The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder | Go to book overview

1
The European System, 1763-1787

The period after the Peace of Paris which concluded the Seven Years' War (1756-63) has often been described as one of relative stability. Certainly this is what many Europeans needed and wanted. The great world war of fifty years before, the War of the Spanish Succession ( 1702-14), had ended the threat of the hegemony of Louis XIV's France in Europe and had established a recognizable balance of power. Despite the efforts of some British and French statesmen to establish a durable peace by a system of collective security, however, old contests had continued after the Peace of Utrecht-Rastatt and new ones developed in the succeeding decades, involving Northern Europe, Italy, Germany, the Near East, the Polish succession, the Austrian succession, India, and the New World. A climax to forty years of indecisive balance-of-power struggle was reached in the Seven Years' War of 1756-63. Even wider and bloodier than the War of the Spanish Succession, it ended with all the belligerents tired of fighting and some of them exhausted. The outcome was decisive in both the maritime and Continental theatres, though in different ways. Britain clearly defeated France and Spain in the contest for colonies and control of the seas. The Continental struggle ended in a general military stalemate, but the political results were equally decisive and should have been more conducive to durable peace than clear-cut victory for one side or the other. France was defeated by Prussia on land as well by Britain at sea, and financially exhausted by the war. Prussia survived the war, but barely, and the aggressive spirit of King Frederick the Great was broken by it. Russia retired from the war into a profitable neutrality before it ended. This compelled Austria to abandon its central aims, to recover the province of Silesia, which Frederick had seized and held since 1740, and to reduce Prussia to second-rank status in Germany and Central Europe. The European post-war balance in 1763 looks like the one that characterized Europe after 1815. Britain was victorious and invulnerable on the seas, France defeated and weakened, Austria and Prussia worn out by war, Russia secure and dominant in the east and north.

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