Across Europe, many monarchs had long been seeking a way to curb the power of the Hapsburg dynasty that had dominated the continent for centuries. In 1740, Hapsburg emperor Charles VI died and named 23-year old daughter Maria Theresa heir to the Austrian throne and the Hapsburg empire. Ancient Salic law precluded women from royal inheritance, a custom that had frequently been ignored, but often invoked at opportune moments. For Frederick II, the new king of the newly emerging power of Prussia, the question of the Austrian inheritance presented an opportune moment to unify and expand Prussia’s territorial holdings and grow his power in Europe, at the expense of Austria. Invoking a centuries-old treaty, and perceiving the young Maria Theresa to be a weak female ruler, Frederick invaded the Austrian holding of Silesia in December of 1740. Seeing a potential breach in the long domination of the Hapsburg dynasty, princes from across the continent began putting forth rival claimants to the Austrian throne and nipping away at Hapsburg territories. The determined Maria Theresa refused to back down, and over the next eight years consolidated her power and her allies, ultimately forcing Frederick and her Franco-Spanish rivals to the negotiating table in 1748. The Treaty of Ax-La-Chappelle restored most of Austria’s territories and confirmed Maria Theresa’s status as empress; only the territory of Silesia was sacrificed in the deal.
Rivals: Maria Theresa of Austria an Frederick II of Prussia
Silesia is the part of the Imperial succession on which we have the best claims, and that which would suit the House of Brandenburg best; it is right to maintain our claims and to seize the opportunity of the Emperor’s death to take possession of the areas concerned.
The superiority of our troops over those of our neighbors, the promptitude with which we can act, and, in sum, the advantage which we possess over our neighbors, is complete, and gives us, in an unforeseen occasion such as this, an infinite superiority over all other European Powers. If we wait to act until Saxony and Bavaria have made the first hostile moves, we shall be unable to prevent Saxony from enlarging her territory, which, however, is entirely contrary to our interests, and in that case we have no good pretext. But if we act at once we keep Saxony down, and by preventing Saxony from acquiring remounts we make it impossible for her to make any move.
England and France are at loggerheads; if France interferes in the affairs of the Empire, England can never allow it, and in this way, each of the two opposed parties will always offer me an advantageous alliance. England can never be jealous of my acquisition of Silesia, since that can do her no harm, and she can, on the contrary, hope for advantages in the present state of her affairs, which require alliances.
Holland will look indifferently, especially if one guarantees the merchants of Amsterdam the capital which they have invested in Silesia.
If we fail to reach satisfactory agreement with England and Holland, we shall certainly be able to do so with France, which in any case will be unable to thwart our designs and will regard with satisfaction the blow to the Imperial House.
There remains Russia. None of the other Powers of which I have spoken are in a position to give us trouble; Russia alone might be able to cause difficulties for us.
Next Spring, we shall not find anyone in our way; thus, if Russia wants to attack us, she can be assured that she will have the Swedes in her rear, so she would be putting herself between the hammer and the anvil. If the Empress is alive, the Duke of Courland, who has very rich estates in Silesia, will court my favor in order to keep them; furthermore, we must shower down among the leaders of the Council the rain of Danae, which will make them think as we want. If the Empress is dead, the Russians will be so occupied with their internal affairs that they will have no time to think about foreign questions; and in any case, it is not impossible to procure the entry into Petersburg of an ass with a load of gold.
I conclude from all this reasoning that we must put ourselves in possession of Silesia before the winter, and negotiate during the winter; then we shall always find cards to play, and we shall negotiate successfully when we are in possession, whereas if we act otherwise, we shall sacrifice our advantages, and we shall never get anything out of simple negotiation, or else the others will impose burdensome conditions for us, for granting us trifles.
The very existence of the Kingdom of Hungary, of our own person, of our children, and our crown, are now at stake. Forsaken by all, we place our sole resource in the fidelity, arms, and long-tried valour of the Hungarians; exhorting you, the states and orders, to deliberate without delay in this extreme danger, on the most effectual measures for the security of our person, of our children, and of our crown, and to carry them into immediate execution. In regard to ourself, the faithful states and orders of Hungary shall experience our hearty cooperation in all things which may promote the pristine happiness of this ancient kingdom and the honours of the people.