Holy Roman Empire - Austria and Prussia Help

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Oct 18, 2011

Holy Roman Empire: Austria and Prussia

During the age of monarchy, the Holy Roman Empire as an entity began to pass into history. Its various states began to take shape as independent nation- states, of which the two strongest were Austria and Prussia.


The Hapsburg family continued to rule in central Europe. In 1711, Charles VI became the latest Hapsburg to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. As time went on with no son being born to inherit the throne of Austria, Charles took steps to prevent the Hapsburg estate from breaking up. He signed the Pragmatic Sanctions, which stated that his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, would inherit on his death.

When Maria Theresa became empress of Austria in 1740, Frederick of Prussia promptly invaded her territory. The Prussians won the ensuing war and took over the province of Silesia.

Maria Theresa proved to be an enlightened ruler. She centralized her government in Vienna and worked to make the civil service run more efficiently. She made it a matter of domestic policy to bring tax relief to the poorest peasants in the realm.

In 1765, Maria Theresa elevated her son Joseph to the status of a co-ruler. On her death in 1780, he succeeded her as Emperor Joseph II. Like all the Hapsburgs, Joseph believed in his divine right to rule; however, he was a far more benevolent monarch than most. Social reform under Joseph was highly unpopular with the upper classes, who did not welcome notions of equality that weakened their own position atop the structure of power and privilege.


The history of Germany as a nation-state really began in 1640, when Frederick William Hohenzollern became king of Brandenburg-Prussia (later known simply as Prussia). Frederick’s main goal was the same as that of all absolute monarchs of his era: to rule over a centrally controlled state. First, he enlarged and strengthened the standing army, ensuring its loyalty to the throne. Second, he achieved control over the junkers—Prussian hereditary nobles—by giving them administrative duties. Third, he began to lay the groundwork for uniting all the territories he had inherited under his sole control.

In 1688, the elector’s son became King Frederick I of Prussia. For twenty-five years, he maintained the modern state his father had created. In 1713, his son took over. King Frederick William I continued to streamline the bureaucracy of government and to make it more efficient. Frederick William I also concentrated on the Prussian army, expanding and lavishing money and attention on what soon became a fighting force admired and envied by all Europe. Although the army did not spend much time on the battlefield during this period, it was an intimidating and impressive symbol of the power of the Prussian state.

As the king lay on his deathbed in 1740, he felt apprehensive about his heir. The young man who would rule as Frederick II did not seem to be the stuff of which autocrats were made. As a prince, he spent most of his time reading, composing music, and playing the flute. However, he had always been fascinated by military strategy and would prove a highly effective ruler. He became known to history as Frederick the Great. He took over Silesia, led his nation to victory in the Seven Years’ War, occupied West Prussia, and drove both the army and the bureaucracy to greater heights of efficiency and discipline.

Frederick’s daring foreign policy was dictated by Prussia’s geographical position. Prussia was in the middle of Europe, surrounded on all sides by other nations; this made it vulnerable to invasion at any time. Frederick’s solution to this dangerous situation was twofold. First, he built up such an impressive, efficient army that other nations hesitated to attack him. Second, he himself struck aggressive blows to enlarge his territory and intimidate his neighbors.

The blow against Silesia had been carefully calculated. This province was rich in natural resources, which Prussia lacked. Since Maria Theresa was new to the throne, Frederick believed Austria was at its most vulnerable. His gamble paid off in 1745 when he agreed to recognize Maria Theresa as empress and her husband as emperor in exchange for Silesia. The result of this was to elevate Prussia’s position among European nations; Prussia and Austria were now considered equally strong German powers.

In the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Prussia took no part in the fighting over North American colonies. Frederick’s goal was to maintain Prussia’s position of power in Europe. England allied itself with Prussia, since fighting between Prussia and France meant that France could not concentrate its forces in America.

Frederick’s reign also revealed the influence of the Enlightenment on his thinking. He stressed the importance of merit in the ranks of the civil service, raising the standards for admission. He expanded freedom of speech, promoted education, and reformed the legal system. Although the Prussian state was overwhelmingly Protestant, Frederick did not hinder Catholics from observing their faith. He also developed something of a friendship with Voltaire, entertaining him at court.

By the time Frederick died in 1786, Prussia had become a strong, centralized state. It formed the core of what would become, a hundred years later, a unified Germany.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Age of Monarchy Practice Test
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