In This Article War of the Austrian Succession

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of 18th-Century International Relations
  • General Overviews of the War
  • 18th-Century Warfare
  • Bilateral Wartime Diplomacy
  • Printed Documents
  • Major Battles
  • The Revolts
  • The Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle

Military History War of the Austrian Succession
by
Reed S. Browning
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0096

Introduction

Broadly speaking, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) pitted Austria and Britain against a coalition of France, Spain, and (for the years 1740–1742 and 1744–1745) Prussia. Piedmont-Sardinia and the Dutch Republic played lesser roles on the Anglo-Austrian side. Russia entered the war on the same side just before it ended. The belligerence began in late 1740 when Prussia unexpectedly sent its army into the rich Austrian province of Silesia with the aim of seizing it. It ended in the fall of 1748 when exhaustion in all camps, as complemented by a set of mutual military standoffs, allowed diplomats to craft the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Although it was a European-wide belligerence, the war is best understood as an interrelated set of three coinciding conflicts. The first conflict pitted Prussia against Austria. Prussia won this contention, and the Treaty of Dresden (1745), which allowed Prussia to leave the broader war, transferred control of Silesia from Vienna to Berlin. The treaty also opened up a century during which Prussia and Austria vied for dominance in Germany, a rivalry that did not end until the era of Bismarck. The second conflict pitted Habsburg Austria against the Bourbon powers of France and Spain. In this contention France had the broad goal of weakening Austria in Germany, while Spain had the focused goal of securing territory in Italy for a Spanish prince. The peace treaty gave little to France but allowed Spain a modest victory. The third conflict pitted Britain against France for imperial supremacy. More than the other two, this rivalry had world-historical significance, and it demonstrated the peculiar advantages that flowed to London by virtue of its powerful navy. The war, fought in four theaters, has proved difficult for historians to assess because it was marked by an irregular ebb and flow of military successes and failures in all of them. Only toward the end, when France won clear dominance on land by conquering the Austrian Netherlands while Britain won even greater dominance at sea by crushing the Bourbon navies, did two balanced and competing successes allow peace negotiations to reach fruition. Meanwhile, a series of national revolts in smaller states demonstrated that belligerence was shredding traditional patterns of political loyalty. Two military commanders stood out above all others: Frederick II “the Great” of Prussia and Maurice of Saxony commanding for France. Although Frederick now has the greater reputation, Maurice was the more successful of the two in this war.

General Overviews of 18th-Century International Relations

All these books assume that what happened in 18th-century Europe was important for the wider world. Since the late 20th century, traditional forms of the study of international relations have fallen out of fashion (as the publication dates of a surprising number of the works in this bibliography will attest), and the best surveys of the course of diplomatic relations in 18th-century Europe tend to come from earlier decades. Immich 1967 is the most detailed of the four that are mentioned, but the reader should be forewarned that this splendid book is a reprint of the 1905 edition. Zeller 1955 is the French analogue to Immich’s German-language survey; not as detailed, but thorough and accurate. There is no English-language overview equivalent to these. Dorn 1940 covers just the wars of the mid-century, linking the War of the Austrian Succession with the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and treating them as two manifestations of the search for worldwide stability in mid-18th-century international relations. McKay and Scott 1983 is a short survey, helpful as an introduction to the subject and featuring useful bibliographic essays and a set of maps.

  • Dorn, Walter L. Competition for Empire, 1740–1763. New York: Harper, 1940.

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    Dorn is particularly good at explaining war aims and keeping the reader aware of the American dimension.

  • Immich, Max. Geschichte des europäischen Staatensystems von 1660 bis 1789. Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1967.

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    Old, but still the best single overview. Immich is judicious in his judgments, thorough in his treatment, and, though written over a century ago, still generally reliable.

  • McKay, Derek, and H. M. Scott. The Rise of the Great Powers, 1648–1815. London: Longman, 1983.

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    Based on a wide range of up-to-date (as of 1983) studies, this book situates early modern state building in the context of an environment of competitive warfare.

  • Zeller, Gaston. Histoire des relations internationales. Vol. 3, Les temps modernes. Part 2, De Louis XV à 1789. Paris: Hachette, 1955.

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    A good alternative to Immich 1967 for those who prefer reading in French.

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