Franco-Austrian Alliance

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Foreign alliances of France
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Regional relations

The Franco-Austrian Alliance was a diplomatic and military alliance between France and Austria that was first established in 1756 following the First Treaty of Versailles which lasted for much of the remainder of the century until it was abandoned during the French Revolution.

The Alliance had its heyday during the Seven Years' War when France and Austria joined forces to fight the mutual enemy of Prussia. Following the allies' defeat in that war, the intimacy of the alliance weakened, and by the 1780s it had become something closer to a formality—when Austria briefly considered the idea of entering the American War of Independence on Britain's side against France. By the time of the French Revolution—when France first declared itself a constitutional monarchy, and then overthrew and executed its king—it had collapsed entirely and Austria actively tried to restore the French monarchy by going to war with the new French Republic.


Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries France and Austria had been enemies, repeatedly fighting wars against each other. During the War of the Polish Succession France and its allies had managed to severely weaken Austrian power and forced them to give up small amounts of territory.[1] In the following War of the Austrian Succession France allied with Prussia to attack Austria, which ended in Austria being forced to cede its richest and most prized province of Silesia to the Prussians.

The failure of Britain in both these wars to prevent Austria's losses led to a re-evaluation of the Anglo-Austrian Alliance which had existed since 1731, and Austria began to consider gaining new allies who would help them to recover Silesia, which was the top priority of Maria Theresa, the ruler of Austria.

Diplomatic Revolution[edit]

Wenzel Anton Count of Kaunitz-Rietberg was one of the major architects of the Franco-Austrian Alliance.

By 1754, six years after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which had brought the previous war to an end, a new figure Von Kaunitz had risen to power in Vienna as a close advisor of Maria Theresa. He was committed to ending the British alliance, and looking for a new military partner. His friendship with the French ambassador Choiseul provided a close link between Paris and Vienna, and Choiseul indicated to Kaunitz that France was willing to consider a rapprochement with Austria, despite the long-standing history of conflict between the two states.

When in 1756 Britain signed a limited defensive alliance with Prussia, the Austrians and French were outraged at what they perceived as a betrayal by their respective allies. In response Austria and France signed a defensive alliance of their own the First Treaty of Versailles.[2] This stipulated that if either country were attacked by a third party, they would come to their assistance. As the Austrians were now planning an attack on Prussia to retake Silesia, the treaty was seen as a way of preventing any other power trying to intervene on the side of the Prussians. These sudden political changes formed part of what became known as the stately quadrille.

Seven Years War[edit]

The Battle of Leuthen in 1757 was a major turning point in the war thwarting the Austrian attempt to overrun Prussia and bring the conflict to a swift end.

In August 1756, Frederick the Great of Prussia, fearing that his country was about to be overrun and partitioned by its enemies, launched a pre-emptive strike against Austria's ally Saxony which he succeeded in capturing.[3] This triggered the declaration of the Seven Years War, and Austria went to war with Prussia with France as an ally. The Treaty of St Petersburg saw Sweden and Russia join the anti-Prussian alliance. Britain was Prussia's only major ally, although London was at war with France only and not with Austria, Russia, Saxony or Sweden.

The alliance reached its high water mark in late 1757, when a French invasion overran Hanover, Austrian troops recaptured Saxony, and Austria liberated its own province of Bohemia which had been occupied by the Prussians. Having signed a Second Treaty of Versailles in 1757 the French were now committed to an offensive war and sent troops to aid the Austrians against Prussia as well as financial subsidies to support the large armies the Austrians put into the field. By the autumn of 1757 it appeared that the Franco-Austrian forces would overwhelm the much smaller Prussia, and would then partition it with their allies. Two decisive Prussian victories at Rossbach and Leuthen ended this offensive.[4]

France and Austria struggled after this to defeat their enemies - as the Prussians fought them to a standstill in a conflict that was extremely costly in terms of men, resources and money and brought the French government close to the brink of bankruptcy. While French troops were poured into Germany, Britain attacked France's colonies around the globe, causing France to lose most of its North American, Caribbean, African and Asian colonies. France was ultimately forced to abandon its financial commitments to Austria because of a lack of money to pay them with. France and Austria continued fighting in Germany until late 1762 when an armistice was signed with Britain and Prussia. The Treaty of Paris saw Austria forced to acknowledge continued Prussian ownership of Silesia while France had to cede a number of colonies to the British. The war was extremely costly and left large swathes of Central Europe in ruins with little discernible continental advantage for any of the participants.[5]

Peacetime alliance[edit]

The Alliance was weakened when Joseph II came to rule Austria

Austria and France were each disappointed with the military performance of the other during the war. The failure of the two states (and their allies) to overwhelm Prussia was considered by Paris a major reason for France's loss of numerous global colonies to the British, while the Austrians were unimpressed by the level of French help they had received in their hopes of recovering Silesia. This disappointment led to a cooling of relations between the two states, as France drew closer to its neighbour, Spain, while Austria looked to its Russian ally in the east, with whom they shared an enmity towards the Ottoman Empire.

By the 1780s the alliance had grown much weaker, owing to the death of Maria Theresa and the fall from power of Kaunitz. The new Emperor Joseph II was more willing to consider establishing fresh alliances - potentially with Great Britain. Britain was at the time fighting a global war against France, Spain, Mysore, the Dutch Republic and the United States, which had declared independence in 1776. This left Britain diplomatically isolated and without a major ally. Britain now tried to secure Austrian support, hoping that an Austrian attack on France would draw French resources back across the Atlantic to concentrate on Europe - thereby safeguarding Britain's valuable West Indian colonies.[6]

Although Austria ultimately remained neutral in the conflict, the alliance was considerably weakened - caused partly by a failure of the French to adequately support Austria in the brief War of the Bavarian Succession with Prussia. One of the strongest remaining links between the two states was the marriage of Marie Antoinette, daughter of Maria Theresa and sister of Joseph II, to Louis XVI of France, which had taken place in 1770. Marie Antoinette was regarded by the French public as having enormous influence over her husband, and persuading him to pursue a pro-Austrian line. In reality she had little control over the King who was guided instead by his ministers including the anti-Austrian Comte de Vergennes.[7]

French Revolution[edit]

The French Revolution destroyed the ties between the two states despite appeals by the French National Assembly for Austria to honour the Treaty of 1756. In 1792 the Austrians sent troops to invade France, threatening to destroy Paris if Louis XVI, now reduced to a constitutional monarch, was not restored to his previous status. The Austrians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Valmy and Louis XVI was overthrown and, together with Marie Antoinette, executed the following year. Austria now joined a coalition of states trying to crush the French revolutionaries by force and Vienna became one of the centres of anti-revolutionary activity, giving shelter to many French royalist refugees.[8]

Napoleonic Wars[edit]

After the Austrian Empire was defeated in the War of the Fifth Coalition in 1809 by the First French Empire, the alliance was briefly revived. The Kaiser Franz's second daughter, Marie Louise, married Napoleon I and became Empress consort of the French. The Austrians contributed 34,000 men to La Grande Armée during the French invasion of Russia.

The alliance broke down after Napoleon's retreat from Russia, and Austria joined the Sixth Coalition in 1813.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Simms pp.231-42
  2. ^ Dull pp.68-70
  3. ^ MacDonogh pp.244-51
  4. ^ Dull pp.100-4
  5. ^ MacDonogh pp.316-20
  6. ^ Simms pp.636-40
  7. ^ Mansel pp.90-91
  8. ^ Mansel pp.177-208


  • Dull, Jonathon R. The French Navy in the Seven Years' War. University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
  • MacDonogh, Giles. Frederick the Great: A Life in Deeds and Letters. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999.
  • McLynn, Frank. 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World. Pimlico, 2005.
  • Mansel, Philip. Prince of Europe: The Life of Charles-Joseph De Ligne. Phoenix, 2005.
  • Murphy, Orvile T. Charles Gravier: Comete de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution. New York Press, 1982.
  • Simms, Brendan. Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire. Penguin Books, 2008.