The Seven Years War is one of those ‘tweener’ periods in history. It is bracketed on either side by the massive catastrophes of the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars, so there is a temptation to call it one of those ‘nice’ wars where nations played it safe and damage in wars was minimal. In the US, most of the attention is directed at the local portion of the conflict, the French and Indian wars, which laid down the groundwork for American Independence.
But this is misleading. The ‘cockpit’ of the war in Germany was the scene of the most cynical land grab by a country since…the last cynical land grab they’d done. Alliances shifted so that countries that had been enemies for generations were now allies, and vice versa. There were numerous battles fought with severe casualties on both sides, and nations had to dig deep to find the men to keep fighting.
Like most wars, the seeds of the current war were sown in the war before. The War of the Austrian Succession began when the Emperor of Austria had no male heir, and made the diplomatic rounds trying to get agreement for his daughter, Maria Theresa, to inherit the realm intact. But almost instantly when she took power, Frederick II of Prussia invaded the province of Silesia and took it from her. When the war ended, Prussia still held the province and thus nearly doubled its wealth and population, thus becoming a notable power and a permanent enemy of Austria.
With Austria now more angry at an aggressive Prussia than fearful of a less than powerful France, these two now aligned with Russia to fight the growth of Prussia. England, still an enemy of France thus aligned with Frederick against Austria.
The Opening of the War
Since it worked so well the last time, Frederick opened the war with a quick land grab. This time it was the state of Saxony, and quickly its army was incorporated into Prussia’s and its resources were stripped to support the war. Interestingly, the stamps used to coin money for Poland were also captured, and counterfeiting was added to the tools used to finance the war.
Quest for Victory
But as in the previous war, matters changed after the initial blitz. Attempts by Frederick to win a decisive victory and end the war repeatedly failed. Now, having managed to surround himself with enemies, he found that they could threaten him at widely dispersed points. His strokes deep into Austria were turned aside, but when his enemies tried to strike deep into Prussia he did manage to defeat them. These latter battles are where his “Great”-ness hinges on. But in-between these wins were defeats small and large, and even the victories cost men that his tiny state could ill afford. And as time went on his enemies learned, and dismissed their most incompetent generals, and victories were hard to come by and even more expensive.
Staring Defeat in the Face
By the latter stages of the war Prussia was on the ropes. The caution of the other side, and the great distances the Russians had to travel to reach the battlefield were all that had kept the country from being overrun. Then, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia died and the Czar Paul switched sides to join him. Even when he was deposed by Catherine, Russia did not feel up to continuing the war. Austria had to give up, and restore the situation to that before the war started.
How Great is Frederick
If you ask this author, the answer would be “not that Great”. It is obvious that he is no fan of Freddie, and many of his reasons are solid. I do think he might have gone a little too far in exposing the less noble side of the King. He relishes reporting every occasion that he fled a battle only to find his army won it in his absence. He notes every time he neglects to reward a general for saving his bacon, or punishes one for obeying mistaken orders. He quotes numerous whining letters during troubled times claiming he would have to kill himself or die gloriously in some battle to avoid capture.
And many of these would have served as a good corrective for the usual gloss laid over Frederick the Great. But when somehow there is never a single time noted that Frederick boosted the career of a subordinate, when additional claims of fleeing battles are backed up only with ‘some say’…it is hard to take all of this seriously, especially when the coverage of the ups and downs of the other courts are covered more even-handedly.
So was Frederick a great general? Well, he balances out his great victories with overaggressive losses. He never seemed to be able to get out of these wars as easily as he got into them. His invasions of major countries were uniformly dismal defeats. I would shade this towards ‘no’.
Was he a great King? There, you might have something. Before Frederick, Prussia was not the top German state outside of Austria. It might not have even been in the top 5. But at the end of the period, the Kingdom was a great power in Europe, equivalent to France, Britain, Russia, and Austria. And there would be no more Powers after that, as the middle rank states were absorbed into one or another power. He certainly miscalculated the furor that his power grabs would unleash, but he managed to hang onto Silesia through both wars and dominate Saxony through most of the Seven Years War. That’s good enough to earn that title – the fact that Prussia would dominate most of Germany was locked down by these two wars. The domination of all of it would be set up by the Franco-Prussian war and Bismarck.
So how was the book? Very good. The detail of politics in all the countries involved is unmatched. Again, there might be a slant in the Prussian view tending to make Frederick look more like a jerk than he was, but keep in mind that he undoubtedly was quite a jerk. Descriptions of battles are relatively short, but balancing this is that many more battles are covered, including ones that Frederick was not involved with. It does not cover the war outside Europe at all, but never claimed to. It covers the Austrian and Russian sides better than any other history I’ve read.