European History Pt. 31 — Enlightened Despotism, Austria and Prussia

Last time I looked at France and the flirtations of Louis XV with enlightened despotism. It didn’t really succeed.

This time I want to look at Austria and Prussia. The book is pretty quick with them, mainly because it seems somewhat cut and dry.


In Austria, Maria Theresa ruled for forty years, from 1740 to 1780. She spent most of her time making Austria more organized and more centralized by little bits. The book describes here as a reformists guerilla. Working with a constituency here, then pressing for concessions with that group when its back is turned, never infuriating anyone, but never letting anyone aggrandize power at the cost of the Hapsburg monarchy. Notably, she created a huge free trade area in Austria and began to dismantle serfdom. She didn’t act completely out of moral righteousness (though maybe partially) — she wanted soldiers and more mobile labor, and serfdom got in the way of that. Her son, Joseph (II I believe) took the reins of power next, and he only lasted 10 years. His time in power is instructional because it is a cautionary tale about idealism. He was a quasi-revolutionary who believed that the government must work for the good of the people and he freed the serfs immediately and without further ado. He died in 1790, broken-hearted and disillusioned. Because he was so insistent about reform, most of his measures were rolled back upon his death.


“Old Fritz” as Frederick was now called bided his time after the war for Silesia, sharpening his army and improving his country. He hated delegation and thought it was wasteful to allow anyone other than himself to rule. And indeed, he did a fantastic job, but when he died, the Prussian state was lost. There was a rigid class structure that supported endless militarism.

Next time is Russia.


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