his coronation was meant to say that the Grand Prince of Muscovy had become an emperor ruling many peoples. In spite of a ferocious vigour which earned him his nickname ‘the Terrible’, he played no significant role in European affairs. So little was Russia known, even in the next century, that a French king could write to a Tsar, not knowing that the prince whom he addressed had been dead for ten years. The shape of a future Russia was determined slowly, and almost unnoticed in the West. Even after Ivan the Great, Russia had remained territorially ill-defined and exposed. The Turks had pushed into south-east Europe. Between them and Muscovy lay the Ukraine, the lands of the Cossacks, peoples who fiercely protected their independence. So long as they had no powerful neighbours, they found it easy to do so. To the east of Russia, the Urals provided a theoretical though hardly a realistic frontier. Russia’s rulers have always found it easy to feel isolated in the middle of hostile space. Almost instinctively, they have sought natural frontiers at its edges or a protective glacis of clients.

The first steps had to be the consolidation of the gains of Ivan the Great which constituted the Russian heartland. Then came penetration of the wilderness of the north. When Ivan the Terrible came to the throne, Russia had a small Baltic coast and a vast territory stretching up to the White Sea, thinly inhabited by scattered and primitive peoples, but providing a route to the west; in 1584 the port of Archangel was founded. Ivan could do little on the Baltic front but successfully turned on the Tatars after they burned Moscow yet again in 1571, allegedly slaughtering 150,000 in the process. He drove them from Kazan and Astrakhan and won control of the whole length of the Volga, carrying Muscovite power to the Caspian.

The other great thrust which began in his reign was across the Urals, into Siberia, and was to be less one of conquest than of settlement. Even today, most of the Russian republic is in Asia, and for nearly two centuries a world power was ruled by the Tsars and their successors. The first steps towards this outcome were an ironic anticipation of what was to be a theme of the major Siberian frontier in later times: the first Russian settlers across the Urals seem to have been political refugees from Novgorod. Among those who followed were others fleeing from serfdom (there were no serfs in Siberia) and aggrieved Cossacks. By 1600 there were Russian settlements as much as six hundred miles beyond the Urals, closely supervised by a competent bureaucracy out to assure the state tribute in furs. The rivers were the keys to the region, more important even than those of the American frontier. Within fifty years a man and his goods could travel by river with only three portages from Tobolsk, 300 miles east of the Urals, to the port of Okhotsk, 3000 miles away. There he would be only 400 miles by sea from Sakhalin, the northernmost of the major islands of the chain which makes up Japan - a sea-passage about as long as that from Land’s End to Antwerp. By 1700 there were 200,000 settlers east of the Urals: it had by then been possible to agree the treaty of Nerchinsk with the Chinese, and some Russians, we are told, talked of the conquest of China.

The movement eastward was not much affected by the upheavals and dangers of the ‘Time of Troubles’ which followed Ivan’s death, though in the west there were moments when the outlet to the Baltic was lost and when even Moscow and Novgorod were occupied by Lithuanians or Poles. Russia was still not a serious European power in the early seventeenth century. The then rising strength of Sweden was thrown against her and it was not until the great war of 1654-67 that the Tsars finally regained Smolensk and Little Russia, not to be lost again (and then only briefly) until 1812. Maps and treaties now began to define Russia in the west in a way which had some reality. By 1700 she had acquired her first Black Sea stronghold, Azov, while her south-western frontier ran on the western side of the Dnieper for most of its length, embracing the great historic city of Kiev and the Cossacks who lived on the east bank. They had appealed to the Tsar for protection from the Poles and were granted special, semi-autonomous governmental arrangements which survived until Soviet times. Most Russian gains had been at the expense of Poland, long preoccupied with fighting off Turk and Swede. But Russian armies had joined the Poles against the Ottomans in 1687; this was a historic moment, too: the beginning of the classical Eastern Question which was to trouble European statesmen until 1918, when they found that the problem of deciding what limit, if any, should be placed upon Russian encroachment on the Ottoman empire in Europe had at last disappeared with the empires themselves.

The making of Russia was overwhelmingly a political act. The monarchy was its centre and motor; the country had no racial unity to preordain its existence and precious little geographical definition to impose a shape. If it was united by Orthodoxy, other Slavs were Orthodox, too. The growth of the personal domain and power of the Tsars was the key to the building of the nation. Ivan the Terrible was an administrative reformer. Under him appeared the beginnings of a nobility owing military service in return for their estates, a development of a system employed by the princes of Muscovy to obtain levies to fight the Tatars. It made possible the raising of an army which led the King of Poland to warn the English queen, Elizabeth I, that if they got hold of western technical skills the Russians would be unbeatable; the danger was remote, but this was prescient.

From time to time there were setbacks, though the survival of the state does not seem in retrospect to have been at stake. The last Tsar of the house of Rurik died in 1598. Usurpation and the disputing of the throne between noble families and Polish interventionists went on until 1613, when the first Tsar of a new house, Michael Romanov, emerged. Though a weak ruler who lived in the shadow of his dominating father, he founded a dynasty which was to rule Russia for three hundred years, until the tsarist state itself collapsed. His immediate successors fought off rival nobles and humbled the great ones among them, the boyars, who had attempted to revive a power curbed by Ivan the Terrible. Beyond their ranks the only potential internal rival was the Church. In the seventeenth century it was weakened by schism and in 1667 a great step in Russian history was taken when the patriarch was deprived after a quarrel with the Tsar. There was to be no Investiture Contest in Russia. After this time the Russian Church was structurally and legally subordinated to a lay official. Among believers there would emerge plenty of spontaneous doctrinal and moral opposition to current Orthodoxy, and there began the long-lived and culturally very important movement of underground religious dissent called the raskol, which would eventually feed political opposition. But Russia was never to know the conflict of Church and state which was so creative a force in western Europe, any more than she was to know the stimulus of the Reformation.

The outcome was the final evolution of the enduring Russian governmental form, tsarist autocracy. It was characterized by the personification in the ruler of a semi-sacrosanct authority unlimited by clear legal checks, by an emphasis on the service owed to him by all subjects, by the linking of landholding to this idea, by the idea that all institutions within the state except the Church derived from it and had no independent standing of their own, by the lack of a distinction of powers and the development of a huge bureaucracy, and by the paramountcy of military needs. These qualities, as the scholar who listed them pointed out, were not all present at the start, nor were all of them equally operative and obvious at all times. But they clearly mark tsardom off from monarchy in western Christendom where, far back in the Middle Ages, towns, estates of the realm, guilds and many other bodies had established the privileges and liberties on which later constitutionalism was to be built. In old Muscovy, the highest official had a title which meant ‘slave’ or ‘servant’ at a time when, in neighbouring Poland-Lithuania, his opposite number was designated ‘citizen’. Even Louis XIV, though he might believe in Divine Right and aspire to unrivalled power, always conceived it to be a power explicitly restricted by rights, by religion, by divinely ordained law. Though his subjects knew he was an absolute monarch, they were sure he was not a despot. In England an even more startingly different monarchy was developing, one under the control of Parliament. Divergent from one another though English and French monarchical practice might be, they both accepted practical and theoretical limitations inconceivable to tsardom; they bore the stamp of a western tradition Russia had never known. For the whole of its existence the Russian autocracy was to be in the West a byword for despotism.


Yet it suited Russia. Moreover, the attitudes which underlay it seem in some measure to suit Russia still. Eighteenth-century sociologists used to suggest that big, flat countries favoured despotism. This was over-simple, but there were always latent centrifugal tendencies in a country so big as Russia, embracing so many natural regions and so many different peoples. To this day events have reflected this diversity. Russia had always to be held together by a strong pull towards the centre if the divergences within it were not to be exploited by the enemies on the borders.

The humbling of the boyars left the ruling family isolated in its eminence. The Russian nobility was gradually brought to depend on the state on the grounds that nobility derived from service, which was indeed often rewarded in the seventeenth century with land and later with the grant of serfs. All land came to be held on the condition of service to the autocracy as defined in a Table of Ranks in 1722. This effectively amalgamated all categories of nobility into a single class. The obligations laid on noblemen by it were very large, often extending to a man’s lifetime, though in the eighteenth century they came to be progressively diminished and were finally removed altogether. Nevertheless, service still continued to be the route to an automatic ennoblement, and Russian nobles never acquired quite such independence of their monarch as those of other countries. New privileges were conferred upon them but no closed caste emerged. Instead, nobility grew hugely by new accessions and by natural increase. Some of its members were very poor, because there was neither primogeniture nor entail in Russia and property could be much subdivided in three or four generations. Towards the end of the eighteenth century most nobles owned fewer than a hundred serfs.

Of all imperial Russia’s rulers the one who made the most memorable use of the autocracy and most deeply shaped its character was Peter the Great. He came to the throne as a ten-year-old child and when he died something had been done to Russia which could never be quite eradicated. In one way he resembled twentieth-century strong men who have striven ruthlessly to drag traditional societies into modernity, but he was very much a monarch of his own day, his attention focused on victory in war - Russia was only at peace for one year in his entire reign - and he accepted that the road to that goal ran through westernizing and modernizing. His ambition to win a Russian Baltic coast supplied the driving force behind the reforms which would open the way to it. That he should be sympathetic to such a course may owe something to his childhood, growing up as he did in the ‘German’ quarter of Moscow where foreign merchants and their retinues lived. A celebrated pilgrimage he made to western Europe in 1697-8 showed that his interest in technology was real. Probably in his own mind he did not distinguish the urge to modernize his countrymen from the urge to free them for ever from the fear of their neighbours. Whatever the exact balance of his motives, his reforms have ever since served as something of an ideological touchstone; generation after generation of Russians were to look back with awe and ponder what he had done and its meaning for Russia. As one of them wrote in the nineteenth century, ‘Peter the Great found only a blank page ... he wrote on it the words Europe and Occident.’

His territorial achievement is easiest to assess. Though he sent expeditions off to Kamchatka and the oases of Bokhara and ceased to pay to the Tatars a tribute levied on his predecessors, his driving ambition was to reach the sea to the west. He built a Black Sea fleet and annexed Azov (although he had to abandon it later because of distractions elsewhere, from the Poles and, above all, the Swedes). The wars with Sweden for the Baltic outlet were a struggle to the death. The Great Northern War, as contemporaries termed the last of them, began in 1700 and lasted until 1721. The world recognized that something decisive had happened when in 1709 the Swedish king’s army, the best in the world, was destroyed far away from home at Poltava, in the middle of the Ukraine where its leader had sought to find allies among the Cossacks. The rest of Peter’s reign drove home the point and at the peace Russia was established firmly on the Baltic coast, in Livonia, Estonia and the Karelian isthmus. Sweden’s days as a great power were over; she had been the first victim of a new one.

A few years before this, the French Almanach Royale for the first time listed the Romanovs as one of the reigning families of Europe. Victory had opened the way to further contact with the West, and Peter had already anticipated the peace by beginning in 1703 to build, on territory captured from the Swedes, St Petersburg, the beautiful new city which was to be for two centuries the capital of Russia. The political and cultural centre of gravity thus passed from the isolation of Muscovy to the edge of Russia nearest the developed societies of the West. Now the westernizing of Russia could go ahead more easily. It was a deliberate break with the past.

Even Muscovy, of course, had never been completely isolated from Europe. A pope had helped to arrange Ivan the Great’s marriage, hoping he would turn to the western Church. There was always intercourse with the neighbours, the Roman Catholic Poles, and English merchants had made their way to Moscow under Elizabeth I, where to this day they are commemorated in the Kremlin by the presence of magnificent collections of the work of English silversmiths. Trade continued, and there also came to Russia the occasional foreign expert from the West. In the seventeenth century the first permanent embassies from European monarchs were established. But there was always a tentative and suspicious response among Russians; as in later times, efforts were made to segregate foreign residents.

Peter threw this tradition aside. He wanted experts - shipwrights, gun-founders, teachers, clerks, soldiers - and he gave them privileges accordingly. In administration he broke with the old assumption of inherited family office and tried to institute a bureaucracy selected on grounds of merit. He set up schools to teach technical skills and founded an Academy of Sciences, thus introducing the idea of science to Russia, where all learning had hitherto been clerical. Like many other great reformers he also put much energy into what might be thought superficialities. Courtiers were ordered to wear European clothes; the old long beards were cut back and women were told to appear in public in German fashions. Such psychological shocks were indispensable in so backward a country. Peter was virtually without allies in what he was trying to do and in the end such things as he achieved had to be driven through. They rested on his autocratic power and little else. The old Duma of the boyars was abolished and a new senate of appointed men took its place. Peter began to dissolve the tie between land ownership and state power, between sovereignty and property, and launched Russia on a march towards a new identity as a multi-ethnic empire. Those who resisted were ruthlessly broken, but it was less easy for Peter to dispose of a conservative cast of mind; he had at his disposal only an administrative machine and communications that would seem inconceivably inadequate to any modern government.

The most striking sign of successful modernization was Russia’s new military power. Another was the virtual reduction of the Church to a department of state. More complicated tests are harder to come by. The vast majority of Russians were untouched by Peter’s educational reforms, which only obviously affected technicians and a few among the upper class. The result was a fairly westernized higher nobility, focused at St Petersburg; by 1800 its members were largely French-speaking and sometimes in touch with the currents of thought which arose in western Europe. But they were often resented by the provincial gentry and formed a cultural island in a backward nation. The mass of the nobility for a long time did not benefit from the new schools and academies. Further down the social scale, the Russian masses remained illiterate; those who learnt to read did so for the most part at the rudimentary level offered by the teaching of the village priest, often only one generation removed from illiteracy himself. A literate Russia had to wait for the twentieth century.

Her social structure, too, tended more and more to mark off Russia. She was to be the last country in Europe to abolish serfdom; among Christian countries only Ethiopia, Brazil and the United States kept bonded labour for longer. While the eighteenth century saw the institution weakening almost everywhere, in Russia it spread. This was largely because labour was always scarcer than land; significantly, the value of a Russian estate was usually assessed in the number of ‘souls’ - that is, serfs - tied to it, not its extent. The number of serfs had begun to go up in the seventeenth century, when the Tsars found it prudent to gratify nobles by giving them land, some of which already had free peasants settled on it. Debt tied them to their landlords and many of them entered into bondage to the estate to work it off. Meanwhile, the law imposed more and more restrictions on the serf and rooted the structure of the state more and more in the economy. Legal powers to recapture and restrain serfs were steadily increased and landlords had been given a special interest in using such powers when Peter had made them responsible for the collection of the poll-tax and for military conscription. Thus, economy and administration were bound together in Russia more completely than in any western country. Russia’s aristocrats tended to become hereditary civil servants, carrying out tasks for the Tsar.

Formally, by the end of the eighteenth century, there was little that a lord could not do to his serfs short of inflicting death on them. If they were not obliged to carry out heavy labour services, money dues were levied upon them almost arbitrarily. There was a high rate of desertion, serfs making for Siberia or even volunteering for the galleys. About a half of the Russian people were in bondage to their lords in 1800, a large number of the rest owing almost the same services to the Crown and always in danger of being granted away to nobles by it.

As new lands were annexed, their populations, too, passed into serfdom even if they had not known it before. The result was a huge inertia and a great rigidifying of society. By the end of the century, Russia’s greatest problem for the next hundred years was already there: what to do with so huge a population when both economic and political demands made serfdom increasingly intolerable, but when its scale presented colossal problems of reform. It was like the man riding an elephant; it is all right so long as he keeps going but there are problems when he wants to get off.

Servile labour had become the backbone of the economy. Except in the famous Black Earth zone, only beginning to be opened up in the eighteenth century, Russian soil is by no means rich, and even on the best land farming methods were poor. It seems unlikely that production ever kept pace with population until the twentieth century though periodic famine and epidemics were the natural restoratives of balance. Population nearly doubled in the eighteenth century, about seven million of the thirty-six million or so at which it stood at the end having been acquired with new territories, the rest having accumulated by natural increase. This was a faster rate of growth than any other European country. Of this population, only about one in twenty-five at most lived in towns.

Yet the Russian economy made striking progress during the century and was unique in utilizing serfdom to industrialize. Here, it may be thought, was one of Peter’s unequivocal successes; though there had been beginnings under the first two Romanovs, it was he who launched Russian industrialization as a guided movement. True, the effect was not quickly apparent. Russia’s starting level was very low, and no eighteenth-century European economy was capable of rapid growth. Though grain production went up and the export of Russian cereals (later a staple of Russian foreign trade) began in the eighteenth century, it was done by the old method of bringing more land under cultivation and perhaps by the more successful appropriation of the surplus by the landlord and tax-collector. The peasant’s consumption declined. This was to be the story throughout most of the imperial era and sometimes the load was crushing: it has been estimated that taxes took 60 per cent of the peasant’s crop under Peter the Great. The techniques were not there to increase productivity and the growing rigidity of the system held it down more and more firmly. Even in the second half of the nineteenth century the typical Russian peasant wasted what little time was left to him after work for his lord by trudging around the collection of scattered strips which made up his holding. Often he had no plough, and crops had to be raised from the shallow scratching of the soil which was all that was possible.

None the less, this agricultural base somehow supported both the military effort which made Russia a great power, and the first phase of her industrialization. By 1800 Russia produced more pig-iron and exported more iron ore than any other country in the world. Peter, more than any other man, was responsible for this. He grasped the importance of Russia’s mineral resources and built the administrative apparatus to grapple with them. He initiated surveys and imported the miners to exploit them. By way of incentive, the death penalty was prescribed for landlords who concealed mineral deposits on their estates or tried to prevent their use. Communications were developed to allow access to these resources and slowly the centre of Russian industry shifted towards the Urals. The rivers were crucial. Only a few years after Peter’s death the Baltic was linked by water to the Caspian.

Manufacturing grew up around the core of extractive mineral and lumber industry which ensured Russia a favourable balance of trade for the whole century. Less than a hundred factories in Peter’s reign became more than 3000 by 1800. After 1754, when internal customs barriers were abolished, Russia was the largest free-trade area in the world. In this, as in the granting of serf labour or of monopolies, the state continued to shape the Russian economy; Russian industry did not emerge from free enterprise, but from regulation, and this had to be, for industrialization ran against the grain of Russian social fact. There might be no internal customs barriers, but nor was there much long-distance internal trade. Most Russians lived in 1800 as they had done in 1700, within self-sufficient local communities, depending on their artisans for a small supply of manufactures and hardly emerging into a money economy. Such ‘factories’ as there were seem sometimes to have been little more than agglomerations of artisans. Over huge areas labour service, not rent, was the basis of tenure. Foreign trade was still mainly in the hands of foreign merchants. Moreover, though state grants to exploit their resources and allocations of serfs encouraged mine-owners, the need of such encouragement shows that the stimuli for maintained growth, which were effective elsewhere, were lacking in Russia.

After Peter, in any case, there was a notable flagging of state innovation. The impetus could not be maintained; there were not enough educated men to allow the bureaucracy to keep up the pressure once his driving power had gone. Peter had not named a successor (he had his own son tortured to death). Those who followed him faced a renewed threat of hostility from the great noble families without his force of character and the terror he had inspired. The direct line was broken in 1730 when Peter’s grandson died. Yet factional quarrels could be exploited by monarchs, and his replacement by his niece, Anna, was something of a recovery for the Crown. Though put on the throne by the nobles who had dominated her predecessor, she quickly curbed them. Symbolically, the court returned to St Petersburg from Moscow, to which (to the delight of the conservatives) it had gone after Peter’s death. Anna turned to foreign-born ministers for help and this worked well enough until her death in 1740. Her successor and infant grand-nephew was within a year set aside (to be kept in prison until murdered more than twenty years later) in favour of Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who relied on the support of the Guards regiments and Russians irritated by foreigners. She was succeeded in 1762 by a nephew who reigned barely six months before he was forced to abdicate. The mistress of the overmighty subject who subsequently murdered the deposed Tsar was the new Tsarina and widow of the deposed victim, a German princess who became Catherine II and known, like Peter, as ‘The Great’.

The glitter with which Catherine subsequently surrounded herself masked a great deal and took in many of her contemporaries. Among the things it almost hid was the bloody and dubious route by which she came to the throne. It may be true, though, that she rather than her husband might have been the victim if she had not struck first. In any case, the circumstances of her accession and of those of her predecessors showed the weakening the autocracy had undergone since Peter. The first part of her reign was a ticklish business; powerful interests existed to exploit her mistakes and for all her identification with her new country (she had renounced her Lutheran religion to become Orthodox) she was a foreigner. ‘I shall perish or reign,’ she once said, and reign she did, to great effect.

Though Catherine’s reign was more spectacular than that of Peter the Great, its innovatory force was less. She, too, founded schools and patronized the arts and sciences. The difference was that Peter was concerned with practical effect; Catherine rather to associate the prestige of enlightened thinkers with her court and legislation. The forms were often forward-looking while the reality was reactionary. Close observers were not taken in by legislative rhetoric; the reality was shown by the exile of the young Radischev, who had dared to criticize the regime and has been seen as Russian’s first dissentient intellectual. Such reforming impulses as Catherine showed perceptibly weakened as the reign went on and foreign considerations distracted her.

Her essential caution was well shown by her refusal to tamper with the powers and privileges of the nobility. She was the Tsarina of the landlords, giving them greater power over the local administration of justice and taking away from their serfs the right to petition against their masters. Only twenty times in Catherine’s thirty-four-year reign did the government act to restrain landlords abusing their powers over their serfs. Most significant of all, the obligation to service was abolished in 1762 and a charter of rights was later given to the nobility which sealed a half-century of retreat from Peter’s policies towards them. The gentry were exempted from personal taxation, corporal punishment and billeting, could be tried (and be deprived of their rank) only by their peers, and were given the exclusive right to set up factories and mines. The landowner was in a sense taken into partnership by the autocracy.

In the long run this was pernicious. Under Catherine, Russia began to truss herself more and more tightly in the corset of her social structure at a time when other countries were beginning to loosen theirs. This would increasingly make Russia unfit to meet the challenges and changes of the next half-century. One sign of trouble was the scale of serf revolt. This had begun in the seventeenth century, but the most frightening and dangerous crisis came in 1773, the rebellion of Pugachev, the worst of the great regional uprisings which studded Russian agrarian history before the nineteenth century. Later, better policing would mean that revolt was usually local and containable, but it continued through almost the whole of the imperial era. Its recurrence is hardly surprising. The load of labour services piled on the peasant rose sharply in the Black Earth zone during Catherine’s reign. Soon critics would appear among the literate class and the condition of the peasant would be one of their favourite themes, thus providing an early demonstration of a paradox evident in many developing countries in the next two centuries. It was becoming clear that modernization was more than a matter of technology; if you borrowed western ideas, they could not be confined in their effect. The first critics of Orthodoxy and autocracy were beginning to appear. Eventually the need to preserve an ossifying social system would virtually bring to a halt the changes which Russia needed to retain the place that courageous and unscrupulous leadership and seemingly inexhaustible military manpower had given her.

By 1796, when Catherine died, this place was indeed impressive. The most solid ground of her prestige was her armies and diplomacy. She had given Russia seven million new subjects. She said she had been well treated by Russia, to which she had come ‘a poor girl with three or four dresses’, but that she had paid her debts to it with Azov, the Crimea and the Ukraine. This was in the line of her predecessors. Even when the monarchy was weak, the momentum of Peter’s reign carried the foreign policy of Russia forward along two traditional lines of thrust, into Poland and towards Turkey. It helped that Russia’s likely opponents laboured under growing difficulties for most of the eighteenth century. Once Sweden was out of the running, only Prussia or the Habsburg empire could provide a counterweight, and since these two were often at loggerheads Russia could usually have her own way over both an ailing Poland and a crumbling Ottoman empire.

In 1701 the Elector of Brandenburg, with the consent of the emperor, became a king; his kingdom, Prussia, was to last until 1918. The Hohenzollern dynasty had provided a continuous line of electors since 1415, steadily adding to their ancestral domains, and Prussia, then a duchy, had been united to Brandenburg in the sixteenth century, after a Polish king had ousted the Teutonic Knights who ruled it. Religious toleration had been Hohenzollern policy after an elector was converted to Calvinism in 1613, while his subjects remained Lutheran. One problem facing the Hohenzollerns was the spread and variety of their lands, which stretched from East Prussia to the west bank of the Rhine. The Swedes provided infilling for this scatter of territories in the second half of the seventeenth century, though there were setbacks even for the ‘Great Elector’, Frederick William, the creator of the Prussian standing army and winner of the victories against the Swedes, which were the basis of the most enduring military tradition in modern European history. Arms and diplomacy continued to carry forward his successor to the kingly crown he coveted and to participation in the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV. Prussia was by that fact alone clearly a power. This imposed a heavy cost but careful housekeeping had again built up the best army and one of the best-filled treasuries in Europe by 1740, when Frederick II came to the throne.

Fie was to be known as ‘the Great’ because of the use he made of them, largely at the expense of the Habsburgs and the kingdom of Poland, though also at the expense of his own people, whom he subjected to heavy taxation and exposed to foreign invasion. It is difficult to decide whether he was more or less attractive than his brutal father (whom he hated). Fie was certainly malicious, vindictive and completely without scruple. But he was also highly intelligent and cultivated, playing and composing for the flute, and enjoying the conversation of clever men. Fie was like his father in his utter devotion to the interests of his dynasty, which he saw as the extension of its territories and the magnification of its prestige.

Frederick gave up some possessions too remote to be truly incorporated in the state, but added to Prussia more valuable territories. The opportunity for the conquest of Silesia came when the emperor died in 1740, leaving a daughter whose succession he had sought to assure but whose prospects were uncertain. This was Maria Theresa. She remained Frederick’s most unforgiving opponent until her death in 1780 and her intense personal dislike for him was fully reciprocated. A general European war ‘of the Austrian Succession’ left Prussia holding Silesia. It was not to be lost in later wars and in the last year of his reign Frederick formed a League of German Princes to thwart the attempts of Maria Theresa’s son and successor, Joseph II, to negotiate the acquisition of Bavaria as a recompense for the Habsburg inheritance.

This episode matters more to European history as a whole than might be expected of a contest for a province, however rich, and for the leadership of the princes of Germany. At first sight a reminder of how alive still in the eighteenth century were the dynastic preoccupations of the past, it is also, and more importantly, the opening of a theme with a century of life to it, and consequences great for Europe. Frederick launched a struggle between Habsburg and Hohenzollern for the mastery of Germany, which was only to be settled in 1866. That is further ahead than may be usefully considered at present; but this context gives perspective to the Hohenzollern appeal to German patriotic sentiment against the emperor, many of whose essential interests were non-German. There would be periods of good relations, but in the long struggle which began in 1740 Austria’s great handicap would always be that she was both more and less than a purely German state.

The disadvantages of the spread of her interests were made very obvious during the reign of Maria Theresa. The Austrian Netherlands were an administrative nuisance rather than a strategic advantage, but it was in the east that the worst distractions from German problems arose, and they became increasingly pressing as the second half of the century brought more and more clearly into view the likelihood of a long and continuing confrontation with Russia over the fate of the Ottoman empire. For thirty years or so Russo-Turkish relations had been allowed to slumber with only occasional minor eruptions over the building of a fort or the raids of the Crimean Tatars, one of the peoples originating in a fragment of the Golden Horde and under Turkish suzerainty. Then, between 1768 and 1774, Catherine fought her most successful war. A peace treaty with the Ottomans, signed in an obscure Bulgarian village called Kutchuk Kainarji, was one of the most important of the whole century. The Turks gave up their suzerainty over the Crimean Tatars (an important loss both materially, because of their military manpower, and morally, because this was the first Islamic people over which the Ottoman empire ceded control), and Russia took the territory between the Bug and Dnieper, together with an indemnity, and the right of free navigation on the Black Sea and through the straits. In some ways the most pregnant with future opportunity of the terms was a right to take up with the Turks the interests of ‘the church to be built in Constantinople and those who serve it’. This meant that the Russian government was recognized as the guarantor and protector of new rights granted to the Greek - that is, Christian - subjects of the Sultan. It was to prove a blank cheque for Russian interference in Turkish affairs.

This was a beginning, not an end. In 1783 Catherine annexed the Crimea. Another war with the Turks carried her frontier up to the line of the Dniester. The next obvious boundary ahead was the Pruth, which meets the Danube a hundred miles or so from the Black Sea. The possibility of Russia’s installation at the mouth of the Danube was to remain an Austrian nightmare, but the danger which appeared in the east before this was that Russia would swallow Poland. With the eclipse of Sweden, Russia had effectively had her own way at Warsaw. She left her interests to be secured through a complaint Polish king. The factions of the magnates and their quarrels blocked the road to reform and without reform Polish independence would be a fiction because effective resistance to Russia was impossible. When there seemed to be for a moment a slight chance of reforms these were checkmated by skilful Russian exploitation of religious divisions to produce confederations which speedily reduced Poland to civil war.

The last phase of Poland’s independent history had opened when the Turks declared war on Russia in 1768, with the excuse that they wished to defend Polish liberties. Four years later, in 1772, came the first ‘Partition’ of Poland, in which Russia, Prussia and Austria shared between them about one-third of Poland’s territory and one-half of her inhabitants. The old international system, which had somewhat artificially preserved Poland, had now disappeared. After two more partitions Russia had done best on the map, absorbing something like 180,000 square miles of territory (though in the next century it would be clear that a population of dissident Poles was by no means an unambiguous gain) and Prussia also did well, emerging from the division of booty with more Slav than German subjects. The transformation of eastern Europe since 1500 was complete and the stage was set for the nineteenth century, when there would be no booty left to divert Austria and Russia from the Ottoman succession problem. Meanwhile, independent Poland disappeared for a century and a quarter.

Catherine rightly claimed to have done much for Russia, but she had only deployed a strength already apparent. Even in the 1730s, one Russian army had been as far west as the Neckar; in 1760 another marched into Berlin. In the 1770s there was a Russian fleet in the Mediterranean. A few years later a Russian army was campaigning in Switzerland and, after twenty years, another was to enter Paris. The paradox at the heart of such evidences of strength was that this military power was based on a backward social and economic structure. Perhaps this was inherent in what Peter had done. The Russian state rested on a society with which it was fundamentally incompatible, and later Russian critics would make much of this theme. Of course, this did not mean that the clock could be put back. The Ottoman empire was for ever gone as a serious competitor for power while Prussia’s emergence announced a new age as much as did Russia’s. The future international weight of the United Provinces and Sweden had been unimaginable in 1500, but their importance, too, had come and gone by 1800; they were then still important nations, but of the second rank. France was still to be a front-rank power in an age of national states as she had been in the days of sixteenth-century dynastic rivalry; indeed, her power was relatively greater and the peak of her dominance in western Europe was still to come. But she faced a new challenger, too, and one which had already defeated her. From the little English kingdom of 1500, cooped up in an island off the coast of Europe under an upstart dynasty, had emerged the world power of Great Britain.

This was a transformation almost as surprising and sudden as Russia’s. It transcended the old categories of European diplomacy quite as dramatically. From what some historians have called ‘the Atlantic Archipelago’ of islands and kingdoms, ruled intermittently in varying measure and extent by Tudor and Stuart monarchs, had emerged a new oceanic power. Besides its new unity, it enjoyed unique institutional and economic advantages in deploying its influence worldwide. In three hundred years, the major zones of European conflict and dispute had migrated from the old battlegrounds of Italy, the Rhine and the Netherlands, moving from them to central and eastern Germany, the Danube valley, Poland and Carpathia, and the Baltic, but also - greatest change of all - across the oceans. A new age had indeed begun, signalled not only by the remaking of eastern Europe, but in the wars of Louis XIV, the first world wars of the modern era, imperial and oceanic in their scope.

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