The Light & the Dark: Volume XXX - DISPRIVILIGED GROUPS
Chapter III - THE DESTRUCTION OF UNITY
Part 8 - THE TURKISH QUESTION & RANCE AGAINST HABSBURG
That European unity had become a thing of the past
became painfully apparent with regard to the Turkish conquests. There never was
a unified attempt to stop them, let alone to force them back. It was even so
that the French kings, with their visceral abhorrence of Habsburg, concluded
alliances with the sultans of Turkey. During the first decades of the sixteenth
century the Turks conquered all of the Balkans and the greater part of Hungary.
In 1527 they besieged Vienna, but in vain.
The task of defending Europe against the
Turks fell to Habsburg; during the early modern era France, England, the Dutch
Republic, Sweden, Prussia, all powerful states, did virtually nothing to come
to its assistance. None of these countries took part in the Battle of Lepanto in
1571, but Spain, some Italian states and the Knights of Malta were there. This
great victory proved that the Ottomans were not invincible.
Until the end of the eighteenth century
Habsbsurg intermittently fought the Ottoman Empire. There were long periods of
truce, but then war broke out again. Sometimes the Turks booked successes, for
instance, when they conquered Crete and the southern Ukraine. In 1683 the Turks
felt strong enough to lay siege to Vienna for the second time. Had they
succeeded, the gateway to central Europe would have been opened. Once again the
European powers were conspicuously absent. Only the Polish-Lithuanian
confederation came to the help of Habsburg, followed by troops from Saxony and
Bavaria. They defeated the Turks who abandoned the siege.
Habsburg was joined by the Russians during
the second half of the eighteenth century; they conquered the Crimea. The
result of these offensive actions was somewhat disappointing. Croatia, Hungary,
Transsylvania and the northern half of Serbia were reconquered by Austria,
Dalmatia by Venice, and the Crimea and the southern Ukraine by Russia. Yet,
Romania was still a Turkish vassal state, and the greater part of the Balkans,
with the great prize, Istanbul, remained in Turkish hands, just as the Aegean
islands, Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus.
Had all the powers of Europe joined hands
with Habsburg, it would not have been so difficult to drive the Turks out of
Europe. But none of them ever lifted a finger. Worse, Habsburg had endlessly to
cope with anti-Habsburg alliances against which it had to defend itself.
Concentrated as they were on their own interests, it did not dawn on those
rulers that the `Turkish question' was an Anliegen of all Europe.
1. France's offensives in Italy
It was above all France that kept the anti-Habsburg
policy going. The French kings found that they, and the not the emperors of the
Holy Roman Empire, were the true successors of Charlemagne and his imperial
concept. About 1500 they were confronted by a still very powerful Habsburg that
thought of itself as the guardian of the imperial ideal of European unity, of
the unity of Christendom, and of the crusading spirit. France, on the contrary,
stood for itself, for national sovereignty; it did not act as the protector of
Beginning with King Charles VIII in 1494,
France concentrated its efforts on Italy, the cradle of European imperialism,
the homeland of the Roman Empire. A long series of Italian wars resulted from
this policy. These wars were costly in manpower and money, but the results were
never impressive. It was first and foremost the Duchy of Milan the kings wanted
to have; from there they would be able to control all Lombardy. For some time
King Francis I really was Duke of Milan. He was, however, heavily defeated by
Habsburg in 1523 in the Battle of Pavia and spent some time in Spain as Charles
Later, the French offensive was resumed, not
very successfully, for King Francis had to renounce all claims on Savoy and
Piedmont in 1544. King Henry II harassed Habsburg in Germany by supporting
Luhteran princes, while he also had designs on Italy. He too had an imperial
dream, conceiving of himself as the successor of the Merovingian kings. His
Italian campaigns came to nothing. With the Peace of Cateau Cambresis in 1559
France renounced all claims on Italy.
It was characteristic of French policy that
France believed to be encircled by Habsburg territories in all sides; it wanted
to break this `encirclement'. The wars with Habsburg in Italy led to wars with
Habsburg on other fronts, but not only Habsburg felt threatened by French
aggressiveness. The Swiss and England choose Habsburg's side. However, during
the whole of early modern period alliances were no more than temporary
makeshifts; the enemy of yesterday became the ally of today, and the reverse.
Since 1513 there was constant fighting along the southern frontier of the
Netherlands, but here too Francis I was not successful. New possibilities arose
with the spread of Lutheranism in Germany. King Henry II was prepared to betray
the Church by supporting the Lutheran princes against Habsburg, and these
princes were ready to betray the empire by fighting Charles V. Yet, the
full-scale war with Habsburg 1552-1559 brought France nothing but
2. France's offensives in Germany
During the second half of the sixteenth century internal
problems prevented France from playing a role on the European stage. It was
France's prime minister Richelieu who, during the first decades of the
seventeenth century, designed France's new policy. Really new was this policy
not, because it was the continuance of the anti-Habsburg policy of the Valois
kings, with this difference that Richelieu concentrated on Germany, and no
longer on Italy. The outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618 gave him the
opportunity to interfere in the affairs of the Holy Roman Empire. With this a
series of Franco-German wars began of wich World War II was the last. The wars
of the seventeenth century are usually classified as `wars of religion'. Yet,
they were not about religion, about tenets of faith or ritual; they were, as
always and everywhere, about power.
The Germany of the second decade of the
seventeenth century was a powder keg that could explode any moment. There was
the long standing conflict between the Lutheran princes and the Habsburg
emperor with his counter-reformatory policy. And there was the unruliness of
Bohemia with its Czech population that was dissatified with Habsburg rule. It
was here that the trouble began, in 1618, with an act of anti-Habsburg
violence, leading to fighting between Habsburg forces and Bohemian rebels. This
ended with the defeat of the rebels. The triumph of Habburg seemed complete.
The war got a European dimension with the
intervention of Denmark. It seemed that the empire was up for the grabs.
Denmark, Sweden, the Dutch Republic, France: none of them was in need of a
European superpower; every sovereign state was a superpower in its own right. And
they also did not want a Catholic emperor to be their suzerain. King Christian
IV of Denmark's aim was to give his country the status of an important European
power, this to the detriment of Germany; no one was interested in the plight of
the German people. The Danish king had allies in Germany, but he had the bad
luck that the emperor disposed of a very able imperial commander with a strong
army, Wallenstein. In four years of warfare, 1625-1629, he fought Denmark out
of the war.
The next one to enter the war was King
Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, posing as the protector of Protestantism. Since he
was an exceptionally capable commander, he was enormously successful; after two
years of warfare the greater part of Germany had become a Swedish protectorate.
However, he fell in the Battle of Lützen in 1632; after his death the Swedes
withdrew to the Baltic coast; the Swedish phase of the war was over, but not
the war itself.
Thus far, France took part in the war by
proxy, that is, by supporting German allies, but in 1639 Mazarin realized that,
if it wanted to gain the victory, it must enter the war itself. On the whole
its efforts had not been successful; it fought Habsburg on too many fronts: in
the southern Netherlands, in Spain, in Lombardy, in Burgundy, in Germany
itself. The strategic concept was that a great Franco-Swedish offensive would
about 1643 deal Habsburg the deathblow by the conquest of Vienna, but this
ultimate war aim was never made a reality.
The long war was concluded by two treaties:
the Peace of Münster between Spain and the Dutch Republic, which made the
Republic a sovereign nation, no longer a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the
Peace of Westphalia between the empire and France, Sweden and its other
enemies. The empire suffered considerable territorial losses. The most
disastrous effect of the war was the destruction of German unity. No longer was
the emperor the suzerain of Europe; he was now the equal of all other European
kings, but also of all the princes of the empire. All of them had been given
the right to conduct their own foreign policy. Although the empire protracted
its existence until 1806, henceforth it was only a shadow of its former self.
The destruction of German unity also
signified that the last vestiges of European unity had disappeared. Germany is
the centre-piece of Europe; without a healthy, prosperous and well-governed
Germany there can be no European unity. For centuries this ideal sank below the
horizon. Then the the term with which European politics must be described is
3. France's bid for total power
During the seventeenth century France's aim was as
before to bring down Habsburg; the emperor's role would be taken over by the
King of France. All means, however vicious, were used to achieve this end.
During Richelieu's reign France did not gain more than a modest bridgehead
across the Alps; yet a foothold across the Rhine would be more important. The
French were successful in Alsatia and the Rhineland, but were for a long time
incapable of crossing the Rhine, in spite of their alliance with Sweden. Since
1635 France was also at war with Spain and at the same time campaigning in
Belgium, in Lorraine, and in Franche Comté. It was too much; nowhere the French
were able to score a decisive victory, in spite of partial gains. The war with
the empire ended in 1648, that with Spain dragged on until 1659. After all
those years of fighting France's territorial gains were negligible.
Mazarin's death in 1661 made Louis XIV his
own master. What he wanted was to make France all-powerful, more powerful than
the emperor had ever been. War followed war; the king's main weapon was brutal
aggression. Yet, France never had a walkover. Its aggressiveness caused other
powers, England, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, to join hands against it. Louis's
main opponent became William III of Orange-Nassau, stadtholder in the Dutch
Republic since 1672 and King of England since 1688. This made the French king
consider the Republic as the main obstacle on his road to European leadership.
In 1672 he began a major offensive against it, with the aim to reduce it to the
status of a satellite of France. The attempt misfired. The Republic, already
considering Habsburg's preponderance as a thing of the past, did not want to
see it replaced by a Bourbon preponderance. It realized that European
constitutionalism had made place for a Europe of sovereign and independent
Later, after 1680, the Sun King succeeded,
by the most devious means, in turning Alsatia into a French province. Then followed
aggression against Spanish Belgium and against the Palatinate. Once again the
European powers combined their efforts in order to stop France. The Peace of
Rijswijk in 1697 made the king the great loser.
Even in its demise Habsburg was still the
pivotal element in European politics. In 1700 the last Spanish Habsburg king
died. Who would succeed to his enormous heritage? Louis claimed the heritage
for his grandson Philip of Anjou. He became King of Spain indeed, as Philip V,
but this claim was the cause of the long and bloody Spanish War of Succession,
because the powers would not tolerate a Franco-Spanish power block. The peace
treaties of 1713 and 1714 left Philip on the Spanish throne, but only on the
condition that he would never become also King of France. Spain ceded the
Spanish Netherlands to Austria and the Duchy of Milan to the emperor. France
lost its conquests in Belgium and the Rhineland.