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The Potato War:
Bastards and Bavarians

The Seven Years’ War ended not so much because one side was victorious, but because all participants were thoroughly exhausted. That seemingly made a new round or warfare inevitable, at least this was the view from Vienna.

The 1778 War of the Bavarian Succession would be Europe’s last dynastic war. Powerful economic and social changes were already transforming European society. Nationalism and class conflict would soon give the common people incentives to slaughter one another in far greater numbers than before, for reasons far beyond King and Christ.


Leopold Daun still protects Maria Theresa.

Austria began rebuilding her army even before the formal signing of peace in 1763 to end the Seven Years’ War. Austria had gone to war with a quasi-feudal military establishment that needed months to lumber into action while Frederick of Prussia mobilized his conscripts within days and immediately commenced operations. Army commander Leopold Graf von Daun and his energetic assistant Franz Moritz von Lacy sought to build a modern force that could respond just as quickly.

Daun died in 1766, and Lacy continued the reforms with the enthusiastic support of Empress Maria Theresa’s son and new co-ruler, Joseph II. The new-model army was built on conscription, with each regiment assigned its own recruiting district. Lacy set up a peacetime general staff, with separate sections devoted to logistics, recruitment, topography and other needs. Rather than sudden and haphazard contracting for supplies and their transport, a system now existed to purchase, store and distribute them. Troops trained continually during peacetime; though this consisted mostly of drill, it marked a sharp change from practices before the Seven Years’ War. Officers studied their craft at the new Theresien Academy in Wiener Neustadt, and generals were graded for their performance in peacetime exercises and administration. Maria Theresa cautioned her son that this last provision might make it difficult for true fighting men to rise to the top leadership positions, but the grading went forward.


Joseph II and his highest-graded generals.

By the early 1770’s the Habsburg forces numbered over 200,000 regulars, all properly trained, equipped and supplied. Now able to deal from a position of strength, the young Kaiser Joseph II began to pursue an aggressive foreign policy. Austria acquired new lands in Galicia during the First Partition of Poland in 1772, and took Bukovina from the Turks in 1774. In both cases the unspoken threat of those 200,000 troops brought the young Kaiser success. Maria Theresa disliked the annexations on moral grounds, and Lacy complained that the new acquisitions only weakened Austria’s strategic position and would not add nearly as much to Habsburg military resources as would be required to defend them.

That would not be the case with Bavaria, Joseph’s next target.

Bavaria’s ruler, Elector Maximilian III Joseph (known as Max Joseph) of the Wittelsbach dynasty, had no children. His heir, Elector Palatine Karl Theodor, had nine, all of them bastards fathered with a succession of French actresses. Due to the arcane rules of the Holy Roman Empire, Karl Theodor could not hold two electoral votes, and would have to yield the Palatinate to his own heir, Charles of Zweibrücken.

Wenzel Prince Kaunitz, Maria Theresa’s long-time chancellor and chief diplomat, saw an opportunity. Karl Theodor loved his bastards, but none of his relatives did so. After his death, they would be blocked from any inheritance. Kaunitz offered a solution. In exchange for providing for Karl Theodor’s nine bastard sons – Karl Theodor hoped they would receive territories, but the written agreement only specified cash income – Karl Theodor would cede Lower Bavaria to Austria along with Upper Bavaria east of the River Inn.

During the negotiations, Kaunitz noted that Karl Theodor did not wish to exchange his capital of Mannheim and its cultural opportunities for Munich. The Elector Palatine had no interest in affairs of state, devoting his time instead to music, hunting and sex. Copious amounts of sex. And so Kaunitz made another suggestion: that Karl Theodor trade all of Bavaria in exchange for the Austrian Netherlands. Brussels could provide an even better variety of music, hunting and sexual partners. Karl Theodor showed interest, but those talks would have to wait.

Lacy approved of this acquisition on strategic grounds: it would move a potential enemy farther away from Vienna, and provide overland communication between Upper Austria and Tirol (Salzburg at this time remained an independent state ruled by a prince-bishop). Even allied to Austria, Bavaria could do little to defend itself – Max Joseph maintained an even smaller standing army than the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg, though curiously he had purchased huge stocks of muskets and artillery that rested unused in well-maintained armories. Bavarian recruits could quickly fill at least four new regiments, Lacy reported, and the Elector had helpfully already paid for their arms. Among all the Austrian leaders, only Lacy – the son of a Jacobite Irish soldier-of-fortune - made reference to Austro-Bavarian ties of language and culture. Nationalism had not yet entered the ruling aristocracy’s consciousness.

Maria Theresa’s friendship and professional respect for Lacy brought her to his way of thinking, but she had her own reasons as well. Max Joseph’s father had joined the coalition attacking her upon her accession in 1740 and, in her view, usurped the Imperial throne that rightly belonged to the Habsburgs. Though Max Joseph made peace with the Habsburgs after his father’s death and dutifully voted as directed, Maria Theresa never forgave the House of Wittelsbach. Bavaria’s annexation would see justice served; Kaunitz apparently kept quiet about the bastards.

To support the annexation of Lower Bavaria, Joseph’s archivists produced a document issued by the Emperor Sigismund in 1425 granting the rights of succession to the Habsburgs should the Wittelsbach line fail. While no one took such claims overly seriously for their own sake, customs of the time demanded at least a notional legal claim when one state took territory from another. But in this case, the fiction would not be enough.

Max Joseph steamed with personal resentment for Kaiser Joseph, his former brother-in-law. The Kaiser had ruled against the Elector in a 1771 tax case placed before the Empire, and Max Joseph took it personally. Like many other dynastic inheritances, “Bavaria” did not represent one indissoluble whole. Bits and pieces had been acquired through war, inheritance or purchase over the centuries, with assorted claims attached to each in the event that the Elector had no direct heir. Karl Theodor might accede to some of Max Joseph’s domains, but not all of them – at the very least, some of the lands and cities held by the Wittelsbachs as Imperial Fiefs would likely revert to the Emperor. That represented a small part of Bavaria, but it was more than the Elector wished to see taken by the Habsburgs. When Max Joseph learned of the secret negotiations between Karl Theodor and Kaunitz, he did some secret work himself, drafting a will that left everything to Karl Theodor. It might not prevent the Kaiser from taking Lower Bavaria, he reasoned, but it would definitely complicate things.

The deal between Karl Theodor and Prince Kaunitz left out a number of other interested parties, starting with the rest of the German princes. In 1776 Joseph had attempted to strengthen the Empire’s legal and military machinery, putting more power into his own hands. The move foundered on stout opposition by many of the minor houses, who still bore considerable resentment over what they considered an act of bullying.

That caught the interest of Frederick II of Prussia. If Austria gained something from this deal, Prussia needed an equivalent acquisition. Kaunitz offered to allow Frederick to inherit the principalities of Ansbach and Bayreuth in what today is northern Bavaria without Austrian opposition. Frederick took that as an insult, believing that Prussia would acquire those lands regardless of Austrian good will, and whether that happened or not, it would be well after the 66-year-old Prussian king was already dead.

Frederick doesn’t appear to have wanted a sweeter offer from Kaunitz – the chance to pose as champion of the 300-odd minor German ruling houses, and to thwart Austrian ambitions, would be enough. The same Frederick who had launched a war of aggression against Maria Theresa in 1740 to conquer Silesia and instigated the dismemberment of Poland in 1772 now issued pious proclamations respecting the territorial integrity of the German princes.

Frederick also had the secret encouragement of Louis XVI of France and his foreign minister, Chales Gravier comte de Vergennes, who did not want to see their nominal ally, Austria, add to her power in Germany. They also made it clear to Frederick that France had no interest in going to war in Germany, as they intended to intervene in the ongoing American Revolution. Frederick would not have to worry about French interference should he choose to fight the Austrians.

That’s how things stood in early 1778, when Max Joseph suddenly dropped dead of smallpox.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold really is named for Leopold Daun.