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Franco-Prussian Relations and the War of the Austrian Succession

By: Benedict Vanlanduyt (KU Leuven)

During the eighteenth century, complex processes of negotiation and diplomatic manoeuvring established and maintained alliance networks aimed at preventing or preparing for the outbreak of conflicts. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and the treaties between France and Prussia of 1739 and 1741 exemplify particularly well how alliance networks between states were subject to change in the period leading up to and during major wars. In the treaty of 5 April 1739 (35 CTS 343), France and Prussia allied themselves with one another by partitioning parts of the duchies of Jülich and Berg; not only to prevent conflict among themselves, but also to prepare for war by strengthening their respective position vis-à-vis Austria. Both states’ primary concern was to outclass their arch-rival Austria, leading to an alignment of mutual interests. The agreement of 1739 came to fruition in the full defensive alliance treaty between France and Prussia in 1741 (36 CTS 217). Both states entered the alliance out of self-interest but were nevertheless able to find common ground and reconcile remaining differences. Strong points of contention on which both nations found agreement were the domains of Jülich and Berg, the position of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the position of Catholics in Prussian lands.

The first major step towards the formation of an alliance between France and Prussia was taken when both parties agreed to a partition of the duchies of Jülich and Berg between Prussia and the Palatine House, to whom these duchies originally belonged. A territorial conflict on the matter already arose when the Prussian King Frederick William I demanded the support of Emperor Charles VI for the transfer of Jülich and Berg to Prussia as a condition for Prussia’s acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713. The Pragmatic Sanction was intended to allow Maria Theresia to inherit and rule over the Habsburg domains after her father’s passing. King Frederick William I was promised imperial support for the transfer of Jülich and Berg, and Prussia therefore recognized the Pragmatic Sanction in 1728 (33 CTS 127). In the days before he died, he nevertheless urged his son, King Frederick II, never to ally himself with France unless Prussia would receive assurances regarding the whole of Berg. In the end, Prussia did not receive actual imperial support, resulting in the revocation of the Pragmatic Sanction by Frederick II.

In this context of Austrian unwillingness, Prussia decided in 1739 to secure the support of France to obtain at least some parts of Jülich and Berg as territorial concessions from the Palatine House (Article 1 of the treaty of 5 April 1739). France, which had threatened in the period leading up to the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697) to annex parts of the Palatinate, now increasingly feared the strong Austrian empire and saw an opportunity to form an alliance with Prussia.

Since the elector of the Palatine House was expected to die without a male heir (as happened in 1742), France and Prussia agreed that parts of the duchies of Jülich and Berg (Article 1) would be ceded to Prussia after the elector’s death. They also stipulated that no party could build new defensive structures in the territory (Article 1). Moreover, France would support Prussia in case of a third state’s disregard of the treaty and no negotiations or arrangements with the Palatine House or other third state were to be made by France without Prussian approval (Article 5).

Although this treaty concerned the Elector Palatine in major ways, he was not informed about its contents: the treaty only bound France and Prussia. However, the treaty did include some secret articles and protocols stipulating how the agreement of the Elector Palatine on the cession of Jülich and Berg could be obtained, specifying the sum of one million écus, ‘monnaie d'Empire’, to be paid by France and Prussia (Article 3 and Protocol 2). The Palatine House could do with this sum as it pleased. The payment was described as a token of friendship (Article 3) towards the Palatine House, but in the strategic game played by France and Prussia to oppose Habsburg Austria, a motive such as ‘friendship’ is unlikely to have played such an important role.

France would take on the task of convincing the Palatine House to accept the arrangements of the treaty, without disclosing the secret articles (Article 4). Secret articles were useful as instruments of pressure on the other party, since nations could abandon secret obligations more easily or threaten to abandon them with fewer repercussions. Besides the promised sum, the treaty did not stipulate how the French king was supposed to convince the Elector Palatine. The fact that France was considered more suited than Prussia to take on this task points to the balance of power between both nations. Although they depended upon one another to promote their mutual interests, France ultimately was the greater power and rival of Austria.

The growing rivalry between Austria and France and the outbreak of war in late 1740 caused France and Prussia to tighten their relations by concluding a defensive alliance treaty. Among other things, the treaty of 1741 (36 CTS 217) revisited the previously agreed partition of the duchies of Jülich and Berg (Separate Article 1). In exchange for Prussia giving up its inheritance rights and claims to Jülich and Berg, France would support the transfer of Lower Silesia, including Breslau, to Prussia. Prussia’s renunciation was made conditional on the international recognition of this transfer, which also required a formal cession from the House of Austria (Separate Article 1). Abandoning what they had agreed upon in the 1739 treaty, France and Prussia allowed a different branch of the Palatine House to remain in full possession of the duchies of Jülich and Berg.

This treaty did not only revisit the issue of the duchies of Jülich and Berg but also established an ’eternal friendship’ between France and Prussia in order to, as was claimed, ‘maintain peace and tranquillity in the Empire’ (Article 4). This promise of eternal support and friendship originated in the Peace of Utrecht (1713, 28 CTS 141), the Peace of Baden (1714, 29 CTS 141) and the Peace of Stockholm (1720, 31 CTS 127). Both states promised to respect the terms of these older peace treaties when concluding new agreements (Article 2). They offered all their territories as a guarantee (Article 3). Importantly, they also promised to act as each other’s auxiliary in the event of an attack by a third state on either of them. They committed themselves to immediately assisting their ally in an effective, just, swift, and efficient manner (Articles 1 and 3).

However, the aim of this treaty was not merely to confirm the friendship between the two states, but also to counterbalance the growing power of their arch-rival Austria. One means of achieving this goal was to reform (the organization of) the Holy Roman Empire and reduce the control of the Habsburgs over it, considering that the latter had occupied the throne of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries. France and Prussia therefore decided in 1741 to seek the election of a non-Habsburg emperor who could promote international cooperation against Habsburg Austria and, as they claimed, act in the Empire’s best interests.

Specifically, the treaty determined that France and Prussia would try to obtain the election of the elector of Bavaria as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (Separate Articles 3 and 4). For this purpose, the king of Prussia explicitly committed himself as elector of Brandenburg to cast his vote in favour of Bavaria (Separate Article 3). Conversely, the king of France promised to support the election of the elector of Bavaria (Separate Article 3). It made sense for France and Prussia to ally themselves with Bavaria as the elector was receiving threats from Austria after he had laid claim to parts of the inheritance of Charles VI. Since Bavaria did not have sufficient forces to defend itself against Austria, France was willing to provide support in the form of troops and resources (Separate Article 4).

The 1741 treaty between France and Prussia also mentioned two other great powers. The possibility of an alliance between Prussia and Sweden was discussed, on the condition that Sweden would cease supporting Russia (Separate Article 2). Prussia promised, in exchange for this support, to assist Sweden in its struggle to retake its former provinces conquered by Russia (Separate Article 2).

Both treaties explicitly stated that Protestant Prussia had to show tolerance for the Catholic religion in case of a redistribution of territories (Separate Article 1). The origin of this stipulation can be found in the Peace of Westphalia (1648, 1 CTS 119 and 1 CTS 271), which determined that a religious status quo had to be maintained in the Empire, even in times of war. Nevertheless, the Catholic king of France, Louis XV, wanted these explicit articles to be included in order to demonstrate that he would act as a defender of Prussia’s future Catholic subjects, in conformance with the Westphalian settlement.

The treaties of 1739 and 1741 were products of contemporary (geo)-political circumstances which drove France and Prussia to ally themselves with one another. Both nations wanted to contain the increasing power of Austria and hamper Austria’s ability to frustrate their ambitions, specifically by handing the imperial throne of the Holy Roman Empire, normally controlled by the House of Habsburg, over to the elector of Bavaria. Establishing the Franco-Prussian alliance sometimes required difficult compromises regarding smaller matters such as Prussia’s wish to obtain the duchies of Jülich and Berg. However, this agreement did not last long: in fact, Prussia abandoned its claims to Jülich and Berg in the treaty of 1741 in exchange for France’s support of the annexation of Silesia. The ‘eternal friendship’ promised in the 1741 treaty would nevertheless only last until Prussia left the anti-Austrian coalition by signing a ‘definitive’ Treaty of Peace with Austria in 1742 (36 CTS 409). Even though self-interest was clearly the primary motivation for the treaties of 1739 and 1741, both nations claimed to act for the common good of the Empire and the common responsibility of states to maintain or restore both peace and tranquillity as well as the liberty of the German princes. The alliance respected the Westphalian settlement by including clauses protecting the rights of Catholic subjects in (future) Prussian territories. Even though almost every treaty formed in the period leading up to and during the War of the Austrian Succession mentions such noble intentions, the fact that these alliances were rarely long-lasting and could end with the slightest change in circumstances shows that self-serving factors played a greater role.

Treaties Representing the Franco-Prussian Bond

Main Treaties

Treaty Between France and Prussia, signed at the Hague, 5 April 1739 (35 CTS 343).

Treaty of defensive alliance between France and Prussia, signed at Breslau, 5 June 1741 (36 CTS 217).

Related Treaties

Treaty of Peace between France and the Empire, signed at Münster, 14(24) October 1648 (1 CTS 271).

Treaty of Peace between Sweden and the Empire, signed at Osnabruck, 14(24) October 1648 (1 CTS 119).

Treaty of Peace and Amity between France and Prussia, signed at Utrecht, 11 April 1713 (28 CTS 141).

Treaty of Peace between the Emperor and Spain, and France, signed at Baden in Ergau, 7 September 1714 (29 CTS 141).

Treaty of Peace between Prussia and Sweden, signed at Stockholm, 21 January (1 February) 1720 (31 CTS 127).

Treaty of Alliance between the Emperor and Prussia, signed at Berlin, 23 December 1728 (33 CTS 127).

Definitive Treaty of Peace between Hungary (Empire) and Prussia, signed at Berlin, 28 July 1742 (36 CTS 409).


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