The angry historians see one side of the question. The calm historians see nothing at all, not even the question itself. — G. K. Chesterton

Maria Theresa of Austria - George Upton




Plots and Counterplots

In Italy, affairs proved even more disastrous. Genoa, which up to this time had remained neutral, now sided with Spain, Naples, and France, so that there was an addition of ten thousand men to the enemy's forces to be reckoned with when the campaign opened in May. This gave them an army of seventy thousand capable of crushing Austria and its ally Sardinia.

The outlook was dark for Maria Theresa when the Dresden Treaty was signed. While on the one hand it brought respite, on the other redoubled vigilance and energy were needed. The overburdened Empress breathed a little more freely, and calmly faced the situation in Italy, where she had sent re-enforcements to the army and placed Prince Wenzel Lichtenstein in command. Thirty thousand fresh troops, with a man at their head, count for a great deal; the latter even more than the former, since any number of troops without a competent leader can accomplish little.

The new campaign, in the Spring of 1746, began hopefully, and its promise was realized largely by an unforeseen event which occurred on the ninth of July and made an important change in the situation. This was the death of King Philip V of Spain, and the succession to the throne of Ferdinand VI, who was anxious for peace.

A change in the leadership of the Spanish forces in Italy had already weakened them, and the recall of six thousand men to Spain greatly increased Lichtenstein's advantage, as results were not slow in proving. The battle of the tenth of August disposed of the Spaniards as far as Maria Theresa's army was concerned, and left it free to chastise Genoa. That Republic, already alarmed at the turn of events, became panic-stricken when the Austrians captured Bocchetta, and the Senate bowed its once proud neck beneath the foot of the victor. The punishment it had so well merited was not lacking when the day of reckoning came. Maria Theresa magnanimously, indeed, sought to save Genoa from the depths of humiliation to which Botta relentlessly subjected it, for the crippled Republic had suffered enough,—and too much, as the sequel showed.

At this juncture, when the army was victorious and both ready and able to continue the work, Maria Theresa's plans were frustrated by the jealousy of England and Sardinia. The two allies felt obliged to turn their arms against Naples, which lay so near, and the result was obvious: the Empress was forced to abandon them and follow the French and Spaniards to Nice. The advance into Provence, however, was suddenly brought to a standstill, because of the harsh treatment Genoa had received. The bow had been bent too far, and it broke. A popular insurrection was the fruit of Botta's revenge. Austria's disregard of the fact that a people driven to desperation will risk everything—a fact unfortunately too often forgotten, in spite of the terrible examples in history,—cost it dearly; for, aside from its material losses in men and supplies, Botta's flight and the forced retreat of Browne from Provence were bitter fruit. Nor was it made any less so by the loss of Genoa itself, and the fact that Austria had only itself to blame; for the brutal severity of the conqueror and his overbearing arrogance were alone responsible. Genoa retained its freedom after this, and the war was continued with varying results until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle put an end to the bloodshed; but Austria had no cause to rejoice over this peace, and Maria Theresa felt it deeply.

The Queen, however, now turned her vigorous mind and generous sympathies into other channels than those which ran red with human blood, and devoted herself to the welfare of her people. War, even in its grandest aspect, is and must always be degrading to humanity and a source of untold misery. The old German saying that "Peace nourishes; strife consumes," is a true one. In spite of manifold disasters, Maria Theresa had emerged from the long struggle with success; she had defeated the efforts of her enemies to break her power, and had strengthened her empire. It had taken eight years of war; but the great Empress had not been through this hard school of experience without profiting much by it, even if her gains were not those of territory.

The eight years of peace that now ensued gave her time and opportunity to effect the reforms she had in mind, a work that appealed strongly to her and was worthy of her best endeavors. She had a wide field before her, for the weakness of the antiquated system of government bequeathed from the Middle Ages was felt on all sides. A great advance in civilization had been made during that period, and many cumbersome formalities had to be abandoned in order that the administration of affairs should be in sympathy with this development.

Maria Theresa grasped the situation clearly; she understood all this, as well as her own position and power and the country's needs. It was a woman in this case that proved the old saying, "One's self is the man"; for it was she herself who was the motive power in these salutary reforms; it was her own hand that guided the affairs of state and directed the reforms, in the condition of her people.

Experience had taught her the value of Prince Eugene's advice to her father, which unfortunately for himself the latter had so little heeded; hence her first thought was for the reorganization of the army. Well as she knew its deficiencies, she showed no haste or precipitation in making the necessary changes, but proceeded slowly though surely to the end she had in view. The wonderful personal influence and power of this remarkable woman were not the only evidences of her greatness; they were apparent also in her successful discovery of the right men, and assignment of them to positions where they would be most effective and accomplish the most good. The change brought about in the army was an illustration of this; not only was the discipline wonderfully improved, but so much spirit and enthusiasm were infused into it that at the beginning of the Seven Years' War Frederick the Great himself was forced to declare, "These are no longer the old Austrians!" But there was the same love and devotion for the Empress which had been manifested in the days of the first Silesian war, and the army submitted willingly and cheerfully to all her measures of reform.

In this work Maria Theresa had two faithful assistants, Count Daun, whose ancestral home was a stronghold in the volcanic mountains of Eifel and even in its ruined state a worthy cradle of a great race, and Prince Wenzel Lichtenstein. As Daun, one might say, created the infantry, so old Lichtenstein was the founder of the new artillery—two branches of the service in which Frederick II was an adept. The cavalry, just as it stood, had served as a model for Frederick, but even in that branch of the service there was room for improvement. Maria Theresa devoted especial attention to the breeding of good horses for the cavalry, and took great interest in hospital work. It would take too long to go into all the details of this important work, but one of her remarkable achievements must not be overlooked. This was the construction of a line of defences, or "military frontier," along the Turkish border, which interposed an effective barrier against those invasions and unexpected attacks which had been so common in previous wars with that country.

If Maria Theresa's determined efforts to strengthen her army really meant that she had Silesia in her mind, who can blame her, especially when the affection with which she clung to that lost province and her inward conviction that two natures like hers and Frederick II's could never remain long at peace with one another, as was indeed the case, are considered?

With this problem of perfecting the army and fitting it for future service—possibly the re-conquest of Silesia—was closely linked another, suggested by that saying of Montecuculi's already quoted; namely, that the requisites of war were, firstly, money; secondly, more money; and thirdly, more money again, and plenty of it. The second task that confronted Maria Theresa's dauntless spirit was the question of taxes, or, in a word, what we call finances. Austria was rich in resources, but there had been a lack of good management in their application. Judicious economy was much needed in this branch of the administration, and, remembering the extravagance and wastefulness that had prevailed in her father's time, the Empress began the reduction of expenses. This action and her realization that the proper remedy was to be obtained not by the imposition of crushing taxes on her subjects, but by developing the rich resources of the country, merely furnish further proofs of her political wisdom and statesmanship.

During the last war, the lack of funds in the treasury had made it necessary to impose heavy taxes to meet the deficiency, but the system was wrong, and failed to effect the desired object; it only made the taxes extremely burdensome, and its injustice increased the irritation and discontent of the people. This was an evil that needed a remedy, as her unerring glance had long since discovered, and she lost no time in devoting all her energies to the establishment of a system wherein juster methods should be employed; there were so many who for various reasons were exempt from taxation, that it became absolutely necessary to limit the number. These reforms were received with great enthusiasm all over the land, and endeared her still more to the people.

Part of Maria Theresa's success was due to her judgment and sagacity in choosing for her advisers men of the highest talents and abilities, as well as to that unerring tact which is one of nature's best gifts to mankind, and which helped her here as it had with the army. Among her statesmen, she possessed in Kaunitz not only an able and clever diplomatist, who filled the highest posts of honor with credit to himself and his country, but also a faithful and devoted servant, and an invaluable aid to her in all her far-reaching plans.

The one with which she was closely concerned at this time had been suggested by England. It was a proposal to retain the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation in her family, and make her son, the Archduke Joseph, King of Rome; thus giving him the right, on the death of her husband, to succeed him as Emperor, and prevent any more such destructive wars as those from which the country had already suffered. England had devised this scheme, and was willing to do its share toward bringing it about; but there were many obstacles in the way, not the least of them, Prussia. France was another; but Germany itself, for that matter, furnished difficulties enough to relegate its accomplishment to the far-distant future.

The Empress, strongly as the plan appealed to her, was cautious and said little, but England continued to urge the matter with a persistence that excited some doubt as to the sincerity of its attitude toward Austria. At last its motives became apparent, and Maria Theresa abandoned any further consideration of the plan. This caused somewhat strained relations between the two countries. During the negotiations, moreover, England's behavior was such that Kaunitz, in defence of the dignity of his sovereign, was forced to protest against it as inadmissible in diplomatic intercourse. His remonstrances were unheeded, however; and when it came to the question of affairs in the Netherlands, England's communications and Austria's replies became even more pointed. A complete rupture was inevitable, but Kaunitz would not permit matters to proceed as far as that until he had seen his way clear to a union with France.

His one idea, since he had been in power, was the recovery of Silesia, and as a means to that end he endeavored to come to an agreement with France and turn it to his advantage. He was shrewd enough to keep this plan a secret, as well as that other which went hand in hand with it, the humiliation of Prussia. That Maria Theresa, who had never ceased to grieve over the loss of Silesia, fully sympathized with these schemes cannot be doubted. The only hope of their realization, however, lay in separating Prussia from all her allies; and an alliance with France would be a long step in this direction. England and France at that time were on the verge of hostilities over the boundaries of Canada, and England had been endeavoring to involve France in a war with some of the European powers, so as to have a free hand in America. This, however, could not be accomplished without assistance; and, beside, there was Hanover to protect. The number of troops there had been increased, to be sure, but they were not sufficient to insure its safety. At this point England demanded to know how large a force Austria could raise in case France and Prussia should invade the Netherlands and Hanover.

Maria Theresa's eyes were opened now, and she replied that she could not spare any troops from Bohemia without exposing it to danger from Prussia. She would furnish the twenty-five thousand men agreed upon, in the Netherlands, leaving England to take Reuss in payment and seek assistance from the sovereign princes of Germany. These terms of Maria Theresa's were definite and final, but England further demanded that Austria should not only send thirty thousand men immediately to the Netherlands, but also an extra force to defend Hanover. This Maria Theresa refused to do, whereupon England threatened to break its alliance with Austria unless it complied with these demands. Maria Theresa then declared plainly what she should demand of England in return for the protection of her territory against Prussia and Italy. Before her answer had been sent, still more peremptory demands arrived from England; but Kaunitz made no reply to them. Matters had gone too far to avoid a breach any longer. England broke off negotiations with Austria and went over at once to the King of Prussia.

Frederick II had learned through a traitor at Dresden that a secret alliance existed against him between Austria and Saxony, to which Russia was a party. He therefore gladly accepted the overtures of England, since his union with France had come to an end, with little prospect of its renewal. The treaty between Maria Theresa and France was signed on the first of May, 1756.

Thus there had been a remarkable change in the relations of the European powers when the storm-clouds gathered once more and broke in the Seven Years' War.