The Light & the Dark: Volume XXX - DISPRIVILIGED GROUPS
Chapter III - THE DESTRUCTION OF UNITY
Part 9 - NEW ROBBER STATES & EUROPE IN THE WORLD
1. Sweden's last offensives
During the whole eighteenth century France did not
attempt to become the dominant European power. Spain and the Dutch Republic no
longer were major players in the European power game. The positions of England
and Austria were much strenghtened. There was, however, no predominant power.
This anarchical situation enabled new states to go foraging. During the first
decades of the eighteenth century the Swedish King Charles XII once again made
his country play a great role. His aim was to make Sweden the dominant power in
North and East Europe. To this end he fought Denmark, Poland and Russia. Since
he was a military genius, he gained many victories, but he had no definite
programme of political action. Czar Peter the Great proved a formidable
opponent. The king's campaign in the Ukraine became a disaster. He was killed
in Norway in 1719; Sweden no longer was an important power.
2. The rise of Russia
Sweden's demise made room for new robber states.
Russia's beginnings were modest, but after the foundation of the Principality
of Muscovy there was steady expansion. Eastward expansion proved to be easy,
since in these regions Russia had only to cope with nomad tribes. The whole of
Siberia was gradually conquered. Southward expansion was more difficult, for
the Turks were strongly present in the southern Ukraine and the Crimea. Yet,
the Turks were steadily pushed back, and the Crimea was annexed. The toughest
opponents were to be found in the west, Sweden for a time, and the
Polish-Lithuanian state. Poland was gradually brought down, until it was
ultimately divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. This signified that
Russia had become a European power, bordering on Prussia and Austria.
3. The rise of Prussia
Prussia's beginnings were equally modest. It began with
the barren Duchy of Brandenburg. The Duke of Brandenburg succeeded to the Duchy
of Prussia in 1618, after which the dual state is usually called `Prussia'. Its
dukes became kings in 1700. Prussia was also an anexionist state. Since the
second half of the fifteenth century it annexed territories all around its
borders. The great Prussian conqueror was King Frederick II; his aim was to
show Europe that Prussia was a superpower. In order to prove this he invaded
the prosperous Austrian province of Silesia in 1740. The emperor Charles VI had
just died, leaving only a daughter, Maria Theresia. This led to another great
European war, the Austrian War of Succession (1740-1748). This left Maria
Theresia on the throne in Vienna, but Silesia in the hands of Prussia.
Prussian aggressiveness led to the formation
of a coalition against it. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) Austria,
France, Savoy and Russia fought Prussia, that had only one ally, England. This
coalition was the result of a renversement des alliances, because the
old archenemies France and Austria now had become allies. More than once King
Frederick faced total defeat, but then Russia choose Prussia's side. From then
on Prussia really was a superpower; henceforth German politics would be
dominated by Austro-Prussian dualism. Prussia was in the possession of Silesia,
West Poland, Hinterpommern, East Frisia, Ravensberg, Cleves, Geldern and Mark.
It had outlets to the Baltic and the North Sea and had common frontiers with
Russia, Austria and the Dutch Republic.
IN THE WORLD
Expansion was the keyword of the European public sphere.
Not only there were many European states that attempted to acquire always more
territories, Europe itself was also expanding. Portugal, Spain, France,
England, the Dutch Republic and Denmark, they all acquired territories in the
world, mostly very far from the mother country. Colonialism and imperialism are
dualistic enterprises. European powers were not in the least interested in the
rights of nations and peoples who had lived for centuries in that part of the
world, where they wanted to establish themselves, nor did they show any respect
for the civilizations and religions of these peoples.
Two specific cases deserve attention. With a
handful of men Hernando Cortès destroyed the mighty Aztec empire in Mexico;
with just as minimal a force Francesco Pisarro put an end the Inca empire in
Portugal, France, England, the Dutch
Republic and Denmark attempted to acquire a foothold in the Indian
subcontinent. As long as the Mughal empire was strong and powerful, expansion
inland impossible. Its demise enabled the English to push on. Towards the end
of the eighteenth century they were masters of the whole of Bengal, the present
A corollary of this imperialism was slavery
and the slave trade, an utterly dualistic phenomenon. Black people were hunted
and caught by fellow Africans, sold to European slave traders, shipped to the
Americas, sold to white plantation proprietors, and put to work.
Let us summarize and ponder.
- During the early modern period medieval unity was
- Medieval constitutionalism was replaced by a new
phenomenon, the sovereign state,
- This led to permanent anarchy and ceaseless warfare.
- In the Balkans Habsburg fought the Turks, liberating
part of it.
- Many states were bent on expansion.
- A characteristic of this period were attempts to rob
Habsburg of its leadership.
- The French kings, conceiving of themselves as the
true heirs of Charlemagne, were Habsburg's main antagonists.
- The Thirty Years War definitively put an end to
- This was a period of universal war in which almost
all states participated.
- Alliances were as easily concluded as they were
- The eighteenth century was the time of robber states,
Sweden, Russia and Prussia. The principal victim was Poland.
- Europeans swarmed out all over the world,
demonstrating a dualistic disregard for the rights of all non-European peoples.
- In the wake of this ruthless colonialism came yet
another dualistic phenomenon: slavery and slave trading.
The ideological and political landscape of ca. 1800 was
totally different from that of 1275 or 1300. That had been the time of High
Scholasticism, with Thomas of Aquinas' Summa theologica as its pivotal
document. Another summa was Dante's Divina Commedia, his
all-comprising view of heaven and earth. It was also the time of the great
Gothic cathedrals, these too a summa of medieval faith. Cathedrals were
no longer built, however. That of Cologne remained unfinished, just as
Amsterdam's New Church never got its tower. The money failed, it was argued,
but what really failed was faith. The very word `Gothic' came to mean
`barbarian'; the Middle Ages were a period best forgot. Aristotelianism and
Scholasticism were contemptuously dumped in the dustbin. What remained of
scholastic realism was Kant's contention that, although reality exists, we
cannot know it.
The last vestiges of medieval
constitutionalism, of medieval unity, gradually disappeared. The ecclesiastical
and political landscapes resembled each other; they were fragmented, the first
into Churches and sects, the second into states, all of them distrustful of
each other. Those who once led Europe, the Pope and the emperor, had been
replaced by robber kings, unscrupulous statesmen, and ambitious generals, at
the head of merciless and destructive fighting machines. The times were rife
for a totally unprincipled super robber king, arising from nothing, who would
overthrow all Europe, just as in the twentieth century one of the same ilk, an
adventurer coming from nowhere, would do the same.
Was there no defense against this? Towards
the end of the eighteenth century the great mass of the European population,
still overwhelmingly agricultural and barely literate, shared, to whichever
creed they belonged, the same basic religious convictions. People were as yet
not affected by a-religious, even anti-religious ideologies. This means that
there was still a measure of European unity. Yet, would this remnant of unity
be strong enough withstand the assaults of ideological revolutionaries and
Napoleonic ruthlessness? This is what we must discuss in the next chapters.