The Prussian infantry during the Battle of Mollwitz, 1741
‘The War of Jenkins’ Ear’ had been underway for little more than a year when it was subsumed in a much greater conflict with a much more portentous title–the War of the Austrian Succession. At one level, this represented a resumption of the centuries-old conflict between Bourbon and Habsburg for the domination of continental Europe, but it was accelerated by the fortuitous death of three monarchs in 1740. The first to go was Frederick William I of Prussia on 31 May. This brought to the throne his mercurial son as Frederick II, as complex as he was intelligent and with quite a different approach to the assertion of his kingdom’s interests. Although brutal to the point of madness, Frederick William I’s foreign policy was unassertive, timid even. He was restrained by three kinds of loyalty–to the Hohenzollern dynasty, to the Holy Roman Empire and its Emperor, and to his terrible Calvinist God. His son, on the other hand, never cared anything for his family, demanding that the interests of the Hohenzollern dynasty be subordinated to the interests of the Prussian state; he had only contempt for the Holy Roman Empire, despising its ‘antiquated, fantastical constitution’; and he dismissed Christianity as ‘an old metaphysical fiction, stuffed with fables, contradictions and absurdities: it was spawned in the fevered imagination of the Orientals, and then spread to our Europe, where some fanatics espoused it, where some intriguers pretended to be convinced by it and where some imbeciles actually believed it’.
Frederick William I had nursed many grievances against the Emperor Charles VI, who had ignored his interests in Poland in 1732, snubbed him over Mecklenburg in 1733 and disregarded his claims to the duchies of Jülich and Berg in 1738, but apart from a brief period of alienation in the mid 1720s he had remained loyal. He concentrated his demonic energies preparing for rather than waging war, leaving his son an army 81,000-strong, which in terms of quality was the best in Europe, supported by a great treasure-chest. Although he had every reason to hate his father, Frederick II hailed his achievement, writing in The History of My Own Times:
The fame to which the late king aspired, a fame more just than that of conquerors, was to render his country happy; to discipline his army; and to administer his finances with the wisest order, and economy. War he avoided, that he might not be disturbed in the pursuit of plans so excellent. By these means he travelled silently on towards grandeur, without awakening the envy of monarchs.
It was these tools that his son was now to put to such devastating use. There is no reason to doubt his own candid admission that, first and foremost, he wanted to make a name for himself and Prussia, to wipe the sneer off the face of George II of England, for example, who had derided Frederick William I as ‘the corporal’, ‘king of the high-roads’ and ‘arch-dustman of the Holy Roman Empire’. Despite the formal elevation to royal status in 1701, Prussia was still ‘a kind of hermaphrodite, rather more an electorate than a kingdom’, as Frederick put it. To make its masculine identity unequivocal, he first cavassed the possibility of acquiring Jülich and Berg, but got nowhere. It was then that the grim reaper came to his assistance, carrying off the Tsarina Anna of Russia on 23 October 1740 and Charles VI three days later. On hearing the news, Frederick resolved ‘immediately’ to ‘reclaim’ Silesia. Writing of himself in the third person, he went on: ‘this project accomplished all his political views; it afforded the means of acquiring reputation, of augmenting the power of the state, and of terminating what related to the litigious succession of the Duchy of Berg’. Unmentioned but probably also important was the thought that if he did not claim Silesia, someone else would. He was especially anxious to keep it out of the hands of the Saxons, for the province would form a territorial link between the Electorate and Poland. The almost simultaneous death of the Tsarina was crucial, for on past form Russia would be disqualified from giving the Austrians any assistance by a struggle over the succession. Indeed Frederick claimed that ‘the death of Anna…finally determined [me] in favour of this enterprise’. He was proved to be right, for Anna was succeeded by the infant Ivan VI, who was deposed a year later in favour of Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great by his first marriage.
On 16 December 1740 the Prussian invasion of Silesia began. Frederick received important assistance from religion–‘that sacred prejudice among the vulgar’–for about two-thirds of the Silesians were Protestants anxious to escape the vigorous persecution inflicted on them by the late emperor. The capital, Breslau, surrendered without resistance early in January 1741. There were only just over 7,000 Austrian troops in the whole province, so it was not long before the Prussians completed their occupation. It was not until 10 April 1741 at Mollwitz that an Austrian army under General von Neipperg mounted a military challenge. This was certainly not Frederick’s finest hour. With the superior Austrian cavalry apparently winning the day, he was persuaded by his second-in-command, Count Schwerin, to leave the battlefield. In his absence, Schwerin rallied the apparently defeated Prussians and won the day with the infantry. As Frederick recorded ruefully: ‘it is difficult to say who committed the most faults, the King or Marshal Neipperg’, giving all the credit to his army: ‘the battle was one of the most memorable of the present century; because two small armies then decided the fate of Silesia, and because the troops of the king there acquired that fame of which they can never be deprived, either by time or envy’.
Mollwitz was no more decisive militarily than any other battle of the period, but it did have an extremely important political consequence. By showing that Prussia could defend its new conquest, it encouraged the war-party in France, led by the marquis de Belle-Isle, to conclude an alliance with Frederick and join the war. Louis XV and his chief minister Fleury thought Frederick was ‘a fool’ and ‘a cheat’ respectively, but that low opinion did not stop them following the rush to settle accounts with the Habsburgs once and for all. If the war had gone according to plan and they had been in a position to dictate terms to the new ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy, the twenty-three-year-old Maria Theresa, they would have enforced a radical reconstruction of central Europe. The cunning French plan was to create four roughly equal states, by giving Lower (northern) Silesia to Prussia; Bohemia, Upper (western) Austria, the Tyrol, Breisgau and the imperial title to Bavaria; part of Lower Austria, Moravia and Upper Silesia to Saxony, and leaving the Habsburgs with just their remaining Austrian territories and Hungary. France, of course, would hold the balance between these four, and would take the Austrian Netherlands into the bargain. The Habsburg lands in Italy would be divided between Sardinia and Spain.
Unfortunately, they could neither achieve the necessary degree of military supremacy, nor could they control the mercurial Frederick. As the latter wrote, he had no intention of creating a yoke for his own neck, so instead of behaving like a loyal ally of France, he rather sought to maintain a balance between France and Austria. Intercepted despatches had revealed that the French would desert him at once if the Austrians agreed to cede Luxemburg and Brabant. So in October 1741 Frederick signed a secret truce with the Austrians at Klein-Schnellendorf, by which he ceased hostilities and the Austrians evacuated Silesia. Maria Theresa badly needed this respite, for the Saxons and the Bavarians had moved smartly to assist the French military effort. By early 1742, the Elector of Bavaria, Charles Albert, had been crowned King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria and had also been elected Holy Roman Emperor. In the north, French diplomacy had encouraged the Swedes to attack Russia, thus ensuring that Maria Theresa could expect no help from that quarter. With a French puppet on the imperial throne–the first non-Habsburg for three centuries–and a Franco-Bavarian army occupying Prague, French influence in Europe had reached a point far in excess of anything achieved by Louis XIV.
This success was short-lived. Although Frederick briefly re-entered the fray late in 1741, he left it altogether in June 1742 after victory at Chotusitz in May allowed him to negotiate the Treaty of Breslau, which fulfilled his essential aim–the cession of most of Silesia. Almost all of Frederick William I’s treasure-chest had been spent, but, as Frederick recorded, ‘provinces that do not cost more than seven or eight millions are cheaply purchased’. Meanwhile Maria Theresa had succeeded in raising sufficient troops, mainly from Hungary, to expose the French and Bavarian armies as paper tigers–‘sybarite courtiers’ was Frederick’s derisive comment on the quality of the French. By the end of 1742, the Austrians had regained control of Bohemia and had occupied Bavaria. The diplomatic situation was also improving, for in Britain the fall of Sir Robert Walpole in February 1742 led to the appointment of Lord Carteret as secretary of state and a much more forward policy on the continent. British subsidies financed the formation of a ‘Pragamatic Army’ of British, Hanoverians, Hessians and Dutch, which in June 1743, led by George II, scored a major victory over the French at Dettingen near Frankfurt am Main. This was to be the last time that a British sovereign commanded his troops in battle personally.