Frederick The Great Seizes Silesia
Author: Smyth, William

Frederick The Great Seizes Silesia

Maria Theresa Appeals To The Hungarians - 1740

Maria Theresa, the "Empress Queen," stands out among the most heroic and
romantic figures of the eighteenth century. She was the daughter of Charles
VI, last of the real Hapsburg emperors of Germany and rulers of Austria. With
him ended the male line of the mighty family, but the descendants of his
daughter and her husband, the Duke of Lorraine, were known as the house of
Hapsburg-Lorraine, and gradually the second name disappeared from common
usage, leaving only the more famous half.

Having no male heirs Charles was determined that his daughter, Maria,
should succeed to all the vast Hapsburg estates, and he entered into treaties
upon the subject with the various chief powers of Europe, yielding them
substantial advantages in return for their gossamer promise to support her in
her inheritance. The moment Charles died (1740) these treaties were thrown to
the winds. Each state planned to snatch what territory it could from the
young and apparently helpless Maria Theresa.

Frederick II of Prussia, afterward called the Great, was the first of the
robbers to move. He also had just come into power in the new kingdom, which
his father, Frederick I, had created. Part of his inheritance was a splendid
standing army, the best-drilled and most powerful in Europe. With this he
promptly overran Silesia, a borderland composed of many little duchies and
accounted one of the most valuable provinces of the Austrian crown. Frederick
openly and cynically announced the maxim which seems in secret to have guided
many monarchs, that personal honesty had no part in the business of being a
king. His rash and conscienceless seizure of Silesia was successful, but it
proved the prelude to a quarter-century of repeated wars which involved almost
the whole of Europe and brought his own country to the verge of ruin.

In 1740 Maria Theresa ascends the throne of her ancestors - possessed, it
seems, of a commanding figure, great beauty, animation and sweetness of
countenance, a pleasing tone of voice, fascinating manners, and uniting
feminine grace with a strength of understanding and an intrepidity above her
sex. But her treasury contained only one hundred thousand florins, and these
claimed by the Empress Dowager; her army, exclusive of the troops in Italy and
the Low Countries, did not amount to thirty thousand effective men; a scarcity
of provisions and great discontent existed in the capital; rumors were
circulated that the government was dissolved, that the Elector of Brunswick
was hourly expected to take possession of the Austrian territories;
apprehensions were entertained of the distant provinces - that the Hungarians,
supported by the Turks, might revive the elective monarchy; different
claimants on the Austrian succession were expected to arise; besides, the
Elector of Bavaria, the Elector of Cologne, and the Elector Palatine were
evidently hostile; the ministers themselves, while the Queen was herself
without experience or knowledge of business, were timorous, desponding,
irresolute, or worn out with age. To these ministers, says Mr. Robinson, in
his despatches to the English court, "the Turks seemed already in Hungary, the
Hungarians themselves in arms, the Saxons in Bohemia, the Bavarians at the
gates of Vienna, and France the soul of the whole." The Elector of Bavaria,
indeed, did not conceal his claims to the kingdom of Bohemia and the Austrian
dominions; and, finally, while the Queen had scarcely taken possession of her
throne, a new claimant appeared in the person of Frederick of Prussia, who
acted with "such consummate address and secrecy" - as it is called by the
historian - that is, with such unprincipled hypocrisy and cunning, that his
designs were scarcely even suspected when his troops entered the Austrian

Silesia was the province which he resolved, in the present helpless
situation of the young Queen, to wrest from the house of Austria. He revised
some antiquated claims on parts of that duchy. The ancestors of Maria Theresa
had not behaved handsomely to the ancestors of Frederick, and the young Queen
was now to become a lesson to all princes and states of the real wisdom that
always belongs to the honorable and scrupulous performance of all public
engagements. Little or nothing, however, can be urged in favor of Frederick.
Prescription must be allowed at length to justify possession in cases not very
flagrant. The world cannot be perpetually disturbed by the squabbles and
collisions of its rulers; and the justice of his cause was, indeed, as is
evident from all the circumstances of the case, and his own writings, the last
and the least of all the many futile reasons which he alleged for the invasion
of the possessions of Maria Theresa, the heiress of the Austrian dominions,
young, beautiful, and unoffending, but inexperienced and unprotected.

The common robber has sometimes the excuse of want; banditti, in a
disorderly country, may pillage, and, when resisted, murder; but the crimes of
men, even atrocious as these, are confined at least to a contracted space, and
their consequences extend not beyond a limited period. It was not so with
Frederick. The outrages of his ambition were to be followed up by an
immediate war. He could never suppose that, even if he succeeded in getting
possession of Silesia, the house of Austria could ever forget the insult and
the injury that had thus been received; he could never suppose, though Maria
Theresa might have no protection from his cruelty and injustice, that this
illustrious house would never again have the power, in some way or other, to
avenge their wrongs. One war, therefore, even if successful, was not to be
the only consequence; succeeding wars were to be expected; long and inveterate
jealousy and hatred were to follow; and he and his subjects were, for a long
succession of years, to be put to the necessity of defending, by unnatural
exertions, what had been acquired - if acquired - by his own unprincipled
ferocity. Such were the consequences that were fairly to be expected. What,
in fact, took place?

The seizure of this province of Silesia was first supported by a war,
then by a revival of it, then by the dreadful Seven Years' War. Near a
million of men perished on the one side and on the other. Every measure and
movement of the King's administration flowed as a direct consequence from this
original aggression: his military system, the necessity of rendering his
kingdom one of the first-rate powers of Europe, and, in short, all the long
train of his faults, his tyrannies, and his crimes. We will cast a momentary
glance on the opening scenes of this contest between the two houses.

As a preparatory step to his invasion of Silesia, the King sent a message
to the Austrian court. "I am come," said the Prussian envoy to the husband of
Maria Theresa, "with safety for the house of Austria in one hand, and the
imperial crown for your royal highness in the other. The troops and money of
my master are at the service of the Queen, and cannot fail of being acceptable
at a time when she is in want of both, and can only depend on so considerable
a prince as the King of Prussia and his allies, the maritime powers, and
Russia. As the King, my master, from the situation of his dominions, will be
exposed to great danger from this alliance, it is hoped that, as an
indemnification, the Queen of Hungary will not offer him less than the whole
duchy of Silesia." "Nobody," he added, "is more firm in his resolutions than
the King of Prussia: he must and will enter Silesia; once entered, he must and
will proceed; and if not secured by the immediate cession of that province,
his troops and money will be offered to the electors of Saxony and Bavaria."
Such were the King's notifications to Maria Theresa. Soon after, in a letter
to the same Duke of Lorraine, the husband of Maria Theresa, "My heart," says
Frederick - for he wrote as if he conceived he had one - "My heart," says
Frederick, "has no share in the mischief which my hand is doing to your

The feelings of the young Queen may be easily imagined, powerful in the
qualities of her understanding, with all the high sensibilities which are
often united to a commanding mind, and educated in all the lofty notions which
have so uniformly characterized her illustrious house. She resisted; but her
arms proved in the event unsuccessful. She was not prepared; and even if she
had been, the combination was too wide and powerful against her. According to
the plan of her enemies, more particularly of France (her greatest enemy),
Bohemia and Upper Austria, spite of all her efforts, were likely to be
assigned to the Elector of Bavaria; Moravia and Upper Silesia to the Elector
of Saxony; Lower Silesia and the country of Glatz to the King of Prussia;
Austria and Lombardy to Spain; and some compensation to be allotted to the
King of Sardinia.

It was therefore, at last, necessary to detach the King of Prussia from
the general combination by some important sacrifice. The sufferings, the
agonies, of the poor Queen were extreme. Lord Hyndford, on the part of
England as a mediating power, prevailed on the helpless Maria Theresa to abate
something of her lofty spirit, and make some offers to the King. "At the
beginning of the war," said Frederick, "I might have been contented with this
proposal, but not now. Shall I again give the Austrians battle, and drive
them out of Silesia? You will then see that I shall receive other proposals.
At present I must have four duchies, and not one. Do not, my lord," said the
King, "talk to me of magnanimity; a prince ought first to consult his own
interests. I am not averse to peace; but I expect to have four duchies, and
will have them."

At a subsequent period the same scene was to be renewed, and Mr.
Robinson, the English ambassador, who was very naturally captivated with the
attractions and spirit of Maria Theresa, endeavored to rouse her to a sense of
her danger. "Not only for political reasons," replied the Queen, "but from
conscience and honor, I will not consent to part with much in Silesia. No
sooner is one enemy satisfied than another starts up; another, and then
another, must be contented, and all at my expense." "You must yield to the
hard necessity of the times," said Mr. Robinson. "What would I not give,
except in Silesia?" replied the impatient Queen. "Let him take all we have in
Gelderland; and if he is not to be gained by that sacrifice, others may. Let
the King, your master, only speak to the Elector of Bavaria! Oh, the King,
your master - let him only march! let him march only!"

But England could not be prevailed upon to declare war. The dangers of
Maria Theresa became more and more imminent, and a consent to further offers
was extorted from her. "I am afraid," said Mr. Robinson, "some of these
proposals will be rejected by the King." I wish he may reject them," said the
Queen. "Save Limburg, if possible, were it only for the quiet of my
conscience. God knows how I shall answer for the cession, having sworn to the
states of Brabant never to alienate any part of their country."

Mr. Robinson, who was an enthusiast in the cause of the Queen, is
understood to have made some idle experiment of his own eloquence on the King
of Prussia; to have pleaded her cause in their next interview; to have spoken,
not as if he was addressing a cold-hearted, bad man, but as if speaking in the
House of Commons of his own country, in the assembly of a free people, with
generosity in their feelings and uprightness and honor in their hearts. The
King, in all the malignant security of triumphant power, in all the composed
consciousness of great intellectual talents, affected to return him eloquence
for eloquence; said his ancestors would rise out of their tombs to reproach
him if he abandoned the rights that had been transmitted to him; that he could
not live with reputation if he lightly abandoned an enterprise which had been
the first act of his reign; that he would sooner be crushed with his whole
army, etc. And then, descending from his oratorical elevation, declared that
he would now "not only have the four duchies, but all Lower Silesia, with the
town of Breslau. If the Queen does not satisfy me in six weeks, I will have
four duchies more. They who want peace will give me what I want. I am sick
of ultimatums; I will hear no more of them. My part is taken; I again repeat
my demand of all Lower Silesia. This is my final answer, and I will give no
other." He then abruptly broke off the conference, and left Mr. Robinson to
his own reflections.

The situation of the young Queen now became truly deplorable. The King
of Prussia was making himself the entire master of Silesia; two French armies
poured over the countries of Germany; the Elector of Bavaria, joined by one of
them, had pushed a body of troops within eight miles of Vienna, and the
capital had been summoned to surrender. The King of Sardinia threatened
hostilities; so did the Spanish army. The Electors of Saxony, Cologne, and
Palatine joined the grand confederacy; and abandoned by all her allies but
Great Britain, without treasure, without an army, and without ministers, she
appealed, or rather fled for refuge and compassion, to her subjects in

These subjects she had at her accession conciliated by taking the oath
which had been abolished by her ancestor Leopold, the confirmation of their
just rights, privileges, and approved customs. She had taken this oath at her
accession, and she was now to reap the benefit of that sense of justice and
real magnanimity which she had displayed, and which, it may fairly be
pronounced, sovereigns and governments will always find it their interest, as
well as their duty, to display, while the human heart is constituted, as it
has always been, proud and eager to acknowledge with gratitude and affection
the slightest condescensions of kings and princes, the slightest marks of
attention and benevolence in those who are illustrious by their birth or
elevated by their situation.

When Maria Theresa had first proposed to repair to these subjects, a
suitor for their protection, the gray-headed politicians of her court had, it
seems, assured her that she could not possibly succeed; that the Hungarians,
when the Pragmatic Sanction had been proposed to them by her father, had
declared that they were accustomed to be governed only by men; and that they
would seize the opportunity of withdrawing from her rule, and from their
allegiance to the house of Austria.

Maria Theresa, young and generous and high-spirited herself, had
confidence in human virtue. She repaired to Hungary; she summoned the states
of the Diet; she entered the hall, clad in deep mourning; habited herself in
the Hungarian dress; placed the crown of St. Stephen on her head, the cimeter
at her side; showed her subjects that she could herself cherish and venerate
whatever was dear and venerable in their sight; separated not herself in her
sympathies and opinions from those whose sympathies and opinions she was to
awaken and direct, traversed the apartment with a slow and majestic step,
ascended the tribune whence the sovereigns had been accustomed to harangue the
states, committed to her chancellor the detail of her distressed situation,
and then herself addressed them in the language which was familiar to them,
the immortal language of Rome, which was not now for the first time to be
employed against the enterprises of injustice and the wrongs of the oppressor.

To the cold and relentless ambition of Frederick, to a prince whose heart
had withered at thirty, an appeal like this had been made in vain; but not so
to the freeborn warriors, who saw no possessions to be coveted like the
conscious enjoyment of honorable and generous feelings - no fame, no glory
like the character of the protectors of the helpless and the avengers of the
innocent. Youth, beauty, and distress obtained that triumph, which, for the
honor of the one sex, it is to be hoped will never be denied to the merits and
afflictions of the other. A thousand swords leaped from their scabbards and
attested the unbought generosity and courage of untutored nature. "Moriamur
pro rege nostro, Maria Theresa!" was the voice that resounded through the hall
("We will die for our sovereign, Maria Theresa!"). The Queen, who had hitherto
preserved a calm and dignified deportment, burst into tears - I tell but the
facts of history. Tears started to the eyes of Maria Theresa, when standing
before her heroic defenders - those tears which no misfortunes, no suffering,
would have drawn from her in the presence of her enemies and oppressors.
"Moriamur pro rege nostro, Maria Theresa!" was again and again heard. The
voice, the shout, the acclamation that reechoed around her, and enthusiasm and
frenzy in her cause, were the necessary effect of this union of every
dignified sensibility which the heart can acknowledge and the understanding

It is not always that in history we can pursue the train of events, and
find our moral feelings gratified as we proceed; but in general we may. Philip
II overpowered not the Low Countries, nor Louis, Holland; and even on this
occasion of the distress and danger of Maria Theresa we may find an important,
though not a perfect and complete, triumph. The resolutions of the Hungarian
Diet were supported by the nation; Croats, Pandours, Slavonians, flocked to
the royal standard, and they struck terror into the disciplined armies of
Germany and France. The genius of the great General Kevenhuller was called
into action by the Queen; Vienna was put into a state of defence; divisions
began to rise among the Queen's enemies; a sacrifice was at last made to
Frederick - he was bought off by the cession of Lower Silesia and Breslau; and
the Queen and her generals, thus obtaining a respite from this able and
enterprising robber, were enabled to direct, and successfully direct, their
efforts against the remaining hosts of plunderers that had assailed her.
France, that with perfidy and atrocity had summoned every surrounding power to
the destruction of the house of Austria, in the moment of the helplessness and
inexperience of the new sovereign - France was at least, if Frederick was not,
defeated, disappointed, and disgraced.

The interest that belongs to a character like that of Maria Theresa, of
strong feelings and great abilities, never leaves the narrative, of which she
is the heroine. The student cannot expect that he should always approve the
conduct or the sentiments that but too naturally flowed from qualities like
these, when found in a princess like Maria Theresa - a princess placed in
situations so fitted to betray her into violence and even rancor - a princess
who had been a first-rate sovereign of Europe at four-and-twenty, and who had
never been admitted to that moral discipline to which ordinary mortals, who
act in the presence of their equals, are so happily subjected. That the loss
of Silesia should never be forgotten - the King of Prussia never forgiven -
that his total destruction would have been the highest gratification to her,
cannot be objects of surprise. The mixed character of human nature seldom
affords, when all its propensities are drawn out by circumstances, any proper
theme for the entire and unqualified praises of a moralist; but everything is
pardoned to Maria Theresa, when she is compared, as she must constantly be,
with her great rival, Frederick. Errors and faults we can overlook when they
are those of our common nature; intractability, impetuosity, lofty pride,
superstition, even bigotry, an impatience of wrongs, furious and implacable -
all these, the faults of Maria Theresa, may be forgiven, may at least be
understood. But Frederick had no merits save courage and ability; these,
great as they are, cannot reconcile us to a character with which we can have
no sympathy - of which the beginning, the middle, and the end, the foundation
and the essence, were entire, unceasing, inextinguishable, concentrated

I do not detain my hearers with any further reference to Maria Theresa.
She long occupies the pages of history - the interesting and captivating
princess - the able and still attractive Queen - the respected and venerable
matron, grown prudent by long familiarity with the uncertainty of fortune, and
sinking into decline amid the praises and blessings of her subjects.

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