The power struggles within Early Modern Europe are among the lengthiest and most intricate of any conflict prior to the modern age. With this came fluctuations in political alliances coupled with the decline and rise of new “Great Powers”. From the 15th Century, due to increased costs of sustaining warfare territorial resources had to be extracted efficiently. Furthermore, the development of taxation allowed rulers to field their own armies with limited and eventually no assistance from the nobility of the country. With these systems in place, coupled with the rise of the printing press, symbolism and propaganda the modern notion of a Nation-State was established, with few rising to become Great Powers. It is the latter that this essay will be concerned with, more specifically an examination of the declining Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic will occur, with subsequent analysis of the rise of Prussia, which became a military behemoth in this period. However, before analysis can commence a definition of what a Great Power is must be established. The Oxford dictionary states it is “A nation or country that has considerable international influence and military strength.” Whilst the nineteenth Century historian Leopold Von Ranke defined it as a state that could survive an attack by two or more major states with its own resources and without outside aid. Due to both definitions complementary nature the formers vague use of “military strength” will be taken to mean what Leopold expressed leaving a clear definition with which to analyse the powers of Early Modern Europe.
Declining Spanish Empire
The discussion of Spanish decline is not solely based on the fact it has a plethora of information surrounding it, but simply due to the unique position Spain held at the beginning of the period. Not only was it in a position of power but it was something resembling a Great Power before the rise of its neighbors, coupled with a strong alliance with the Holy Roman Empire due to the familial ties within the Habsburg monarchy, it left a key player, France, outmanned on the continent and somewhat docile. A hegemony that was contested and eventually reconciled diplomatically at the peace of Pyrenees, establishing a Bourbon lineage to the Spanish throne. Ending the Habsburg’s Spanish kingdom and entering a new era of continental relations.
What is astonishing is the speed of its decline, having only captured Portugal, as well as its overseas territories in India and Brazil, eighty years prior to the aforementioned loss of power. The Spanish Kingdom in the mid-fifteenth to late-sixteenth century was fortuitous in its seizure of highly profitable colonies, most prominently the silver mines of the Andes, producing sixty percent of all silver mined in the sixteenth century. With this Spanish American mines were the lowest costing sources of silver. Furthermore, the increasing rise in its value as well as the growing Chinese demands led to an insatiable customer and a seemingly endless supply of materials. However, what occurred was not what the Spaniards had hoped, over accumulation of silver on the Asian mainland decreased silvers value with it costing thirteen ounces of silver to buy one ounce of gold in 1635, whereas in 1585 it cost only six. What occurred then was the erosion of Spanish profit and multiple bankruptcies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What this economic deterioration meant was Spanish inability to exert foreign influence or rally a substantial military presence within Europe.
On the continent Spanish fortunes were equally unfavorable with the loss of Portugal in 1640 and the Northern Netherlands in 1648, the Spanish Empire was undoubtedly in decline. With Elliot writing “The dissolution of Spanish power in the 1640’s appears so irrevocable and absolute that it is hard to regard it as anything other than inevitable.” With the Dutch victories at Bergen op Zoom (1622), Hertogenbosch and Wesel (1629) illustrating the hollowness of Spanish military power, the former being a major defeat not based on financial shortages but on sheer military incompetence. This cements the conclusion Spain was unable to gain the reputation of a Great power due to its lack of military strength, incapable of defeating internal revolts never mind two foreign aggressors.
What exacerbated these failures was Spanish economic policies both internationally and at home. Internationally due to Spain’s reliance on exporting raw materials its internal laborers had to compete with cheap imported products. Furthermore, by the seventeenth century France gained economic domination of the peninsula. Whilst economic embargos were imposed on the Dutch in the years 1621-48, and the French from 1635 to 1659 the impact on the Spanish economy was limited, once the embargoes were lifted the situation resumed its negative impact on Spain’s economy. Internal policies were equally unfavorable playing an identical role in the demise of Spanish Power, Weisser notes the exhaustion of cultivatable land and the increase of taxation as key issues in the economic erosion of Spain, a point furthered by Elliot’s who blames the crown’s fiscal policies and unfavorable investments into sheep farming leading to a dangerously unbalanced economy, causing food prices to rise due to scarcity and the eventual reliance on foreign merchants generosity on prices. With this situation illustrating how Northern Europe was able to exert control on the diminishing Spanish kingdom. Furthermore, within the 1550’s Philip II’s fanatical fear of a heretical Europe halted Spanish students studying abroad, which cut Spain off from the ideological and technological advancements of the age, arguably exacerbating the unfavorable economy present in the seventeenth century.
Whilst royal initiatives and investments were disastrous for the Spanish economy there were circumstances occurring simultaneously that were unable to be altered. For example, the king could do little about the number of clergy and privileged classes in Spain, however, legislation preventing them from tax exemption was not forthcoming which potentially could have helped the treasury and stop international lending. Instead they were left to be a blight to the working population acting as a deadweight consumer market making up thirty-three percent of the population, whilst giving nothing back. These situations were only exacerbated by the various acts of god throughout the period with innumerable losses to grain harvests throughout the country due to locusts, as well as the numerous plagues and famines which ruined the internal food supply and exacerbated the Spanish economy.
Although a Great Power is defined by international influence and military strength neither of these can be accomplished without a sustainable economy, whilst Spain retained a sizeable silver-based economy it flourished and expanded. However, as seen when this declined and royal actions exacerbated the situation it could not retain its position on the world stage and was able to be manipulated by foreign powers. Most notably the French, eventually maneuvering their way to placing a Bourbon on the throne.
The Dutch Republic
The Dutch Republic is being examined due to its unusual nature, born from a revolt from Spain and going on to impact the latter’s economy negatively, breaking the Portuguese monopoly of the cape in the 1580’s and 90’s, before itself being exhausted by numerous wars in the seventeenth and eighteenth century receding to the position of a second-rate power.
The rise of the Dutch Republic was spectacular by 1648 “Spain’s former rebel subjects were now a major state with a powerful navy and the strongest economy in Europe”. Their mercantile supremacy allowed them to gain the status of a major power, their commerce and shipping expanded rapidly and with it their military might, with a standing army of 20,000 men in 1588 growing to 35,000 by 1595. This primacy ended in the early eighteenth century with both domestic and international trade economies diminishing, coupled with heavy military expenses the Dutch Republic was destined to fail. The 1720’s seen the decline in “rich trades”, with the demand for luxury items falling so did the need for manufacturers. In the space of thirty years twenty-one of Amsterdam’s thirty tobacco processing plants closed. Furthermore, declining manufacturing led to decreasing numbers of bulk shipping, reducing the need for not only sailors, but dockyard workers and ship builders. Zaan closed twenty or so shipyards in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. The cause of this collapse is predominantly due to the rising trade of the other nations particularly Britain who through tightening her grip over the American colonies, Ireland, Portugal and the Portuguese Atlantic trade with Brazil as well as India and the Caribbean was able to expand her export trade and establish mercantile supremacy in America and globally.
Colonially the Dutch suffered similar disasters, the other powers were keen to diminish Dutch supremacy over trade and with this aim in mind took measures to exclude her from their colonies. The Spanish Exclusion policies as well as the English Navigation Acts, the first of which Cromwell introduced in 1651, removed the Dutch from Atlantic trade. This situation was exacerbated by the inability of the Dutch to send colonists to the New world forgoing any opportunity to establish a legitimate link to the Atlantic market. Furthermore, due to the relatively limited naval capabilities of the Dutch Republic in comparison to the British they were unable to strong arm their way out of the embargoes, and by the last two decades of the eighteenth century the Dutch slave trade was at a standstill, with the loss of their territorial presence in Brazil in 1654 and eventually North America in 1674.
Diplomatically the Dutch attempted a policy of neutrality after various wars with Britain, prior to the Fourth Anglo-Dutch war the Dutch were in no position economically or militarily to affect colonial or continental affairs. with the British sacking of St. Eustatius in 1781 serving as a reminder of the vulnerability of Dutch Atlantic control. Since the 1713 Peace of Utrecht, the Dutch had performed their role as middlemen in the Atlantic on a basis of neutrality between the larger European rival states. Once the British decided they would no longer support a policy of neutrality they soon realized they could not defend themselves and with this Atlantic supremacy went to Britain.  On the continent during the Franco-Dutch war Louis XIV was able to outmaneuver the Dutch politically disbanding the Triple Alliance, gaining English support by convincing Charles the policy would be domestically popular. Furthermore, Louis’s foreign minister Lionne was able to gain the HRE’s neutrality, all this culminating in Dutch isolation and French victory leaving the war as a great military power in continental Europe.
Through analysing the decline of both the Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic it is apparent economy is crucial. Both nations whilst experiencing economic growth also seen international recognition, alliances and the ability to defend themselves from French advances. However, once economic supremacy declines so too does their position as Great powers, losing allies and eventually their lands, influence and military capabilities.
The Rise of Prussia
Prussia’s ascendance to the status of Great Power is that of an underdogs tale, geographically it was divided, as late as 1713 Brandenburg-Prussia was comprised of roughly two dozen districts stretching from the Rhine to eastern Memel. Economically it was backwards, with a weak rural economy and not much else. Moreover, it had an unusually small population for a Great Power at 5.8 million, compared to France at 25 million and Russia at 23 million. However, Fredrick William and his successors through diplomacy, military growth and occasional aggression were able to sustain a standing army unrivalled and ascend to Great Power status in the mid-eighteenth century.
During the Thirty Years War B-P was vulnerable, the cost of the war had placed a heavy burden on Prussia but by 1640 it had raised an army from nothing to one comprising 4,500 men. The issue with this, however, was due to its composition, heavily subsidized by hired mercenaries meant incoherence and desertion were rife, leaving Prussia vulnerable to aggression. In 1626 Swiss troops captured Prussian ports and by 1631 they had control of most of Brandenburg, imposing monthly maintenance payments of 30,000 thalers. This had occurred due to George Williams policy of neutrality and because of the disadvantages the Prussia state suffer. Fredrick William, however, knew that evacuation of the Swiss was the only way to establish Prussian success. By mid-1640’s he established a standing army of 5,500 men and removed the Swiss presence by 1644. This was but one of many steps Fedrick William took to aid the growth of Prussia, however, it must be noted he was fortuitous on many occasions be it due to the diplomatic climate or the inability of his enemies to cooperate, as will be illustrated subsequently.
Shennan attributes Fredrick’s knowledge that a standing army equated to a symbol of power and prestige as a main cause of his ascendancy to the ruler of a Great Power. In many respects this is impossible to refute, Prussia became a Great Power through its military exploits alone, Fredrick was innovative with tactics and equipment, by 1680 sixty-six percent of the army had flintlock rifles. Furthermore, the establishment of the Kohlberg in Pomerania allowed the creation of a reliable officer class taken from the younger sons of nobility. What’s more is that the amalgamation of the nobility and army removed the division between the crown and the aristocracy as their livelihoods were dependent on military salaries. Additionally, through the development of the Canton System and the obligatory registration to fight in times of war Fredrick William turned every peasant into a potential soldier, asserting Prussia as the most efficient military state of its time, as well as it culminating in its rising status in Europe. Fredrick William’s reforms were not exclusively militarily based, he also made tactical concessions, confirming nobility privileges and their ability to raise their own taxes through the Konigsberg. What has been illustrated thus far is that Fredrick William was laying the foundation of a modern army and administrative system, creating a steady stream of taxation and a budget able to retain an army at peace times. It is these factors that were crucial to Prussia’s ascendancy to becoming a Great Power, able to exert international influence and maintain warfare with two other powers simultaneously. Through the establishment of a standing army of 81,000 men by 1740 Prussia could dictate an aggressive foreign policy cementing its position on the world stage.
Further domestic reforms also allowed Fredrick William to expand his position within Europe, despite the negative impact the scattered nature of his kingdom played on security, Fredrick used it to his advantage, through maintaining divisions and having local nobility deal with himself rather than each other, he was able to stop them coalescing into a unified group able to confront or impede him. Despite the divisions among the nobility, the Hohenzollern king took steps to unify his patchwork or regions. The greatest of these triumphs was the General Directory established in 1723, which worked as a centralizing authority expanding royal control through administrative reforms. Further illustrating the domestic reforms that helped establish the third largest army in Europe despite Prussia housing the thirteenth largest population and allowing it to overtake the declining states mentioned above.
Economically Prussia banned importing raw materials and Fredrick pushed for self-sufficiency throughout his reign, as well as attempting to keep money within his country. With the money raised FW invited Dutch contractors to work abandoned farms and establish a sustainable supply of livestock. This coupled with Dutch technology to cultivate the marshland through efficient drainage systems lead to a substantial boost to the rural economy and drove down food prices whilst promoting internal manufacturers. This situation was further bolstered by the revoking of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV, with this Prussia experienced an influx of 20,000 Huguenots, most of whom were professionals, doctors, lawyers teachers etc. Whilst the latter was not a result of Fredrick Williams diplomacy, it illustrates the fortuitous events that allow nations to rise to the position of a Great Power, similar to Spanish fortunes in the silver mines of South America. Despite these advances, the urban economy of Prussia was underdeveloped if not non-existent, with heavy reliance on the land Prussia lagged behind its fellow Great Power’s industrial capabilities of that time.
Whilst the military and domestic reforms discussed thus far were essential to Prussia’s ascendance it was merely a foundation which Fredrick Williams successor Fredrick the Great used to propel his kingdom into the world stage. Scott notes that the Great Powers act like a gentlemen’s club, acceptance by the members meant administration, it is this, not Prussia’s resources or economy, that allowed it to become a Great power.
As well as acting like the ruler of a Great Power Fredrick the Great also took steps to consolidate his power domestically. Disbanding the Kubinettsministerium gave him full control over foreign policy, whilst his role as commander-in-chief of the army gave him an usual degree of autonomy, allowing for a coherent and united policy, unlike that of his father’s administration or even that of the rival powers he faced, with Britain’s legislature in particular limiting the executives actions.
Furthermore, Fredrick the great during his reign acquired substantially important regions, not necessarily regarding their size, but more in their role in financing his military campaign during the Seven Years War. In the case of his acquisition of Silesia in December 1740 he was able to illustrate the weakening position of Austria, with the death of Charles VI in the same year Austria was left without a male heir, which signaled a shift in the power relations of the region. It also marked the aggressive ideology of the new Elector as well as enhancing Prussia’s reputation abroad. The significance of Silesia can be illustrated in that forty-five percent of Prussia’s exports now came from the region proving it was an important commercial artery to the kingdom.  In a similar manner Fedrick the Greats invasion of Saxony bolstered his economic productivity with the region funding a third of the costs during the Seven Years War, despite the fact the former region was a main catalyst for the war and that Saxony was used to dictate the terms of the conflict both illustrate Fredrick the Greats ascendance to the leader of a Great Power.
However, the rise of Prussia cannot be said to have occurred exclusively by its own actions, indeed, it was a mixture of military brilliance on Prussia’s behalf and military incoherence on the part of the French, Austrian and Russian forces that allowed for its success. Be it Russia’s failure to establish and effective army coupled with the issue of distance, or French inability to fund two wars both in the America’s and on the continent. What was left then was a Prussian force able to withstand multiple armies whilst only obtaining token gestures of support from Britain. What this culminates in is a Prussian state able to exert foreign influence as well as the ability to fend off two forces simultaneously with the use of its own resources, fulfilling both criteria set out at the beginning of this assessment. As both Scott and Dwyer note, French defeat at Rossbach cemented the position of Prussia amongst the Great Powers.
As has been shown, Early Modern Europe seen the rise and decline of numerous powers and this can only be a consequence of the almost continuous wars and attempts at territorial expansion that persisted throughout the period. What distinguished those who rose to prominence from those who seen entire Empires decline before them is the ability to retain a sustainable economy. What this meant at the end of the period was a sophisticated system of administration and taxation capable enough to sustain a large standing army. With the army then came the criteria to become a Great power, i.e. the ability to exercise international influence as well as fend off foreign aggression from simultaneous belligerents. As seen in the Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic, the moment their economies declined as did their ability to act and be seen as Great Powers.
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