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The War of the Austrian Succession.

This is the best book on the war that engulfed almost all Europe for eight years in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is a most complicated story, and the great virtue here is that it is made simple and intelligible. For it was really four conflicts rolled into one. Professor Browning identifies them. 1 -- France fought Austria for dominance in Germany, 2 -- Austria and Spain fought for dominance in Italy, 3 -- Britain fought Spain for a share of the trade in the Caribbean and Central America, and 4 -- cast Britain and France in a contest for nothing less than the dominance of Europe.

So the professor says -- but I do not think that the island power was ever in a position to dominate Europe. What Britain wanted was to prevent France, by far the strongest power, from doing it.

In 1739 Britain was already engaged in a little colonial war with Spain to open up trade with her empire in America -- Spain's colonists needed British manufactures. Then Prussia's king, Frederick II, seized the opportunity of the death of the Austrian emperor to seize Silesia from the hapless female heir, Maria Theresa. That started a general war, as Frederick wished, for he could not hope to keep Silesia without allies.

France now took its opportunity to expand in Germany and the Low Countries. This brought in Britain to stop her and help Austria. Spain took the chance to attack Austria in Italy and take her place in the peninsula, in both South and North. Feminists may take pride in the obduracy of two females, who kept the war going. Maria Theresa obstinately held to her rights, when she would have done better to compromise with the aggressor -- let Prussia have the Protestant northern half of Silesia, while retaining the Catholic south.

The Spanish Queen Elizabeth Farnese, a termagant, got only a little bit of what she wanted in Italy for her second son. Thus the war was kept going for eight years, with its changes and chances, victories and defeats, and general disappointment. The net gainer from the war was the one most to blame, Prussia held on to Silesia, though Frederick knew that it would take another war before Maria Theresa would give up her richest province. Before the end he was looking to Britain for a more effective ally than France. Thus the Seven Years' War, which effectively reduced France, was already foreshadowed.

Britain's effectiveness lay in her dominant sea-power and her money power: she subsidised allies. For her this was a war transitional in character. She learned from it not to waste armies on the Continent, but to fight France globally -- where sea-power gave her the advantage -- in America and Asia.

This mid-term war ended in exhaustion for everybody, except Britain; and France fought, not on her own territory but on other peoples'. Thus areas of Europe were devastated, cities destroyed, scores, if not hundreds of thousands of humans perished -- even more from disease than from battles and campaigns. Britain's biggest combined operation, against Cartagena in America, was overthrown mainly by disease; service in the Caribbean was lethal from yellow fever.

Professor Reed is equally good on the conditions of warfare, the character of the armies and navies, as on the complex diplomatic activities seeking for peace, if advantageous. As a civilized man he sums up the human loss. 'War kills...In the final reckoning the abiding truth about war is that it is lethal'. As against that we have always to remember that quite a lot of humans, especially menfolk, like fighting.

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Author:Rowse, A.L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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