Empires: Ancient and Modern

By Rahe, Paul A. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Empires: Ancient and Modern


Rahe, Paul A., The Wilson Quarterly


Three centuries ago, an event took place that is today little remembered and even more rarely remarked upon, though it signaled the beginning of a political and ideological transformation that was arguably no less significant than the one marked in our own time by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. In the late spring and summer of 1704, two armies made their way from western to central Europe. The first, led by the Comte de Tallard, marshal of France, sought to upset the balance of power in Europe by establishing Louis XIV's hegemony over the Holy Roman Empire, installing a French nominee on the imperial throne, and securing the acquiescence of the Austrians, the English, the Dutch, and every other European power in a Bourbon succession to the Spanish throne. The second army, led by John Churchill, then Earl, later Duke, of Marlborough, with the assistance of Prince Eugene of Savoy, sought to preserve the existing balance of power, defend Hapsburg control of the Holy Roman Empire, and deprive Louis of his Spanish prize.

At stake, as Louis' opponents asserted and his most fervent admirers presumed, was the establishment of a universal monarchy in Europe and French dominion in the New World. At stake as well for Englishmen, Scots, Irish Protestants, and Britain's colonists in the Americas, were the supremacy of Parliament, the liberties secured by the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and 1689, the Protestant succession to the English crown, and Protestant hegemony in the British Isles and much of the New World.

There was every reason to suppose that Louis XIV would achieve the goal he seems to have sought his entire adult life. After all, on the field of the sword, France was preeminent. The French had occasionally been checked, but on no occasion in the preceding 150 years had a French army suffered a genuinely decisive defeat. Imagine the shock, then, when all of Europe learned that on August 13, 1704, the army commanded by Marlborough and Prince Eugene had captured Tallard and annihilated the French force at the Bavarian village of Blenheim.

Of course, had the Battle of Blenheim been a fluke, as everyone at first assumed, Louis' defeat on this particular occasion would not have much mattered. In the event, however, this great struggle was but the first of a series of French defeats meted out by Marlborough's armies. If we are today astonishingly ill informed about the once-famous battles fought at Ramillies, Ondenarde, Lille, and Malplaquet in the brief span from 1706 to 1709, it is because we have become accustomed to averting our gaze from the fundamental realities of political life. In the United States, despite the leading role in the world our country long ago assumed, not one history department in 20 even offers a course on the conduct and consequences of war.

Yet Winston Churchill was surely right, in his biography of Marlborough, in observing that "battles are the principal milestones in secular history," in rejecting "modern opinion," which "resents this uninspiring truth," and in criticizing historians who so "often treat the decisions in the field as incidents in the dramas of politics and diplomacy." "Great battles," he insisted, whether "won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres, in armies and in nations, to which all must conform."

It would be an exaggeration to say that, in comparison with the Battle of Blenheim, the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution were little more than aftershocks. But there can be no doubt that Marlborough's stirring victories over Louis XIV's France exposed the weakness of the ancien regime, occasioned the first efforts on the part of the philosophes to rethink in radical terms the political trajectory of France, and called into question the assumptions that bad for centuries underpinned foreign policy as practiced by all the great powers on the continent of Europe. …

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