On this day, December 16th, 1740, King Frederick II (the Great) of Brandenburg-Prussia occupied Silesia, until then a possession of the House of Habsburg. Frederick claimed Silesia as compensation for accepting the “Pragmatic Sanction”.
The Pragmatic Sanction was a change in the rules of inheritance prevailing in the Habsburg lands. If the imperial family had died out in the male line, the eldest daughter of the last holder of the title should now inherit the lands. This insurance policy had to be called earlier than expected when Emperor Charles VI died in 1740 and left all to his daughter Maria Theresia.
As soon as Charles VI had passed, various pretenders contested the validity of the Pragmatic Sanction, including Bavaria, Saxony and Prussia. Frederick II stood out for having no claim on Silesia at all – he just wanted it. What he did have was a formidable standing army created by his father who he despised. That army he put to use in Silesia, which he occupied within days.
The invasion of Silesia kicks off a period of near continuous warfare between Austria and Prussia that involved France, Great Britain and several of the German states. It lasts until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Prussia and Great Britain emerged as the winners in this, the first global conflict. Britain gains an empire in North America and India and Prussia leapfrogs Bavaria and Saxony to the #2 position in Germany behind Austria.
Prussia’s or more precisely Frederick II’s success was hard won and brought him more than once to the abyss.
The post 1763 power structure in Germany pitted Prussia against Austria for leadership in a future unified German national state. That conflict gets resolved 100 years later in the battle of Königgrätz/Hradic Kralove (1866) and the subsequent creation of the Deutsche Reich under Prussian leadership in 1871.
I am not a fan of the “great man” approach to history, but Frederick II, for good or ill, had been one of the rare individuals whose choices did change the course of history. Without his daring and persistence, Prussia would have remained a mid-ranking state within Germany. National unification would have come about in a very different fashion…