GHDI logo

Frederick II ("the Great"), Notes to Himself on the Invasion of Silesia (1740)

These reflections, jotted down in French soon after the unexpected death of Austrian Emperor Charles VI, display the ruthless realism of Frederick’s political thinking about international relations and war. They also convey his cynicism about the power of money and economic interests to prevail in the minds of politicians and lesser rulers over the stark raison d’état (rationally determined state interest) that he took as his guiding light. Charles VI’s unexpected death (and the lack of a male successor to the imperial office) gave Frederick a pretext to seize the rich Austrian province of Silesia. He thereby overrode his father’s earlier ratification of Charles’ “Pragmatic Sanction,” by which the principal German and European powers accepted the succession, following Charles’s eventual death, of his daughter, Maria Theresa. (In 1745, her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine gained election as German Emperor, while she wielded great power in her own right as ruler of the Habsburgs’ hereditary possessions in Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary, and acted de facto, in concert with her husband and later her son Joseph II, as German Empress.)

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 2

Silesia is the part of the Imperial succession on which we have the best claims, and that which would suit the House of Brandenburg best; it is right to maintain our claims and to seize the opportunity of the Emperor’s death to take possession of the areas concerned.

The superiority of our troops over those of our neighbors, the promptitude with which we can act, and, in sum, the advantage which we possess over our neighbors, is complete, and gives us, in an unforeseen occasion such as this, an infinite superiority over all other European Powers. If we wait to act until Saxony and Bavaria have made the first hostile moves, we shall be unable to prevent Saxony from enlarging her territory, which, however, is entirely contrary to our interests, and in that case we have no good pretext. But if we act at once we keep Saxony down, and by preventing Saxony from acquiring remounts we make it impossible for her to make any move.

England and France are at loggerheads; if France interferes in the affairs of the Empire, England can never allow it, and in this way, each of the two opposed parties will always offer me an advantageous alliance. England can never be jealous of my acquisition of Silesia, since that can do her no harm, and she can, on the contrary, hope for advantages in the present state of her affairs, which require alliances.

Holland will look on indifferently, especially if one guarantees the merchants of Amsterdam the capital which they have invested in Silesia.

If we fail to reach satisfactory agreement with England and Holland, we shall certainly be able to do so with France, which in any case will be unable to thwart our designs and will regard with satisfaction the blow to the Imperial House.

There remains Russia. None of the other Powers of which I have spoken are in a position to give us trouble; Russia alone might be able to cause difficulties for us.

first page < previous   |   next > last page