War and succession

April 3 2009

Eighteenth-century statesmanship has at least this to be said in its favour, that, in finding its ways and means for changing the political map, it always preferred royal marriages to royal wars, if the matrimonial method could be managed. It considered, very rightly, that the matrimonial method was the cheaper and the more elegant way; and this point of view is summed up in a famous Latin epigram on the fortunes of the House of Austria, which built up and retained a great empire through a series of successful dynastic marriages, though it was notoriously apt to come out on the losing side in any wars in which it took part.

“Bella gerant alii; tu, felix Austria, nube.” [Footnote: The epigram is applicable to eighteenth-century Austria, though its authorship is attributed to a fifteenth-century king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus (regnabat A.D. 1458-90).] [“Others wage wars; you, happy Austria, marry.”] The very names of eighteenth-century wars tell the same tale: “the War of the Spanish Succession”; “the War of the Polish Succession”; “the War of the Austrian Succession”. The understanding was that, as a rule, these conveyances of royal estates would be peacefully arranged between the diplomatic match-makers, with due consideration for the interests of third parties. They only gave occasion for “the sport of kings” in exceptional cases, when the royal chafferers found themselves totally unable to agree.

This tendency, which was prevalent in the eighteenth century, to treat international politics as the private family affairs of dynasties, and not as the public business of peoples, undoubtedly turned international politics into something rather petty and rather sordid; but at least it performed one socially beneficial negative service. It “took the shine out of” patriotism; and, with “the shine”, it took the sting.

One could put a list of the important marriage alliances in Europe after, say, 1479 (beginning of the joint rule of Ferdinand and Isabella) on Wikipedia.

Were there any after 1815? Perhaps not, but a casus belli of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 was the claim of a Hohenzollern to the vacant Spanish throne, following the deposition of Isabella II, a Bourbon, in 1868. (The Prussian Rhine Province bordered France.) A century earlier, it would have been called the Second War of the Spanish Succession.

For the clash of dynastic and national principles in Schleswig-Holstein between 1846 and 1866, see this post. Latin in Hungary is mentioned in this post and this.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

One Response to “War and succession”

  1. richard Says:

    Really, really interesting post. I’d think that theorists of nationalism would find this curiously reversed, chronologically:
    This tendency, which was prevalent in the eighteenth century, to treat international politics as the private family affairs of dynasties, and not as the public business of peoples, undoubtedly turned international politics into something rather petty and rather sordid
    – when does international politics become the public business of peoples? When are “peoples” considered good, clean subjects for holding business, as opposed to narrow aristocracies or “creditworthy gentlemen,” to paraphrase Haraway? In the US there’s a distressing tendency to say “1776.” I’m more hesitant; I think it happens piecemeal and in strange leaps – of ideology, nascent nationalism, “patriotism” as a kind of domestic politics and other not so obvious or statist moves. So I’m not sure whose patriotism had the shine taken out of it; perhaps Toynbee clarifies that elsewhere.

    The Italian Risorgimento is, I suppose, a good counter-example, although it fits more into the narrative of a rebellious colonised intelligentsia rather than “the rise of national feeling” per se; it’s hard to assess how far the risorgimentist urge extended outside those charcoal huts. Prussian expansion of the 1860s seems to offer an alternative both to war and marriage: a little fighting, a lot of economic pressure and some outright purchase – it’s dangerously tempting to think of it as the bourgeois version of 18th century statesmanship.


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