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The Diplomatic Revolution: The First Alliance of Versailles (1756)

By: Randall Lesaffer

On 1 May 1756, the French Foreign Minister, Antoine-Louis Rouillé (1689–1761) and the chief negotiator on the French side, François-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis (1715–1794), signed a set of treaties with the Austrian ambassador at the Court of Versailles, Johann Georg Adam Count Starhemberg (1724–1807). The agreement consisted of two treaties and seven separate articles, five of which were to be kept secret. The first treaty (40 CTS 331) ensured the neutrality of Austria in France’s war with Britain, which was about to be formally declared. The second treaty (40 CTS 335) inaugurated a defensive alliance between the two great continental powers, with the exclusion of participation in this upcoming war. The treaties, which were signed at the castle of Rouillé but became known under the name of Versailles, marked what historians call the ‘renversement des alliances’ or the diplomatic revolution.

Although rumours about negotiations between the courts of Versailles and Vienna had been going around for some time, the news of the Austro-French understanding sent a shockwave through much of Europe. It destroyed the single most important foundation on which the fabric of European diplomacy rested, that of the ‘natural’ enmity between the houses of Habsburg and Valois-Bourbon. For more than two centuries, since the days of the Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–1558) and Francis I of France (r. 1515–1547), the two dynasties had been competitors for the leading role in Christian Europe. On the constantly shifting sands of European diplomacy, they had been the bedrocks on which opposing coalitions were built. The latest expression of this was the so-called ‘grand alliance’. In the final decade of the 17th century, the ascendancy and aggressive expansionism of France had caused the formation of a counter-coalition of the Austrian Habsburgs and the maritime powers, Britain and the Dutch Republic, which successfully fought Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) to a standstill between 1689 and 1714. The recent War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) had been fought along the lines of this ‘old system’, but at the same time had rung the death knell of it.

The course as well as the outcome of that war had left the three major contenders dissatisfied with the result, something for which each power laid the blame at the doorstep of its allies. Between 1749 and 1755, it slowly dawned on the policymakers of London, Versailles, and Vienna that their old allegiances might not be the best servants of their purpose in a new European war.

The first court to come to that conclusion was that of the Austrian Habsburgs. Already in 1749, the diplomat Wenzel Anton Count Kaunitz (1711–1794) had advocated a radical change of course and partly convinced his monarchs, Maria Theresia (r. 1740–1780) and, to a lesser degree, her husband, the Emperor Francis I of Lorraine (r. 1745–1765), of the wisdom of his proposition. According to Kaunitz, it was necessary for Austria to prioritise the heartlands of its power, the Holy Roman Empire and Central Europe, over its peripheral possessions in the Southern Netherlands—roughly present-day Belgium—and in Italy. On this German battleground, Brandenburg-Prussia under its Elector-King Frederick II (r. 1740–1786) was its main enemy, and its most bitter enemy as well. In 1740, upon the death of Emperor Charles VI (r. 1711–1740) and the accession of his daughter Maria Theresia, Frederick II had seized upon the moment of weakness of the Habsburg dynasty to invade and annex some of its richest domains, the Duchy of Silesia and the County of Glatz. In the general conflagration that ensued, Vienna saw itself forced to give precedence to its struggle for survival against a French-led coalition and, pressured to do so by London, had to cede Silesia to Frederick (Peace of Breslau of 11 June 1742, 36 CTS 275; Peace of Berlin of 28 July 1742, 36 CTS 409; Peace of Dresden of 25 December 1745, 37 CTS 429; General Peace of Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle] of 18 October 1748, 38 CTS 297). The hallmark of Austria’s foreign policy, according to Kaunitz, should be the recovery of Silesia and the destruction of Prussia as a great power and an opponent to imperial authority in Germany. To this purpose, Kaunitz wanted to build a grand coalition in order to attack and dismember Prussia. He realised that neither Britain nor the much-weakened Dutch Republic could be or wanted to be of much use in such a scheme, as the cavalier way in which they had treated Austria’s desire to reconquer Silesia in the 1740s had amply shown. For this plan, Vienna would need powerful continental allies, such as Russia and, above all, the greatest force in Europe, France.

Kaunitz’s first attempts, however, came to naught. During his three-year-long embassy in France (1750–1753), he made no progress either in moving towards an understanding with France or in alienating France from its ally Prussia. It took until the summer of 1755 for Kaunitz, now chancellor and leader of Vienna’s foreign policy, to begin scoring some success.

The shift in course at Versailles was a direct consequence of the escalation of the colonial and commercial rivalry of Britain and France in Northern America, which by that time all had realised would lead to open war. As France was gearing up for the confrontation, its government evaluated its policies. Within the royal council, a majority had been formed which saw Britain as France’s primary enemy. This time it wanted to avoid getting embroiled in a continental war with Austria or the Dutch Republic so that France could concentrate its formidable means on beating Britain in the maritime and colonial theatres. This did not stop France from making plans to have the Electorate of Hanover, the personal patrimony of the British King George II (r. 1727–1760), occupied, in order to use it as a bargaining chip in any future peace negotiation as it had done at the end of the previous war. However, this time Versailles preferred not to do this at the price of rupture with the Emperor and the Austrian Habsburgs. In all this, the French King Louis XV (r. 1715–1774) and some of his councillors were driven by a strong distrust and dislike for their main German ally, Frederick II, who had broken his alliance with France during the War of the Austrian Succession no less than twice.

In August 1755, Kaunitz had the Viennese ambassador Starhemberg seek out the royal mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson de Pompadour (1721–1764), with the hope of opening direct negotiations with the French court. This time, the French king decided to take the leap and ordered one of Pompadour’s protégés, Bernis, to begin secret talks. At first, Kaunitz overplayed his hand by proposing an offensive alliance to turn against Prussia. He hoped to seduce Louis XV by proposing a swap between the Italian possessions of Louis XV’s son-in-law, the Spanish prince Don Felipe (1720–1765), and most of the Southern Netherlands, while the remainder of these would go directly to France. He also promised that France would be allowed to occupy the harbours of Ostend and Nieuwpoort on the Flemish coast, which would be of great strategic significance to France in its war against Britain. The proposal received the cold shoulder from Louis XV. In his reply, the French king insisted on his refusal to hear anything against his ally Frederick of Prussia. He countered with a proposal for an agreement on the neutrality of Austria in the threatening war with Britain and a pact to guarantee the peace of Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle], which had ended of the War of the Austrian Succession, against any violator. This secured the possession of Silesia for Prussia but would also deter it from making any further attacks.

In the following months, the talks dragged on without any progress being made. Kaunitz played for time, hoping that the escalation of the conflict between Britain and France would make Versailles more amenable. This result did indeed transpire. Moreover, by the turn of the years, rumours that Britain was seeking a compromise with Prussia not to attack Hanover and the failure of her diplomats to secure any form of British support against Prussia convinced Maria Theresia to fully bank on the French option. This and the news that Frederick II had indeed reached an agreement with Britain to neutralise Germany (Convention of Westminster of 16 January 1756, 40 CTS 291) decided the game. While Frederick hoped that the deal with Britain would strengthen his hand in his relation with his main ally France and would not prove incompatible with his French alliance, the French king and court took what they saw as Frederick’s latest betrayal very badly. In early February 1756, the royal council decided not to extend the existing Franco-Prussian alliance which was to expire in June 1756. (Alliance of Breslau, 5 June 1741, 36 CTS 217.)

From February onwards, the Austro-French talks at Versailles, which were now surveyed by a committee of the royal council, began to progress in earnest. While France’s aim was still to secure peace on the European continent by the minor scheme of an act of neutrality and defensive alliance, the different points of Kaunitz’s greater scheme were also discussed. However, France could not be lured into an offensive alliance against Prussia, or any scheme which implied a clear betrayal of the alliance with Berlin – at least as long as this alliance was valid. While Kaunitz and Starhemberg wavered for some time between taking the minor deal and pushing for the major scheme, they decided to work step by step and accept the French proposal. In the end, a threat by Maria Theresia to recommit to Britain in mid-April was necessary to force the issue.

On 1 May 1756, in the full expectation of an impending British declaration of war against France, the deal was sealed. The first treaty, of neutrality, guaranteed to France that Austria would remain neutral in the war with Britain. The second constituted a defensive alliance, whereby both powers guaranteed one another’s European possessions and stipulated that in case of aggression the allied power would have to send an auxiliary force of 24,000 men. In one of the secret articles, the signatories agreed that the promised neutrality would not be upheld against an ally of France or Britain which attacked one of the treaty partners as an auxiliary in the Anglo-French war. This was primarily targeted at the contingency of a Prussian attack on Austria, and was as far as Louis XV would go in distancing himself from Frederick II.

Louis XV and Bernis thought that with this deal they had secured peace on the European continent to the extent that this was possible. While France had refused to commit to any offensive plan against Prussia, they assumed they were deterring Frederick from any more assaults against Vienna and that at one stroke they had assured that an Anglo-Prussian alliance would be stillborn before it was even conceived. But in fact France had been lured far more deeply into Kaunitz’s lair of schemes than they would have wished to concede, which was aiming at exactly the opposite of what France wanted: war in Germany. While France had relinquished its alliance with Prussia, Austria had secured a provision that it would not have to aid France against Britain in any way. Thereby, France had surrendered the strict reciprocity it had demanded throughout eight months of negotiations. To Kaunitz and Starhemberg, this constituted a big first step towards forcing a full rupture between France and Prussia. While they moved towards new negotiations on the offensive scheme in the summer of 1756, the first Versailles alliance opened another, gentler path towards conflict between France and Prussia on its own: a Prussian attack on Austria. With the deal of Versailles in their hands, Maria Theresia and Kaunitz now only had to seek a way of triggering this.



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