Germany: Austria, Prussia, and Enlightened Despotism

War of the Spanish Succession | Kingdom of Prussia | Pragmatic Sanction
War of the Austrian Succession | Enlightened Despots | Conclusion

Germany, from the beginning of the 1700s - for a little more than two hundred years - was dominated by two families, the Hapsburgs (sometimes written Habsburg) and the Hohenzollerns. They ruled Austria and Prussia respectively. Throughout the 1700s they vied with each other to control northern and eastern Europe. The Hapsburgs began the period as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, while the Hohenzollerns began as one of the seven electors of that Emperor (Elector of Brandenburg). By the time of Bismark in the 1870s the positions of relative strength were reversed. It would ultimately be Prussia that would unify Germany and briefly become a world power.

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In the late 1600s this outcome could not be foreseen. Austria, Poland, and Russia were at war with the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish forces had over-run most of the Balkans and controlled large swaths of territory to the North side of the Black Sea. The high-water mark of Ottoman power came when they marched an army into Austria and laid the Siege of Vienna (the capital of Austria) in 1683. Things looked grim for the Austrians until the siege was broken by the flamboyant King of Poland, Jan Sobieski, who led an army into Austria and drove the Turks out. The ruler (duke) of Austria at the time was Leopold I. (He was also Holy Roman Emperor.) The Austrians took advantage of the situation. pushing the Turks back into the mountains, they began to take over territories. Over the course of a few years these included Bohemia, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, and Hungary. From this source, the Austrians would acquire an empire separate from Germany.

War of the Spanish Succession

Hapsburg power came from great family connections. Descended from a long line of dukes as well as from Ferdinand and Isabella through Charles V, the family had possessions and connections scattered all over Europe. They were a close family. While trying to maintain their elevated position they had to contend with Louis XIV of France. When Charles II (a Hapsburg) of Spain died, Louis claimed the throne of Spain for his Grandson (a Bourbon), sparking the War of the Spanish Succession. Through a series of battles in which the Austrians, under Prince Eugene of Savoy, were allied with the British, led by the Duke of Marlborough (a direct ancestor of Winston Churchill), the greatest King of Europe was fought to a standstill, and though his grandson still became King of Spain, it was agreed that the crowns of Spain and France could never be united. Austria was given the Spanish Netherlands as well as territories in Italy as compensation.

Prussia Becomes a Kingdom

While the Hapsburgs were compiling a polyglot population spread over various areas of Europe, the Hohenzollerns were turning the relatively small Electorate of Brandenburg in north eastern Germany into a power to be reckoned with. Frederick William, the Great Elector had definite ideas about how to create a modern state. His objective was to concentrate power in his own hands and run the state efficiently. He created a civil service with various departments and structured the army along disciplined lines. He recruited the Junkers, the nobility, to help run these two organizations. Meanwhile the peasants were ruthlessly repressed to help pay for the advancement of the state.

The son of the Great Elector, Frederick I, continued the process of German consolidation, acquiring the title, King in Prussia. The parsimonious Frederick William I took over Prussia from his profligate father in 1713. He was a noted militarist. He loved his army. He even collected tall soldiers for special grenadier regiments. He was called the Sergeant King. Frederick William doubled the size of the Prussian Army from 40,000 to 80,000. This huge structure, for such a small country, proved to be a strain on the state. The peasants continued to foot the bill for Prussian power. Yet there was a good side to this large and well-drilled force. No country wished to tangle with Prussia, and during his reign Frederick William I never fought a war. His son, however, would have no scruples about employing the Prussian army.

The Pragmatic Sanction

Drawing of Maria Theresa of Austria

Charles VI became Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Austria upon his brother's death in 1711. Austria was now composed of many pieces including the Kingdom of Hungary and the Crown of Bohemia. Charles wanted to be sure that all these pieces remained unified for his heirs. He had another problem as well. He did not have a son. Yet he would have a capable daughter. His solution was to develop the Pragmatic Sanction. By this document, Austria and its dominions could be inherited by his daughter, Maria Theresa. He spent much of the rest of his reign convincing his nobles as well as foreign governments to respect his wishes.

Maria Theresa became Arch-Duchess of Austria and assumed a panoply of crowns in 1740. However, the Electors refused to make her Empress. Her husband, Francis I was elected instead.

War of the Austrian Succession

Barely a half year into his reign Frederick II decided to wield the powerful force his father, Frederick William I had so lovingly put together. Charles VI had died, and a young Maria Theresa had just taken power in Austria. Frederick decided the time was ripe to swipe Silesia from Austria, on the excuse that Maria Theresa should not have inherited in Austria. After a successful invasion the French and the Bavarians joined in, thinking to diminish Austria. However, Frederick resolutely stayed in Silesia, not helping his opportunist allies, while Maria Theresa's forces successfully fended off these antagonists.

The War of the Austrian Succession ended with the Pragmatic Sanction fully justified, but with Frederick II still in possession of Silesia.

Enlightened Despots

At this time in history the Enlightenment was gripping Europe. The idea that scientific ideas could be applied to politics and societies intrigued the leaders of the day. Peter the Great of Russia, Frederick II, and Maria Theresa were called enlightened despots because they used enlightened ideas to help them rule their nations. Frederick II (one day to be called "The Great") was a friend of one of the most famous literary figures of the age, Voltaire. The enlightened rulers advanced infrastructure, education of the population, tax structures, judicial structures, and economies.

Map depicting the expansion of the Austrian Empire

Yet these rulers were also quite practical, and sometimes rapacious, when faced with political opportunity. The Seven Years War (1756-1753) was an attempt by Austria to regain Silesia, it spread into a world-wide struggle that would include France, Russia, Spain, and Austria on one side, with Britain and Prussia on the other. There was also the notorious three partitions of Poland, by which the nation was divided between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Poland, with a weak central government was totally unable to resist the combined force of the autocratic states that surrounded her. She was not to re-emerge until after World War I.


The two leading states in Germany took divergent paths to power. The Austrian Hapsburgs faced outward, snapping up territories here and there around Europe. In spite of internal reforms they could never completely consolidate their gains. In Prussia, however, the growth was Germanic for the most part. The Brandenburg-Prussian Hohenzollerns unified their territories and created an efficient kingdom where the best and brightest were recruited into the military and government. These two powerful families would fight over the soul of Germany, with tremendous repercussions for later history. The Hapsburgs would long have the upper hand, but eventually the Hohenzollerns would provide the nucleus for a state that would one day, briefly, conquer nearly all of Europe.

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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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