The First Silesian War (German: Erster Schlesischer Krieg) was a conflict between Prussia and Austria that lasted from 1740 to 1742 and resulted in Prussia’s seizure from Austria of most of the region of Silesia (now in south-western Poland). The war was fought mainly in Silesia, Moravia and Bohemia (the lands of the Bohemian Crown) and formed one theatre of the wider War of the Austrian Succession. It was the first of three Silesian Wars fought between Frederick the Great’s Prussia and Maria Theresa’s Austria in the mid-18th century, all three of which ended in Prussian control of Silesia.
No particular triggering event started the war. Prussia cited its centuries-old dynastic claims on parts of Silesia as a casus belli, but Realpolitik and geostrategic factors also played a role in provoking the conflict. Maria Theresa’s contested succession to the Habsburg Monarchy provided an opportunity for Prussia to strengthen itself relative to regional rivals such as Saxony and Bavaria.
The war began with a Prussian invasion of Habsburg Silesia in late 1740, and it ended in a Prussian victory with the 1742 Treaty of Berlin, which recognised Prussia’s seizure of most of Silesia and parts of Bohemia. Meanwhile, the wider War of the Austrian Succession continued, and conflict over Silesia would draw Austria and Prussia into a renewed Second Silesian War only two years later. The First Silesian War marked the unexpected defeat of the Habsburg Monarchy by a lesser German power and initiated the Austria–Prussia rivalry that would shape German politics for more than a century.
Context and causes
In the early eighteenth century, Brandenburg–Prussia’s ruling House of Hohenzollern held dynastic claims to various duchies within the Habsburg province of Silesia, a populous and prosperous region contiguous with Prussia’s core territory in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. Besides its value as a source of tax revenue, industrial output and military recruits, Silesia held great geostrategic importance to the belligerents. The valley of the Upper Oder formed a natural military conduit between Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Margraviate of Moravia, and whichever power held the territory could threaten its neighbours. Silesia also lay along the north-eastern frontier of the Holy Roman Empire, allowing its controller to limit the influence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and of the Russian Empire within Germany.