The peace-loving mother-figure versus the neurotic megalomaniac?

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Maria Theresa against Frederick of Prussia – this was nothing if not a duel between two arch-enemies. But the actual fighting was done by soldiers who had to risk their lives on the battlefields.

1740 saw the accession to power in Austria and Prussia of two equally hard-headed individuals: Maria Theresa and Frederick the Great. Maria Theresa was intent at all costs on maintaining her dynasty’s status as a great power and on defending it against her adversary Frederick, for whose destruction she prayed fervently and whom she referred to as a ‘monster’. Immediately, an extremely brutal conflict flared up in the form of the War of the Austrian Succession. The loss of Silesia in this war was particularly painful for Maria Theresa. Her desire for revenge provoked a geographically even more extensive conflict, the Seven Years’ War.

Habsburg-friendly history books give a high profile to the duel between Maria Theresa and Frederick, with the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty coming across as the epitome of megalomaniac aggression and the Habsburgs being presented as a pious family of peace-loving philanthropists. Frederick and Maria Theresa are ostensibly well suited for this antithesis, he being held responsible for all the evil deeds, she appearing as an angel. The historian Friedrich Weissensteiner, for instance, has characterized Frederick as a calculating power-seeker, a ‘shrewd, crafty and ruthless neurotic’, contrasting him with the motherly and peace-loving Maria Theresa, ‘courageous, open and upright’.

In spite of all this Austro-Prussian enmity, Prussian bureaucratic reforms were taken as models for similar measures in the Habsburg dominions. However, Maria Theresa was far from pleased when her son Joseph II began to show traits similar to her arch-enemy – although Joseph called Frederick a rogue, he was keen to emulate his military successes and wished to strengthen the Habsburg army in order to make it the equal of its Prussian counterpart. While Maria Theresa’s propaganda consciously stressed that she wished to have nothing to do with Frederick’s aggressive military state, Prussia did become a model for the Habsburgs under Joseph II. According to Frederick, Joseph intended ‘to shatter the Prussian monarchy entirely, in order to meet with no resistance when establishing his despotic rule in Germany.’

Stephan Gruber