Thursday, April 7, 2011

Reflections on the Seven Years War

The United States, as we know, is currently fighting two conflicts abroad, one in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. One could see these wars as in fact two theaters of the same “War on Terror” or separate them into entirely different issues. The common thread is of course the struggle between United States and al-Qaida, even if other NATO powers, affiliated terrorist organizations, and Islamic regimes participate in it. Though the analogy can’t take us too far, we see a similar situation in the Seven Years War (1756-63) and what we know in American history as the “French and Indian War” (1754-63).

The common thread in these two 18th-century contests is Anglo-French rivalry in Europe and abroad. In the course of the 1750s and culminating in the Treaty of Paris (1763), Britain embarked on the path toward world-empire status on which “the sun never set.” Contrariwise, the French empire started a protracted, slow decline, ultimately giving way to Anglo-American hegemony in the modern era—and the French are still smarting over “paradise lost!” In addition to the expansion of its possessions abroad, the two European powers had vested interests in the mercantile wealth of the Low Countries. On the continent the core of the conflict was a rivalry between Prussia and Austria over territory in central Europe. The “diplomatic revolution” involved an alliance between Austria and France to put the German state, an aspiring newcomer, in its place. Perhaps with “enemy of my enemy is my friend” calculation at the fore, Britain felt drawn to Prussia. Of the remaining superpowers, Russia was the “wildcard” in the conflict, alternately opposing and supporting Frederick II.

The victor on the continent was clearly Prussia, which concluded favorable peace terms in the Treaty of Hubertusburg. Frederick’s aggressive policies had paid off; Prussia had increased its territory and became a major power. A more impressive victory belongs to Great Britain who seized French possessions in the New World and India. (The term Great Britain, used more commonly at this time, referred to England, Scotland and Wales and dates back to 1603. It referred not to national might but geographic distinctions; its opposite, “Little Britain,” was Brittany, a duchy in western France that England had claimed since the Middle Ages.)

Too often military historians feel compelled to label many pre-World War I conflicts as world wars: the Thirty Years War and Louis IV’s wars of the late 17th century, for instance. We shouldn’t forget that World War I (1914-18) is so named for good reason. Nonetheless, the Seven Years War was truly the first European war that had generated regional conflict throughout the globe and had global implications. It led indirectly to the two great revolutions of the modern world: the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799).  Both Britain and France (victor and vanquished) suffered from financial hardships after the war. To pay for the debt, the British crown and Parliament required the English colonies of North America to pay greater taxes. The French crown was in a tougher bind. King Louis XVI had the unenviable task of taxing the independent nobility or the overburdened common folk.  His decision helped spark a revolution.