February 15th in German History: The Peace of Hubertsburg

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A depiction of the treaty’s signing.

Often, war is not what determines the fate of nations, but what confirms it. Before the Third Silesian War Prussia was already a growing power. Active kings had built up the Prussian military and had secured its control over the wealthy province of Silesia. While most of the world still thought of Prussia as a backwater, the fundamentals of power in the 18th century were present in the nation before its victory. The struggle between Austria and Prussia is mirrored in great power struggles throughout history, but often overlooked are the underlying factors which determined the outcomes of those struggles.

In 1756, Austria, seeking to stop Prussia’s rise and regain Silesia, declared war on Prussia. Over the following seven years she and her allies nearly defeated the relatively small kingdom multiple times. Each time though, at the last moment Prussia’s King Frederick would defeat the Austrians in battle against the odds or Austria’s allies would suddenly withdraw, shifting the initiatives against her. Prussia failed to invade Austria, but she did not need to. Prussia only wanted to retain Silesia and demonstrate her military might. At those two goals she was completely successful. By 1763 Prussia had demonstrated a military skill surpassing that of the rest of Central Europe and had joined the ranks of the continent’s great powers. While the treaty included no transfer of territory, it confirmed Prussia’s rise and set the stage for its further growth in the 19th century.

This rise, though, was the result not simply of tactical insight or diplomatic luck, but of Prussia’s developed mobilization infrastructure, relatively advanced education system, and centralized bureaucracy. These advantages, developed over decades, allowed Prussia to win and would have been apparent to anyone who bothered to look at the nation in depth. Such developments occur time and time against throughout history. Rome, a backwater compared to the great empires of the Mediterranean, used its client state system to mobilize army after army, defeating the Carthaginians and replacing them as the dominant power in the region. England’s superior naval tradition allowed it to take advantage of Spain’s over-extension. Japan’s military professionalism and superior doctrine allowed to to defeat China when European observers believed its defeat inevitable. In the First World War, an overconfident Germany attempted to supplant Britain and failed. The rise of one power to challenge the dominant one often comes as a surprise to those accustomed to the established order. History shows, however, that change is the only constant, and new powers tend not to wait patiently for their place in the sun. Time will tell whether or not changes to the current order will be as violent as previous ones.

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