We shall not follow Frederick in all his military moves; this is a history of civilization. We are interested, however, in the nature of man and the conduct of states as revealed by the words and actions of Frederick, and the shifting policies of the Powers. Probably in no recorded war were the realities of power politics so visibly bared.
The Prussian army moved almost unresisted through Silesia. The Protestant half of the population, which had suffered some persecution under Austrian rule, welcomed Frederick as a liberator;74 to the Catholics he pledged—and gave—full freedom to practice their faith. On January 3, 1741, he took peaceful possession of Breslau; “no house,” he assures us, “was pillaged, no citizen was insulted, and Prussian discipline shone in all its splendor”;75 it was the most genteel appropriation. Maria Theresa ordered Marshal Neipperg to collect an army in Moravia and cross into Silesia. On April 10 this army engaged Frederick’s main Silesian force at Mollwitz, twenty miles southeast of Breslau. Neipperg had 8,600 cavalry, 11,400 infantry, eighteen guns; Frederick had 4,000 cavalry, 16,000 infantry, sixty guns; these differences determined the phases and issues of the battle. The Austrian horsemen overwhelmed the Prussian cavalry, which turned and fled. Marshal Schwerin persuaded Frederick to join in the flight, lest he be captured and held for a ruinous ransom. But after the King and his cavalry had gone, the Prussian infantry withstood all attacks of horse or foot; and the Prussian artillery, reloading their guns with iron ramrods, so damaged the Austrians that Neipperg ordered retreat. Frederick, called back to the scene, was delighted and ashamed to find the battle won. He felt that he had been guilty not only of cowardice but of defective strategy; he had scattered his thirty thousand men through Silesia before consolidating his conquest; and only the courage and training of his infantry had saved the day. “He reflected a great deal,” said his Memoirs, “on the faults he had committed, and tried to correct them in the sequel.”76 He was never wanting again in bravery, and rarely in tactics or strategy.
The news of her army’s defeat reached Maria Theresa as she was recuperating from the birth of her child. In the weakened condition of her forces and her finances her only hope seemed to lie in aid from abroad. She appealed to the many powers that had pledged their support to the Pragmatic Sanction of her rule. England responded cautiously; it needed a strong Austria as a foil to France, but George II feared for his Hanoverian principality if he warred against neighboring Prussia. Parliament voted a subsidy of £ 300,000 to Maria Theresa, but British envoys urged her to cede Lower (northern) Silesia to Frederick as a price of peace. Frederick was willing, the Queen refused. Poland, Savoy, and the Dutch Republic promised help, but were so slow in sending it that they counted for little in the result.
Every coalition begets its opposite. France, watching the rapprochement of her ancient enemies, England and Austria, hurried to form an alliance with Bavaria, Prussia, and Bourbon Spain. We have seen that France had her own Machiavelli, Belle-Isle, who proposed a gem of political brigandage. France, which had pledged to support the Pragmatic Sanction, was to take swift advantage of Maria Theresa’s plight: Charles Albert of Bavaria was to be upheld in his claim, through his wife, to the Imperial throne; France was to offer him money and troops to join in attacking Austria; if the plan prospered, Maria Theresa was to be restricted to Hungary, Lower Austria, and the Austrian Netherlands; Charles was to be emperor, ruling Bavaria, Upper Austria, the Tirol, Bohemia, and part of Swabia; the second son of the King of Spain was to have the Milanese. Fleury opposed the scheme, Belle-Isle prevailed, and was sent off to win Frederick to the conspiracy. France and Bavaria signed their alliance at Nymphenburg on May 18, 1741. Frederick was reluctant to join; he could not afford to let France become so strong; he still hoped to come to an arrangement with Maria Theresa; but when she offered him only negligible concessions, he signed at Breslau on June 5 an alliance with France, Bavaria, and Spain; if the Austrian dominions were to be divided he wished to share in the spoils. Each signatory pledged his government to make no secret separate peace. France guaranteed Frederick’s possession of Breslau and Lower Silesia, promised to prod Sweden into a holding war with Russia, and agreed to send a French army to prevent England’s Hanoverian forces from entering the game.
Left almost friendless, Maria Theresa resolved to appeal to the martial lords of Hungary. Those lords, or their ancestors, had suffered much under Austrian rule; Leopold I had deprived them of their old constitution and traditional rights; they had little reason to love or succor his granddaughter. But when she appeared before them in their Diet at Pressburg (September 11, 1741), they were moved by her beauty and tears. She addressed them in Latin, confessed herself abandoned by her allies, and declared that her honor and her throne now depended upon the valor and chivalry of Hungarian knights and arms. That the nobles cried out, “Moriamur pro rege nostro”77—“Let us die for our King!” (for so they called the Queen)—is a fine story now relegated to legend;78 they bargained considerably, and drew from her many political concessions; but when, on September 21, her husband Francis Stephen came, with a nurse holding up to them the six-month-old Joseph, they responded gallantly, and many cried out, “Vitam et sanguinem!”— vowing their lives and blood.79 A levy en masse was voted, calling all men to arms, and after many delays a Hungarian force rode westward to the defense of the Queen.
It would have been too late to save Vienna if Charles Albert had continued his march upon that capital. But meanwhile (September 19) Saxony had joined the alliance against Austria; Charles Albert feared that Augustus III would seize Bohemia; Fleury advised the Bavarian to take Bohemia before the Saxons could get to it. Frederick urged Charles to continue on to Vienna; Charles, financed by France, obeyed France. Frederick, fearing that a France dominant in both Bavaria and Bohemia would be too strong for Prussia’s security, signed a secret truce with Austria (October 9, 1741); Maria Theresa, anxious to save Bohemia, provisionally ceded to him Lower Silesia.
Three armies now converged upon Prague: one under Charles Albert, a French force under Belle-Isle, and twenty thousand Saxons. Poorly garrisoned, the Bohemian capital fell at the first assault (November 25). The victory was a disaster for Charles. Absorbed in the Bohemian campaign, he had left his electorate of Bavaria with only minor defenses, never dreaming that Maria Theresa, harassed on so many sides, would be able to take the offensive. But the Queen showed a resilience that dismayed her enemies. She called back ten thousand Austrian troops from Italy; Hungarian regiments were arriving in Vienna; these two armies she placed under Count Ludwig von Khevenhüller, who had learned the art of war under Eugene of Savoy. Ably led, they invaded Bavaria and overran it almost unresisted; on February 12, 1742, they took Munich, its capital. On that same day, at Frankfurt-am-Main, Charles Albert was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as Charles VII.
Meanwhile Frederick, shifting with every turn in the winds of power, had re-entered the war. He had made the truce conditional on secrecy; Maria Theresa revealed it to France; Frederick overheard these diplomatic whisperings, and hastened to rejoin his allies (December, 1741). He concerted with them a plan by which he would lead an army through Moravia into Lower Austria; he was to be met there by Saxon and Franco-Bavarian forces; together they were to march upon Vienna. But he was now operating amid an actively hostile population, and Hungarian cavalrymen were raiding his lines of communication with Silesia. He turned back and entered Bohemia. There, near Chotusitz, his rear guard was attacked by an Austrian army under Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine (May 17, 1742). The Prince, brother-in-law to Maria Theresa, was a youth of thirty years, one of the most brilliant and gallant of his line, but he could not match Frederick in the tactics of battle. Each had some twenty-eight thousand men. Frederick’s advance guard returned to the scene just in time; he directed its full force against an exposed flank of the Austrians; they fell back in orderly retreat. Both armies suffered heavy losses, but the result convinced Maria Theresa that she could not deal with all her foes at once. She accepted the advice of the English envoys to make a definite peace with Frederick; and this time, by the Treaty of Berlin (July 28, 1742), she ceded to him nearly all of Silesia. So ended the First Silesian War.
The Austrian armies of Khevenhüller and Prince Charles Alexander now moved into Bohemia. The French garrison in Prague faced encirclement and starvation. To prevent this reductio ad absurdum of Belle-Isle’s dreams, France ordered Marshal Maillebois to lead into Bohemia the army that had been holding the forces of George II in Hanover. So freed, England entered actively into the war, advanced £ 500,000 to Maria Theresa, and dispatched sixteen thousand troops to Austrian Flanders; and the United Provinces contributed 840,000 florins. The Queen transmuted the money into armies. One of these blocked Maillebois’ advance toward Bohemia. Austrian forces, repeatedly augmented, converged upon Prague. Belle-Isle and most of his men escaped to Eger, at great cost. Maria Theresa came up from Vienna to Prague, and there at last (May 12, 1743) she was crowned queen of Bohemia.
Everywhere now she seemed triumphant. In that same May the United Provinces voted her twenty thousand troops. A month later her English allies defeated her French foes at Dettingen. Control of the Mediterranean by the English navy advanced her cause in Italy; on September 13 Charles Emmanuel I, King of Sardinia, joined in alliance with Austria and England; he received a slice of Lombardy from Austria and a pledge of £ 200,000 a year from England, in return for 45,000 troops; so soldiers were bought in gross, kings in retail. Maria Theresa, as intransigent in victory as she had been heroic in adversity, dreamed now not only of regaining Silesia but of absorbing into her empire Bavaria, Alsace, and Lorraine.
Frederick for a while played with peace. He opened a new opera house in Berlin, wrote poetry, fingered the flute. He renewed his invitations to Voltaire; Voltaire answered that he was still loyal to Émilie. But at this juncture the French ministry, alarmed to find France at war with England, Austria, the Dutch Republic, and Savoy-Sardinia, bethought itself that Frederick’s genius and giants would be a welcome aid; that his violations of his treaties with France could be forgiven if he would violate his treaty with Austria; and that he might be persuaded to see, in Austria’s resurrected might, a threat to his hold on Silesia, even on Prussia. Who could best explain this to him? Why not try Voltaire, already holding an invitation from Frederick, and always itching to play politics?
So Voltaire the pacifist again bounced and swayed across Germany, and spent six weeks there (August 30 to October 12, 1743) trying to persuade Frederick to war. The King would not commit himself; he sent the philosopher away with nothing but compliments. But as the campaigns of 1744 proceeded he began to fear for his own security and the permanence of his gains. On August 15 he opened the Second Silesian War.
He proposed to begin by conquering Bohemia. As Saxony lay between Berlin and Prague, he marched his troops through Dresden, infuriating the absent Augustus III. By September 2 his eighty thousand men were at the gates of Prague; on September 16 the Austrian garrison surrendered. Leaving five thousand men to hold the Bohemian capital, Frederick moved south, again threatening Vienna. Maria Theresa reacted defiantly; she rode in haste to Pressburg and asked the Hungarian Diet for another levy of troops; it gathered 44,000 for her, and soon added thirty thousand more. She ordered Prince Charles to abandon his attack upon Alsace and lead the main Austrian army eastward to intercept the Prussians. Frederick expected the French to pursue the Austrians; they did not. He tried to force a battle with Charles; the Prince avoided it, but seconded the efforts of raiders to cut the Prussian lines of communication with Silesia and Berlin. History repeated itself; Frederick found his army isolated amid a population fervently Catholic and resourcefully hostile. Hungarian troops were coming to join Prince Charles. Word came that Saxony had openly entered the war on Austria’s side. Fearing to be cut off from his own capital and from his sources of supply. Frederick retreated northward, cursing the French who had failed him again; he ordered the Prussian garrison to abandon Prague; and on December 13 he returned to Berlin, not so proud as before, and having learned that the deceiver may be deceived.
The current ran strongly against him. On January 8, 1745, England, the United Provinces, and Poland-Saxony signed at Warsaw a pact with Austria that pledged all signatories to restore to each of them all that it had possessed in 1739—therefore to regain Silesia for Maria Theresa. Augustus III promised thirty thousand men in return for £ 150,000 from England and Holland—five pounds per soul. On January 20 Charles VII, so briefly emperor, died, aged forty-eight. In his last moments he expressed his sorrow for having ruined his country by aspiring to the Imperial and Bohemian thrones; he begged his son Maximilian Joseph to forgo such pretenses, and make peace with the house of Austria. The new Elector, despite French protests, followed this advice; on April 22 he resigned all claims to empire, and agreed to support Duke Francis Stephen for the Imperial crown. Austrian troops were withdrawn from Bavaria.
The Queen now thought not merely of regaining Silesia but of dismembering Prussia as a guarantee against the ambitions of Frederick.80 She was temporarily disconcerted by the French victory over her English allies at Fontenoy (May 11, 1745); but in that month she sent her main army into Silesia, and ordered it to seek battle. Reinforced by a Saxon contingent, the Austrians encountered Frederick at Hohenfriedberg (June 4, 1745). Here his skill in tactics saved him; he deployed his cavalry to capture a hill from which his artillery could rake the enemy infantry. After seven hours of slaughter the Austrians and Saxons withdrew, leaving four thousand killed and seven thousand prisoners. This was the decisive battle of the Silesian Wars.
England again bent her diplomacy to peace. The Jacobite invasion of 1745 compelled her to withdraw her best troops from Flanders; Maréchal de Saxe took town after town for France, even the main English base at Ostend; George II feared that the victorious French would reach his be loved Hanover. The British Parliament, which had deposed Walpole for loving peace, was now weary of a war that had cost not only thousands of replaceable men but millions of precious pounds; English envoys pleaded with Maria Theresa to come to terms with Frederick in order that Austrian and English forces might concentrate upon a France reinvigorated by a general whose victories almost equaled his amours. The Queen refused. England threatened to withdraw all aid, end all subsidies; she still refused. England invited Frederick to a conference at Hanover; there it signed with his representatives a separate peace (August 26, 1745); England accepted the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, which confirmed Prussian possession of Silesia; Frederick agreed to support the election of Duke Francis Stephen as emperor. On October 4, at Frankfurt, Francis was crowned emperor and Maria Theresa became empress.
She bade her generals continue the war. They fought the Prussians at Soor in Bohemia (September 30) and at Hennersdorf (November 24); the Austrians, numerically superior, were twice defeated. Meanwhile a Prussian army under Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau advanced into Saxony, and at Kesselsdorf (December 15) overwhelmed the forces protecting Dresden. Frederick, coming up after the victory, entered Dresden unresisted and magnanimous; he forbade pillage, and reassured the children of Augustus III, who had fled to Prague. He offered to withdraw from Saxony if the Elector-King would join England in recognizing Frederick’s possession of Silesia, and abandon all aid to Maria Theresa; Augustus consented. Abandoned by both England and Saxony, Maria Theresa signed the Treaty of Dresden (December 25, 1745), ceding Silesia and the county of Glatz to Prussia. So ended the Second Silesian War.
The War of the Austrian Succession had now lost meaning, but it went on; France fought Austria and England for dominance in Flanders; France and Spain fought Austria and Sardinia for dominance in Italy. The victories of the Austrians in Italy were counterbalanced by those of the French in the Netherlands. At last financial exhaustion, rather than any distaste for massacre, persuaded the contestants to peace. By the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, after negotiations that dragged on from April to November, 1748, the War of the Austrian Succession came to a sorry end. Frederick’s seizure of Silesia was confirmed, and was the only appreciable gain that any of the powers could show for eight years of competitive destruction. France, despite Saxe’s victories, restored the southern Netherlands to Austria; it recognized the Hanoverian dynasty in England, and agreed to expel the Young Pretender from French soil.
The powers rested for eight years, until the labor of women in child birth could replenish the regiments for another round in the game of kings.