Emperor Pyotr III of Russia
Emperor Pyotr III of Russia
Taken together, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Four Years’ War put to rest most of the troublesome dynastic and political questions which had troubled continental Europe in the early 18th century. The matter of the Habsburg succession in Italy, the cause of intermittent wars for half a century, was settled with treaties in 1748 and 1752 recognizing a partition that was further solidified by marriages between the Habsburgs and the Spanish Bourbons. The question of whether Austria would persevere in its dominion of Germany was also decisively answered; the attempts of Bavaria and Prussia to steal the patrimony of Empress Maria Theresa had ended in failure. Even the ancient feud between France and Austria had been set aside, and though their mutual alliance was looking rather shaky by the 1760s neither side had any interest in a resumption of old hostilities.
British statesmen felt a great deal of unease as they surveyed this European landscape. They had won vast colonial conquests at the expense of France in the recent war, but the death of “Friedrich der Kühne” had also left them without a powerful continental ally. Dividing Bourbon resources between the colonies and the continent had thus far been the cornerstone of British wartime strategy, but without a capable European partner this would be impossible. Some still hoped to resurrect the “old system” of the Anglo-Habsburg alliance, imagining that warmer relations with Austria would be a silver lining upon the otherwise dark cloud of Prussia’s demise. While the tone of the London-Vienna relationship did improve after 1760, however, Maria Theresa had no reason to break with France. By the mid-1760s, events had convinced her the greatest threat to her empire was not France or even Brandenburg, but Russia.
In just a few decades, the Russian Empire had evolved from a diplomatic afterthought to a serious European power. Russian might had been demonstrated for all to see on the battlefields of Pomerania, and after the Russo-Polish treaty of 1761 the empire’s borders were closer to central Europe than ever before. Russia’s power and proximity were made even more unnerving by the fact that this new power was in the hands of Emperor Pyotr III, a belligerent and ambitious monarch who displayed an uncannily Friedrich-like contempt for political conventions.
As the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Pyotr laid claim to lands in Schleswig which had been lost to the Gottorp house in 1721. Negotiations over the Gottorp claims had been ongoing since the 1740s, but the solution proposed by the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway - a territorial swap of the Gottorp lands in Holstein with the Danish-owned German counties of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst - was unsatisfactory to Pyotr. In 1761 the existing Russo-Danish treaty expired, leaving Pyotr free to break the stalemate by force. Such a course of action was opposed by many of his advisors and senior officials, who were not only afraid that the war would be impolitic but warned that Russia’s navy was unready for the contest. The emperor, however, was undeterred.
King Frederik V of Denmark was alarmed to find himself utterly alone against this menace. Austria, England, and France had all guaranteed Denmark’s possession of Schleswig as recently as 1758, but it soon became clear that not one of them was willing to directly oppose Pyotr’s designs. Yet Pyotr, too, was isolated. His attempts to entice Sweden into war with the prospect of conquering Norway ran aground on the anti-Russian policy of the ruling “Hats” party and the ineptitude of Russian envoys; the best he could do was ensure Sweden’s neutrality. Brandenburg was somewhat more receptive, as Prince-Regent Heinrich eagerly sought an alliance with Russia to guard against Austria. Heinrich, however, understood that the electorate was in no state to launch an offensive war after its recent defeat, and could promise the emperor only free passage and some logistical support.
Several attempts were made by other powers to defuse the growing tension - including an offer of mediation made by King Theodore of Corsica - but once Russian troops entered Brandenburg in 1763, King Frederik decided he could afford to wait no longer. Marshal Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, an experienced French general in Danish service, was determined to take the offensive. The fleet sailed forth to Bornholm, while Saint-Germain extorted a forced loan from Lübeck and then occupied western Mecklenburg. Pyotr had not intended to launch the war this early, but these provocative actions were too good of a casus belli to resist. In August, Russia declared war on Denmark, and Emperor Pyotr personally led his army into Mecklenburg.
Saint-Germain was trying to make the best of a bad situation. Although he had worked hard to overhaul the Danish army, that army had not seen a battle since the Great Northern War, and Saint-Germain possessed only 28,000 soldiers against nearly 40,000 Russians. To maximize his chances, Saint-Germain took a position near Wismar where both his flanks were anchored on bodies of water, preventing the Russians from encircling him or bringing their full force to bear. With supreme confidence in his troops, Pyotr obligingly ordered a frontal assault. The Russians proved their worth, and in the end the Danish army was forced to retreat. The Russian victory at the Battle of Wismar, however, was dearly bought. Multiple assaults had been necessary to exhaust the Danish defenders, and in the end the Russians suffered nearly five thousand dead and wounded compared to three thousand Danish casualties.
The Comte de Saint-Germain, field marshal and supreme commander of Danish forces during the Schleswig War
The Comte de Saint-Germain, field marshal and supreme commander of Danish forces during the Schleswig War
A more decisive engagement came eight days later at the Battle of Rostock. The Danish fleet under Admiral Gaspard Frédéric de Fontenay intercepted a Russian naval convoy and dealt a shattering defeat to a Russian squadron. This defeat effectively knocked Pyotr’s navy out of the war, as Russian warships no longer risked leaving port. This left the Danes free to enforce a tight blockade, which cut off all maritime supply to the imperial army. Pyotr described Rostock as more of an annoyance than a catastrophe, but as the Russians advanced it soon became clear that supplying their forces in Danish territory by long overland routes was beyond the capacity of the empire’s logistics. The emperor’s army slowed to a crawl so as to not outpace its supplies, which gave Saint-Germain strategic freedom. Moreover, without sea transport any attack against the Danish isles was impossible, and even taking fortresses on the mainland was made vastly more difficult because of the glacial pace of Russian siege trains and the inability of the Russians to prevent the Danes from supplying these fortresses by sea. Although the Russians were able to advance into Holstein and seize most of Schleswig, the Russian supply situation was so bad that Pyotr was forced to relinquish his conquests and retreat back to Lübeck with the coming of winter. Humiliatingly, Kiel - the capital of the Gottorp duchy - was seized by the Danes.
The emperor was considering his next move from his winter cantonment when word arrived that King Augustus III of Poland had died, kicking off the next contest for the Polish throne. Pyotr immediately left the army and made for Saint Petersburg to coordinate his response, but shortly after his arrival he was very nearly abducted in an attempted coup by the partisans of his wife, Empress Ekaterina. Such was the seriousness of this affair that Pyotr was briefly forced to flee the capital and orders were sent to recall the army from Lübeck, but long before these orders arrived the capital was secured and the conspirators were seized by loyalist forces under Field Marshal Burkhard Münnich.
Maria Theresa fully supported the candidacy of Augustus’s son Friedrich Christian, but Pyotr was less than enthusiastic. The election of a third consecutive Wettin smelled a great deal like a hereditary monarchy, which - if realized - might curtail Russia’s influence in Polish affairs. Fighting Friedrich’s election would have been a difficult task in any circumstance; he had the backing of Austria, as well as support from Polish magnates who had benefited from his father’s acquisition of Ducal Prussia. It was made much harder, however, by Pyotr’s decision to support his ally Prince Heinrich of Brandenburg as an alternative candidate.
Prince Heinrich did have some Polish support, but the problems posed by his candidacy were numerous. He was a Protestant, and although he professed a willingness to convert for the crown, his religion coupled with Pyotr’s open support for religious liberty and the rights of Polish “dissenters” alienated many staunch Catholics. Russian support for his candidacy came as a rude shock to the powerful Czartoryskis, who had cozied up to Pyotr expecting that he would support a “Piast” (that is, a native Polish prince) from their own clan. In Vienna, the empress considered the idea of a Hohenzollern Poland so deeply objectionable to her interests that she committed herself totally to the Wettin election even if it meant a confrontation with Russia.
Shaken by the recent coup and urged by his loyal councillors to abandon the Danish war, Pyotr consented to a British offer to host negotiations at Lüneburg. The Danes seemed to have the upper hand, but the Danish foreign minister Count Johann von Bernstorff knew that his position was not as strong as it seemed. Russia was far more capable of replacing its losses than Denmark, and Danish finances could not bear the strain of an extended war. Seeking to gain an advantage for his state while still giving Pyotr a face-saving exit, Bernstorff suggested concluding a treaty on the basis of earlier negotiations - to wit, the exchange of Holstein-Gottorp for Oldenburg and Delmenhorst. Pyotr, however, still considered the Oldenburg counties to be a poor trade for his ancestral duchy, and secretly hoped that come spring another battlefield victory would force the Danes to accept the status quo ante bellum.
The Russian army, however, was ill-prepared for offensive action. The supply situation had not improved, and the leadership had suffered from a post-coup purge of a number of senior officers deemed to be unreliable. Command had been given to General George Browne - a cousin of the more famous Austrian Field Marshal Maximilian Ulysses Browne - who was himself an opponent of the Schleswig War. Browne dutifully began the march, but Saint-Germain was also on the offensive. The French general had been obsessively training and reorganizing his army all winter, and had now been reinforced by soldiers from Hesse-Kassel obtained with subsidies from France. Browne, expecting the usual defensive and delaying tactics which Saint-Germain had employed in 1763, was surprised to find himself facing an aggressive Danish army with more or less equal numbers to his own.
In early May, Browne and Saint-Germain finally came to grips with one another at the Battle of Ascheberg. Tactically, the battle was a draw; both armies withdrew after heavy fighting, with the Danes taking somewhat more casualties than the Russians. Strategically, however, Ascheberg was the nail in the coffin of the Russian war effort. The Danes had proven that they would not be easily swept aside, and the Russians were facing critical shortages of ammunition, fodder, and other essentials, as well as widespread illness. Browne broke off the advance, concluding that no further progress was possible without substantial resupply and reinforcement. However good his reasons may have been, they did not appease the emperor, who remembered Browne's earlier "defeatism" and suspected the general of having deliberately sabotaged the war effort. Browne was recalled, stripped of his rank, and banished from Russia, but it was too late for a shakeup in command to change the course of the war.
Facing a military quagmire and mounting expenditures, uncertain of the loyalty of his own army, and further embarrassed by a Danish squadron which was raiding the Livonian coast with impunity, Pyotr finally yielded. Although he considered Bernstorff’s deal disadvantageous, the fact that it was a trade rather than a one-sided cession obscured the fact of Russian defeat. For a few further modifications to the proposal - most notably, a Danish guarantee of the Gottorp-Eutin possession of Lübeck and a pledge from Emperor Franz Stefan to elevate Oldenburg and Delmenhorst to ducal status - the Russian envoys signed the Treaty of Lüneburg in June of 1764.[A]
The Russian emperor fared no better in the Polish matter. Pyotr was simply not in a position to risk an open conflict with Austria over the Polish succession, while Maria Theresa was ready to go to the mat to avoid a Hohenzollern Poland. Prince Heinrich ultimately withdrew his candidacy to spare Pyotr the embarrassment of abandoning him, and the emperor gave his grudging support for Friedrich Christian’s election. All in all, it was a rough introduction to international politics for the young tsar. He had underestimated both his foreign and domestic opponents, and had been punished for it. Yet Pyotr still had his crown, and while chastened, he was far from vanquished.
Friedrich Christian, King of Poland and Prussia, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Elector of Saxony
For Britain, like Russia, the events of 1763-64 represented a serious setback to their foreign policy. Although as mentioned some British statesmen still hoped the “Diplomatic Revolution” might be reversed, more practical minds had already come to the conclusion that Britain’s best hope for a continental ally was Russia. It was the desire to maintain Russia’s friendship - as well as their access to Russian timber and naval stores - that had caused Britain to remain neutral in the Schleswig War despite their dynastic connections to the Danes. This careful neutrality, however, had won them no friends. It had alienated King Frederik, who resented the “cowardice” of the British, and it had ruined their chances for an alliance with the Russian emperor.
Emperor Pyotr suspected from the outset of his reign that a formal alliance with Britain would be inadvisable, and the events of 1763-64 confirmed his suspicions. The British were entirely capable of turning the Schleswig War in his favor, but chose to remain on the sidelines. Pyotr sought British diplomatic and monetary assistance for Prince Heinrich’s election, but Britain declared that Poland was none of their concern. After Lüneburg, when Pyotr suggested that Britain could help him pay down his war debts, London loftily replied that it was not their policy to subsidize allies in peacetime. It seemed to Pyotr that the British were less interested in gaining an ally than in gaining a pawn: They expected him to exert himself mightily in their interest, even to the point of fighting a war against the Bourbons, but were unwilling to exert themselves in the slightest to further his interests. After 1764 Pyotr extracted what he could from Britain, signing a commercial treaty and procuring their help with rebuilding his navy, but when discussions turned to an actual alliance he remained slippery and noncommittal.
British anxiety over their isolation was heightened by the fact that, for them, the Four Years’ War had never really ended. The European war was over, but the native peoples whose land had been traded away at Paris did not consider themselves bound by a treaty they had no say in. Native tribes in the Ohio Valley who had enjoyed cordial relations with the French rose up against the British in 1761, resulting in a brutal frontier war that lasted for another four years. Britain’s attempts to shore up their defenses and revenues in the Americas only made their colonial subjects resentful, a development which the French observed with keen interest. On the other side of the world, the East India Company was mired in wars with local Indian rulers throughout the decade, some of them directly backed by French money, arms, and soldiers.
Despite this proxy fighting it was Carlos III of Spain, not Louis XV, who was most enthusiastic about the prospect of another war with Britain. As the Four Years’ War had unfolded, Carlos - then King of Naples - had been alarmed by British successes in the Americas and dismayed by the failure of his pacific half-brother, Ferdinand VI, to assist his French ally. In the wake of France’s defeat and his own accession to the Spanish throne, Carlos was convinced that Britain represented a mortal threat to his global empire, to say nothing of their continued occupation of rightful Spanish land (that is, Gibraltar and Minorca). The king, however, understood very well that fighting Britain alone was an impossible task. Without France, there could be no Spanish victory.
Louis was not quite as eager as his cousin. The disastrous Treaty of Paris had stirred a desire for revanche among many French statesmen, but Louis himself professed to be quite sick of war. French diplomatic policy in the 1760s seemed more effective: France had arguably saved Denmark twice over, first by diplomatic maneuvering in Stockholm that helped prevent a Russo-Swedish alliance, and second by extending subsidies and loans which allowed Frederik to pay his armies in the 1764 campaign. Between the Danish victory and the Wettin election, French diplomatic policy on the continent - which was essentially an anti-Russian policy - was looking very robust indeed.
Even if another war with Britain had been the king’s dearest aim, however, Louis’s ministers knew that the time was not yet ripe. The kingdom’s finances were strained, and it would take years of work before the French navy was prepared to confront Britain again. Initial estimates of the time it would take to build a competitive fleet proved far too rosy, and the ministry was continually pushing back its timeline for a possible war. Until then, the French government urged the Spanish to avoid any confrontation with Britain that might spark a war before the Bourbon allies were capable of winning it. Thus, despite considerable certainty on both sides that a new Anglo-Bourbon war was both inevitable and imminent, a tenuous peace lingered through the remainder of the decade.
Peace on Europe’s eastern front also proved worryingly fragile. Far from solving the “Polish Question,” the election of King Friedrich opened new conflicts. His election had been secured in part by the political defection of the Familia, which had become gravely disillusioned with Pyotr on account of his support for toleration and his backing of a Hohenzollern over a Czartoryski candidate. Finding that the Saxon elector was in favor of many of the centralizing reforms they wished to advance, the Familia had given him their support. A few preliminary measures had been passed in the Convocation Sejm of 1764, but the more radical projects - an overhaul of the state’s finances, the establishment of the Sejm as a permanent body, the expansion of the army, and the abolition of the liberum veto - were put off until the Sejm of 1766.
This project was opposed by the Russians and Prussians, who had no interest in seeing Poland regain its political cohesion or military power. To this end, Emperor Pyotr - already famous for establishing religious tolerance in Russia - dispatched agents among the Protestant and Orthodox communities spreading dire warnings that Czartoryski “reform” was nothing less than a plan for the introduction of Catholic despotism. Armed clashes broke out between the supporters of Friedrich and the Familia on one side, and confederations formed by Dissenters and Catholic republicans on the other. Pyotr threatened Russian intervention to defend noble liberties and religious equality. With the Saxon army and finances still in a shambles, Friedrich called upon Maria Theresa for support, while the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III warned that a Russian incursion into Poland would be an unacceptable provocation.
It was only a lack of will that prevented the crisis of 1766-67 from escalating into a full-blown war. Maria Theresa had been ready to take up arms for the Wettin succession in 1764, but fighting a war to avoid a Hohenzollern Poland was very different from fighting a war for the sake of Polish political reforms. Despite his bluster, Pyotr did not feel confident in taking on both Austria and the Ottomans, particularly given that his sole ally Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Elector of Brandenburg, was signalling that his state was still unready for such a confrontation. King Friedrich supported reform in theory, but he was not so dedicated to the project that he was willing to risk anarchy and war, particularly given the lamentable state of Saxony and the obvious reluctance of the Austrian empress to fight on his behalf. In the end the Russian-backed push for religious equality was defeated, but Friedrich retreated from far-reaching political reforms and the Familia was forced to greatly scale back its ambitions. Such concessions defused the immediate crisis, but - as with the Anglo-Bourbon conflict - it seemed to many that a war for Poland’s future had only been deferred, not avoided.[B]
 These talks were broken off during the Four Years’ War, when the Danes had rather unwisely attempted to intimidate the Russians by suggesting that if the swap was not made, they might throw in their lot with Prussia. The Russians saw this for the empty bluff that it was.
 Despite his name Admiral de Fontenay was a native-born Dane, the son of a French Huguenot nobleman who had immigrated to Denmark after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
 Gottorp-Eutin was a cadet branch of the Gottorp line. The Princes of Eutin served as the secular rulers of the Prince-Bishopric of Lübeck, which was adjacent to (but not the same as) the Free City of Lübeck. Prince Friedrich August of Gottorp-Eutin served as an advisor to Emperor Pyotr, and from 1764 he was also the regent of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst in Pyotr’s absence.
[A] I was surprised to learn that the Treaty of Tsarskoye Selo, in which Catherine II exchanged Holstein-Gottorp for Oldenburg and Delmenhorst, was not the invention of Danish or Russian diplomats in the 1760s but originated from a Danish proposal which had already been on the table as far back as 1745, when Peter (then merely Duke of Holstein-Gottorp) reached majority. We know that Peter at least entertained the idea; the suggestion that Oldenburg and Delmenhorst ought to be elevated to duchies, which became part of the Tsarskoye Selo agreement, appears to have originated with Peter’s concern that trading a duchy for two counties would be accepting a diminution in his status. Ultimately Peter deemed the swap unsatisfactory and felt justified in breaking off talks entirely after the Danes threatened to join Prussia during the Seven Years’ War. It seemed to me that Peter might agree to the swap ITTL when faced with a worse alternative - to wit, losing territory to Denmark without compensation - and thus the Russian defeat in the Schleswig War leads to what is essentially an earlier Tsarskoye Selo, albeit in the context of enmity rather than an alliance. Whether Peter will honor the cession of his ancestral duchy remains to be seen.
[B] I hesitated for a long time on this update because posting it fills me with dread; 18th century Polish and Russian politics is very far outside my usual wheelhouse. I can only hope I didn't make too many glaring mistakes. As far as the general course of eastern politics, although a general "Polish War" is potentially foreshadowed in this update, it seemed unlikely to me that it would happen just yet. The Schleswig War has taught Peter a lesson about the perils of overconfidence, and nobody else is really excited to go to war for the sake of Polish reform. IOTL tensions over Poland's internal politics led to the partition and eventual dissolution of the state, but in my opinion the events of the TL thus far have made that series of events very unlikely. Austria is not particularly hungry for new territory, an intact Saxon Poland serves them well as a buffer against Russia, and Vienna's policy is anchored on the principle of preventing any Hohenzollern expansion to keep Brandenburg from recovering its status as a peer competitor. Austria's strength and Brandenburg's weakness relative to OTL suggest that even a Russo-Brandenburg alliance will not be able to force Austria into accepting a partition of Poland - at least, not without a fight.