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Could Frederick the Great have become Emperor?

Posted May 22nd, 2016 at 01:24 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated May 20th, 2018 at 12:45 AM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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During the "Potato War" (the Bavarian Succession War 1778-1779) Frederick actually had support from Bavaria and Saxony, among other German states, to challenge the authority of the Austrians. In fact this war was fought to support Saxony and Bavaria to weaken Austrian hegemony over Germany. However he only intended to use it as a bargaining chip against the Austrians. He did not himself have the true aspirations to become Emperor, nor did he see any particular value in it as Austria was on the decline and Prussia itself was also declining.

A Prussian Empire was therefore unsustainable on the international stage and also domestically. Due to the Franco-Austrian alliance there was no real way for Frederick to become Emperor and challenge both France and Austria and perhaps many others who would challenge him. His goal was exclusively to use enough backing to force the Austrians to drop their claims over Bavaria and keep them from becoming overly powerful. But as I said Prussia was on the decline, this is evident because the "Potato War" was one of Frederick's worst campaigns. Not that it was much better for von Lacy and von Laudon on the Austrian side.

At the time of the "Potato War" the Catholic electorates were Mainz, Trier, Cologne, Bavaria and Bohemia/Hapsburgs. The Protestant electorates were Prussia, Saxony and Hanover. Given the circumstances Frederick was able to bring both Saxony and Bavaria over to his side which would give him 3 electoral votes. Though Frederick did not intend to actually claim the Imperial title but merely to give the Hapsburgs reason to give up one their claims against the Saxons and Bavarians. Emperor Joseph II desperately wanted to strengthen his position by annexing Bavaria and returning to a strong position as it was prior to the Austrian Succession. Naturally Frederick wanted to stop him so that the Hapsburgs would not be able to trample just about every other Prince and Elector. The fact that Frederick tried to dislodge the Hapsburgs from their highly privileged position, with Saxony and Bavaria in his pocket, was enough to bring Joseph II to the negotiating table. Losing the empire was not something that Joseph II was willing to risk.

The "Potato War" itself was more as a reaction by Frederick. The campaign itself was considered to be notably bad but it was more punctuated by massive logistical difficulties due to the very harsh winter in Bohemia and the surrounding area. Also due to their respective positions amidst the Bohemian mountains the Austrians and Prussians were poised for a frontal attack/slog fest. Neither side was really willing to risk a massive engagement and Frederick did not show his flare for maneuver (though hampered by the terrain and logistics). Where as the aggressive minded von Laudon was ignored by his cautious superior von Lacy. Attempts by the Austrians to invade Silesia were not successful for similar reasons and Silesia really is quite difficult to invade (especially from the south).

Arguably the HRE stopped being viable during the Austrian Succession War. The Thirty Years War aside (or perhaps as early as the Schmalkaldic League against Charles V) this was when the Bavarians (von Wittelsback) challenged the von Hapsburg Emperors and claimed the title themselves. Not just that but they got backing from France and Prussia. Since the Spanish Succession War the Bavarians had decided to ally with the French despite the fact that in ages prior the Bavarians had been allies of the Austrians. However the French, Bavarians and Prussians (Frederick being more interested in his own slice of the pie, Silesia) made a separate peace with Austria with limited gains. France and Bavaria did not lose very much other than Maria Theresa and her husband Francis of Lorraine becoming Emperor and Empress. The Imperial title was thus kept firmly within the Hapsburg dynasty and would be passed on to their children.

The fact that Prussia became as powerful as it did and then openly challenged Hapsburg rule, despite having received their favour in the time of Frederick's father, grandfather and great grandfather was in my opinion the main game changer. The Austrians realized this which is why they attempted to grab Bavaria and solidify their position within Germany during the "Potato War" and luckily Frederick stopped them. As such the Holy Roman Empire became rather irrelevant but as a smaller state the Austrians could always count on their alliance with France and Tsarina Catherine's "make Russia a European power" schemes.

Ultimately Frederick saw that it was in his interests to cooperate with Austria and Russia for some mutual gain. After the bloody Seven Years War he no longer possessed the ability for more long wars. France on the other hand was virtually isolated except for their Spanish cousins and their Austrian alliance and so in that regard their borders were secure but did not have the financial ability or military backbone to start wars on the monarch's whims. The long decline of Austria and almost immediate decline of Prussia turned out to be in Russian and French benefit in the long term, as the Napoleonic Wars demonstrated.

The way I would put it is that Frederick's father and grandfather built up the state which was in a good position that Frederick inherited. However Frederick spent all that literal and proverbial capital and Prussia's decline began which came to a rude awakening by the Napoleonic Wars in which France decimated the Prussians in 1806. Russia came out of the Congress of Vienna having taken almost all of Poland by 1814. For Prussia and Austria it continued to be an awkward balancing act until the swift end of the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs at the end of WW1. Incidentally, but somewhat unrelated, the Romanovs did not escape this fate either.
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  1. Old Comment
    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar
    I have also gone back to fix and clean this one up. Enjoy!
    Posted May 19th, 2018 at 10:53 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga Lord Oda Nobunaga is offline

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