The Diplomatic Revolution: The Second Treaty of Versailles (1757)
By: Randall Lesaffer
In mid-October 1756, a brief pamphlet entitled ‘Letter of Cardinal Richelieu to the King of Prussia’ was published and sent around Europe. In the little satirical piece, the grounder of France’s ascendancy in Europe applauded the recent victories of Frederick II of Prussia over the Austrian Habsburgs, hailing him as the defender of the true interests of France. Speaking from the Elysian Fields, Richelieu warned his successors against the consequences of their misguided policy which caused them to turn a blind eye to the true ambitions of their newfound Austrian friends, the suppression of the liberty of the German states and domination over the Empire.
The little satire was from the hand of the Prussian king, Frederick II (r.1740–1786), himself. With it, he hoped to strengthen the hand of those in France who opposed France’s alliance with Austria. Weeks before its publication, Prussian troops had first invaded and occupied the Electorate of Saxony, before crossing the borders of Habsburg Bohemia. With the latter action, Frederick had sprung the trap the Austrian Chancellor, Wenzel Anton Count Kaunitz (1711–1794), had set, triggering the defensive alliance treaty which France and Austria had signed at Versailles on 1 May 1756. Under its stipulations, France was now obliged to send 24,000 troops in aid of Maria Theresia of Austria (r. 1740–1780), an obligation France had warned Frederick it would take seriously and was now preparing to honour. Nevertheless, Frederick entertained hopes that all was not lost. While chances of deflecting France from acting as an auxiliary power in the war between Austria and Prussia and from sending those 24,000 troops were slim, Frederick expected that France’s commitment to Austria would not go further and that France would not opt for an all-out war against Prussia. Although the French King Louis XV (r. 1715–1774) and his mistress, Jean-Antoinette Poisson de Pompadour (1721–1764), increasingly identified with the Franco-Austrian alliance, there was still a strong party at the court which swore by the old system and the need to maintain a balance of power within the Empire between Austria and Prussia.
Frederick’s initial reaction to the news of the Versailles alliance of 1 May 1756 (40 CTS 331; 40 CTS 335) had wavered between disbelief and hope. During the first weeks, when information about the treaties was still incomplete, the Prussian king refused to believe that his policy of seeking accommodation with Britain had failed in its purpose. According to rumour, the main thrust of the Versailles agreement was an Austrian promise to remain neutral in the upcoming war between Britain and France. In a desperate attempt to reassure himself, his government, and his diplomats, Frederick spun this to be the mirror reflection of his own treaty with Britain, the Convention of Westminster of 16 January 1756 (40 CTS 291), which neutralised Germany from the fall-out of the Franco-British war.
By late June, the official announcement that the Versailles agreement also included a defensive alliance, combined with the continuous reports of Austrian and Russian troop movements towards his borders, convinced Frederick that more was at stake. He now realised that France had dropped him as an ally, just as Austria had dropped Britain. At the very least, this meant that Austria and Russia were now free from the fear of French intervention if they attacked Prussia.
As in France, the news of the Anglo-Prussian Convention of Westminster had been badly received in Russia, which had been Austria’s ally for a decade. It had convinced the Russian court to abandon the subsidy treaty it had signed, but not ratified, with Britain (Treaty of Saint Petersburg of 30 September 1755, 40 CTS 269) and seek an accommodation with France instead. This also caused the court of Saint Petersburg to work out plans for an attack with Austria against Prussia. Although these plans materialised in the spring of 1756, they were not well enough advanced by the early summer for an offensive to take place in 1756. Kaunitz persuaded his monarchs and the Russian government to postpone the offensive by a year. In the meantime, further negotiations with Versailles on the exchange of the Austrian Netherlands and the Duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla might lure France into an offensive alliance against Prussia.
Through his spies at different courts and embassies, Frederick II was kept well-informed about the schemes at Saint Petersburg and Vienna, including the decision to delay. During July 1756, he decided not to await an attack but to anticipate it. His plan was to first attack Austria and occupy Bohemia, thus neutralising the Austrian threat before Russia could bring its weight to bear on operations. His strategy included the invasion and occupation of the Electorate of Saxony, whose ruler Augustus III (r. 1733–1763) was also king of Poland. Frederick suspected the Saxon King-Elector of collusion with Vienna and Saint-Petersburg. With the occupation of the Electorate, he wanted to neutralise its army and assure himself of its rich resources for the duration of the war.
Frederick II understood full well that his plans laid him wide open to French anger. On 26 July 1756, the French ambassador at his court had made it abundantly clear that France would stand by its commitment to Austria in case of a Prussian attack. But to Frederick, it was inconceivable that France’s commitment to a war against Prussia could or would be very serious as it was locked in a war with Britain. In his calculations, the chance of forestalling a joint Austro-Russian attack outweighed the danger of the enmity of France. Moreover, he was full of hope that the French government would quickly come to its senses and see that its true interest lay in opposing Austria’s bid for hegemony in the Empire, where it had lain for over two centuries.
While the outcome of this first – military – gamble would hang in the balance for most of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Frederick’s second – diplomatic – gamble failed within months. Over the summer of 1756, François-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis (1715–1794) and Johann Georg Adam Count Starhemberg (1724–1807), the main brokers of the First Versailles Treaty, had negotiated about strengthening the alliance. While different schemes for the cession of the Austrian Netherlands to France and the Bourbons of Spain had been discussed, the French government still rejected any proposal to partake in an offensive alliance against Prussia. Although the French king’s qualms about his old alliance with Prussia were now a thing of the past as the alliance had lapsed in June 1756, opposition at the French court to such a move remained strong. Apart from the party who actively opposed the alliance with Austria, led by Marc Pierre de Voyer de Paulmy, Count of Argenson (1696–1764) and Minister of War, there was also resistance from the Navy Minister, Jean-Baptiste de Machault, Count of Arnouville (1701–1794), who wanted to prioritise the naval war against Britain over all else.
This would change in the first months of 1757. Firstly, the failed assassination attempt against Louis XV in January set in motion a chain of events which led to the fall of both Argenson and Machault. Secondly, the ever closer cooperation between Berlin and London weakened the position of those who opposed a linkage between the war against Britain and the war in the German Empire. Thirdly, as a consequence of the reshuffling in the French government, Bernis entered the Council of State. Taken together, these events set the wheels in motion for France’s participation in the anti-Prussian alliance.
On 1 May 1757, exactly one year after the First Versailles Treaty, the Second Versailles Treaty was signed (41 CTS 1). This time only one single instrument was made, albeit with 10 separate articles attached. The treaty, which consummated the Diplomatic Revolution, was a remarkable one. The treaty contained the scheme to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for the Italian duchies. But it was first and foremost a fully fledged offensive alliance against Prussia. In the treaty, France committed itself to send an army of 100,000 men to the German theatre. Moreover, the treaty set as its ulterior goal the dismemberment of Prussia and the distribution of most of its territories among Austria, Saxony, Poland, and Sweden, leaving only a rump state around the old Electorate of Brandenburg. Employing the language of just war, the treaty called Frederick of Prussia an aggressor whose warmongering justified that taking away of his lands in compensation for the damage done to the Elector of Saxony and as a means to safeguard Europe and the Empire against new aggression by him. The treaty parties invited Russia, Sweden, Poland-Saxony, Bavaria, the Palatinate, Spain, and the Italian Bourbons to join the alliance and reap its benefits.
The Second Versailles Treaty marked the achievement of Kaunitz’s scheme for a grand alliance against Prussia. For Frederick II, whose operations in Bohemia were stalling, it spelled disaster. The Prussian king was now truly fighting for the survival of his realm, and of himself. But in the long run, his assessment that France would not prioritise a war against him and was thus, for all its might and power, a lesser concern, did not prove wrong. The Second Versailles Treaty led to a powerful, initial French intervention in Germany and against Prussia, but it was not sustained. After the brief spell of Bernis at the Foreign Ministry, his successor, Étienne-François, Duke of Choiseul (1719–1785), quickly scaled back France’s commitment to Austria’s war against Prussia. On 30 and 31 December 1758, the Third Treaty of Versailles – in fact two treaties, the second of which was secret (41 CTS 235; 41 CTS 261) – abrogated the Second Versailles Treaty – which had never been fully ratified – and replaced it with a far less open-ended alliance treaty. It still obliged France to continue its support to Austria until its main goals, the recovery of Silesia and Glatz, were achieved, but it abandoned the ambition to destroy Prussia. Thus began France’s withdrawal from the war in the Empire for the benefit of its fight against Britain. While it did not turn back the Diplomatic Revolution, it did spell the end of Kaunitz’s dream of eliminating Austria’s main contender in the Empire. Frederick could claim that Richelieu’s voice calling from the Elysian Fields had been heard after all.
‘Lettre du Cardinal de Richelieu au Roi de Prusse. Des Champs Elisées, le 15 octobre 1756’, Otto Krauske (ed.), Preussische Staatsschriften aus der Regierungszeit König Friedrichs II. (Berlin: Verlag Alexander Duncker 1892), vol. 3, 403–20.
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