Prussian Foreign Policy 1740–1786

Mirabeau once observed: ‘La guerre est l'industrie nationale de la Prusse.’1 Prussia's close connection with militarism was deliberately fostered by her rulers to compensate for her vulnerability in Europe. She was badly fitted by nature to be a major European power, in contrast to other states like England, Sweden, Spain, France and Russia, all of which possessed certain advantages. Prussia had no major resources until she acquired Silesia in 1740 and Rhineland–Westphalia in 1815, and her soil was of average to poor quality. It would have come as little surprise, therefore, if this artificial state had suffered the same fate as Poland and had been torn apart. That this did not happen was because, in Mirabeau's phrase, Prussia was not a state which possessed an army but an army which possessed a state.

After 1740 Prussia became a predator, under the control of Frederick the Great, probably the most devious statesman of the eighteenth century. More than any other ruler he was regarded by Europe as an upstart, and he earned for himself the reputation of being treacherous in his diplomacy. The main reason for this was that his foreign policy was fundamentally unpredictable. His measures were entirely pragmatic, and he seized opportunities as they arose. At the same time, he always sought to justify his actions by carefully prepared utterances designed to convince other rulers of his good faith and the justice of his cause. In his First Political Testament (1752) he wrote: The great art is to conceal one's designs, and for that one must veil one's character and reveal only a firmness measured and tempered by justice.’2 The ruler, he wrote, in his Second Political Testament(1768), should always display ‘suppleness and resource’. Furthermore: ‘What fails at the first attempt matures with time, and the way to hide secret ambitions is to profess pacific sentiments till the favourable moment arrives.’3 This sounds thoroughly Machiavellian, but Frederick was swift to deny that he had derived any inspiration from that source; in his other major work, Anti–machiavel, he referred to Machiavelli's The Prince as a dangerous book for ambitious men. The general impression, therefore, is that, perhaps because he was so much the opportunist in his policies, Frederick felt it necessary to project an image of morality. His Political Testaments, intended for the use of his successor, were secret, and could, therefore, be frank; whereas his Anti–machiavel was clearly written for public consumption. In historical terms, Frederick the Great came half way between Charles V and Bismarck. He lacked the ideological emphasis of the former but was not prepared to adopt too openly the Realpolitik measures of the latter. As a result he employed a curious mixture of opportunism and moral self–justification in all aspects of his foreign policy.

The reign seems to divide into three main phases of diplomacy and warfare. The first period, between 1740 and 1745, saw Frederick's acquisition of Silesia from Austria, followed by the War of the Austrian Succession, in which he conducted some thoroughly devious diplomacy. Then, by 1755, he was beginning to fear isolation in Europe, and a series of disastrous diplomatic blunders on his part resulted in the emergence of a powerful coalition against Prussia by 1757. Between 1756 and 1763 Prussia was forced to fight for survival, and Frederick made up for some of his previous diplomatic mistakes by displaying highly effective military leadership. Finally, after 1763, he attempted to keep Prussia out of any major wars but, at the same time, continued in an aggressive type of diplomacy. This had mixed results; although Prussia acquired substantial territory from Poland, Frederick again found himself in isolation by the 1780s.

When Frederick the Great came to the throne in 1740, the rest of Europe expected a continuation of the pacific and unadventurous polices of Frederick William I (1713–40) and was, thereforce, totally unprepared for what happened. Within weeks of his accession Frederick had involved himself in intensive diplomatic activity, the main aim of which was to secure the province of Silesia for Prussia. Silesia belonged to Austria and, under normal circumstances, Frederick might have thought twice before undertaking such a major task. But 1740 was an ideal year for a Prussian king with nerve. Charles VI (Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor) had just died without leaving a male heir. He had spent the last years of his life trying to persuade the European powers to sign the Pragmatic Sanction, which would guarantee his daughter Maria Theresa as ruler of the Habsburg dominions. He had also hoped that the Imperial Electors would choose Maria Theresa's husband, Francis, as Holy Roman Emperor, so that the two positions could be reunited under any male issue in the future. On becoming Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Bohemia and Queen of Hungary, Maria Theresa found herself challenged by the Elector of Bavaria, who advanced his candidature for the Habsburg dominions. Frederick seized the opportunity which this difficult situation offered. He stated that he would give Prussia's guarantee that Austria's territory would not be violated; in exchange he wanted part of Silesia. In order to press his point he sent Prussian troops across the border. Since they encountered little resistance, they were soon in occupation of Silesia. Frederick immediately provided justification for his action, referring to the ‘chaotic’ situation in Austria and the Empire: ‘I have been compelled to send my troops into the Duchy [Silesia] in order to prevent others seizing it.. I have no other purpose than the preservation and the real benefit of Austria’.4


Figure 8. The growth of Brandenburg–Prussia 1640–1786

What were his real motives? He later provided a clue in his First Political Testament, in which he asserted: ‘By our geographical position we are neighbours of the greatest Princes of Europe; all these neighbours alike are jealous of us and secret enemies of our power.’2 Of these Austria was the most dangerous and Silesia acted as a springboard from which could be launched an invasion into the heart of Prussia. In Prussian hands, Silesia would be a definite military advantage since it would greatly increase the distance which Austrian armies would have to march in hostile territory before threatening Berlin. Strategically, it would separate Saxony from Poland, both of which were under the same ruler and friendly towards Austria. Silesia was also desirable for commercial reasons, since it contained the main trade routes down the Oder River valley to the Baltic and was the pivot of east–west trade in north Central Europe. In addition to this, it had valuable mineral resources which were an essential prerequisite for any industrial development. Finally, Frederick was anxious to make use of the army which had been carefully constructed by Frederick William I; he believed that Prussia would have to participate in a war if she was to avoid the possibility of the army falling into decline. And what better opportunity could be expected to arise than in 1740?

Frederick was taking something of a risk in hurling an untried army at a major European power, but it paid off. The Austrians’ reaction was slow and the Prussians were able to defeat them at the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741. In the same year a formidable coalition was constructed against Austria, consisting of France, Spain, Savoy, Saxony, Bavaria and Naples. An alliance between Prussia and France came into existence and it seemed that Austria would soon have to make peace. From this time onwards Frederick resorted to a series of complex diplomatic manoeuvres which gave him a reputation for treachery in most of Europe.

In October 1741 Frederick and Maria Theresa formed the Secret Convention of Klein–Schnellendorf, by which Frederick offered to end the struggle with Austria in return for Austria's de facto recognition of Prussia's occupation of Silesia. By the beginning of 1742 Austria began to recover and threatened Bavaria and Saxony. Frederick promptly forgot the Convention of Klein–Schnellendorf and resumed contacts with France against Austria. After another round of fighting, Frederick again withdrew from the war, this time by the Treaty of Berlin which followed preliminary negotiations and an agreement at Breslau (1742). Austria again had to grant qualified recognition to Prussia's occupation of Silesia. Frederick attempted to justify his withdrawal by writing to the French government: ‘You are aware that since our agreement I have done everything possible to support the designs of your King your master with inviolable fidelity … I yield by necessity alone.’4 By 1744 the situation had again improved for Austria; the coalition against her had virtually disappeared and she now had the support of England, Saxony and Savoy. Frederick feared that if the pressure were removed totally from Austria, Maria Theresa might be able to concentrate again on Silesia. He therefore re–entered the struggle in 1744, with a characteristic excuse: The King feels obliged to inform Europe of the plan which the present situation compels him to adopt for the welfare and tranquillity of Europe. His Majesty, being no longer able to witness with indifference the troubles which are desolating Germany, and after fruitlessly attempting every means of conciliation, finds himself driven to employ the forces which God has put at his disposal in order to bring back peace and order, to restore law, and to maintain the head of the Empire in his authority...in a word the King asks nothing, and his personal interests are not in question. His Majesty takes up arms only to restore liberty to the Empire, dignity to the Emperor and tranquillity to Europe’.4 His real aim, however, was to encourage France to remain in the war. Over the next year, Frederick won several military victories, including the Battles of Soor and Hohenfriedberg (both in 1745). He now felt that Austria had been weakened again and that his hold on Silesia had been confirmed. Consequently, he concluded another peace with Austria, by the Treaty of Dresden (1745), deserting his French ally for the third time within four years.

Prussia remained a spectator for the rest of the war (1745–8), and by the Treaty of Aix–la–Chapelle (1748) she received recognition of her claim to Silesia. But Frederick was to pay dearly for his success. Maria Theresa would not let the matter rest and conceived a strong personal animosity towards Frederick. She would take the first opportunity to recover Silesia. Frederick was uncomfortably aware of this and noted in his First Political Testament (1752) that he considered Austria ‘of all the European powers the one which we have offended most deeply’.2 He would have to spend many years defending his conquest and trying to re–establish his reputation among the European rulers.

This proved more difficult than Frederick had anticipated, and Prussia entered a period of disastrous diplomatic failure which had to be paid for by a long and expensive war. Between 1755 and 1757 several major alliances were reversed in what was to become known as the Diplomatic Revolution, and Prussia suffered severely from the outcome.

Prussia's predicament was due partly to Frederick's shortsightedness. He was neatly outmanoeuvred by the Austrian Chancellor, Kaunitz, who aimed at breaking the connection between Austria and Russia. In 1755 the system of alliances began to change when Austria and Britain failed to agree on a renewal of their commitments. Britain, fearing for the safety of Hanover against Prussia, formed a Subsidy Treaty with Russia, by which the latter guaranteed to maintain an army in Livonia. Frederick rightly felt that this was threatening Prussia and he proceeded to plan what he considered would be a master–stroke. If he could secure an alliance with Britain, Austria would be isolated, since Prussia would be on the same side as Russia, and France could be relied upon to keep the link with Prussia. He was particularly certain about the latter point, believing that France and Austria could never become allies; it would be against the whole grain of their history over the previous two hundred and fifty years. ‘It is an axiom’, Frederick asserted, ‘that it will never be a French interest to foster the aggrandisement of the House of Austria.’5

Thus, when, in 1756, the Convention of Westminister was signed between Britain and Prussia, Frederick expected a considerable diplomatic victory. He was shortly to experience one of the worst shocks of his career. Kaunitz had been working on France to ditch the Prussian alliance, and Frederick's agreement with Britain brought this to fruition. Louis XV roundly condemned Frederick's treachery and made a preliminary agreement with Austria by the First Treaty of Versailles (1756). This was a serious blow, since Frederick had always believed that the connection between France and Prussia was essential to Prussia's security. In his First Political Testament he had written: ‘Our present interest, especially since the acquisition of Silesia, is to remain united with France.’2 He had assumed that France was similarly dependent on Prussia in her rivalry with Austria, and completely failed to realize that the main enemy of France was no longer Austria but Britain. To make matters worse, the Empress Elizabeth had a deep personal hatred of Frederick (which was not diminished when Frederick referred to her, Maria Theresa and Mme de Pompadour as ‘the three first whores of Europe’) and considered that Prussia was Russia's natural enemy. On hearing of the Convention of Westminster, Russia immediately broke with Britain and swung towards Austria. Prussia now faced the prospect of fighting three major powers with the assistance only of British subsidies.

Frederick then made another miscalculation. He felt that a coalition against him was inevitable and that he could retrieve the situation only by a pre–emptive attack against his anticipated enemies. In 1756 he invaded Saxony, hoping to provide Prussia with an area of strategic importance for the manoeuvre of Prussian armies in the coming war with France, Austria and Russia. His excuse certainly lacked originality—he claimed that he was protecting Saxony from the possible depredations of the other powers. The invasion was a serious error of judgement. He gave the rest of Europe the impression that Prussia was the aggressor, thereby destroying any sympathy which might have been felt by uncommitted countries. His action merely hastened the formation of a coalition against him: France formed the Second Treaty of Versailles with Austria in 1757 and Russia signed the Convention of St Petersburg in the same year. Both made the return of Silesia to Austria a solemn undertaking, one to which France had been unwilling to pledge herself in 1756. Furthermore, Sweden joined the coalition in 1757, as did a number of the states of the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, Frederick himself had earlier concluded that a surprise invasion such as this could not benefit Prussia a second time: ‘It is not in our interest to reopen the war; a lightning stroke, like the conquest of Silesia, is like a book the original of which is a success, while all imitations of it fall flat.’2 This assessment now proved correct. Frederick gained nothing by the attack, and found Saxony impossible to hold in the subsequent war.

There can be little doubt that Frederick had failed as a diplomat. Prussia was surrounded by enemies and faced a greater threat to her existence than almost any other state in modern history. Yet during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) Prussia survived against fearsome odds, and for this Frederick must receive much of the credit in his more successful role as a military leader.

Frederick aptly summarized the nature of Prussia's predicament in the Seven Years’ War by comparing himself to a man attacked by flies. ‘When one flies off my cheek, another comes and sits on my nose, and scarcely has it been brushed off than another flies up and sits on my forehead, on my eyes and everywhere else.’6 Prussia's only chance of survival lay in making maximum use of her shorter internal lines of communication, and swinging her armies into action against successive enemies as rapidly as possible. One decisive battle was not enough; the armies of France, Austria and Russia each had to be defeated and defeated again. If the three allies had been able to coordinate their strength and plan a simultaneous invasion on different parts of Prussia, Frederick the Great could not have produced a solution. As it was, he took advantage of the delays which the enemy armies encountered and proceeded to deal with his opponents one by one.

This strategy needed an unconventional approach to warfare and a willingness to abandon all the usual rules. Frederick worked on the principle of avoiding any wastage; Prussian armies were always inferior in numbers to those of the allies and Frederick aimed to achieve just enough to cause the defeat of the enemy, without suffering heavy casualties. The answer was the oblique battle order. Prussian troops were sent in strength against a selected point of the enemy, usually the flank, in order to weaken his defences, cause confusion and precipitate a retreat. Other troops were kept in reserve to follow up the victory or to provide necessary cover if the attack failed.7 These tactics worked brilliantly at Rossbach (where, in 1757, 25,000 Prussians defeated 50,000 allies) and at Leuthen (where 30,000 Prussians inflicted a crushing defeat on 80,000 Austrians). Napoleon later called Leuthen ‘a masterpiece. Of itself it suffices to entitle Frederick to a place in the first rank of generals.’8

No less important than his brilliance as a strategist were Frederick's stamina and resilience. On two occasions Prussia was in grave peril; but Frederick broke loose and defeated his enemies, providing an essential breathing space. In 1757 the Prussians were defeated by a Russian army at Gross Jagersdorf, and Berlin was threatened. The Austrians were also moving on Berlin through Silesia, and the French were in Saxony and Hanover. Prussia was saved, however, by Frederick's victories at Rossbach and Leuthen. In 1759 the existence of Prussia was again threatened when Frederick's army was destroyed by the Russians and Austrians at Kunersdorf. Frederick recovered rapidly when the allies failed to make the most of their victory, and in 1760 won the Battles of Liegnitz and Torgau. Time, however, was not on Prussia's side. Frederick had anticipated only a short war. How long could Prussia survive with her limited resources?

The question was rendered hypothetical by one of the great examples of chance operating in history. The Empress Elizabeth died on 7 January 1762 (by the new calendar) and was succeeded by Peter III, whose admiration for Frederick was even more intense than his mother's hatred had been. Peter concluded peace with Prussia in May 1762, and this was followed by Sweden's withdrawal in the same month. Peter and Frederick, meanwhile, were exchang ing superlative pleasantries with each other. Peter wrote: ‘If the King gives me the order to do so I and my whole empire will make war on hell itself.’ Frederick, no doubt, kept this in mind, and enthused, in return: ‘If I were a pagan I would erect a temple and altars to Your Imperial Majesty as a divinity.’6 France and Austria, by contrast, were becoming increasingly cool towards each other, and by 1763 Austria was fighting alone against Prussia. In 1763 general exhaustion brought about the conclusion of the war by the Treaty, of Hubertusburg. Prussia had lost half a million of her inhabitants but she still possessed Silesia. She had survived all the attempts to destroy her and she was still recognized as a major power.

The period between 1763 and 1786, the second half of the reign, was less eventful. Prussian foreign policy was based, until 1781, on the Russian alliance. The man who had made this possible, Peter III, was deposed and assassinated in 1762, but Catherine the Great (1762–96) renewed the alliance and turned her back on Austria, Russia's ally since 1725. Frederick soon discovered, however, that this new commitment could rapidly turn into a liability and a source of danger. Joint Russo–Prussian action in Poland excited the mistrust and hostility of Turkey, who declared war on Russia in 1768, in order to protect her northern frontier in the Balkans from Russian encroachments. Frederick tried to evade assisting Russia, but by 1771 it looked as if Prussia might become involved in a general war. Austria had just signed a treaty with Turkey to prevent Russian expansion into the Balkans. If Austria actually declared war on Russia, then Frederick would have to help his new ally. How could he prevent this catastrophe and, at the same time, advance the material interests of Prussia?

The answer lay in Poland. One of the weakest states in Europe, Poland had gradually fallen under Russian influence but had remained intact territorially. Frederick now reasoned that Russia could forgo any large–scale expansion into the Balkans at the expense of Turkey and compensate herself in eastern Poland instead. This would relieve the pressure on Austria to come to Turkey's aid, and a slice of Polish Galicia would be an added incentive for Austrian neutrality. Naturally Prussia, too, would receive her share. Frederick had already considered the importance of the Polish Province of West Prussia in his First Political Testament: ‘It separates Prussia from Pomerania and prevents us from sending support to the former.. You will see this more plainly if you consider that the Kingdom of Poland cannot be attacked except by the Muscovites, that if they descend on Danzig, they cut the army of East Prussia off from any connection with this country’.2 Frederick therefore pushed hard for the partition of Poland. Catherine eventually agreed to the scheme and the First Partition was carried out in 1772. At last Frederick had moved to avert war rather than precipitate it and had acted on his belief that ‘the acquisitions which one makes by the pen are always preferable to those made by the sword’.2

Again, however, Frederick paid a price; he had thoroughly alienated Catherine by his actions. Convinced that Frederick would continue to slither out of any military obligations in the future, the Empress eventually decided to dispense with the Russo–Prussian Alliance. In 1778 the Bavarian throne fell vacant on the extinction of the Wittelsbach dynasty. Austria claimed the throne for the Habsburgs and Prussia resisted this claim by military force. In the ensuing War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–9), Frederick received no assistance from Russia. In fact, Catherine now sought closer connections with Austria, forming an alliance with her in 1781 and thus reverting to the position which had existed before 1762.

Frederick now feared that his last years would be marked by another period of Prussian isolation. He tried to reopen the connection with France, but found that Louis XVI was concentrating French resources against Britain and that France was no longer interested in continental conflict. He knew better than to revive the link with Britain, and Sweden he described contemptuously as ‘a name without a power behind it’. Almost in despair, Frederick did the only thing that was left. He turned his attention to Germany herself and formed a league of the smaller German states of the Holy Roman Empire under Prussian leadership. Some historians have seen the Fürstenbund of 1785 as the first major step towards German unity and the establishment of a German nation. This, however, would be reading too much into Frederick's motives and achievements. Frederick was no German nationalist. Unlike Bismarck, who later made the absorption of Germany into Prussia the main element of his foreign policy, Frederick had always regarded Prussia as self-sufficient without Germany. Many historians, especially German, refer to Frederick the Great simply as ‘the King’, a fitting title for a ruler whose ambitious foreign policy and diplomacy were never directed towards his elevation to ‘Emperor’ or ‘Kaiser’.

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