Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke

The Silesian Wars

After the prophecies of the court astrologers of the Great Elector, there always remained alive in the neighborhood of the Hohenzollerns the vague, dim, obscure presentiment that this House was destined at some time to bear the scepter and sword of the Holy (Roman) Empire; the firebrands, Leopold von Dessau and Winterfeldt, presumed occasionally to hail their royal hero as the German Augustus. But he knew that his secular State could not support the Roman crown, that it could only involve the parvenu among the Powers in disputes which there was no prospect of solving, and remarked drily: "For us it would only be a fetter."

Scarcely had he ascended to the throne, when German affairs entered on that great change which Pufendorf 's prophetic vision had already denoted as the only possible ground for a thorough reform of the Empire. The old Kaiser-House died out, and before the flaming vision of the young King, who held the only systematic war-power of Germany in his hands, there opened a world of alluring visions, which would have inspired a less profound, less collected nature to extravagant dreams. Frederick felt vividly the deep solemnity of the hour: "Day and night," he confessed, "the fate of the Empire lies on my heart. I alone can and must hold it upright."

He was determined that this great moment must not fly without giving the Prussian State full freedom of movement, a place in the council of the Great Powers; but he divined also how incalculably, owing to the covetousness of the foreign neighbors, and the helpless dissensions in the Empire, the position of Germany must be affected as soon as the monarchy of the Habsburgs fell to pieces. Therefore he wished to spare Austria, and contented himself with bringing forward the most important of the carefully pondered pretensions of his House. Alone, without vouchsafing one word to the foreign Powers on the watch, with an overwhelming invading force, he broke into Silesia.

Germany, used to the solemn reflections and cross-reflections of her Imperial lawyers, received with astonishment and indignation the doctrine that the rights of States were only to be maintained by active power. Then the conqueror offered to procure the Imperial Crown for the husband of Maria Theresa, and to fight for the integrity of Austria against France. Only the opposition of the Court of Vienna drives him farther to comprehensive plans for the reform of the Empire which remind one of Waldeck's daring dreams.

It was not Frederick who created German duality, with which the contemporary- and after-world reproached him; the dualism had lasted since Charles V, and Frederick was the first who earnestly tried to abolish it.

As soon as the understanding with the Court of Vienna proved impossible, the King was seized with the daring thought of wresting the Imperial Crown forever from the House of Austria, breaking the last chain which linked this dynasty to Germany. He approached the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, the only House among the more powerful German princely families who, like the Hohenzollerns, governed German land alone, and like them, saw in Austria their natural enemy

He first founded that alliance between the two great pure German States which has since then so often, and always for the welfare of the Fatherland, been renewed. The Elector of Bavaria received the Imperial dignity, and Frederick hoped to ensure a firm support for the new Empire, which he himself called "my work," in the crown of Bohemia.

And soon in Berlin, as in Munich, awakened again that saving thought of secularization which inevitably forced itself up as soon as a healing hand was laid on the languishing body of the Empire. The work of strengthening the power of the greater secular States of the Empire, which Frederick recognized as its only vital members, at the cost of the theocratic and republican territories, was in progress.

There was an attempt to realize a purely secular statecraft in the political ideas of the Reformation. Certain ecclesiastical districts of Upper Germany (South Germany) were to be secularized, and various Imperial cities were to be attached to the dominions of the neighboring princes.

With good reason Austria complained how seriously this Bavarian Empire, guided by Prussia, threatened to harm the Nobility and the Church. If these crude thoughts entered into life, the German dualism was as good as done with; the constitution of the Empire, even if the forms remained, was transformed.

Germany became an alliance of temporal princes under Prussia's governing influence. The ecclesiastical States, the Imperial cities, the swarm of small counts and princes, robbed of the support of the Habsburgs, fell into decay, and the hostile element in the heart of the Empire, the Crown of Bohemia, was conquered for the Germanic civilization. So Germany could by her own strength accomplish that necessary revolution which the decree of foreign countries, two generations later, insultingly imposed on her. But the House of Wittelsbach, estranged all the same from German life by its hereditary connection with France as by the severity of the Catholic unity of faith, showed in time a lamentable incapability. The nation failed to understand the promise of the moment. On a Rundreise round the Empire the King gained such a disconcerting insight into the dissensions, the avarice, the slavish fear of the small Courts, that he learned to moderate his German hopes forever; even his own power could not suffice to wholly break the gallant opposition of the Queen of Hungary.

The second Silesian war ended, in spite of the triumphs of Hohenfriedberg and Kesselsdorf, in the restoration of the Austrian Empire. It remained in its constitution-less confusion, Francis of Lorraine ascended to the Imperial throne on the death of Charles VII, and the old alliance between Austria and the Catholic majority on the Imperial Diet was renewed.

The solution of German dualism miscarried; more hostile than ever, the parties in the Empire separated. However, the King remained sure of a lasting advantage: the position of Prussia as a Great Power. He had saved the Bavarians from downfall, had strengthened the forces of his country by more than a third, had broken with a bold stroke the long chain of Habsburg-Wettin provinces which surrounded the Prussian State in the south and east, and humiliated the proud Kaiser-House for the first time before a prince of Germany. For all his victories he had to thank his own strength alone, and he met the old Powers with such determined pride that Horatio Walpole himself had to admit that this Prussian King had now the scales of the balance of power in Europe in his hands.

Saxony, Bavaria, Hanover, all the Central States, who had till this been contending with the Crown of Prussia, had been for ever thrown into the second line through the Silesian wars, and high above the countless small rivalries which cleft the Empire, rose the one question: Prussia or Austria?

The question of Germany's future had taken definite form. The King now looked down on the tumult of the German (Imperial) States from a clear elevation. He liked giving to offensive demands the mocking answer, did one take him perhaps for a Duke of Gotha or for a Rhine Prince? He played already to the small neighbors the role of the well-meaning patron and protector, which he had defined as the noble duty of the strong in his Anti-Machiavellism, and already a small Prussian Party gathered in the Reichstag, and the North-German Courts let their princes serve in the army of the King.

In the meantime, the new acquisition grew, together with the Monarchy, surprisingly quickly; the State experienced for the first time on a wide sphere those advantages and improvements which it has since then preserved everywhere in German and half -German countries. The fresh powers of the modern world made their entry even into the most neglected province, held down with temporal and ecclesiastical oppression; the dominion of the aristocracy was supplanted by monarchical bureaucracy, nepotism by strict justice, intolerance by religious liberty, the deep soul-slumber of priestly teaching by German educational systems; the dull servile peasant learned to hope for a morning again and his King forbade him to kiss the robe of the official, kneeling.

No other State in that century of struggles for supremacy presented such many-sided, such dignified problems. Only the peaceful work effected by the government gave the conquest of Silesia moral justification, and demonstrated that that much-blamed hazardous enterprise had been a German achievement. The glorious border-country, already half flooded with foreign influences, was given back to the German nation through the Prussian regime.

Silesia was the only one of the German-Austrian hereditary countries where the policy of a single faith could not boast of a full conquest. With invincible tenacity, the light-hearted, gay German race in the valleys of the Riesen Mountains resisted the bloody deeds of the Lichtenstein dragoons as they resisted the persuasive powers of the Jesuits. The majority of the Germans remained true to the Protestant faith; oppressed and neglected, robbed of all its possessions, the Evangelical Church prolonged a miserable life; only the threats of the Crown of Sweden provided them with the few churches which remained to them, in addition to the possession of various Gnadenkirchen. [Churches which Austria allowed the Protestants to build by the treaty of Altranstadt or Friedenskirchen (1707) at Sagan, Freistadt, Militsch, Landeshut, Teschen, and Hirschberg.]

The Catholic Poles of Upper Silesia and the Czech colonists, whom the Imperial Court had called into the country to battle against the German heretics, were the supports of the Imperial dominion. On the entry of the Prussian army, German patriotism again lifted its head gladly. From the Gnadenkirchen rang joyously the praise of the Lord, Who had turned His face from them, and Who now set up a banner for them. Under the protection of the Prussian religious toleration Protestantism soon won back the consciousness of its ecclesiastical superiority, Polish nationality lost ground visibly, and after a few decades the Prussian Silesians stood nearer in thought and customs to their North-German neighbors than to the Silesians on the other side of the frontier.

The Protestant conquerors left the Roman Church in possession of the entire Evangelical Church property, and while England forced the Irish Catholics to support the Anglican State Church by tithes, in Silesia the Protestant had, as before, to pay taxes for the Catholic Church. Nothing but the traitorous intrigues of the Roman clergy during the Seven-Years' War made it necessary for the King to withdraw this excessive indulgence, which led to injustice against the Evangelicals; but even then the Catholic Church remained more favorably placed than in any other Protestant State.

The flourishing condition of the Silesian country under the Prussian scepter showed sufficiently that the new province had found her natural master, that the crisis in Eastern Germany had terminated irrevocably. Still, the Court of Vienna was undisconcerted and held firmly to the hope of avenging the insult it had suffered, and of pushing down the conqueror of Silesia once more into the motley crowd of German Imperial provinces, like all the other upstart States who before the rebellion had presumed against the Imperial Power. King Frederick knew, too, that the last and crucial clash of arms was still imminent.

During the short years of peace he once tried to exclude the son of Maria Theresa from the Imperial dignity, in order to separate the House of Austria from the Empire for the future. The plan was frustrated by the opposition of the Catholic Courts. The irreconcilable opposition of the two leading powers of Germany decided for a long time ahead the drift of European politics, and drew from the Holy (Roman) Empire the last spurt.

With anxious foreboding, the nation saw another Thirty Years' War on the horizon. What had ripened in the quiet work of hard decades appeared to the next generation merely as a wonderful chance, as the happy adventure of an ingenious brain. Outstanding among the diplomatic correspondence of the period is the prophecy of the Dane Bernstorff, who, in the year 1759, wrote sadly to Choiseul: "Everything which you undertake to-day to prevent the rise of an entirely military Monarchy in the middle of Germany, whose iron arm will soon crush the minor princes—is all labor wasted!"

All the neighboring Powers, both east and west, bore a grudge against the lucky prince who alone had carried off the great prize out of the confusion of the War of the Austrian Succession, and truly, not only the personal hate of mighty women wove at the net of the great conspiracy which threatened to draw together over Frederick's head. Europe felt that the old traditional form of the Balance of Power would totter as soon as the conquering Great Power established itself in the middle of the continent.

The Vatican saw with anxiety how the hated home of the heretics received its liberty again; only through the intervention of Rome was it achieved that those old enemies, the two great Catholic Powers, Austria and France, united in contest against Prussia. Its aim was to perpetuate the impotence of Germany.

By a bold attack the King saved his kingdom from certain ruin, and when he had for seven terrible years defended his German State on the Rhine and the Pregel, on the Peene and the Riesen Mountains, against foreign and half-foreign armies, and in peace had maintained the integrity of his power down to the last village, Prussia seemed to stand in exactly the same place as it had stood at the beginning of the murderous struggle. He had not won a yard of German soil, half the land lay devastated, the rich results of three generations of peaceful industry were almost annihilated, the unlucky Neumark had to begin the work of rehabilitation from the beginning for the fourth time.

Even the King himself could never think without bitterness of those terrible days, when the torture of every disaster which one man can bear, almost beyond human endurance, was heaped on his shoulders; what he suffered then appeared to him as the wantonly malicious mood of a spiteful providence, as a tragedy without justice or termination. For all that, there lurked a colossal achievement in the sequel of the struggle which seemed so unfruitful;—the new order in Germany, which, begun with the foundation of the Prussian power, had stood the severest imaginable test, and had proved an irrevocable necessity. A hundred years before Germany was only able to resist the dominion of the Habsburgs by the struggles of an entire generation, and then had ignominiously to bribe foreign auxiliaries; now seven years sufficed for the poorest provinces to repulse the attack of a world in arms, and German might alone decided the war, for the sole foreign power which stood at the side of the King faithlessly betrayed him [England]. Germany's star was again in the ascendant. The text which went up exultingly from all Prussian churches: "They have often oppressed me from my youth up, but they have not overcome me," could be said of Germany.

At the beginning of the second campaign, Frederick had cherished the proud hope of fighting his Pharsalia against the House of Austria, and of dictating peace before the walls of Vienna; at that pregnant moment the birth of a great new civilization in the distant future could be recognized, and an alliance of Prussia with Austria's other rival, with Piedmont, was already attempted.

Then the battle of Kollin threw the King back on his defenses: he had to struggle for the existence of his State. His attempt to form an Opposition Reichstag, a North-German Union to oppose to the Imperial tie, came to nothing through the unconquerable jealousy of the small Courts, and chiefly through the haughty reluctance of the Guelph ally. For the abolition of German dualism, for the rebuilding of the Empire, the hour had not yet come; but through the frightful actuality of this war the ancient and obsolete forms of the German community were morally annihilated, the last veil torn away from the great lie of the Holy (Roman) Empire.