‘Enlightened Despots’ in the Early Modern World



Equestrian portrait of Catherine in the Preobrazhensky Regiment’s uniform. / Wikimedia Commons


Enlightened despotism, also called benevolent despotism, was a form of government in the 18th century in which absolute monarchs pursued legal, social, and educational reforms inspired by the Enlightenment.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 06.12.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief



1 – Frederick the Great and Prussia

1.1 – The Hohenzollerns

The Hohenzollern family split into two branches, the Catholic Swabian branch and the Protestant Franconian branch. The latter transformed from a minor German princely family into one of the most important dynasties in Europe.

1.1.1 – House of Hohenzollern

The House of Hohenzollern is a dynasty of Hohenzollern, Brandenburg, Prussia, the German Empire, and Romania. The family arose in the area around the town of Hechingen in Swabia during the 11th century and took their name from the Hohenzollern Castle. The first ancestor of the Hohenzollerns was mentioned in 1061, but the family split into two branches, the Catholic Swabian branch and the Protestant Franconian branch, which later became the Brandenburg-Prussian branch. The Swabian branch ruled the principalities of Hohenzollern-Hechingen and Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (both fiefs of the Holy Roman Empire) until 1849 and ruled Romania from 1866 to 1947. The cadet Franconian branch of the House of Hohenzollern was founded by Conrad I, Burgrave of Nuremberg (1186-1261). Beginning in the 16th century, this branch of the family became Protestant and decided on expansion through marriage and the purchase of surrounding lands. The family supported the Hohenstaufen and Habsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire during the 12th to 15th centuries and was rewarded with several territorial grants. In the first phase, the family gradually added to their lands, at first with many small acquisitions in the Franconian region of Germany (Ansbach in 1331 and Kulmbach in 1340). In the second phase, the family expanded further with large acquisitions in the Brandenburg and Prussian regions of Germany and current Poland (Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1417 and Duchy of Prussia in 1618). These acquisitions eventually transformed the Hohenzollerns from a minor German princely family into one of the most important dynasties in Europe.

1.1.2 – Margraviate of Brandenburn

The Margraviate of Brandenburg was a major principality of the Holy Roman Empire from 1157 to 1806. Also known as the March of Brandenburg, it played a pivotal role in the history of Germany and Central Europe. Its ruling margraves were established as prestigious prince-electors in the Golden Bull of 1356, allowing them to vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. The state thus became additionally known as Electoral Brandenburg or the Electorate of Brandenburg. The House of Hohenzollern came to the throne of Brandenburg in 1415. Frederick VI of Nuremberg was officially recognized as Margrave and Prince-elector Frederick I of Brandenburg at the Council of Constance in 1415.

Portrait of Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg, also called Frederick VI of Nuremberg: In 1411 Frederick VI, Burgrave of Nuremberg was appointed governor of Brandenburg in order to restore order and stability. At the Council of Constance in 1415, King Sigismund elevated Frederick to the rank of Elector and Margrave of Brandenburg as Frederick I.

Frederick made Berlin his residence, although he retired to his Franconian possessions in 1425. He granted governance of Brandenburg to his eldest son John the Alchemist while retaining the electoral dignity for himself. The next elector, Frederick II, forced the submission of Berlin and Cölln, setting an example for the other towns of Brandenburg. He reacquired the Neumark from the Teutonic Knights and began its rebuilding. Brandenburg accepted the Protestant Reformation in 1539. The population has remained largely Lutheran since, although some later electors converted to Calvinism. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Brandenburg was recognized as the possessor of territories, which were more than 100 kilometers from the borders of Brandenburg and formed the nucleus of the later Prussian Rhineland.

1.1.3 – Brandenburg-Prussia

When Duke of Prussia Albert Frederick died in 1618 without having had a son, his son-in-law John Sigismund, at the time the prince-elector of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, inherited the Duchy of Prussia. He then ruled both territories in a personal union that came to be known as Brandenburg-Prussia. Prussia lay outside the Holy Roman Empire and the electors of Brandenburg held it as a fief of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth to which the electors paid homage.

The electors of Brandenburg spent the next two centuries attempting to gain lands to unite their separate territories (the Mark Brandenburg, the territories in the Rhineland and Westphalia, and Ducal Prussia) and form one geographically contiguous domain. In the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Brandenburg-Prussia acquired Farther Pomerania and made it the Province of Pomerania. In the second half of the 17th century, Frederick William, the “Great Elector,” developed Brandenburg-Prussia into a major power. The electors succeeded in acquiring full sovereignty over Prussia in 1657.

1.1.4 – Kingdom of Prussia

In return for aiding Emperor Leopold I during the War of the Spanish Succession, Frederick William’s son, Frederick III, was allowed to elevate Prussia to the status of a kingdom. In 1701, Frederick crowned himself Frederick I, King of Prussia. Prussia, unlike Brandenburg, lay outside the Holy Roman Empire, within which only the emperor and the ruler of Bohemia could call themselves king. As king was a more prestigious title than prince-elector, the territories of the Hohenzollerns became known as the Kingdom of Prussia, although their power base remained in Brandenburg. Legally, Brandenburg was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by the Hohenzollerns in personal union with the Prussian kingdom over which they were fully sovereign. For this reason, the Hohenzollerns continued to use the additional title of Elector of Brandenburg for the remainder of the empire’s run. However, by this time the emperor’s authority over the empire had become merely nominal. The various territories of the empire acted more or less as de facto sovereign states and only acknowledged the emperor’s overlordship over them in a formal way. For this reason, Brandenburg soon came to be treated as de facto part of the Prussian kingdom rather than a separate entity.

From 1701 to 1946, Brandenburg’s history was largely that of the state of Prussia, which established itself as a major power in Europe during the 18th century. King Frederick William I of Prussia, the “Soldier-King,” modernized the Prussian Army, while his son Frederick the Great achieved glory and infamy with the Silesian Wars and Partitions of Poland. The feudal designation of the Margraviate of Brandenburg ended with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, which made the Hohenzollerns de jure as well as de factosovereigns over it. It was replaced with the Province of Brandenburg in 1815 following the Napoleonic Wars. Brandenburg, along with the rest of Prussia, became part of the German Empire in 1871 during the Prussian-led unification of Germany.

1.2 – Frederick the Great

In his youth, Frederick the Great was a sensitive man with great appreciation for intellectual development, arts, and education. Despite his father’s fears, this did not prevent him from becoming a brilliant military strategist during his later reign as King of Prussia.

1.2.1 – Early Childhood

Frederick, the son of Frederick William I and his wife, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, was born in Berlin in 1712. His birth was particularly welcomed by his grandfather, Frederick I, as his two previous grandsons both died in infancy. With the death of Frederick I in 1713, Frederick William became King of Prussia, thus making young Frederick the crown prince.

The new king wished for his sons and daughters to be educated not as royalty but as simple folk. He had been educated by a Frenchwoman, Madame de Montbail, who later became Madame de Rocoulle, and wanted her to educate his children. Frederick was brought up by Huguenot governesses and tutors and learned French and German simultaneously. In spite of his father’s desire that his education be entirely religious and pragmatic, the young Frederick, with the help of his tutor Jacques Duhan, secretly procured a 3,000-volume library of poetry, Greek and Roman classics, and French philosophy to supplement his official lessons. Frederick William I, popularly dubbed the Soldier-King, possessed a violent temper and ruled Brandenburg-Prussia with absolute authority. As Frederick grew, his preference for music, literature, and French culture clashed with his father’s militarism, resulting in frequent beatings and humiliation from his father.

1.2.2 – Crown Prince

Frederick found an ally in his sister Wilhelmine, with whom he remained close for life. At age 16, he formed an attachment to the king’s 13-year-old page, Peter Karl Christoph Keith. Margaret Goldsmith, a biographer of Frederick’s, suggests the attachment was of a sexual nature. As a result, Keith was sent away to an unpopular regiment near the Dutch frontier, while Frederick was temporarily sent to his father’s hunting lodge in order “to repent of his sin.” Around the same time, he became close friends with Hans Hermann von Katte.

When he was 18, Frederick plotted to flee to England with Katte and other junior army officers. Frederick and Katte were subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Küstrin. Because they were army officers who had tried to flee Prussia for Great Britain, Frederick William leveled an accusation of treason against the pair. The king briefly threatened the crown prince with the death penalty, then considered forcing Frederick to renounce the succession in favor of his brother, Augustus William, although either option would have been difficult to justify to the Imperial Diet (general assembly) of the Holy Roman Empire. The king forced Frederick to watch the decapitation of Katte at Küstrin, leaving the crown prince to faint right before the fatal blow was struck.

Frederick was granted a royal pardon and released from his cell, although he remained stripped of his military rank. Instead of returning to Berlin, he was forced to remain in Küstrin and began rigorous schooling in statecraft and administration. Tensions eased slightly when Frederick William visited Küstrin a year later and Frederick was allowed to visit Berlin on the occasion of his sister Wilhelmine’s marriage to Margrave Frederick of Bayreuth in 1731. The crown prince returned to Berlin after finally being released from his tutelage at Küstrin a year later.

A number of royal family members were considered candidates for marriage, but Frederick eventually married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a Protestant relative of the Austrian Habsburgs, in 1733. He had little in common with his bride and resented the political marriage as an example of the Austrian interference that had plagued Prussia since 1701. Once Frederick secured the throne in 1740 after his father’s death, he immediately separated from his wife and prevented Elisabeth from visiting his court in Potsdam, granting her instead Schönhausen Palace and apartments at the Berliner Stadtschloss. In later years, Frederick would pay his wife formal visits only once a year. Recent major biographers are unequivocal that Frederick was homosexual and that his sexuality was central to his life and character.

Frederick as Crown Prince by Antoine Pesne, 1739.

Frederick would come to the throne with an exceptional inheritance: an army of 80,000 men. By 1770, after two decades of punishing war alternating with intervals of peace, Frederick doubled the size of the huge army,  which during his reign would consume 86% of the state budget.

1.2.3 – Becoming the Leader

Frederick was restored to the Prussian Army as colonel. When Prussia provided a contingent of troops to aid Austria during the War of the Polish Succession, Frederick studied under Prince Eugene of Savoy during the campaign against France on the Rhine. Frederick William, weakened by gout brought about by the campaign and seeking to reconcile with his heir, granted Frederick Schloss Rheinsberg in Rheinsberg, north of Neuruppin. In Rheinsberg, Frederick assembled a small number of musicians, actors, and other artists. He spent his time reading, watching dramatic plays, and making and listening to music, and regarded this time as one of the happiest of his life.

The works of Niccolò Machiavelli, such as The Prince, were considered a guideline for the behavior of a king in Frederick’s age. In 1739, Frederick finished his Anti-Machiavel, an idealistic refutation of Machiavelli. Instead of promoting more democratic principles of the Enlightenment, Frederick was a proponent of enlightened absolutism. It was written in French and published anonymously in 1740, but Voltaire distributed it in Amsterdam to great popularity. Frederick’s years dedicated to the arts instead of politics ended upon the 1740 death of Frederick William and his inheritance of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Prince Frederick was 28 years old when he acceded to the throne of Prussia. His goal was to modernize and unite his vulnerably disconnected lands, and he largely succeeded through aggressive military and foreign policies. Contrary to his father’s fears, Frederick proved himself a courageous soldier and an extremely skillful strategist. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte viewed the Prussian king as the greatest tactical genius of all time. After the Seven Years’ War, the Prussian military acquired a formidable reputation across Europe. Esteemed for their efficiency and success in battle, Frederick’s army became a model emulated by other European powers, most notably Russia and France. Frederick was also an influential military theorist whose analysis emerged from his extensive personal battlefield experience and covered issues of strategy, tactics, mobility and logistics. Even the later military reputation of Prussia under Bismarck and Moltke rested on the weight of mid-eighteenth century military developments and the territorial expansion of Frederick the Great. Despite his dazzling success as a military commander, however, Frederick was not a fan of protracted warfare.

1.3 – Prussia under Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great significantly modernized Prussian economy, administration, judicial system, education, finance, and agriculture, but never attempted to change the social order based on the dominance of the landed nobility.

1.3.1 – The Modernization of Prussia

As King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786, Frederick the Great helped transform Prussia from a European backwater to an economically strong and politically reformed state. During his reign, the effects of the Seven Years’ War and the gaining of Silesia greatly changed the economy. The conquest of Silesia gave Prussia’s fledgling industries access to raw materials and fertile agricultural lands. With the help of French experts, he organized a system of indirect taxation, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxation. He also commissioned Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, a Prussian merchant with a successful trade in trinkets, silk, taft, and porcelain, to promote the trade and open a silk factory that employed 1,500 people. Frederick followed Gotzovsky’s recommendations in the fields of toll levies and import restrictions. He also protected Prussian industries with high tariffs and minimal restrictions on domestic trade. In 1763, when Gotzkowsky went bankrupt during a financial crisis, Frederick took over his porcelain factory. The factory was eventually turned into the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin (Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, or KPM), which still operates today. In 1781, Frederick decided to make coffee a royal monopoly. Disabled soldiers were employed to spy on citizens sniffing in search of illegally roasted coffee, much to the annoyance of general population.

Frederick also gave his state a modern bureaucracy whose mainstay until 1760 was the able War and Finance Minister Adam Ludwig von Blumenthal, succeeded in 1764 by his nephew Joachim, who ran the ministry to the end of the reign and beyond. He reformed the judicial system and made it possible for men not of noble stock to become judges and senior bureaucrats. He also allowed freedom of speech, the press and literature, and abolished most uses of judicial torture, except the flogging of soldiers as punishment for desertion. The death penalty could only be carried out with a warrant signed by the King himself, and Frederick signed a handful of these warrants per year.

At the time, Prussia’s education system was seen as one of the best in Europe. Frederick laid the basic foundations of what would eventually became a Prussian primary education system. In 1763, he issued a decree for the first Prussian general school law based on the principles developed by Johann Julius Hecker. In 1748, Hecker had founded the first teacher’s seminary in Prussia. The decree expanded the existing schooling system significantly and required that all young citizens, both girls and boys, be educated by mainly municipality-funded schools from the age of 5 to 13 or 14. Prussia was among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and generally compulsory primary education, although it took several decades before universal education was successfully enacted.

The circulation of depreciated money kept prices high. To revalue the thaler, the Mint Edict of May 1763 was proposed. This stabilized the rates of depreciated coins that would not be accepted and provided for payment of taxes in currency of pre-Seven Years’ War value. Prussia used a thaler containing 1/14th of a Cologne mark of silver. Many other rulers soon followed the steps of Frederick in reforming their own currencies, which resulted in a shortage of ready money, thus lowering prices.

An important aspect of Frederick’s efforts is the absence of social order reform. In his modernization of military and administration, he relied on the class of Junkers, the Prussian land-owning nobility. Under his rule, they continued to hold their privileges, including the right to hold serfs. Frederick’s attempts to protect the peasantry from cruel treatment and oppression by landlords and lower their labor obligations never really succeeded because of the economic, political, and military influence the Junkers exercised. As the bulwark of the ruling House of Hohenzollern, the Junkers controlled the Prussian army, leading in political influence and social status, and owned immense estates, especially in the north-eastern half of Germany.

1.3.2 – Agriculture

Frederick was keenly interested in land use, especially draining swamps and opening new farmland for colonizers who would increase the kingdom’s food supply. He called it “peopling Prussia.” About a thousand new villages were founded in his reign that attracted 300,000 immigrants from outside Prussia. Using improved technology enabled him to create new farmland through a massive drainage program in the country’s Oderbruch marshland. This strategy created roughly 150,000 acres of new farmland, but also eliminated vast swaths of natural habitat, destroyed the region’s biodiversity, and displaced numerous native plant and animal communities. Frederick saw this project as the “taming” and “conquering” of nature, which, in its wild form, he regarded as “useless” and “barbarous” (an attitude that reflected his Enlightenment -era, rationalist sensibilities). He presided over the construction of canals for bringing crops to market and introduced new crops, especially potato and turnip, to the country. Control of grain prices was of Frederick’s greatest achievements in that it allowed populations to survive in areas where harvests were poor. Frederick also loved animals and founded the first veterinary school in Germany. Unusual for his time and aristocratic background, he criticized hunting as cruel, rough, and uneducated.

Der König überall by Robert Müller, Berlin, 1886.

Frederick the Great inspects the potato harvest outside Neustettin (now Szczecinek, Poland), Eastern Pomerania. He introduced new crops, especially the potato and the turnip, to the country. and because of it he was sometimes called Der Kartoffelkönig (the Potato King).

1.3.3 – Religious Policies

While Frederick was largely non-practicing (in contrast to his devoutly Calvinist father) and tolerated all faiths in his realm, Protestantism became the favored religion and Catholics were not chosen for higher state positions. Frederick was known to be more tolerant of Jews and Catholics than many neighboring German states, although he expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments and, in territories taken over from Poland, persecuted Polish Roman Catholic churches by confiscating goods and property, exercising strict control of churches, and interfering in church administration. Like many leading figures in the Age of Enlightenment, Frederick was a Freemason and his membership legitimized the group and protected it against charges of subversion.

Frederick retained Jesuits as teachers in Silesia, Warmia, and the Netze District after their suppression by Pope Clement XIV. Just like Catherine II, he recognized the educational skills the Jesuits had as an asset for the nation and was interested in attracting a diversity of skills to his country, whether from Jesuit teachers, Huguenot citizens, or Jewish merchants and bankers.

As Frederick made more wasteland arable, Prussia looked for new colonists to settle the land. To encourage immigration, he repeatedly emphasized that nationality and religion were of no concern to him. This policy allowed Prussia’s population to recover very quickly from the considerable losses it suffered during Frederick’s wars.

The Flute Concert of Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel, 1852, depicts Frederick playing the flute in his music room at Sanssouci, his favorite residence in Potsdam. C. P. E. Bach accompanies him on the harpsichord.

Additionally to reforming efforts, Frederick was a patron of music as well as a gifted musician who played the transverse flute. He composed more than 100 sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies. His court musicians included C. P. E. Bach, Johann Joachim Quantz, Carl Heinrich Graun and Franz Benda. A meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 in Potsdam led to Bach’s writing The Musical Offering.

1.4 – The War of Austrian Succession

Frederick the Great’s 1740 invasion of resource-rich and strategically located Silesia, marked the onset of the War of Austrian Succession and aimed to unify the disconnected lands under Frederick’s rule.

1.4.1 – Background

In 1713, Charles VI of the Habsburg dynasty issued an edict known as the Pragmatic Sanction. It aimed to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht ( Duchy of Milan, Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily), and the Austrian Netherlands. However, the Pragmatic Sanction did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.

In 1740, Charles VI died and his daughter Maria Theresa succeeded him as Queen of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, and Duchess of Parma. She was not, however, a candidate for the title of Holy Roman Emperor, which had never been held by a woman. The plan was for her to succeed to the hereditary domains and her husband, Francis Stephen, to be elected Holy Roman Emperor.

Also in 1740, Frederick the Great of the Hohenzollern dynasty took the title of King of Prussia upon his father’s death. As such, Frederick was also Elector of Brandenburg because the two remained in personal union since the early 17th century. Legally, Brandenburg was still part of the Holy Roman Empire but the Hohenzollerns were fully sovereign rulers of the Prussian Kingdom. Theoretically, this positioned Frederick as a sovereign king of Prussia but under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor as the ruler of Brandenburg. In reality, by the 18th century Emperor’s authority over the Empire had become merely nominal. The various territories of the Empire acted more or less as de facto sovereign states and only acknowledged the Emperor’s overlordship over them in a formal way. For this reason, Brandenburg soon came to be treated as de facto part of the Prussian kingdom rather than a separate entity.

1.4.2 – Silesia

Hoping to unify his disconnected lands and thus desiring the prosperous, resource-rich, and strategically located Austrian province of Silesia, Frederick declined to endorse the Pragmatic Sanction. He disputed the succession of Maria Theresa to the Habsburg lands while simultaneously making his own claim on Silesia. Accordingly, the War of Austrian Succession began on December 16, 1740, when Frederick invaded and quickly occupied the province. He was worried that if he did not move to occupy the region, Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, would seek to connect his own disparate lands through Silesia. Politically, Frederick used the 1537 Treaty of Brieg as a pretext for the invasion. Under the treaty, the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg were to inherit the Duchy of Brieg, an autonomous region of Silesia. However, the 1537 agreement had been rejected by the Bohemian king Ferdinand I of Habsburg soon after it was reached and never came into effect.

The Pragmatic Sanction, Act of Emperor Charles VI

Since their marriage in 1708, Charles and his wife Elizabeth Christine had not had children, and since 1711 Charles had been the sole surviving male member of the House of Habsburg. Charles’s elder brother Joseph I had died without male issue, making accession of a female a very plausible contingency. Charles VI needed to take extraordinary measures to avoid a succession dispute. He was, indeed, ultimately succeeded by his elder daughter Maria Theresa (born 1717). Her accession in 1740 still resulted in the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession.

The War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) escalated and eventually involved most of the powers of Europe. It included King George’s War in North America, the War of Jenkins’ Ear (formally began in 1739), the First Carnatic War in India, the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, and the war over Silesia (First and Second Silesian Wars). Austria was supported by Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, the traditional enemies of France, as well as the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Electorate of Saxony. France and Prussia were allied with the Electorate of Bavaria.

1.4.3 – Silesian Wars

Frederick occupied Silesia except for three fortresses at Glogau, Brieg and Breslau. The first real battle he faced in Silesia was the Battle of Mollwitz in April 1741, which was the first time Frederick would command an army and later saw as his “school.” In early September 1741, the French entered the war against Austria and together with their allies, the Electorate of Bavaria, marched on Prague. With Prague under threat, the Austrians pulled their army out of Silesia to defend Bohemia. When Frederick pursued them into Bohemia and blocked their path to Prague, the Austrians attacked him in May 1742. The Prussian Cavalry proved to be a powerful force and ultimately Prussia claimed victory. Frederick forced the Austrians to seek peace with him in the First Silesian War (1740–1742). Peace terms of the Treaty of Breslau between the Austrians and the Prussians negotiated in 1742 gave Prussia all of Silesia and Glatz County with the Austrians retaining only a portion of Upper Silesia called “Austrian or Czech Silesia.” Prussian possession of Silesia gave the kingdom control over the navigable Oder River.

Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg by Carl Röchling 1913)

On June 4, 1745, Frederick trapped a joint force of Saxons and Austrians that had crossed the mountains to invade Silesia. After allowing them to cross the mountains, Frederick then pinned the enemy force down and defeated them at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg. The battle was one of Prussia’s great victories during the Second Silesian War.

Frederick strongly suspected that the Austrians (who had subdued Bavaria but were still at war with France) would resume war with Prussia in an attempt to recover Silesia. Accordingly, he renewed his alliance with the French and preemptively invaded Bohemia in 1744. Thus the Second Silesian War (1744–1745) began. Frederick’s stunning victories on the battlefields of Bohemia and Silesia again forced his enemies to seek peace terms. Under the terms of the Treaty of Dresden, signed in December 1745, Austria was forced to adhere to the terms of the Treaty of Breslau giving Silesia to Prussia. Frederick, on the other hand, recognized the election of Maria Theresa’s husband/consort—Francis I—as the Holy Roman Emperor.

2 – The Holy Roman Empire

2.1 – The Structure of the Holy Roman Empire

Although the Habsburgs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor for nearly four centuries, the title was not hereditary and their power over the decentralized empire was limited and separate from their reign over the territories under the Habsburg rule.

2.1.1 – Introduction

The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The term Holy Roman Empire was not used until the 13th century and the office of Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally elective, although frequently controlled by dynasties. The German prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers to be the emperor and he would later be crowned by the Pope (the tradition of papal coronations was discontinued in the 16th century). In time, the empire evolved into a decentralized, limited elective monarchy composed of hundreds of sub-units, principalities, duchies, counties, free imperial cities, and other domains. The power of the emperor was limited and while the various princes, lords, bishops and cities of the empire were vassals who owed the emperor their allegiance, they also possessed an extent of privileges that gave them de facto independence within their territories.

2.1.2 – The Habsburg Dynasty

The Habsburgs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor between 1438 and 1740 and again from 1745 to 1806. Although one family held the title for centuries, the Holy Roman Emperor was elected and the position never became hereditary. This contrasted with the power that the Habsburgs held over territories under their rule, which did not overlap with the Holy Roman Empire. From the 16th century until the formal establishment of the Austrian Empire in 1804, those lands were unofficially called the Habsburg or Austrian Monarchy. They changed over the centuries, but the core always consisted of the Hereditary Lands (most of the modern states of Austria and Slovenia, as well as territories in northeastern Italy and southwestern Germany); the Lands of the Bohemian Crown; and the Kingdom of Hungary. Many other lands were also under Habsburg rule at one time or another.

The various Habsburg possessions never really formed a single country—each province was governed according to its own particular customs. Until the mid 17th century, not all of the provinces were even necessarily ruled by the same person—junior members of the family often ruled portions of the Hereditary Lands as private apanages. Serious attempts at centralization began under Maria Theresa and especially her son Joseph II in the mid to late 18th century, but many of these were abandoned following large-scale resistance to Joseph’s more radical reform attempts.

The Holy Roman Empire was also a decentralized state; in fact, its fragmentation was much more dramatic than that of the Habsburg Monarchy. It was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots and other rulers, collectively known as princes. There were also some areas ruled directly by the Emperor. At no time could the Emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the Empire. His power was severely restricted by the various local leaders. The Emperors were unable to gain much control over the lands that they formally owned. Instead, to secure their own position from the threat of being deposed, they were forced to grant more and more autonomy to local rulers. The division between the positions of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Emperor of the Austrian Monarchy is best illustrated by the circumstances around the War of the Austrian Succession. The war began under the pretext that Maria Theresa was ineligible to succeed to the Habsburg thrones of her father, Charles VI, because the existing law precluded royal inheritance by a woman. At the end, Maria Theresa was recognized as the head of the Austrian Monarchy while her husband, Francis I, was eventually granted the title of Holy Roman Emperor. When Francis died in 1765, Maria Theresa continued to rule the Habsburg lands, but her son, Joseph II, secured the title of the Holy Roman Emperor. However, he gained the rule over the hereditary territories of the Habsburgs only after his mother’s death fifteen years later.

2.1.3 – The End of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian Empire

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire underwent significant changes. In 1803, the Imperial Recess was declared, which reduced the number of ecclesiastical states from 81 to only 3 and the free imperial cities from 51 to 6. In 1804, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, who was also ruler of the lands of the Habsburg Monarchy, founded the Empire of Austria comprising all his lands. In doing so, he created a formal overarching structure for the Habsburg Monarchy as he foresaw either the end of the Holy Roman Empire or the eventual accession as Holy Roman Emperor of Napoleon, who had earlier that year adopted the title of an Emperor of the French. In 1805, the leaders of some imperial territories proclaimed their independence and signed a treaty with France, becoming French allies. Eventually, Francis II agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Pressburg (1805), which in practice meant the dissolution of the long-lived Holy Roman Empire and a reorganization under a Napoleonic imprint of the German territories lost in the process into a precursor state of what became modern Germany. In 1806, the Confederation of the Rhine was established, comprising 16 sovereigns and countries. This confederation, under French influence, put an end to the Holy Roman Empire.

The Austrian Empire in 1812

The Austrian Empire was a multinational empire and one of Europe’s great powers. Geographically it was the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire. It was also the third most populous after Russia and France, as well as the largest and strongest country in the German Confederation.

2.2 – The Pragmatic Sanction

The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 was an edict issued by Charles VI to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter, but it was contested after Charles’ death in 1740, resulting in the War of Austrian Succession.

2.2.1 – The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713

The Pragmatic Sanction was an edict issued by Charles VI on April 19, 1713, to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht ( Duchy of Milan, Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily), and the Austrian Netherlands. The Pragmatic Sanction did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary, although successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.

The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, Act of Emperor Charles VI.

Because Charles VI had no male heirs and earlier arrangements favored his brother’s daughters, he needed to take extraordinary measures to avoid a succession dispute. Charles was ultimately succeeded by his elder daughter Maria Theresa (born 1717). Despite the promulgation of the Pragmatic Sanction, however, her accession in 1740 resulted in the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession.

2.2.2 – The Mutual Pact of Succession

In 1700, the senior (oldest, first-in-line) branch of the House of Habsburg became extinct with the death of Charles II of Spain. The War of the Spanish Succession ensued, with Louis XIV of France claiming the crowns of Spain for his grandson Philip and Leopold I (Holy Roman Emperor) claiming them for his son Charles. In 1703, Charles and Joseph, the sons of Leopold, signed the Mutual Pact of Succession, granting succession rights to the daughters of Joseph and Charles in case of complete extinction of the male line, but favoring Joseph’s daughters over Charles’s because Joseph was older.

In 1705, Leopold I died and was succeeded by his elder son, Joseph I. Six years later, Joseph I died leaving behind two daughters, Archduchesses Maria Josepha and Maria Amalia. Charles succeeded Joseph according to the Pact, and Maria Josepha became his heir presumptive. However, Charles soon expressed a wish to amend the Pact to give his own future daughters precedence over his nieces. Securing the right to succeed for his own daughters, who were not even born yet, became Charles’s obsession. The previous succession laws had also forbidden the partition of the Habsburg dominions and provided for succession by females, but they had been mostly hypothetical. On April 19, 1713, the Emperor announced the changes in a secret session of the council. The Pragmatic Sanction was the first such document to be publicly announced and as such required formal acceptance by the estates of the realms it concerned.

2.2.3 – Recognition and Failure

For 10 years, Charles VI labored with the support of his closest advisor Johann Christoph von Bartenstein to have his sanction accepted by the courts of Europe and by Habsburg’s hereditary territories. All the major empires and states agreed to recognize the sanction. Hungary, which had an elective kingship, had accepted the house of Habsburg as hereditary kings in the male line. It was agreed that if the Habsburg male line became extinct, Hungary would once again have an elective monarchy. This was also the rule in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Maria Theresa, Charles’ daughter who succeeded her father following his death in 1740, still gained the throne of Hungary (the Hungarian Parliament voted its own Pragmatic Sanction in 1723). Croatia was one of the crown lands that supported the Sanction of 1713, which eventually resulted in Maria Theresa making significant contributions to Croatian matters.

After Charles VI died, Prussia and Bavaria contested the claims of Maria Theresa on his Austrian lands. The refusal to accept the Sanction of 1713 resulted in the War of the Austrian Succession, in which Austria lost resource-rich and strategically located Silesia to Prussia as well as the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla. The elective office of Holy Roman Emperor was filled by Joseph I’s son-in-law Charles Albert of Bavaria, marking the first time in several hundred years that the position was not held by a Habsburg. As Emperor Charles VII, he lost his own country, Bavaria, to the Austrian army of his wife’s cousin Maria Theresa and soon died. His son, Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria, renounced claims on Austria in exchange for the return of his paternal duchy of Bavaria. Maria Theresa’s husband was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Francis I in 1745. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 finally recognized Maria Theresa’s rule over the Habsburg hereditary lands. In accordance with the tradition, Maria Theresa held the title of the Holy Roman Empress as wife of the Emperor. She lost the title with her husband’s death in 1765, although she remained the ruler of the Habsburg lands until her death fifteen years later.

2.3 – Empress Maria-Theresa

Maria Theresa introduced reforms that improved her empire’s economy, military, education, public health, and administration but left the feudal social order intact.

2.3.1 – Introduction

Maria Theresa (1717 – 1780) was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma. By marriage, she was Duchess of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress. Although her father Charles VI ensured that his daughter, the first woman in the dynasty, would succeed him as the ruler of the Habsburg lands (the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713), the title of Holy Roman Emperor was neither hereditary nor ever held by a woman. The refusal of Prussia and Bavaria to accept Maria Theresa’s rule in 1740 after her father’s death resulted in the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48). In its aftermath, Maria Theresa was recognized as the ruler of the Habsburg lands. However, her title of Holy Roman Empress meant that she was in fact the wife of the Emperor, Francis I, who secured the title as one of Austria’s gains in the same war.

Although Maria Theresa was an  absolutist conservative, this was tempered by pragmatism and she implemented a number of overdue reforms, which were responses to the challenges to her lands but not ideologically framed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Maria Theresa by Martin van Meytens, 1742, the National Gallery of Slovenia

After several diplomatic failures and military defeats in the 1730s, Austria seemed to be declining or even on the verge of collapse. After her forty-year reign, Maria Theresa left a revitalized empire that influenced the rest of Europe through the 19th century.

2.3.2 – Religion

Maria Theresa was a devout Roman Catholic and believed that religious unity was necessary for a peaceful public life. Consequently, she explicitly rejected the idea of religious toleration but never allowed the Church to interfere with what she considered to be prerogatives of a monarch and kept Rome at arm’s length. She controlled the selection of archbishops, bishops, and abbots. Her approach to religious piety differed from that of her predecessors, as she was influenced by Jansenist ideas. The empress actively supported conversion to Roman Catholicism by securing pensions to the converts. She tolerated Greek Catholics and emphasized their equal status with Roman Catholics. Convinced by her advisors that the Jesuits posed a danger to her monarchical authority, she hesitantly issued a decree that removed them from all the institutions of the monarchy. Though she eventually gave up trying to convert her non-Catholic subjects to Roman Catholicism, Maria Theresa regarded both the Jews and Protestants as dangerous to the state and actively tried to suppress them. The empress was arguably the most anti-Semitic monarch of her time yet like many of her contemporaries, she supported Jewish commercial and industrial activity.

2.3.3 – Administrative and State Reforms

Maria Theresa implemented significant reforms to strengthen Austria’s military and bureaucratic efficiency. She employed Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz, who modernized the empire by creating a standing army of 108,000 men paid for with 14 million gulden extracted from each crown-land. The central government was responsible for the army, although Haugwitz instituted taxation of the nobility for the first time. Under Haugwitz, she centralized administration, a task previously left to the nobility and church, along Prussian models with permanent civil service. She also oversaw the unification of the Austrian and Bohemian chancellories in May 1749 and doubled the state revenue between 1754 and 1764, though her attempt to tax clergy and nobility was only partially successful. However, these financial reforms greatly improved the economy.

In 1760, Maria Theresa created the council of state, which served as a committee of experienced people who advised her. The council lacked executive or legislative authority, but nevertheless was distinguishable from the form of government employed by Frederick II of Prussia. Unlike the latter, Maria Theresa was not an autocrat who acted as her own minister. Prussia would adopt this form of government only after 1807. In 1776, Austria outlawed witch burning and torture. It was later reintroduced, but the progressive nature of these reforms remains noted. Despite all these reformist efforts, Maria Theresa did not change her lands’ deeply feudal social order based on privileged landlords and oppressive forced labor of the peasantry.

2.3.4 – Public Health

Maria Theresa invested in reforms that advanced what today would be defined as public health. She recruited Gerard van Swieten, who founded the Vienna General Hospital, revamped Austria’s educational system, and served as the Empress’s personal physician. After calling in van Swieten, Maria Theresa asked him to study the problem of infant mortality in Austria. Following his recommendation, she made a decree that autopsies would be mandatory for all hospital deaths in Graz, Austria’s second largest city. This law – still in effect today – combined with the relatively stable population of Graz, resulted in one of the most important and complete autopsy records in the world. Maria Theresa banned the creation of new burial grounds without prior government permission, thus countering wasteful and unhygienic burial customs. Her decision to have her children inoculated after the smallpox epidemic of 1767 was responsible for changing Austrian physicians’ negative view of inoculation.

2.3.5 – Education

Aware of the inadequacy of bureaucracy in Austria and wishing to improve it, Maria Theresa reformed education in 1775. In a new school system based on the Prussian one, all children of both genders had to attend school between ages 6 an 12. Education reform was met with much hostility. Maria Theresa crushed the dissent by ordering the arrest of those who opposed. The reforms, however, were not as successful as expected since no funding was offered from the state, education in most schools remained substandard, and in many parts of the empire forcing parents to send their children to school was ineffective (particularly in the countryside, children were seen as valuable labor force and schooling as a way to take them away from work). The empress permitted non-Catholics to attend university and allowed the introduction of secular subjects such as law, which influenced the decline of theology as the main foundation of university education. Educational reform also included that of Vienna University by Swieten from 1749, the founding of the Theresianum (1746) as a civil service academy, and other new military and foreign service academies.

Maria Theresa as a widow in 1773, by Anton von Maron

Maria Theresa was devastated by her husband’s (Francis I) death. Their eldest son, Joseph, became Holy Roman Emperor. Maria Theresa abandoned all ornamentation, had her hair cut short, painted her rooms black, and dressed in mourning for the rest of her life. She completely withdrew from court life, public events, and theater. She described her state of mind shortly after Francis’s death: “I hardly know myself now, for I have become like an animal with no true life or reasoning power.”

2.4 – Joseph II and Domestic Reform

As a proponent of enlightened absolutism, Joseph II introduced a series of reforms that affected nearly every realm of life in his empire, but his commitment to modernization engendered significant opposition, which eventually led to a failure to fully implement his programs.

2.4.1 – Introduction

Joseph II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790. He was the eldest son of Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis I and thus the first ruler in the Austrian dominions of the House of Lorraine, styled Habsburg-Lorraine. As women were never elected to be Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph took the title after his father’s death in 1765 yet it was his mother who remained the ruler of the Habsburg lands. However, Maria Theresa, devastated after her husband’s death and always relying on the help of advisors, declared Joseph to be her new co-ruler the same year. From then on, mother and son had frequent ideological disagreements. Joseph often threatened to resign as co-regent and emperor. When Maria Theresa died in 1780, Joseph became the absolute ruler over the most extensive realm of Central Europe. There was no parliament to deal with and Joseph, deeply interested in the ideals of the Enlightenment, was always positive that the rule of reason would produce the best possible results in the shortest time. He issued edicts, 6,000 in all, plus 11,000 new laws designed to regulate and reorder every aspect of the empire. He intended to improve his subjects’ lives but strictly in accordance with his own criteria. This made him one of the most committed enlightened despots.

2.4.2 – Josephinism

Josephinism (or Josephism), as his policies were called, is notable for the very wide range of reforms designed to modernize the creaky empire in an era when France and Prussia were rapidly advancing. However, it elicited grudging compliance at best and more often vehement opposition from all sectors in every part of his empire. Joseph set about building a rational, centralized, and uniform government for his diverse lands but with himself as supreme autocrat. He expected government servants to all be dedicated agents of Josephinism and selected them without favor for class or ethnic origins. Promotion was solely by merit. To impose uniformity, he made German the compulsory language of official business throughout the Empire. Joseph’s enlightened despotism and his resulting commitment to modernizing reforms subsequently engendered significant opposition, which eventually culminated in an ultimate failure to fully implement his programs.

2.4.3 – Tax, Land, and Legal Reform

To equalize the incidence of taxation, Joseph ordered a fresh appraisal of the value of all properties in the empire. His goal was to impose a single and egalitarian tax on land and thus modernize the relationship of dependence between the landowners and peasantry, relieve some of the tax burden on the peasantry, and increase state revenues. Joseph looked on the tax and land reforms as being interconnected and strove to implement them at the same time. The various commissions he established to formulate and carry out the reforms met resistance among the nobility, the peasantry, and some officials.

In 1781, Joseph issued the Serfdom Patent, which aimed to abolish aspects of the traditional serfdom system of the Habsburg lands through the establishment of basic civil liberties for the serfs. It was enforced differently in all the various Habsburg lands. The nobility in Bohemia refused to enact its provisions, while the Transylvanian nobles simply refused to notify the peasants in their region about this emancipation document. The Hungarian estates claimed that their peasants were not serfs, but “tenants in fee simple, who were fully informed as to their rights and duties by precise contracts” and continued to restrict these “tenants.” In contrast, the peasants of the German-speaking provinces were actually aided by the Patent. The Patent granted the serfs some legal rights in the Habsburg monarchy, but it did not affect the financial dues and the physical corvée (unpaid labor) that the serfs legally owed to their landlords, which it practice meant that it did not abolish serfdom but rather expanded selected rights of serfs. Joseph II recognized the importance of further reforms, continually attempting to destroy the economic subjugation through related laws, such as his Tax Decree of 1789. This new law would have finally realized Emperor Joseph II’s ambition to modernize Habsburg society, allowing for the end of corvée and the beginning of lesser tax obligations. Joseph’s latter reforms were withdrawn upon his death and the final emancipation reforms in the Empire were introduced only in 1848.

Joseph II is plowing the field near Slawikowitz in rural southern Moravia in 1769.

Despite the attempts to improve the fate of the peasantry, Joseph’s land reforms met with the resistance of the landed nobility and serfdom was not abolished in the Empire until 1848.

Joseph inspired a complete reform of the legal system, abolished brutal punishments and the death penalty in most instances, and imposed the principle of complete equality of treatment for all offenders. He ended censorship of the press and theater.

2.4.4 – Education and Public Health

Joseph continued education and public health reforms initiated by his mother. To produce a literate citizenry, elementary education was made compulsory for all boys and girls and higher education on practical lines was offered for a select few. Joseph created scholarships for talented poor students and allowed the establishment of schools for Jews and other religious minorities. In 1784, he ordered that the country change its language of instruction from Latin to German, a highly controversial step in a multilingual empire.

By the 18th century, centralization was the trend in medicine because more and better educated doctors were requesting improved facilities. Cities lacked the budgets to fund local hospitals and the monarchy wanted to end costly epidemics and quarantines. Joseph attempted to centralize medical care in Vienna through the construction of a single, large hospital, the famous Allgemeines Krankenhaus, which opened in 1784. Centralization, however, worsened sanitation problems causing epidemics and a 20% death rate in the new hospital, but the city became preeminent in the medical field in the next century.

2.4.5 – Religion

Probably the most unpopular of all his reforms was his attempt to modernize the highly traditional Catholic Church and make the Catholic Church in his empire the tool of the state, independent of Rome. Clergymen were deprived of the tithe and ordered to study in seminaries under government supervision, while bishops had to take a formal oath of loyalty to the crown. As a man of the Enlightenment, he ridiculed the contemplative monastic orders, which he considered unproductive. Accordingly, he suppressed a third of the monasteries (over 700 were closed) and reduced the number of monks and nuns from 65,000 to 27,000. Marriage was defined as a civil contract outside the jurisdiction of the Church. Joseph also sharply cut the number of holy days to be observed in the Empire and forcibly simplified the manner in which the Mass (the central Catholic act of worship) was celebrated. Opponents of the reforms blamed them for revealing Protestant tendencies, with the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and the emergence of a liberal class of bourgeois officials.

Joseph’s  enlightened despotism included also the Patent of Toleration, enacted in 1781, and the Edict of Tolerance in 1782. The Patent granted religious freedom to the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Serbian Orthodox, but it wasn’t until the 1782 Edict of Tolerance that Joseph II extended religious freedom to the Jewish population. Providing the Jewish subjects of the Empire with the right to practice their religion came with the assumption that the freedom would gradually force Jewish men and women into the mainstream German culture. While it allowed Jewish children to attend schools and universities, adults to engage in jobs from which there had been excluded, and all Jewish men and women not to wear gold stars that marked their identity, it also stipulated that the Jewish languages, the written language Hebrew and the spoken language Yiddish, were to be replaced by the national language of the country. Official documents and school textbooks could not be printed in Hebrew.

The Emperor by Anton von Maron, 1774.

Josephinism made many enemies inside the empire—from disaffected ecclesiastical authorities to noblemen. By the later years of his reign, disaffection with his sometimes radical policies was at a high, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and Hungary. Popular revolts and protests—led by nobles, seminary students, writers, and agents of Prussian King Frederick William—stirred throughout the Empire, prompting Joseph to tighten censorship of the press.

3 – The Seven Years’ War

3.1 – The Diplomatic Revolution

The diplomatic revolution of 1756 was the reversal of longstanding alliances in Europe between the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, when Austria went from an ally of Britain to an ally of France and Prussia became an ally of Britain.

3.1.1 – Introduction

In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), Frederick the Great of Prussia seized the prosperous province of Silesia from Austria. Maria Theresa of Austria signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 in order to gain time to rebuild her military forces and forge new alliances. The War of the Austrian Succession had seen the belligerence align on a time-honored basis. France’s traditional enemies, Great Britain and Austria, had coalesced. Prussia, the leading anti-Austrian state in Germany, had been supported by France. Neither group, however, found much reason to be satisfied with its partnership: British subsidies to Austria produced nothing of much help to the British, while the British military effort had not saved Silesia for Austria. Prussia, having secured Silesia, came to terms with Austria in disregard of French interests. Even so, France concluded a defensive alliance with Prussia in 1747 and the maintenance of the Anglo-Austrian alignment after 1748 was deemed essential by some British politicians.

The collapse of that system and the aligning of France with Austria and of Great Britain with Prussia constituted what is known as the “diplomatic revolution” or the “reversal of alliances.” This change in European alliances was a prelude to the Seven Years’ War.

3.1.2 – Background

The diplomatic change was triggered by a separation of interests between Austria, Britain, and France. The 1748 Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, after the War of the Austrian Succession, left Austria aware of the high price it paid for having Britain as an ally. Maria Theresa of Austria defended her claim to the Habsburg throne and had her husband, Francis Stephen, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1745. However, she had been forced to relinquish valuable territories in the process. Under British diplomatic pressure, Maria Theresa ceded Parma to Spain and, more importantly, the valuable state of Silesia to Prussia. The acquisition of Silesia further advanced Prussia as a great European power, which now posed an increasing threat to Austria’s German lands and to Central Europe as a whole. The growth of Prussia, dangerous to Austria, was welcomed by the British, who saw it as a means of balancing French power.

3.1.3 – British-Prussian Alliance vs. Austrian-French Alliance

The results of the War of Austrian Succession made it clear that Britain no longer viewed Austria as powerful enough to check French power but was content to build up other states like Prussia. Therefore Britain and Prussia, in the Westminster Convention of 1756, agreed that Britain would not aid Austria in a renewed conflict for Silesia if Prussia agreed to protect Hanover (which remained in personal union with Britain) from France. Britain felt that with Prussia’s growing strength, it would be more apt to defend Hanover than Austria. Meanwhile, Austria was determined to reclaim Silesia, so the two allies found themselves with conflicting interests. Maria Theresa, recognizing the futility of renewed alliance with Britain, knew that without a powerful ally (such as France), she could never hope to reclaim Silesia from Frederick the Great.

Maria Theresa sent her foreign policy minister, Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, to France to secure an alliance to enable Austria to reclaim Silesia. Louis XV proved reluctant to agree to any treaty presented by Kaunitz. Only with renewed aggression between France and Britain was Louis convinced to align with Austria. Furthermore, Austria no longer surrounded France, so France no longer saw Austria as an immediate threat. Consequently, it entered into a defensive alliance with Austria. In response to the Westminster Convention, Louis XV’s ministers and Kaunitz concluded the First Treaty of Versailles (1756). Both sides agreed to remain neutral and provide 24,000 troops if either got into conflict with a third party.

Maria Theresa’s diplomats, after securing French neutrality, actively began to establish an anti-Prussian coalition. Austria’s actions alerted Frederick, who decided to strike first by invading Saxony, commencing the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). Frederick’s actions were meant to scare Russia out of supporting Austria (the two countries had previously entered into a defensive alliance in 1746). However, by invading Saxony, Frederick had inflamed his enemies. Russia, under the direction of Empress Elizabeth, sent an additional 80,000 troops to Austria. A year after the signing of the First Treaty of Versailles, France and Austria signed a new offensive alliance, the Second Treaty of Versailles (1757).

In 1758, the Anglo-Prussian Convention between Great Britain and the Kingdom of Prussia formalized the alliance between the two powers. However, the alliance proved to be short-lived largely because Britain withdrew financial and military support for Prussia in 1762. The dissolution of the alliance and the pre-eminent rise of Britain left it with no allies by the time the American Revolutionary War broke out.

3.2 – Events of the Seven Years’ War

3.2.1 – Introduction

The Seven Years’ War was fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other. For the first time, aiming to curtail Britain and Prussia’s ever-growing might, France formed a grand coalition of its own, which ended as Britain rose as the world’s predominant power, altering the European balance of power. Conflict between Great Britain and France broke out in 1754–1756 when the British attacked disputed French positions in North America and seized hundreds of French merchant ships. Meanwhile, rising power Prussia was struggling with Austria for dominance within and outside the Holy Roman Empire in Central Europe. In 1756, the major powers shifted their alliances and Prussia allied with Britain while France allied with Austria, a change known as the diplomatic revolution.

In the historiography of some countries, the war is named after combatants in its respective theaters, e.g. the French and Indian War in the United States. In French-speaking Canada, it is known as the War of the Conquest, while it is called the Seven Years’ War in English-speaking Canada (North America, 1754–1763), Pomeranian War (with Sweden and Prussia, 1757–1762), Third Carnatic War (on the Indian subcontinent, 1757–1763), and Third Silesian War (with Prussia and Austria, 1756–1763).

All the participants of the Seven Years’ War: [blue] Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, with allies; [green] France, Spain, Austria, Russia, Sweden with allies. 

The Seven Years’ War is sometimes considered the first true world war. It restructured not only the European political order, but also affected events all around the world, paving the way for the beginning of later British world supremacy in the 19th century, the rise of Prussia in Germany, the beginning of tensions in British North America, as well as a clear sign of France’s eventual turmoil.

3.2.2 – Europe

Realizing that war was imminent, Prussia preemptively struck Saxony in 1756 and quickly overran it. The result caused uproar across Europe. Because of Prussia’s alliance with Britain, Austria formed an alliance with France, seeing an opportunity to recapture Silesia (lost in the War of the Austrian Succession). Reluctantly, by following the imperial diet, most of the states of the empire joined Austria’s cause. The Anglo-Prussian alliance was joined by smaller German states (especially Hanover, which remained in a personal union with Britain). Sweden, fearing Prussia’s expansionist tendencies, went to war in 1757 to protect its Baltic dominions. Spain intervened on behalf of France and together they launched an unsuccessful invasion of Portugal in 1762. The Russian Empire was originally aligned with Austria, fearing Prussia’s ambition on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but switched sides upon the succession of Tsar Peter III in 1762.

Despite the huge disparity in numbers, 1756 was successful for the Prussian-led forces on the continent. In 1757, Frederick the Great marched into the Kingdom of Bohemia. Although he won the bloody Battle of Prague and laid siege to the city, he lost the Battle of Kolin, which forced him to lift the siege and withdraw from Bohemia altogether. Things were looking grim for Prussia now, with the Austrians mobilizing to attack Prussian-controlled soil and a combined French and Reichsarmee (German states) army approaching from the west. However, at the end of 1757, the whole situation in Germany was reversed. After winning the battles of Rossbach and Leuthen, Frederick once again established himself as Europe’s premier general, but the Prussians were now facing the prospect of four major powers attacking on four fronts (France from the west, Austria from the south, Russia from the east, and Sweden from the north).

In 1758, following a failed invasion of Moravia, Frederick ceased his attempts to launch a major invasion of Austrian territory. The Russians invaded East Prussia, where they would remain until 1762. The years 1759 and 1760 saw several Prussian defeats, partly because of the Prussian misjudgment of the Russians and partly as a result of good cooperation between the Russian and Austrian forces. The French planned to invade the British Isles during 1759 but were prevented by two sea defeats. By 1761, forces on both sides were seriously depleted. In 1762, the Russian Empress Elizabeth died and her successor, Peter III, recalled Russian armies from Berlin and mediated Frederick’s truce with Sweden. He also placed a corps of his own troops under Frederick’s command. This turn of events has become known as “the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.” Frederick was then able to muster a larger army and concentrate it against Austria.

1762 brought two new countries into the war. Britain declared war against Spain and Portugal then joined the conflict on Britain’s side. Spain, aided by the French, launched an invasion of Portugal and succeeded in capturing Almeida. Eventually the Anglo-Portuguese army chased the greatly reduced Franco-Spanish army back to Spain, recovering almost all the lost towns. By 1763, the war in central Europe was essentially a stalemate. Frederick had retaken most of Silesia and Saxony but not the latter’s capital, Dresden. The Russian emperor was overthrown by his wife, Catherine, who ended Russia’s alliance with Prussia and withdrew from the war. Austria was facing a severe financial crisis and had to decrease the size of its army, which greatly affected its offensive power. In 1763, a peace settlement was reached at the Treaty of Hubertusburg, ending the war in central Europe.

Battle of Leuthen by Carl Röchling, date unknown

Frederick the Great routed a vastly superior Austrian force at the Battle of Leuthen on December 5, 1757. Frederick always called Leuthen his greatest victory, an assessment shared by many as the Austrian Army was considered a highly professional force.

3.2.3 – The French and Indian War

In North America, the French and Indian War (1754–1763) pitted the colonies of British America against those of New France, with both sides supported by military units from their parent countries of Great Britain and France as well as by American Indian allies. Fighting took place primarily along the frontiers between New France and the British colonies, from Virginia in the south to Newfoundland in the north. British operations in 1755, 1756 and 1757 in the frontier areas of Pennsylvania and New York all failed, due to a combination of poor management, internal divisions, effective Canadian scouts, French regular forces, and Indian warrior allies. In 1755, the British captured Fort Beauséjour on the border separating Nova Scotia from Acadia. The Acadians were expelled and American Indians driven off their land to make way for settlers from New England. Between 1758 and 1760, the British military launched a campaign to capture the Colony of Canada. They succeeded in capturing territory in surrounding colonies and ultimately the city of Quebec (1759). Though the British later lost the Battle of Sainte-Foy west of Quebec (1760), the French ceded Canada in accordance with the Treaty of Paris (1763).

3.2.4 – Other Colonies

In the Fantastic War (1762-63) in South America, Spanish forces conquered the Portuguese territories of Colonia do Sacramento and Rio Grande de São Pedro and forced the Portuguese to surrender and retreat. Under the Treaty of Paris (1763), Spain had to return the colony of Sacramento to Portugal, while the vast and rich territory of the so-called “Continent of S. Peter” (the present-day Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul) would be retaken from the Spanish army during the undeclared Hispano-Portuguese war of 1763–1777.

In India, the outbreak of the war in Europe renewed the long-running conflict between the French and the British trading companies for influence. The war spread beyond Southern India and into Bengal and eventually eliminated French power in India.

In West Africa in 1758, the British captured Senegal and brought home large amounts of captured goods. This success convinced the British to launch two further expeditions to take the island of Gorée and the French trading post on the Gambia. The loss of these valuable colonies further weakened the French economy.

Over the course of the war in colonies, Great Britain gained enormous areas of land and influence. They lost Minorca in the Mediterranean to the French in 1756 but captured, additionally to territories in Africa and North America, the French sugar colonies of Guadeloupe in 1759 and Martinique in 1762 as well as the Spanish cities of Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, both prominent Spanish colonial cities. However, expansion into the hinterlands of both cities met with stiff resistance. In the Philippines, the British were confined to Manila until their agreed-upon withdrawal at the war’s end.

3.3 – A Global War

Although the question of whether the Seven Years’ War was the first world war remains ambiguous, it  marked a shift in the European balance of power that shaped the world far beyond Europe.

3.3.1 – The First World War?

The Seven Years’ War was fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire, spanning five continents and affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other. For the first time, aiming to curtail Britain and Prussia’s ever-growing might, France formed a grand coalition of its own, which ended in failure as Britain rose as the world’s predominant power, altering the European balance of alliances.

Because of its span and global impact, some historians have argued that the Seven Years’ War was the first world war (almost 160 years before World War I). However, this label has also been given to various earlier conflicts, including the Eighty Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession, and to later conflicts including the Napoleonic Wars. The term “Second Hundred Years’ War” has been used in order to describe the almost continuous level of worldwide conflict during the entire 18th century, reminiscent of the more famous and compact struggle of the 14th century. The Seven Years’ War influenced many major events around the globe. The war restructured not only the European political order, but also paved the way for the beginning of later British world supremacy in the 19th century, the rise of Prussia in Germany, the beginning of tensions in British North America, and France’s eventual turmoil.

3.3.2 – Global

Although Frederick the Great’s preemptive invasion of Saxony in 1756 marks the conventional beginning of the Seven Years’ War, key developments in North America preceded the outbreak of the conflict in Europe. The boundary between British and French possessions in North America was largely undefined in the 1750s. France had long claimed the entire Mississippi River basin, which was disputed by Britain. In the early 1750s, the French began constructing a chain of forts in the Ohio River Valley to assert their claim and shield the American Indian population from increasing British influence. The most important French fort planned was intended to occupy a position at “the Forks” where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River (present day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). British colonial militia from Virginia were sent to drive them out. Led by George Washington, they ambushed a small French force at Jumonville Glen in 1754. The French retaliated by attacking Washington’s army at Fort Necessity, forcing them to surrender.

News of these events arrived in Europe, where Britain and France unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a solution. The two nations eventually dispatched regular troops to North America to enforce their claims and engaged in military actions in 1755. Defeated France prepared to attack Hanover, whose prince-elector was also the King of Great Britain and Minorca. Britain concluded a treaty whereby Prussia agreed to protect Hanover. In response, France concluded an alliance with its long-time enemy Austria, an event known as the diplomatic revolution.

The war preceded by events in North America and formally started in Europe soon also turned into a war for colonies outside of North America. In 1757, the British-French conflict over trading influences reignited in India. By 1761, the British effectively eliminated French power in India. In 1758 in West Africa, the British captured Senegal and brought home large amounts of captured goods. This success convinced them to launch two further expeditions to take the island of Gorée and the French trading post on the Gambia. The loss of these valuable colonies further weakened the French economy.

When the Seven Years’ War between France and Great Britain started in 1756, Spain and Portugal remained neutral, but everything changed when Ferdinand VI died in 1759 and was succeeded by his younger half-brother Charles III of Spain. One of the main objects of Charles’s policy was the survival of Spain as a colonial power and thus as a power to be reckoned with in Europe. The triple Franco-Spanish invasion of Portugal in Europe (main theater of the war, which absorbed the lion’s share of the Spanish war effort) in 1762 was followed by a Spanish invasion of Portuguese territories in South America (a secondary theater of the war). While the first ended in humiliating defeat, the second represented a stalemate: Portuguese victory in Northern and Western Brazil, Spanish victory in Southern Brazil and Uruguay.

All the participants of the Seven Years’ War: [blue] Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, with allies; [green] France, Spain, Austria, Russia, Sweden with allies: Many middle and small states in Europe, unlike in previous wars, tried to steer clear away from the escalating conflict, even though they had interests in the conflict or with the belligerents, like Denmark-Norway. The Dutch Republic, a long-time British ally, kept its neutrality intact. Naples, Sicily, and Savoy sided with the Franco-Spanish alliance. Like Sweden, Russia concluded a separate peace with Prussia before the war formally ended.

Over the course of the war in colonies, Great Britain gained enormous areas of land and influence. They lost Minorca in the Mediterranean to the French in 1756 but captured territories in West Africa and North America, the French sugar colonies of Guadeloupe in 1759 and Martinique in 1762 as well as Havana in Cuba and Manila in the Philippines, both prominent Spanish colonial cities.

3.3.3 – Global Impact

While the question of whether the Seven Years’ War was indeed the first world war remains ambiguous, the war had certainly global impact and marked a shift in the European balance of power. And as European empires continued their efforts to colonize territories on other continents, the impact reached far beyond Europe. Faced with the choice of retrieving either New France or its Caribbean island colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, France chose the latter to retain these lucrative sources of sugar. France also returned Minorca to the British. Spain lost control of Florida to Great Britain, but it received from the French the Île d’Orléans and all of the former French holdings west of the Mississippi River. In India, the British retained the Northern Circars, but returned all the French trading ports.

When later France went to war with Great Britain during the American Revolution, the British found no support among the European powers. Furthermore, France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War caused the French to embark upon major military reforms with particular attention being paid to the artillery. The origins of the famed French artillery that played a prominent role in the wars of the French Revolutionary wars and beyond can be traced to military reforms that started in 1763.

The Treaty of Hubertusburg between Austria, Prussia, and Saxony simply restored the status quo of 1748, with Silesia and Glatz reverting to Frederick and Saxony to its own elector. The only concession that Prussia made to Austria was to consent to the election of Archduke Joseph as Holy Roman Emperor. However, Austria’s military performance restored its prestige and the empire secured its position as a major player in the European system. Prussia emerged from the war as a great power whose importance could no longer be challenged. Frederick the Great’s personal reputation was enormously enhanced and after the Seven Years’ War, Prussia become one of the most imitated powers in Europe.

Russia, on the other hand, made one great invisible gain from the war: the elimination of French influence in Poland. Although the war ended in a draw, the performance of the Imperial Russian Army against Prussia improved Russia’s reputation as a factor in European politics, as many had not expected the Russians to hold their own against the Prussians in campaigns fought on Prussian soil.

The war also ended the old system of alliances in Europe. In the years after the war, European states such as Austria, The Dutch Republic, Sweden, Denmark-Norway, Ottoman Empire, and Russia now saw Britain as a greater threat than France and did not revert to previous alliances, while the Prussians were angered by what they considered a British betrayal in 1762. Consequently, when the American War of Independence turned into a global war between 1778–83, Britain found itself opposed by a strong coalition of European powers and lacking any substantial ally.

3.4 – The Treat of Paris (1763)

The Treaty of Paris of 1763 between Great Britain, France, and Spain, with Portugal in agreement, formally ended the Seven Years’ War and marked the beginning of an era of British dominance outside Europe.

3.4.1 – Introduction

The Treaty of Paris, also known as the Treaty of 1763, was signed on February 10, 1763 by the kingdoms of Great Britain, France, and Spain with Portugal in agreement after Great Britain’s victory over France and Spain during the Seven Years’ War. The signing of the treaty formally ended the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in the North American theater, and marked the beginning of an era of British dominance outside Europe. The treaty did not involve Prussia and Austria as they signed a separate agreement, the Treaty of Hubertusburg, five days later.

3.4.2 – Exchange of Territories

During the war, Great Britain conquered the French colonies of Canada, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tobago, the French trading posts in India, the slave-trading station at Gorée, the Sénégal River and its settlements, and the Spanish colonies of Manila in the Philippines and Havana in Cuba. France captured Minorca and British trading posts in Sumatra, while Spain captured the border fortress of Almeida in Portugal and Colonia del Sacramento in South America.

In the treaty, most of these territories were restored to their original owners, although Britain made considerable gains. France and Spain restored all their conquests to Britain and Portugal. Britain restored Manila and Havana to Spain, and Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Gorée, and the Indian trading posts to France. In return, France ceded Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tobago to Britain. France also ceded the eastern half of French Louisiana to Britain (the area from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains). In addition, while France regained its trading posts in India, France recognized British clients as the rulers of key Indian native states and pledged not to send troops to Bengal. Britain agreed to demolish its fortifications in British Honduras (now Belize), but retained a logwood-cutting colony there. Although the Protestant British feared Roman Catholics, Great Britain did not want to antagonize France through expulsion or forced conversion. Also, it did not want French settlers to leave Canada to strengthen other French settlements in North America. Consequently, Great Britain decided to protect Roman Catholics living in Canada.

The Treaty of Paris is sometimes noted as the point at which France gave Louisiana to Spain. The transfer, however, occurred with the Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762) but was not publicly announced until 1764. The Treaty of Paris was to give Britain the east side of the Mississippi (including Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which was to be part of the British territory of West Florida) – except for the Île d’Orléans (historic name for the New Orleans area), which was granted to Spain, along with the territory to the west – the larger portion of Louisiana. The Mississippi River corridor in modern-day Louisiana was to be reunited following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819.

“A new map of North America,” produced following the Treaty of Paris (1763).

The Anglo-French hostilities ended in 1763 with Treaty of Paris, which involved a complex series of land exchanges, the most important being France’s cession to Spain of Louisiana, and to Great Britain the rest of New France except for the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. Faced with the choice of retrieving either New France or its Caribbean island colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, France chose the latter to retain these lucrative sources of sugar, writing off New France as an unproductive, costly territory.

3.4.3 – The Treat of Hubertusburg

The Treaty of Hubertusburg was signed on February 15, 1763 by Prussia, Austria, and Saxony. Together with the Treaty of Paris, it marked the end of the Seven Years’ War. The treaty ended the continental conflict with no significant changes in prewar borders. Most notably, Silesia remained Prussian. The Treaty, although it restored the prewar status quo, marked the ascendancy of Prussia as a leading European power. Through the Treaty of Paris, Great Britain emerged as the world’s chief colonial empire, which was its primary goal in the war, and France lost most of its overseas possessions. The phrase “Hubertsburg Peace” is sometimes used as a description for any Treaty which restores the situation that existed before conflict broke out.

4 – Catherine the Great and Russia

4.1 – The Triumphs of Tsarina Elizabeth I

Elizabeth’s reign was marked by domestic reforms that continued the efforts of her father, Peter the Great, strengthening Russia’s position as a major participant in the European imperial rivalry.

4.1.1 – Elizabeth of Russia

Elizabeth Petrovna (1709 – 1762), the daughter of Peter the Great and his second wife, Catherine I, was the Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762. After Peter died in 1725, his wife succeeded him as the Empress of Russia but died only two years later. Elizabeth’s half-nephew Peter II (the son of her half-brother from her father’s first marriage) succeeded her mother. After his death in 1730, Elizabeth’s first cousin, Empress Anna (ruled 1730-40), daughter of Peter the Great’s elder brother Ivan V, ruled Russia. During the reign of her cousin, Elizabeth was gathering support in the background but after the death of Empress Anna, the regency of Anna Leopoldovna (Empress Anna’s niece) for the infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems. As the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth enjoyed much support from the Russian guards regiments. She often visited them, marking special events with the officers and acting as godmother to their children. The guards repaid her kindness when on the night of November 25, 1741, Elizabeth seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. The regiment marched to the Winter Palace and arrested the infant Emperor, his parents, and their own lieutenant-colonel, Count von Munnich. It was a daring coup and, amazingly, succeeded without bloodshed.

Portrait of Elizabeth painted by Vigilius Eriksen in 1757.

Elizabeth remains one of the most popular Russian monarchs due to her strong opposition to Prussian policies and her decision not to execute a single person during her reign, an unprecedented one at the time.

4.1.2 – Domestic and Foreign Policies

The substantial changes made by Peter the Great had not exercised a formative influence on the intellectual attitudes of the ruling classes as a whole, and Elizabeth aimed to change that. Her domestic policies allowed the nobles to gain dominance in local government while shortening their terms of service to the state. She encouraged Mikhail Lomonosov’s establishment of the University of Moscow and Ivan Shuvalov’s foundation of the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. She abolished the cabinet council system used under Anna and reconstituted the senate as it had been under Peter the Great, with the chiefs of the departments of state attending. Her first task after this was to address the war with Sweden. In 1743, the Treaty of Åbo, by which Sweden ceded to Russia all of southern Finland east of the Kymmene River, was signed.

This triumph was credited to the diplomatic ability of the new vice chancellor, Aleksey Bestuzhev-Ryumin, the head of foreign affairs. He represented the anti-Franco-Prussian portion of Elizabeth’s council and his object was to bring about an Anglo-Austro-Russian alliance. By sheer tenacity of purpose, Bestuzhev not only extricated his country from the Swedish imbroglio but also reconciled the Empress with the courts of Vienna and London; enabled Russia to assert itself in Poland, Turkey, and Sweden; and isolated the King of Prussia by forcing him into hostile alliances. All this would have been impossible without the steady support of Elizabeth, who trusted him completely in spite of the Chancellor’s many enemies, most of whom were her personal friends. However, in 1758, Chancellor Bestuzhev was removed from office, most likely because he attempted to sow discord between the Empress and her heir and his consort.

4.1.3 – Seven Years’ War

The critical event of Elizabeth’s later years was the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Elizabeth regarded the 1756 alliance between Great Britain and Prussia as utterly subversive of the previous conventions between Great Britain and Russia and sided against Prussia over a personal dislike of Frederick the Great. She therefore entered into an alliance with France and Austria against Prussia, insisting that the King of Prussia must be rendered harmless to his neighbors for the future by reducing him to the rank of Prince-Elector. During the first six years of the war, Elizabeth focused on diplomatic (both covert and overt) and military efforts that aimed to deprive Frederick the Great and Prussia of their position as a the major European ruler and power. However,Elizabeth died in 1762, a year before the war formally ended. Her Prussophile successor, Peter III, at once recalled Russian armies from Berlin and mediated Frederick’s truce with Sweden. He also placed a corps of his own troops under Frederick’s command. This turn of events has become known as “the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.”

4.1.4 – Arts and Culture

Elizabeth was renowned throughout and beyond Russia for her fierce commitment to the arts, particularly music, theater, and architecture. The Empress had a longstanding love of theater and had a stage erected in the palace to enjoy the countless performances she sanctioned. Although many domestic and foreign works were shown, the French plays quickly became the most popular. Music also gained importance in Russia under Elizabeth. Many attribute its popularity to Elizabeth’s relationship with Alexei Razumovsky, a Ukrainian Cossack and the supposed husband of the Empress, who reportedly relished music. Elizabeth turned her court into “the country’s leading musical center.” She spared no expense, importing leading musical talents from Germany, France, and Italy. The Empress also spent exorbitant sums of money on the grandiose baroque projects of her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The Winter Palace and the Smolny Convent in Saint Petersburg are among the chief monuments of her reign.

Although the original construction of the Palace started under Peter the Great, Elizabeth commissioned an entirely new scheme (of the current structure) and oversaw the construction but died before its completion. The Convent, built when Elizabeth considered becoming a nun, was one of the many religious buildings erected at her behest, using the nation’s funds rather than those of the church. The Convent was one of many buildings erected for religious purposes under Elizabeth’s rule.

The Winter Palace, from Palace Square

During the reign of Elizabeth, Rastrelli, still working to his original plan, devised an entirely new scheme in 1753 on a colossal scale—the present Winter Palace. The expedited completion of the palace became a matter of honor to the Empress, who regarded the palace as a symbol of national prestige. Work on the building continued throughout the year, even in the severest months of the winter. The deprivation to both the Russian people and the army caused by the ongoing Seven Years’ War were not permitted to hinder the progress.

4.2 – The Brief Reign of Peter III

Peter III’s decision to turn Russia from an enemy to an ally of Prussia and his domestic reforms did not convince the Russian nobility to support the unpopular emperor.

4.2.1 – Introduction

Peter III (1728 – 1762) was emperor of Russia for six months in 1762, chosen by his unmarried, childless aunt, Empress Elizabeth, as her successor. Young Peter of Holstein-Gottorp lost his mother, Elizabeth’s sister Anna, at three months old and his father at the age of 11. Elizabeth invited her young nephew to Saint Petersburg, where he was received into the Orthodox Church and proclaimed heir in 1742. Empress Elizabeth arranged for Peter to marry his second cousin, Sophia Augusta Frederica (later Catherine the Great). The young princess formally converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Ekaterina Alexeievna (Catherine). They married in 1745 but the union was unhappy. The traditionally held view of Peter as a person of weak character with many vices is mainly drawn from the memoirs of his wife and successor. She described him in extremely negative terms and this image of Peter has dominated in historical works, although some recent biographers painted a more positive picture of Peter’s character and rule.

Peter III by Alexei Antropov, 1762

Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. He would announce trying drills in the morning to male servants, who later joined Catherine in her room to sing and dance until late hours. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to four months, in 1759. Due to various rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father, but Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She spent much of this time alone in her own private boudoir to hide away from Peter’s abrasive personality.

4.2.2 – Reign

After Peter succeeded to the Russian throne, the pro-Prussian emperor withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War and concluded a peace treaty with Prussia, an event known as the Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg. It’s sometimes simply called the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, which also refers to a surprising development during the Seven Years’ War, when Russia and Austria failed to follow up their victory over Frederick the Great at the Battle of Kunersdorf in 1759) He gave up Russian conquests in Prussia and offered 12,000 troops to make an alliance with Frederick the Great (1762). Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally — Russian troops withdrew from Berlin and marched against the Austrians. This dramatically shifted the balance of power in Europe. Frederick recaptured southern Silesia and subsequently forced Austria to the negotiating table. The decision proved to be extremely unpopular in his own court and greatly contributed to Peter’s quick demise.

As Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter planned war against Denmark to restore parts of Schleswig to his Duchy. He focused on making alliances with Sweden and England to ensure that they would not interfere on Denmark’s behalf, while Russian forces gathered at Kolberg in Russian-occupied Pomerania. Alarmed at the Russian troops concentrating near their borders, unable to find any allies to resist Russian aggression, and short of money to fund a war, the government of Denmark threatened in late June to invade the free city of Hamburg in northern Germany to force a loan from it. Peter considered this a casus belli and prepared for open warfare against Denmark, but lost his throne before starting the war.

One of Peter’s most widely debated reforms was a manifesto that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service (established by Peter the Great) and gave them freedom to travel abroad. The manifesto obliged nobles to educate their children and ostracized the nobility considered lazy and unproductive. Although the exemption from the obligatory service was welcomed by the Russian elites,  the overall reform did not convince them to support their emperor, who was generally considered as taking little interest in Russia and its matters. A case of Peter’s religious policies serves as a demonstrative example of how the pro-Prussian emperor was perceived in Russia. His pro-Lutheran stand has been interpreted by some recent biographers as the introduction of religious freedom, while Peter’s contemporaries (and many historians) saw it as an anti-Orthodox attitude proving Peter’s lack of understanding of his own empire.

4.2.3 – Overthrow

In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of July 8, Catherine the Great received the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning had to take place at once. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where Catherine delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On July 17, eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne, Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

4.3 – From German Princess to Russian Tsarina

Born to the family of impoverished German aristocracy, Catherine the Great’s fate was decided when she was chosen to become wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter III, whom she eventually overthrew to become the Empress of Russia in 1762.

4.3.1 – Early Life

Catherine II of Russia (1729 – 1796) was the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67. Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka to Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp in Stettin, Pomerania, she received education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Although Sophia was born a princess, her family had very little money. She came to power based on her mother’s relations to wealthy members of royalty.

The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp (as Peter III), was a result of diplomatic arrangements, most notably by Peter’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth. Catherine first met Peter at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found him detestable when they met, which did not change after the two got married. Empress Elizabeth appreciated and liked Sophia, who upon her arrival in Russia in 1744 spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress, but also with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the language with such zeal that she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons (she mastered the language but she retained a foreign accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. In her memoirs, she wrote that when she came to Russia she decided to do whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown.

Young Catherine soon after her arrival in Russia, by Louis Caravaque, ca. 1745.

The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth), and Frederick the Great of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria’s influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation.

4.3.2 – Conversion and Marriage

Although Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, in 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine and the (artificial) patronymic Alekseyevna (daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place in Saint Petersburg. Sophia was 16 and her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The newlyweds settled in the palace of Oranienbaum, which remained the residence of the “young court” for many years to come.

Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, is credited as the source of information rumors regarding the monarchs’ intimate affairs. Peter was believed to have taken a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, Alexander Vasilchikov, Grigory Potemkin, Stanisław August Poniatowski, Alexander Vasilchikov, and others. Some of these men eventually became her trusted political or military advisors. She also became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband.

Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. He would announce trying drills in the morning to male servants, who later joined Catherine in her room to sing and dance until late hours. In 1754, Catherine and Peter welcomed a son, the future tsar Paul I.  There is considerable speculation as to the actual paternity of Paul. It is suggested that his mother had engaged in an affair—to which Empress Elizabeth consented—with a young officer named Serge Saltykov and that he was Paul’s father. However, Peter never gave any indication that he believed Paul was not his son. He also did not take any interest in parenthood, but Empress Elizabeth,certainly did. She removed young Paul from his mother by ordering the midwife to take the baby and follow her. Catherine was not to see her child for another month and then only briefly during the churching ceremony. Six months later Elizabeth let Catherine see the child again. Paul had in effect become a ward of the state and in a larger sense, the property of the state, to be brought up by Elizabeth as she believed he should be — as a true heir and great-grandson of her father, Peter the Great. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who died as an infant in 1757. Due to the rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father.

4.3.3 – The Coup

After the death of Empress Elizabeth in 1762, Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for Frederick the Great of Prussia, alienated the same groups that Catherine cultivated. Furthermore, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig, which many at his court saw as a step towards unnecessary war. Peter’s shift in the official position of Russia from the enemy to the ally of Prussia during the Seven Years’ War eroded much of his support among the nobility. Domestic reforms, including a manifesto that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service (established by Peter the Great), did not convince the Russian elites to support their emperor.

In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives in Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of July 8, Catherine received the news that one of her co-conspirators had been arrested by her estranged husband and that all they had been planning had to take place at once. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where Catherine delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. She left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks where the clergy was waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On July 17—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at the hands of Alexei Orlov. Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

Catherine, though not descended from any previous Russian emperor of the Romanov Dynasty (she descended from the Rurik Dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs), succeeded her husband as empress regnant. She followed the precedent established when Catherine I (born in the lower classes in the Swedish East Baltic territories) succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725. Historians debate Catherine’s technical status, some seeing her as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s, a group of nobles connected with Paul considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, the plan failed and Catherine reigned until her death.

The period of Catherine’s rule, the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and Russian nobility. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot. As such, she believed that strengthening her authority had to occur by improving the lives of her subjects. This philosophy of enlightened despotism implied that the sovereign knew the interests of his or her subjects better than they themselves did. The monarch taking responsibility for the subjects precluded their political participation. Catherine presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment and sought contact with and inspiration from the major philosophers of the era. In one of her letters to Dennis Diderot, she referred to how she saw her responsibility as the empress:

You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings.

Catherine II of Russia visits Mikhail Lomonosov in 1764. 1884 painting by Ivan Feodorov.

As a patron of the arts and an advocate of Enlightenment ideals, she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, In this painting, she is visiting Mikhail Lomonosov, a Russian polymath, scientist and writer, who made important contributions to literature, education, and science. Among his discoveries was the atmosphere of Venus and the Law of Mass Conservation in chemical reactions. He was also a poet and influenced the formation of the modern Russian literary language.

4.4 – Catherine’s Domestic Policies

Catherine the Great enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot, although her reforms benefited a small number of her subjects and did not change the oppressive system of Russian serfdom.

4.4.1 – Catherine II: Enlightened Despot

Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great by Russian painter Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.: Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, she continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines although her reforms did not benefit the masses and military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom.

The period of Catherine’s rule (1762-1796), the Catherinian Era, is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire and the Russian nobility. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, thus earning the status of an enlightened despot. As such, she believed that strengthening her authority had to occur by improving the lives of her subjects. This philosophy of enlightened despotism implied that the sovereign knew the interests of his or her subjects better than they themselves did. The monarch taking responsibility for the subjects precluded their political participation.

4.4.2 – Serfdom

An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and private landowners led to increased levels of reliance on serfs. Catherine confirmed the authority of the nobles over the serfs in return for the nobles’ political cooperation. This was one of the chief reasons behind ongoing rebellions. The unrest intensified as the 18th century wore on, with more than fifty peasant revolts occurring between 1762 and 1769. These culminated in Pugachev’s Rebellion, when,between 1773 and 1775, Yemelyan Pugachev rallied the peasants and Cossacks and promised the serfs land of their own and freedom from their lords.

In the 18th century, the peasantry in Russia were no longer bound to the land, but tied to their owners, which made Russian serfdom more similar to slavery than any other system of forced labor that existed at the time in Europe. A landowner could punish his serfs at his discretion and under Catherine the Great gained the ability to sentence his serfs to hard labor in Siberia, a punishment normally reserved for convicted criminals. The only thing a noble could not do to his serfs was to kill them. The life of a serf belonged to the state. Historically, when the serfs faced problems they could not solve (such as abusive masters), they appealed to the autocrat. They continued doing so during Catherine’s reign though she signed legislation prohibiting the practice. While she eliminated some ways for people to become serfs, culminating in a 1775 manifesto that prohibited a serf who had once been freed from becoming a serf again, she also restricted the freedoms of many peasants. During her reign, Catherine gave away many state-owned peasants to become private serfs (owned by a landowner).

Pugachev launched the rebellion in mid-September 1773. He had a substantial force composed of Cossacks, Russian peasants, factory serfs, and non-Russians. Despite some victories, by late 1774 the tide was turning, and the Russian army’s victory at Tsaritsyn left 9,000 to 10,000 rebels dead. By early September, the rebellion was crushed. Pugachev was betrayed by his own Cossacks when he tried to flee and he was beheaded and dismembered in 1775 in Moscow.

4.4.3 – Education

Catherine believed a “new kind of person” could be created by inculcating Russian children with European education. However, despite the experts’ recommendations to establish a general system of education for all Russian Orthodox subjects from the age of 5 to 18, excluding serfs, only modest action was taken. The Moscow Foundling Home (Moscow Orphanage), charged with admitting destitute and extramarital children, was created to experiment with new educational theories. However, due to extremely high mortality rates, it failed to serve that purpose. Shortly after the Moscow Foundling Home, Catherine established the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls to educate females. The girls who attended the Smolny Institute, Smolyanki, were often accused of being ignorant of anything that went on outside the walls of the Smolny buildings. Within the walls of the Institute, they were taught impeccable French, musicianship, dancing, and complete awe of the Monarch.

The Smolny Institute, the first Russian Institute for Noble Maidens and the first European state higher education institution for women, by S.F. Galaktionov, 1823.

The building was commissioned from Giacomo Quarenghi by the Society for Education of Noble Maidens and constructed in 1806–08 to house the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, established at the urging of Ivan Betskoy and in accordance with a decree of Catherine in 1764. The establishment of the institute was a significant step in making education available for females in Russia.

Catherine introduced some educational reforms despite the lack of a national school system. The remodelling of the Cadet Corps in 1766 initiated many educational reforms. The Corps began to take children from a very young age and educate them until the age of 21, and the curriculum was broadened from the professional military curriculum to include the sciences, philosophy, ethics, history, and international law. In 1786, the Russian Statute of National Education was promulgated. The statute established a two-tier network of high schools and primary schools in guberniya capitals that were free of charge, open to all of the free classes (not serfs), and co-educational. Two years after the implementation of Catherine’s program, a member of the National Commission inspected the institutions established. Throughout Russia, the inspectors encountered a patchy system. While the nobility put up appreciable amounts of money for these institutions, they preferred to send their children to private, more prestigious institutions. Also, the townspeople tended to turn against the junior schools and their pedagogical methods. An estimated 62,000 pupils were educated in some 549 state institutions near the end of Catherine’s reign, a minuscule number of people compared to the size of the Russian population.

4.4.4 – Religion

Catherine converted to the Russian Orthodoxy as part of her immersion in the Russian matters but personally remained largely indifferent to religion. Her religious policies largely aimed to control populations and religious institutions in the multi-religious empire. She nationalized all of the church lands to help pay for her wars, largely emptied the monasteries, and forced most of the remaining clergymen to survive as farmers or from fees for services. However, in her anti-Ottoman policy, she promoted the protection and fostering of Christians under Turkish rule. Although she placed strictures on Roman Catholics in the Polish parts of her empire, Russia also provided an asylum to the Jesuits following their suppression in most of Europe in 1773.

Catherine took many approaches to Islam during her reign but her pro-Islam policies were all an attempt to control Muslim populations in the empire. After the Toleration of All Faiths Edict of 1773, Muslims were permitted to build mosques and practice freely. In 1785, Catherine approved the subsidization of new mosques and new town settlements for Muslims. By building new settlements with mosques placed in them, Catherine attempted to ground many of the nomadic people who wandered through southern Russia. In 1786, she assimilated the Islamic schools into the Russian public school system to be regulated by the government. The plan was another attempt to force nomadic people to settle.

Russia often treated Judaism as a separate entity and Jews were under a separate legal and bureaucratic system. After the annexation of Polish territories, the Jewish population in the empire grew significantly. Catherine levied additional taxes on the followers of Judaism, but if a family converted to the Orthodox faith that additional tax was lifted. In 1785, she declared Jewish populations to be officially foreigners, with foreigners’ rights. Catherine’s decree also denied them the rights of Orthodox or naturalized citizens of Russia. Taxes doubled again for those of Jewish descent in 1794 and Catherine officially declared that Jews bore no relation to Russians.

4.4.5 – Administration and Intellectual Life

Catherine did not advocate democratic reforms but addressed some of the modernization trends. In 1775, she decreed a Statute for the Administration of the Provinces of the Russian Empire. The statute sought to efficiently govern Russia by increasing population and dividing the country into provinces and districts. In 1785, she conferred on the nobility the Charter to the Nobility, increasing further the power of the landed oligarchs. Nobles in each district elected a Marshal of the Nobility, who spoke on their behalf to the monarch on issues of concern to them, mainly economic ones. In the same year, Catherine issued the Charter of the Towns, which distributed all people into six groups as a way to limit the power of nobles and create a middle estate.

Catherine had a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature, and education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, began as Catherine’s personal collection. Within a few months of her accession in 1762, having heard the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, Catherine proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. She wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs while cultivating the French encyclopedists, who later cemented her reputation in their writings. Catherine enlisted Voltaire to her cause,and corresponded with him for 15 years, from her accession to his death in 1778. During Catherine’s reign, Russians imported and studied the classical and European influences that inspired the Russian Enlightenment. She also became a great patron of Russian opera. However, she did not support a free-thinking spirit among her own subjects as much as among the famous French philosophers. When Alexander Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790 (one year after the start of the French Revolution) and warned of uprisings because of the deplorable social conditions of the peasants held as serfs, Catherine exiled him to Siberia.

5 – The Age of Enlightenment

5.1 – Enlightenment Ideals

Centered on the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, the Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century.

5.1.1 – Introduction

The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Enlightenment, was a philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. Centered on the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, this movement advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy. The core ideas advocated by modern democracies, including the civil society, human and civil rights, and separation of powers, are the product of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, the sciences and academic disciplines (including social sciences and the humanities) as we know them today, based on empirical methods, are also rooted in the Age of Enlightenment. All these developments, which followed and partly overlapped with the European exploration and colonization of the Americas and the intensification of the European presence in Asia and Africa, make the Enlightenment a starting point of what some historians define as the European Moment in World History: the long period of often tragic European domination over the rest of the world.

There is little consensus on the precise beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, with the beginning of the 18th century (1701) or the middle of the 17th century (1650) often considered starting points. French historians usually place the period between 1715 and 1789, from the beginning of the reign of Louis XV until the French Revolution. In the mid-17th century, the Enlightenment traces its origins to Descartes’ Discourse on Method, published in 1637. In France, many cite the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687. Some historians and philosophers have argued that the beginning of the Enlightenment is when Descartes shifted the epistemological basis from external authority to internal certainty by his cogito ergo sum (1637).

As to its end, most scholars use the last years of the century, often choosing the French Revolution of 1789 or the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15) to date the end of the Enlightenment.

5.1.2 – National Varieties

The Enlightenment took hold in most European countries, often with a specific local emphasis. For example, in France it became associated with anti-government and anti-Church radicalism, while in Germany it reached deep into the middle classes and took a spiritualistic and nationalistic tone without threatening governments or established churches. Government responses varied widely. In France, the government was hostile and Enlightenment thinkers fought against its censorship, sometimes being imprisoned or hounded into exile. The British government largely ignored the Enlightenment’s leaders in England and Scotland. The Scottish Enlightenment, with its mostly liberal Calvinist and Newtonian focus, played a major role in the further development of the transatlantic Enlightenment. In Italy, the significant reduction in the Church’s power led to a period of great thought and invention, including scientific discoveries. In Russia, the government began to actively encourage the proliferation of arts and sciences in the mid-18th century. This era produced the first Russian university, library, theater, public museum, and independent press. Several Americans, especially Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, played a major role in bringing Enlightenment ideas to the New World and in influencing British and French thinkers. The cultural exchange during the Age of Enlightenment ran in both directions across the Atlantic. In their development of the ideas of natural freedom, Europeans and American thinkers drew from American Indian cultural practices and beliefs.

First page of the Encyclopedie published between 1751 and 1766.

The prime example of reference works that systematized scientific knowledge in the Age of Enlightenment were universal encyclopedias rather than technical dictionaries. It was the goal of universal encyclopedias to record all human knowledge in a comprehensive reference work. The most well-known of these works is Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The work, which began publication in 1751, was composed of thirty-five volumes and over 71,000 separate entries. A great number of the entries were dedicated to describing the sciences and crafts in detail, and provided intellectuals across Europe with a high-quality survey of human knowledge.

5.1.3 – Major Enlightenment Ideas

In the mid-18th century, Europe witnessed an explosion of philosophic and scientific activity that challenged traditional doctrines and dogmas. The philosophic movement was led by Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued for a society based upon reason rather than faith and Catholic doctrine, for a new civil order based on natural law, and for science based on experiments and observation. The political philosopher Montesquieu introduced the idea of a separation of powers in a government, a concept which was enthusiastically adopted by the authors of the United States Constitution.

There were two distinct lines of Enlightenment thought. The radical enlightenment, inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, advocated democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, and eradication of religious authority. A second, more moderate variety, supported by René Descartes, John Locke, Christian Wolff, Isaac Newton and others, sought accommodation between reform and the traditional systems of power and faith.

Science came to play a leading role in Enlightenment discourse and thought. Many Enlightenment writers and thinkers had backgrounds in the sciences and associated scientific advancement with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in favor of the development of free speech and thought. Broadly speaking, Enlightenment science greatly valued empiricism and rational thought and was embedded with the Enlightenment ideal of advancement and progress. However, as with most Enlightenment views, the benefits of science were not seen universally.

The Enlightenment has also long been hailed as the foundation of modern Western political and intellectual culture. It brought political modernization to the West in terms of focusing on democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies. The fundamentals of European liberal thought, including the right of the individual, the natural equality of all men, the separation of powers, the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state), the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people, and liberal interpretation of law that leaves people free to do whatever is not explicitly forbidden, were all developed by Enlightenment thinkers.

In religion, Enlightenment-era commentary was a response to the preceding century of religious conflict in Europe. Enlightenment thinkers sought to curtail the political power of organized religion and thereby prevent another age of intolerant religious war. A number of novel ideas developed, including deism (belief in God the Creator, with no reference to the Bible or any other source) and atheism. The latter was much discussed but had few proponents. Many, like Voltaire, held that without belief in a God who punishes evil, the moral order of society was undermined.

Front page of The Gentleman’s Magazine, founded by Edward Cave in London in January 1731.

The increased consumption of reading materials of all sorts was one of the key features of the “social” Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and journals. Cave’s innovation was to create a monthly digest of news and commentary on any topic the educated public might be interested in, from commodity prices to Latin poetry.

5.1.4 – Impact

The ideas of the Enlightenment played a major role in inspiring the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and emphasized the rights of common men as opposed to the exclusive rights of the elites. As such, they laid the foundation for modern, rational, democratic societies. However, historians of race, gender, and class note that Enlightenment ideals were not originally envisioned as universal in the today’s sense of the word. Although they did eventually inspire the struggles for rights of people of color, women, or the working masses, most Enlightenment thinkers did not advocate equality for all, regardless of race, gender, or class, but rather insisted that rights and freedoms were not hereditary (the heredity of power and rights was a common pre-Enlightenment assumption). This perspective directly attacked the traditionally exclusive position of the European aristocracy but was still largely focused on expanding the rights of white males of a particular social standing.

5.2 – Scientific Exploration

Science, based on empiricism and rational thought and embedded with the Enlightenment ideal of advancement and progress, came to play a leading role in the movement’s discourse and thought.

5.2.1 – Overview

While the Enlightenment cannot be pigeonholed into a specific doctrine or set of dogmas, science is a key part of the ideals of this movement. Many Enlightenment writers and thinkers had backgrounds in the sciences and associated scientific advancement with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in favor of the development of free speech and thought. Broadly speaking, Enlightenment science greatly valued empiricism and rational thought, embedded with the ideals of advancement and progress. Similar rules were applied to social sciences.

5.2.2 – Astronomy

Building on the body of work forwarded by Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, 18th-century astronomers refined telescopes, produced star catalogs, and worked towards explaining the motions of heavenly bodies and the consequences of universal gravitation. In 1705, astronomer Edward Halley correctly linked historical descriptions of particularly bright comets to the reappearance of just one (later named Halley’s Comet), based on his computation of the orbits of comets. James Bradley realized that the unexplained motion of stars he had early observed with Samuel Molyneux was caused by the aberration of light. He also came fairly close to the estimation of the speed of light. Observations of Venus in the 18th century became an important step in describing atmospheres, including the work of Mikhail Lomonosov, Johann Hieronymus Schröter, and Alexis Claude de Clairaut. In 1781, amateur astronomer William Herschel was responsible for arguably the most important discovery in 18th-century astronomy. He spotted a new planet that he named Georgium Sidus. The name Uranus, proposed by Johann Bode, came into widespread usage after Herschel’s death. On the theoretical side of astronomy, the English natural philosopher John Michell first proposed the existence of dark stars in 1783.

William Herschel’s 40 foot (12 m) telescope. Scanned from Leisure Hour, Nov 2,1867, page 729.

Much astronomical work of the period becomes shadowed by one of the most dramatic scientific discoveries of the 18th century. On March 13, 1781, amateur astronomer William Herschel spotted a new planet with his powerful reflecting telescope. Initially identified as a comet, the celestial body later came to be accepted as a planet. Soon after, the planet was named Georgium Sidus by Herschel and was called Herschelium in France. The name Uranus, as proposed by Johann Bode, came into widespread usage after Herschel’s death.

5.2.3 – Chemistry

The 18th century witnessed the early modern reformulation of chemistry that culminated in the law of conservation of mass and the oxygen theory of combustion. This period was eventually called the chemical revolution. According to an earlier theory, a substance called phlogiston was released from inflammable materials through burning. The resulting product was termed calx, which was considered a dephlogisticated substance in its true form. The first strong evidence against phlogiston theory came from Joseph Black, Joseph Priestley, and Henry Cavendish, who all identified different gases that composed air. However, it was not until Antoine Lavoisier discovered in 1772 that sulphur and phosphorus grew heavier when burned that the phlogiston theory began to unravel. Lavoisier subsequently discovered and named oxygen, as well as described its roles in animal respiration and the calcination of metals exposed to air (1774–1778). In 1783, he found that water was a compound of oxygen and hydrogen. Transition to and acceptance of Lavoisier’s findings varied in pace across Europe. Eventually, however, the oxygen-based theory of combustion drowned out the phlogiston theory and in the process created the basis of modern chemistry.

5.2.4 – Social Sciences

David Hume and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers developed a “science of man” that was expressed historically in works by authors including James Burnett, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, and William Robertson, all of whom merged a scientific study of how humans behaved in prehistoric and ancient cultures with a strong awareness of the determining forces of modernity. Against philosophical rationalists, Hume held that passion rather than reason governs human behavior and argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is ultimately founded solely in experience. According to Hume, genuine knowledge must either be directly traceable to objects perceived in experience or result from abstract reasoning about relations between ideas derived from experience. Modern sociology largely originated from the science of ma’ movement.

Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, often considered the first work on modern economics, in 1776. It had an immediate impact on British economic policy that continues into the 21st century. The book was immediately preceded and influenced by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and Baron de Laune drafts of Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth (Paris, 1766). Smith acknowledged indebtedness to this work and may have been its original English translator.

Enlightenment-era changes in law also continue to shape legal systems today. Cesare Beccaria, a jurist and one of the great Enlightenment writers, published his masterpiece Of Crimes and Punishments in 1764. Beccaria is recognized as one of the fathers of classical criminal theory. His treatise condemned torture and the death penalty and was a founding work in the field of penology (the study of the punishment of crime and prison management). It also promoted criminal justice. Another prominent intellectual was Francesco Mario Pagano, whose work Saggi Politici (Political Essays, 1783) argued against torture and capital punishment and advocated more benign penal codes.

Portrait of Cesare Bonesana-Beccaria

Although less widely known to the general public than his fellow English, Scottish, or French philosophers of the era,  Beccaria remains one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment era. His theories have continued to play a great role in recent times. Some of the current policies impacted by his theories are truth in sentencing, swift punishment and the abolition of death penalty. While many of his theories are popular, some are still a source of heated controversy, more than two centuries after Beccaria’s death.

5.2.5 – Scientific Publications

The Age of Enlightenment was also when the first scientific and literary journals were established. The first journal, the Parisian Journal des Sçavans, appeared in 1665. However, it was not until 1682 that periodicals began to be more widely produced. French and Latin were the dominant languages of publication, but there was also a steady demand for material in German and Dutch. There was generally low demand for English publications on the Continent, which was echoed by England’s similar lack of desire for French works. Languages commanding less of an international market such as Danish, Spanish, and Portuguese found journal success more difficult and often used an international language instead. French slowly took over Latin’s status as the lingua franca of learned circles. This in turn gave precedence to the publishing industry in Holland, where the vast majority of these French language periodicals were produced. As a source of knowledge derived from science and reason, the journals were an implicit critique of existing notions of universal truth monopolized by monarchies, parliaments, and religious authorities.

5.3 – The Popularization of Science

Scientific societies and academies and the unprecedented popularization of science among an increasingly literate population dominated the Age of Enlightenment.

5.3.1 – Societies and Academies

Science during the Enlightenment was dominated by scientific societies and academies, which largely replaced universities as centers of scientific research and development. These organizations grew out of the Scientific Revolution as the creators of scientific knowledge in contrast to the scholasticism of the university. During the Enlightenment, some societies created or retained links to universities. However, contemporary sources distinguished universities from scientific societies by claiming that the university’s utility was in the transmission of knowledge, while societies functioned to create knowledge. As the role of universities in institutionalized science began to diminish, learned societies became the cornerstone of organized science. After 1700, many official academies and societies were founded in Europe, with more than seventy official scientific societies in existence by 1789. In reference to this growth, Bernard de Fontenelle coined the term “the Age of Academies” to describe the 18th century.

National scientific societies were founded in the urban hotbeds of scientific development across Europe. In the 17th century, the Royal Society of London (1662), the Paris Académie Royale des Sciences (1666), and the Berlin Akademie der Wissenschaften (1700) came into existence. In the first half of the 18th century, the Academia Scientiarum Imperialis (1724) in St. Petersburg, and the Kungliga Vetenskapsakademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) (1739) were created. Many regional and provincial societies followed along with some smaller private counterparts. Official scientific societies were chartered by the state to provide technical expertise, which resulted in direct, close contact between the scientific community and government bodies. State sponsorship was beneficial to the societies as it brought finance and recognition along with a measure of freedom in management. Most societies were granted permission to oversee their own publications, control the election of new members, and otherwise provide administration. Membership  in academies and societies was highly selective. Activities included research, experimentation, sponsoring essay contests, and collaborative projects between societies.

5.3.2 – Scientific and Popular Publications

Academies and societies served to disseminate Enlightenment science by publishing the scientific works of their members as well as their proceedings. With the exception of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by the Royal Society of London, which was published on a regular, quarterly basis, publication schedules were typically irregular, with periods between volumes sometimes lasting years. These and other limitations of academic journals left considerable space for the rise of independent periodicals, which excited scientific interest in the general public. While the journals of the academies primarily published scientific papers, independent periodicals were a mix of reviews, abstracts, translations of foreign texts, and sometimes derivative, reprinted materials. Most of these texts were published in the local vernacular, so their continental spread depended on the language of the readers. For example, in 1761, Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov correctly attributed the ring of light around Venus, visible during the planet’s transit, as the planet’s atmosphere. However, because few scientists understood Russian outside of Russia, his discovery was not widely credited until 1910. With a wider audience and ever-increasing publication material, specialized journals emerged, reflecting the growing division between scientific disciplines in the Enlightenment era.

Cover of the first volume of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1665-1666, the Royal Society of London.

The Philosophical Transactions was established in 1665 as the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science. It is still published by the Royal Society, which also makes it the world’s longest-running scientific journal. The use of the word “Philosophical” in the title refers to “natural philosophy,” which was the equivalent of what would now be generally called science.

Although dictionaries and encyclopedias have existed since ancient times, they evolved from simply a long list of definitions to detailed discussions of those words in 18th-century encyclopedic dictionaries. The works were part of an Enlightenment movement to systematize knowledge and provide education to a wider audience than the educated elite. As the 18th century progressed, the content of encyclopedias also changed according to readers’ tastes. Volumes tended to focus more strongly on secular affairs, particularly science and technology, rather than on matters of theology. The most well-known of these works is Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts. The work, which began publication in 1751, was composed of thirty-five volumes and more than 71,000 separate entries. Many entries describe the sciences and crafts in detail. The massive work was arranged according to a “tree of knowledge.” The tree reflected the marked division between the arts and sciences, largely a result of the rise of empiricism. Both areas of knowledge were united by philosophy, the trunk of the tree of knowledge.

5.3.3 – Science and the Public

During Enlightenment, the discipline of science began to appeal to a consistently growing audience. An increasingly literate population seeking knowledge and education in both the arts and the sciences drove the expansion of print culture and the dissemination of scientific learning. The British coffeehouse is an early example of this phenomenon, as their establishment created a new public forum for political, philosophical, and scientific discourse. In the mid-16th century, coffeehouses cropped up around Oxford, where the academic community began to capitalize on the unregulated conversation the coffeehouse allowed. The new social space was used by some scholars as a place to discuss science and experiments outside the laboratory of the official institution. Education was a central theme, and some patrons began offering lessons to others. As coffeehouses developed in London, customers heard lectures on scientific subjects such as astronomy and mathematics for an exceedingly low price.

Public lecture courses offered scientists unaffiliated with official organizations a forum to transmit scientific knowledge and their own ideas, leading to the opportunity to carve out a reputation and even make a living. The public, on the other hand, gained both knowledge and entertainment from demonstration lectures. Courses varied in duration from one to four weeks to a few months or even the entire academic year and were offered at virtually any time of day. The importance of the lectures was not in teaching complex scientific subjects, but rather in demonstrating the principles of scientific disciplines and encouraging discussion and debate. Barred from the universities and other institutions, women were often in attendance at demonstration lectures and constituted a significant number of auditors.

Increasing literacy rates in Europe during the Enlightenment enabled science to enter popular culture through print. More formal works included explanations of scientific theories for individuals lacking the educational background to comprehend the original scientific text. The publication of Bernard de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686) marked the first significant work that expressed scientific theory and knowledge expressly for the laity, in the vernacular and with the entertainment of readers in mind. The book specifically addressed women with an interest in scientific writing and inspired a variety of similar works written in a discursive style. These were more accessible to the reader than complicated articles, treatises, and books published by the academies and scientists.

5.3.4 – Science and Gender

During the Enlightenment, women were excluded from scientific societies, universities, and learned professions. They were educated, if at all, through self-study, tutors, and by the teachings of more open-minded family members and relatives. With the exception of daughters of craftsmen, who sometimes learned their fathers’ professions by assisting in the workshop, learned women were primarily part of elite society. In addition, women’s inability to access scientific instruments (e.g., microscope) made it difficult for them to conduct independent research.

Despite these limitations, many women made valuable contributions to science during the 18th century. Two notable women who managed to participate in formal institutions were Laura Bassi and the Russian Princess Yekaterina Dashkova. Bassi was an Italian physicist who received a PhD from the University of Bologna and began teaching there in 1732. Dashkova became the director of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg in 1783. Her personal relationship with Empress Catherine the Great allowed her to obtain the position, which marked in history the first appointment of a woman to the directorship of a scientific academy. More commonly, however, women participated in the sciences as collaborators of their male relative or spouse. Others became illustrators or translators of scientific texts.

Portrait of M. and Mme Lavoisier, by Jacques-Louis David, 1788, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Women usually participated in the sciences through an association with a male relative or spouse. For example, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze worked collaboratively with her husband, Antoine Lavoisier. Aside from assisting in Lavoisier’s laboratory research, she was responsible for translating a number of English texts into French for her husband’s work on the new chemistry. Paulze also illustrated many of her husband’s publications, such as his Treatise on Chemistry (1789)

5.4 – Enlightened Despotism

Enlightened despots, inspired by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern in lieu of any other governments.

5.4.1 – Introduction

Major thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment are credited for the development of government theories critical to the creation and evolution of the modern civil-society-driven democratic state. Enlightened despotism, also called enlightened absolutism, was among the first ideas resulting from the political ideals of the Enlightenment. The concept was formally described by the German historian Wilhelm Roscher in 1847 and remains controversial among scholars.

Enlightened despots held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern in lieu of any other governments. In effect, the monarchs of enlightened absolutism strengthened their authority by improving the lives of their subjects. This philosophy implied that the sovereign knew the interests of his or her subjects better than they themselves did. The monarch taking responsibility for the subjects precluded their political participation. The difference between a despot and an enlightened despot is based on a broad analysis of the degree to which they embraced the Age of Enlightenment. However, historians debate the actual implementation of enlightened despotism. They distinguish between the “enlightenment” of the ruler personally versus that of his or her regime.

5.4.2 – Frederick the Great

Enlightened despotism was defended in an essay by Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He was an enthusiast of French ideas and invited the prominent French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire to live at his palace. With the help of French experts, Frederick organized a system of indirect taxation, which provided the state with more revenue than direct taxation. One of Frederick’s greatest achievements included the control of grain prices, whereby government storehouses would enable the civilian population to survive in needy regions, where the harvest was poor. Frederick modernized the Prussian bureaucracy and civil service and pursued religious policies throughout his realm that ranged from tolerance to segregation. He was largely non-practicing and tolerated all faiths in his realm, although Protestantism became the favored religion and Catholics were not chosen for higher state positions. While he protected and encouraged trade by Jewish citizens of the Empire, he repeatedly expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments. He also encouraged immigrants of various nationalities and faiths to come to Prussia. Some critics, however, point out his oppressive measures against conquered Polish subjects after some Polish land fell under the control of the Prussian Empire. Following the common interest among enlightened despots, Frederick supported arts, philosophers that he favored, and complete freedom of the press and literature.

5.4.3 – Catherine the Great

Catherine II of Russia was the most renowned and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796. An admirer of Peter the Great, she continued to modernize Russia along Western European lines but her enlightened despotism manifested itself mostly with her commitment to arts, sciences, and the modernization of Russian education. The Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, began as Catherine’s personal collection. She wrote comedies, fiction, and memoirs, while cultivating Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert—all French encyclopedists who later cemented her reputation in their writings. The leading European economists of her day became foreign members of the Free Economic Society, established on her suggestion in Saint Petersburg in 1765. She also recruited Western European scientists. Within a few months of her accession in 1762, having heard the French government threatened to stop the publication of the famous French Encyclopédie on account of its irreligious spirit, Catherine proposed to Diderot that he should complete his great work in Russia under her protection. She believed a ‘new kind of person’ could be created by instilling Russian children with Western European education. She continued to investigate educational theory and practice of other countries and while she introduced some educational reforms, she failed to establish a national school system.

The Smolny Institute, the first Russian institute for “Noble Maidens” and the first European state higher education institution for women, painting by S.F. Galaktionov, 1823.

Catherine established the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls to educate females. At first, the Institute only admitted young girls of the noble elite, but eventually it began to admit girls of the petit-bourgeoisie, as well. The girls who attended the Smolny Institute, Smolyanki, were often accused of being ignorant of anything that went on in the world outside the walls of the Smolny buildings. Within the walls of the Institute, they were taught impeccable French, musicianship, dancing, and complete awe of the Monarch.

Although Catherine refrained from putting most democratic principles into practice, she issued codes addressing some modernization trends, including dividing the country into provinces and districts, limiting the power of nobles, creating a middle estate, and a number of economic reforms. However, military conscription and economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and private landowners led to increased levels of reliance on serfs.

5.4.4 – Maria Theresa

Maria Theresa was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She implemented significant reforms to strengthen Austria’s military and bureaucratic efficiency. She doubled the state revenue between 1754 and 1764, though her attempt to tax clergy and nobility was only partially successful. Nevertheless, her financial reforms greatly improved the economy. In 1760, Maria Theresa created the council of state, which served as a committee of expert advisors. It lacked executive or legislative authority but nevertheless showed the difference between the autocratic form of government. In medicine, her decision to have her children inoculated after the smallpox epidemic of 1767 was responsible for changing Austrian physicians’ negative view of vaccination. Austria outlawed witch burning and torture in 1776. It was later reintroduced, but the progressive nature of these reforms remains noted. Education was one of the most notable reforms of Maria Theresa’s rule. In a new school system based on that of Prussia, all children of both genders from the ages were required to attend school from the ages of 6 to 12, although the law turned out to be very difficult to execute.

However, Maria Theresa  found it hard to fit into the intellectual sphere of the Enlightenment. For example, she believed that religious unity was necessary for a peaceful public life and explicitly rejected the idea of religious tolerance. She regarded both the Jews and Protestants as dangerous to the state and actively tried to suppress them. As a young monarch who fought two dynastic wars, she believed that her cause should be the cause of her subjects, but in her later years she would believe that their cause must be hers.

5.4.5 – Joseph II of Austria

Maria Theresa’s oldest son, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790, was at ease with Enlightenment ideas.  Joseph was a proponent of enlightened despotism, but his commitment to modernizing reforms engendered significant opposition, which eventually culminated in a failure to fully implement his programs.

Joseph inspired a complete reform of the legal system, abolished brutal punishments and the death penalty in most instances, and imposed the principle of complete equality of treatment for all offenders. He ended censorship of the press and theater. In 1781–82, he extended full legal freedom to serfs. The landlords, however, found their economic position threatened and eventually reversed the policy. To equalize the incidence of taxation, Joseph ordered an appraisal of all the lands of the empire to impose a single egalitarian tax on land.  However, most of his financial reforms were repealed shortly before or after Joseph’s death in 1790. To produce a literate citizenry, elementary education was made compulsory for all boys and girls and higher education on practical lines was offered for a select few. Joseph created scholarships for talented poor students and allowed the establishment of schools for Jews and other religious minorities. In 1784, he ordered that the country change its language of instruction from Latin to German, a highly controversial step in a multilingual empire. Joseph also attempted to centralize medical care in Vienna through the construction of a single, large hospital, the famous Allgemeines Krankenhaus, which opened in 1784. Centralization, however, worsened sanitation problems, causing epidemics and a 20% death rate in the new hospital, but the city became preeminent in the medical field in the next century.

Joseph II is plowing the field near Slawikowitz in rural southern Moravia on 19 August 1769.

Joseph II was one of the first rulers in Central Europe. He attempted to abolish serfdom but his plans met with resistance from the landholders. His Imperial Patent of 1785 abolished serfdom on some territories of the Empire, but under the pressure of the landlords did not give the peasants ownership of the land or freedom from dues owed to the landowning nobles. It did give them personal freedom. The final emancipation reforms in the Habsburg Empire were introduced in 1848.

Probably the most unpopular of all his reforms was his attempted modernization of the highly traditional Catholic Church. Calling himself the guardian of Catholicism, Joseph II struck vigorously at papal power. He tried to make the Catholic Church in his empire the tool of the state, independent of Rome. Joseph was very friendly to Freemasonry, as he found it highly compatible with his own Enlightenment philosophy, although he apparently never joined the Lodge himself. In 1789, he issued a charter of religious toleration for the Jews of Galicia, a region with a large Yiddish-speaking traditional Jewish population. The charter abolished communal autonomy whereby the Jews controlled their internal affairs. It promoted Germanization and the wearing of non-Jewish clothing.


Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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