Eastern European Powers
WHAT WERE THE MAJOR POLITICAL SUBDIVISIONS OF EASTERN EUROPE IN THE EARLY MODERN ERA?
WHAT WERE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF EACH SUBDIVISION?
Eastern Europe included the following political subdivions:
1. The Austrian (Habsburg) feudal monarchy
which was centered around
the city of Vienna and had been expanding southeast into Hungary and north
into Bohemia ever since its founding in the 13th century.
The Habsburg feudal monarchy was the core out
of which absolutism
developed in Austria. The center of Habsburg strength was in the Vienna
region. but during the Thirty Years War the Habsburgs defeated the
Protestant nobility in Bohemia and brought that area under their control
with the assistance of a nobility which was foreign to Bohemia. In order
to retain control, the foreign nobility and the monarchy had to cooperate
with each other. While doing so stern demands were made upon peasant
At the end of the Thirty Years War, the Habsburgs
permanent army which was used to fight off the Ottoman Turks. Much of
the Balkans had been under Ottoman rule which reached its prime in the
mid-sixteenth century; then began a slow decline. The Habsburg army was,
therefore, the main force driving out the Turks. As they did so, they
acquired control over Hungary, although the Hungarian landed aristocracy
remained powerful and limited the sway of the Austrian ruler.
Nevertheless, a powerful absolute monarchy
laid claim to these three
areas; Austria proper, Bohemia, and Hungary which were to constitute the
Austrian Empire until it crumbled in the First World War.
2. The Kingdom of Prussia, which began to expand after the 30-years
War, was based upon the feudal principality of Brandenburg, centered
around the city of Berlin.
Prussian absolutism evolved out of the feudal
Brandenburg in the northeastern portion of the central European plain. This
was an area exposed to the march of armies in all directions. It was the
scene of much warfare and destruction during the Thirty Years War. A
sequence of strong-willed emperors in the Hohenzollern dynasty built a
disciplined army and an effective bureaucracy. Here, as in Austria, a
standing army at the service of the monarch established control over the
aristocracy; then built a system of mutual dependence by supporting
aristocratic dominance over the peasantry.
The landed aristocracy, the Junkers, reluctantly
rule in return for their absolute control over the peasantry. The army
reflected these class distinctions because the officer corps were
recruited from the Junkers while the common soldier was drawn from the
peasantry. Army life for the common soldier was a brutal regimen while
the officer corps attained the highest status in Prussian society.
The military prowess of the Prussians was the
primary basis for their
survival as an absolute monarchy surrounded by other powerful kingdoms.
These characteristics cause it to become the basis for German unification
in the mid-nineteenth century.
3. The Kingdom of Poland, which sprawled across a large area of the
east-European plain in the mid-17th century, was weak and de-centralized
and began a century of contraction at the hands of its more powerful
neighbors, the Habsburgs, the Prussians and the Russians. Feudalism in Poland had evolved into a monarchy, but one in which the monarch was elected by hundreds of independent feudal lords. This political fragmentation rendered Poland into a state which could not defend itself against the centralized monarchies around it. There were three partitions of Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries. By 1795, Poland had ceased to exist as a state, with its former territory occupied by Austria, Prussia, and Russia.
4. The Ottoman Empire, which was carved out by the Ottoman Turks
since the 15th century, when they overran the Byzantine Empire, reached
its greatest extent in the Balkans by 1689. After reaching the gates of
Vienna, they began a prolonged period of retraction extending into the
early 20th century.
5. The Russian Empire gradually expanded from the village of Moscow
after the collapse of the Mongolian Empire in the early 15th century.
Russia, located far to the east on the vast open plains extending to the
Ural Mountains, although it is considered part of Europe, is very different
from the rest of Europe. Inhabited originally by Slavic people, the area
was subject to rule by Scandinavian traders in the ninth and tenth
centuries. Contact with the Byzantine Empire led to the conversion of the
Scandinavian rulers and the Slavic people to Orthodox Christianity. This
factor as well as distance tended to isolate Russia from the developments
occurring farther west in Europe.
Even more profound in its impact was the conquest
of Russia by the
Mongols in the fourteenth century. This brought oriental despotism and a
tradition of centralized rule enforced by military power. As the tide of
Mongolian power ebbed in sixteenth century, Slavic rulers in Moscow, who
had increased their power over their rivals by serving the Mongols, then
became the absolute rulers. A weak nobility succumbed to the ruthless
domination of the Moscow princes, and was rebuilt in a subordinate yet
supportive relationship with the monarch or tsar (the Russian word for
Caesar). In a more thorough fashion than anywhere else in eastern Europe,
the monarch and the nobility combined forces to reduce the peasantry to
This development was reinforced by the constant
around the edges of the Russian Empire where peasants fled, and organized
into fighting units (Cossacks) to try to recover their lands.
The reign of Peter the Great involves a continuation of the process of
centralizing power in the hands of the monarch as Peter enforced a
thorough regimentation of the nobility in the service of the Tsar. This was
coupled with the creation of a meritocracy which involved commoners in
the imperial service. He also encouraged and enforced some western
practices in the interest of efficiency. One of his major concerns,
however, was to create a powerful standing army which enabled Russia to
expand its already large boundaries by military conquest. He also had a
pre-occupation with building a navy and making Russia a great naval
power -- in spite of the fact that Russia, when his reign began, was
Peter's mother was the second wife of the Czar
Alexis, whose first
wife also bore him a son, but had died. Peter's elder step-brother, about
ten years his senior, was sickly and, therefore, showed no promise to
succeed his father as Czar. A competition between the familes of the two
potential heirs was resolved by crowning both boys as dual Czars after
their father's death. Meanwhile, an elder sister, Sophia, ruled as regent.
Women held a very degraded status in Russian
society, but Sophia, as
the daughter of the Czar Alexis, had had the unusual opportunity to learn
about affairs of state and was capable of governing. Because of a love
affair with the commander of the palace guard, the Strelzy, she
commissioned him to act as chief minister. His military campaigns
against the Tatars in the grasslands south of Russia were, however, a
failure and contributed to the discrediting of the Regency.
When Peter was about the age of 5, he witnessed
a terrible, bloody
attack upon the Kremlin by the Strelzy, who, motivated by false rumors of
the assassination of the two Czars, had gone on a rampage against the
supposed plotters. It was an event that surely had a vivid effect upon his
Peter often visited the foreign quarter of
Moscow during his younger
years. He was fascinated with the ideas and the skills of craftsmen from
Western Europe. He became acquainted with a Dutch carpenter and
shipbuilder who was persuaded to teach Peter the skills of boatbuilding
and sailing. Peter became intensely involved in matters pertaining to
seamanship and the sea. As a teenager he spent the summers in Archangel
on the White Sea, conversing with and learning from the Dutch ship
captains who frequented the port. This was the only outlet to the oceans
that Russia had and it was frozen over and closed to shipping most of the
Peter also acquired valuable military experience in his teen-age years. As one of the two czars under Sophia's regency, he was allowed to play mock war games in which the two sides were equipped with cannon and muskets. The mock battles were quite realistic and often dangerous to the participants. Peter recruited other teenagers to engage in this activity. In so doing, he developed a corps of loyal supporters upon whom he could rely in times of crisis.
When Peter was only 17 years of age, there were rumors of plots to kill him, which escalated into a contest for power with his elder sister Sophia. Peter's energy and intelligence, and promise for the future caused members of the aristocracy to flock to his cause. Sophia was deposed and sent to a nunnery; her supporters routed or killed. Peter then, in 1689, became the unchallenged Czar of Russia, and ruled with an autocratic hand until his death in 1725.
Peter's reign is particularly noted for its pre-occupation with warfare. His first military campaign was waged against the Ottoman empire, which controlled the northern coast of the Black Sea. Peter succeeded in taking the seaport fortress of Azov at the mouth of the Don River. He was, however, unsuccessful in achieving access to the Black Sea since the Turks contiunued to control the southern entrance to the Sea of Azov. His attentions were drawn away by hostilities that developed with the Kingdom of Sweden.
Sweden had come under the rule of a dynamic
young king, Charles XII, who led Swedish armies to several victories and
established a heroic reputation. Although, at that time, it had a population
of only about 2 million people, Sweden was a prosperous state which controlled
the trade in the Baltic Sea and sat astride the best water route from Russia
to western Europe. Peter had begun to satisfy an intense curiosity about
the west by going on a prolonged tour which included Holland, England,
and Austria. He had been impressed with western technology and culture,
and brought west European craftsmen and skilled military men with him when
he returned to Russia. He began to build a seaport city at the mouth of
the Neva River where it flows into the Gulf of Finland.
But all ambitions of gaining access to the Baltic and to western Europe had to await the outcome of the war with Sweden.
The Swedish war pre-occupied Peter for two decades. The army led by Charles XII marched into Russia with the objective of taking Moscow and deposing Peter. Tactical maneuvers and Peter's scorched earth policy led the Swedish army southward and deep into the territory of Ukraine. There, in the Battle of Poltava, in 1709, the Swedish army was routed. This was a decisive turning point. The Russians eventually carried the war to the Baltic Sea and seized control of the waterway. Meanwhile, the great city on the banks of the Neva, to be known as St. Petersburg, was being built. The great achievement of the Czar Peter was to open a window on the west and cause Russia to become a great European power for the first time in history.