Central and Eastern Europe




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Central and Eastern Europe
This region lagged behind Western Europe. The states that dominated in central and Eastern Europe did not exist in well defined geographical areas with established borders. The economy was mostly agrarian and serfdom still existed. These states did not engage in global trade, in fact, almost exclusively the export was grain to Western Europe.
Politics in this region has been greatly affected by the almost constant warfare of the first half of the 17th century. The ruling princes and aristocrats would not subordinate themselves to a central authority.
As the 17century began, Eastern Europe was dominated by four aging empires:


  • Poland

Nobles elected their kings and used the liberum veto to prevent any threatening legislation to win approval from the sejm.


  • Ottoman Empire

Composed of an ethnically and religiously diverse population, which was ruled on the basis of the religion. Religious units called millets included all persons of a common religious faith. Different laws applied to different religious groups. The Ottomans had laid siege to Vienna in 1683 but had been unsuccessful. By the last third of 17th century the Ottomans had overstretched their political, economic, military resources. As a result of constant warfare, the central government became increasingly ineffective.


After the Habsburgs’ defeat in the 30 Years’ War, they realized that they must look elsewhere for an empire. The only direction they could go was south and eastward, which meant that the new Habsburg Empire would be mostly non-Germanic.


  • Sweden

Although the Swedes had gained notice under the leadership of Gustavus Adolphus, they declined in power under Charles XII. Charles lost to Peter the Great in the Great Northern War and with this loss, Sweden’s control of the Baltic region was gone and their economic resources had been exhausted.
These aging empires created a power vacuum. Into this power vacuum would step three new powers whose growth would ultimately bring Europe into the Great War of 1914-1918)


  • Habsburg Dynasty of Austria




  • Hohenzollern Dynasty of Brandenburg-Prussia




  • Romanov Dynasty of Russia.


The Habsburg Empire and the Pragmatic Sanction
The end of the Thirty Years’ War marked a turning point in the history of the Austrian Habsburgs. The position of Holy Roman Emperor was now dependent on the cooperation that the emperor could elicit from the various princes and free-cities that existed within the boundaries of the empire. The diet of the empire still existed and regulated the daily economic and political life of Germany; however, a lack of central control made it very weak.

While trying to maintain control over its hereditary German lands, the Habsburgs began to consolidate their power and influence within its other hereditary possessions. However, they faced many problems in consolidating power in their domains, which varied considerable in language and traditions. The Habsburgs began to fortify their control over




  • Crown of Saint Wenceslas -- Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia

  • Crown of St. Stephen – Hungary, Croatia, and Transylvania.

Gaining control over Hungary was going to difficult as much of it was under the control of the Turks.


In the late 17th century, Leopold I successfully resisted both the Ottoman Empire and King Louis XIV of France. In 1683, the Turks laid siege to Vienna. In September, following a two-month’ siege, a force of imperial troops and a Polish army, led by Poland’s king, John Sobieski, came to the aid of Vienna, and the Turks were driven back. The Habsburg army then took the offensive against the Turks capturing Budapest, Hungary’s’ capital, 1686. Under the terms of the Treaty of Karlowitz, Leopold acquired virtually all of Hungary. After securing control of Hungary, the long suppression of the Magyars began. Leopold also conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and western Romania. It was hoped that these new conquests would make up for the loss of control over the Holy Roman Empire.
After the death of Leopold in 1705, Joseph I, his successor, continue Leopold’s policies. Prince Eugene, the Austrian hero at the Battle of Blenheim during the War of the Spanish Succession, won additional victories over the French as the War of the Spanish Succession entered its final years.
In early 1711, Charles VI succeeded his brother as HRE and emperor of Austria. With the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Habsburgs gained control of the Spanish Netherlands and the kingdom of Naples by the Treaty of Utrecht. Thus throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Germanic Habsburgs’ power was based on control of non-Germanic territories.
Charles VI failed to produce a male heir and to avoid a conflict over succession, sought to win the support of his nobility and the great powers of Europe for the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713. The Pragmatic Sanction provided for the inheritance of the Habsburg holdings by his daughter, Maria Theresa. To gain acceptance of this Sanction, Charles, like his predecessors, had to grant concessions to the various domains within the Empire. Constant bargaining with one group or another was a central weakness of the Habsburgs.
Although the Pragmatic Sanction provided a legal basis for Habsburg control of its empire, the Sanction did not protect Maria Theresa from foreign aggression. Less than two months after assuming control of the Empire, Frederick II of Prussia invaded Silesia and the War of Austrian Succession began.
Prussia and the Hohenzollerns
Frederick William the Great Elector (r. 1640-1688)
In 1415, the Hohenzollern family began to rule as the electors of Brandenburg in northern Germany. Overtime, the Hohenzollerns would through pull together a diverse group of feudal holdings into a strong centralized unit. After the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, Frederick William, the Great Elector, decided that if he was to protect his holdings, he needed to build up gain control over the Junkers and buildup his army. Therefore, he reduced the autonomy of the Junkers and the estates. He established the civil service and the army as the cornerstones of state power, compelling the nobility to pay taxes to support the army. He did not interfere, however, with the Junkers’ complete control over the serfs who worked their land or with their dominance over the towns. Furthermore, the burden of taxes fell most heavily upon the peasants and the townspeople.
The Great Elector recruited members of the nobility to serve in the civil service and as army officers. The Junkers came to dominate both the higher ranks of the civil service and the officer corps of the army. All officials and army officers took an oath of loyalty directly to the elector. In this way, the power of the Hohenzollerns came to be based on the ruler’s alliance with the aristocracy rather than on his opposition to it.
In religious affairs, the Great Elector practiced a policy of toleration, welcoming to his lands some 20,000 French Huguenots, many Polish Jews, and other refugees from persecution.
Frederick I (r. 1688-1713)
Frederick I proved to be uncharacteristic of the Hohenzollerns, who typically focused their attention on the army and administration. A patron of the arts and learning, Frederick enjoyed living in luxury. He can however, be credited with one major achievement in the development of Hohenzollern power. During the War of the Spanish Succession, he supported the Habsburg HRE, who permitted him to assume the title of King in Prussia. This title was confirmed by the Treaty of Utrecht. With his death, he was succeeded by his son, Frederick William I.
Frederick William I (r. 1713-1740)
Although an eccentric Frederick William, the “Sergeant King” proved to be one of the most effective of the Hohenzollerns. He replaced the extravagances of his father with a policy of austerity, imposing strict economies and practicing sound management in an effort to maximize Prussia’s limited resources. This policy led to a substantial increase in the state’s income.
He cut jobs, lowered salaries, and adopted a Kabinett” style of government. He organized the bureaucracy along military lines. He united all departments under the General Directory. He imposed taxes on the nobility and changed most remaining feudal dues into monetary payments. He sought to transform loyalty to a feudal lord into loyalty to the state as a political institution. Service to the state was to become impersonal, mechanical, and in effect, unquestioning.
During his reign he doubled the size of the Prussian army from 40,000 to over 80,000. It was the third or fourth largest army, yet only 13th in population. He formed one regiment from the tallest soldiers he could find in Europe. Separate laws applied to the army and to civilians. He united the army, the Junkers, and the monarchy into a single political unit. Prussia was more like an army that possessed a state, than a state that possessed an army.
While Frederick William I was clearly a militarist, he sought to avoid war. The army was, above all, a sign of Prussian power rather than an instrument of aggression.
Upon his death, the throne passed to his son, Frederick II, who had been a disappointment to his father. Shortly after assuming the throne, Frederick II invaded Silesia beginning the War of the Austrian Succession.
Russia and the Romanovs
Traditionally, Russia, had been viewed apart from the rest of Europe. Dominated for years by the Mongols, Eastern Orthodox in faith, hemmed in by Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, it developed a unique culture.
The reign of Ivan III had brought the end of Mongol domination. The reign of Ivan IV ((r. 1533-1584) had gone badly after the death of his wife. Ivan blamed the boyars for her death and had created a secret police to wreck terror on them. In a fit of rage he had killed his eldest son; thus, leaving his younger, weak son to succeed him.
Ivan’s reign was followed by a period known as the “Time of Troubles”. In an effort to restore stability, the boyars elected Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613. Michael and his successors reestablished stability, although the boyars continued to challenge the tsar’s authority, as did the streltsy, the guards of the Moscow garrison. The country remained weak and impoverished and could barely suppress a revolt of peasants and Cossacks under Stefan Razin in 1670-1671.
Reign of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725)
Peter I, known to history as Peter the Great, became tsar at the age of ten, as co-ruler with his sickly half-brother, Ivan V. Following Ivan V’s death in 1696, Peter assumed full power.
Once solely in power, he was determined to confront the threats he saw to his rule – the boyars and the streltsy.
As a young man, Peter was fascinated with Western Europe. In 1697, he became the first tsar ever to travel in the West, visiting Prussia, the Netherlands, and England, where he studied military organizations, shipbuilding, commerce, and finance.
The streltsy took advantage of Peter’s absence and rebelled in 1698. Rushing back to Russia, the tsar brutally suppressed the revolt. Some 1, 200 rebels were executed, and their corpses were placed on display as a warning to other would-be rebels.
Peter’s visit to Western Europe increased his determination to westernize and modernize his country. He moved to establish his control over the boyars, and he set out to promote economic development, strengthen Russia’s armed forces, reorganize the central administration, and extend state control over the Russian Orthodox Church.
Peter the Great and the Boyars
Peter began his campaign for westernization by ordering the boyars to be clean shaven and to adopt Western dress. He also ended the traditional seclusion of upper-class Russian women and demanded that they participate in social functions with men.
Peter insisted that the nobility serve the state in either the civil service or the military. In 1722, he issued the Table of Ranks, which provided that social position and privileges be based on an individual’s rank in the bureaucracy or the military, rather than his lineage. Thus social standing became a function of the willingness of the boyars to serve the state.
Peter the Great and Economic Development
To promote the modernization of Russia’s economy, Peter ordered the boyars to send their sons to Western Europe to learn technical skills and he encouraged Western European craftsmen and technicians to settle in Russia. He established schools and hospitals and founded the Russian Academy of Science. Peter provided subsidies to assist the expansion of industry by private operators and established state mines and factories to insure adequate supplies for his military endeavors.


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