Absolutism in Eastern Europe

April 26, 2012 |  Tagged | Comments Off on Absolutism in Eastern Europe

Posted by Chet Eichenbrenner

Although an offsite AP Review article, it brings up some facts that we did not cover in class about Absolutism in Eastern Europe.  Here’s the link:

Absolutism in Eastern Europe


ABSOLUTISM IN EASTERN EUROPE: Austria, Russia and Prussia

In many respects the rise of absolutism was a natural response to the chaos of the religious wars. The theory of cuius regio, eius religio which evolved from the Peace of Augsburg (1555) was the first step on the road to empowering the monarchy. Absolute monarchs already had a foundation on which to build, the New Monarchs of Europe had created larger territorial states, which required a new, more effective form of government.

Ironically philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a strong proponent of absolutism, developed his ideas in England, the least absolute state in Europe! He proposed in his Leviathan (1651) that an absolute monarch could have prevented the chaos of the English Civil War. Hobbes said that life was, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He went on to suggest that people would only listen if they did not fear the consequences. Therefore, individuals entered into a contract with the ruler – surrendering their rights for protection. French philosopher Jacques Bossuet went even further, claiming that rulers had authority from God.

It is important here to note that these rulers were absolute rulers and not arbitrary. When they acted, they often did so out of a feeling of responsibility for the masses. They realized that they, and they alone were responsible for the needs of the people. Yet this is where eastern and western absolutism diverge. Western monarchs understood the necessity of working with advisors such as parlements in France, Cortes in Spain, or Parliament in Britain.

Before analyzing the individual countries and the role of the monarchy, perhaps one would be best served to find the characteristics that are common in absolutism. All absolute states benefited from extensive tenure by one dynasty. Such dynastic rule facilitated obvious advantages such as continuance of policies, avoidance of internal competition, increased significance of treaties and marriage alliances. The strength of the absolute state could be seen in the large centralized bureaucracy and the ability to maintain a large standing army to expand policies at home and abroad.

Eastern Absolutism

The rulers of Central and Eastern Europe shared many of the same structures. Each had a strong ruler who maintained ties with the nobility through dispensing concessions. The concessions granted to the nobility gave them far more autonomy than in the west. Consequently, the peasants suffered significantly more in eastern Europe than in the west because of enforced serfdom.

In eastern Europe during the seventeenth century the rights of the peasants were taken away. As a labor shortage swept eastern Europe workers became a necessity and as a result the movement of peasants was restricted. Peasants lost their land and were forced into more obligations for their lords. Between 1500 and 1650 conditions worsened and serfs could be killed for nothing

Political factors accounted for the new serfdom

Weaker kings were forced to give more freedom to landlords

Landlords sold directly to foreign capitalists and abolished the need for a middle class

War and the threat of war aided the absolute monarchies

Would-be absolutists gained power in 3 areas:
a) imposed and collected permanent taxes without consent
b) maintained permanent armies
c) conducted relations with other states as they pleased


The Habsburgs were exhausted after the Thirty Years’ War, but they still remained emperors of the Holy Roman Empire

The real power lay with 300 varying political entities that shared a geographic region, but had very little else in common.

Conditions for serfs became worse

The robot – 3 days of unpaid labor a week became the norm, many serfs worked everyday except Sunday

In 1683 the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna. After two months the Turks were eventually forced back by fresh troops who had come to the aid of the Austrians. Pushing forward against the Ottomans, the Habsburg troops captured Budapest in 1686 and acquired nearly all of Hungary in the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699). The Habsburg troops were led by Prince Eugene of Savoy, whom would go on to play a prominent role in the War of Spanish Succession.

The Habsburgs then turned to fight the Ottomans, who under Suleyman the Magnificant ruled the most powerful empire in the world

The Habsburg state had 3 parts:
a) Austria
b) kingdom of Bohemia
c) kingdom of Hungary

The Hungarians resisted because many wanted to remain Protestant

Hungary allied to Turkey

During the War of Spanish Succession the Hungarians led by Prince Francis Rakoczy rebelled. Rakoczy was defeated but it led to a compromise
a) Hungary accepted Habsburg rule
b) Charles VI restored the rights of the aristocracy of Hungary

By Austrian law women were not allowed the claim the throne of Austria. In 1711 Holy Roman Emperor and Austrian monarch Charles VI issued the Pragmatic Sanction (1713) which persuaded Europe’s rulers to accept a female monarch and to never divide the Habsburg lands.

Maria Theresa became queen of Austria. She took local control away from the regional diets, made German the language of the empire, created a large bureaucracy, taxed the nobility and the clergy and took control of the Roman Catholic Church.

1740 Frederick II became king of Prussia, rejected the Pragmatic Sanction and invaded the Austrian province of Silesia. This started the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48). Great Britain, and the Dutch supported Austria; France and Spain supported Austria. In 1748 the war ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The Austrians could not stop the Bourbons from gaining control of the Spanish throne, Frederick kept Silesia and Austria received the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) as compensation.

Joseph II succeeded his mother in 1780 and as an enlightened despot he initiated sweeping reforms. Personally, he was against serfdom and abolished the robot in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. However, these reforms came too fast and many peasants took advantage of the situation and revolted. Leopold II followed Joseph and repealed most of the reforms to pacify the nobility. He reintroduced serfdom and the robot, which remained in existence until the revolution of 1848.


The Mongols ruled and unified the eastern slavs for more than 200 years. The Mongol Khan was supreme ruler. Mongol rule was absolute and violent, uprisings were brutally suppressed. The Mongols used local princes to collect taxes and as servants and through cooperation, Moscow became the most loyal city. Eventually the prince of Moscow was the tsar and he was an absolute rule

Moscovite authority was based on:
a) Ivan III stopped acknowledging the khan as a supreme ruler
b) after the fall of Constantinople (1453) the tsars saw themselves as heirs to the caesars and Orthodox Christianity

All the other kings of Europe were heretics

Ivan III (1442-1505) ended Mongol domination of Russia and took the title Tsar (Caesar) proclaiming himself heir to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire). He confiscated 80% of Novgorod, keeping half and gave the rest to his nobles, causing a rise in service nobility.

Ivan IV “the Terrible” grandson of Ivan III who started westernizing Russia was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Ivan the Terrible claimed all nobles had to serve the tsar in order to hold office. His purges depopulated much of Russia, forcing many peasants to flee west to hide and form groups called Cossacks. Ivan believed he owned all the trade and industry which sharply contrasted with capitalism in western Europe.

The ruling Moscovite family died out in 1584 which led to the Time of Trouble (1584-1613). The “Time of Trouble” followed the death of Ivan the Terrible, especially after Ivan’s son and heir died. The rebellion of the peasants caused problems for the aristocracy. The social confusion and possibility of war brought the nobles to their senses. The tsar relaxed obligations of nobility, but increased pressure on the peasants.

In an attempt to end the turmoil the Russian nobility (boyars) elected the young Michael Romanov (r. 1613-54) as tsar in 1613. The Romanov family ruled until 1917 when Nicholas II was overthrown in the Revolution. Stability was restored by Michael, but the steltsi (Moscow garrison) and the boyars (nobility) continued to challenge his authority.

Moscovy in 1689, was 3 times larger than the rest of Europe, but people were the primary unit of taxation.

Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) established stability after the Times of Troubles (1584-1613) and turned Russia into an empire. Peter was fascinated by geography and spent 18 months touring Europe in disguise. The steltsi, taking advantage of Peter’s absence, rebelled in 1698 – Peter brutally suppressed the revolt.

He forced the boyars to accept western ways including shaving and allowing women to attend social functions

In 1703 he built a new capital called St. Petersburg the “window to the West”

The best part of the army was the cavalry comprised of the boyars and nobility

Peter wanted to improve the army but it only served part-time

The sons of nobles were forced to attend military or engineering schools and prohibited from marrying until they had done so.

Created a standing army of 200,000 men, recruitment was for life

Russia won the Great Northern War (1700-21) against Sweden’s Charles XII including the Battle of Poltava (1709) and signed the Peace of Nystad (1721) ending the war.

Russia annexed Latvia and Estonia

Westerners and western ideas flowed to Russia

The gap between the educated and the peasants widened. Few Russians were wealthy, the vast majority of people were poor uneducated peasants.

New ideas of statehood took hold and Russia became closer to Europe than Asia

Forced boyars to serve the state by enlisting in the civil or military service

1722 – issued the Table of Ranks – provided social position and privileges based on rank in the military or bureaucracy – not status.

Forced China to accept Russia’ claim for Siberia

To make the Russian Orthodox Church more secular he abolished the office of patriarch – established the Holy Synod

Peter had his son, Alexis, imprisoned in 1718, where Alexis died under mysterious circumstances. When Peter died in 1725 the Russian empire was six times larger than during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

Without a designated successor the nobility and the military fought for almost fifty years. In 1762 the weak Peter III became tsar and shortly after was assassinated with his wife’s approval. The widowed queen who took control was the German Catherine who would go on to rule on her own for over thirty years.

Catherine the Great (r. 1762-96) admired the ideas of the Enlightenment and corresponded with Voltaire. However, she did little to reform Russia. Serfs became the property of the nobles and consequently could be treated accordingly.

From 1773 to 1775 the peasants rebelled. Led by Emelian Pugachev the serfs tried to gain certain rights. Pugachev was captured and beheaded.

Defeated the Ottomans and expanded Russia’s southern border. Russia gained control of the Black Sea and her warm water ports as well as control of the straits to the Aegean Seas. Also the treaty made a vague reference to Russia being the protector of the Orthodox Christian subjects of the Sultan – this would later be invoked as justifiable cause for Russian intervention in affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

Divided Poland with Austria and Prussia. Poland ceased to exist until 1919

In the 1785 Charter of the Nobility Catherine made sweeping concessions to the nobility. They became:
exempt from taxation
exempt from required military service
gained complete control over their estates and serfs

Catherine was the last of great absolute monarchs

She died in 1796 when Europe was challenging the idea of the monarchy


In 1415 the Hohenzollern family began to rule as electors of Brandenburg. The Hohenzollern family had little real power. Choosing the Holy Roman Emperor was of little value and they had no military strength. The Hohenzollern power-base was Brandenburg and was cut off from Prussia, which was part of Poland. In 1618 the Hohenzollern prince died and Prussia returned to the Elector of Brandenburg. Gradually they increased the size of their land until they were second only to the Hapsburgs. The Hohenzollern family formed an alliance with the Junkers (unlike the monarchy of France).

They practiced religious toleration

Improved the economy, abolished torture, reorganized the tax system, imposed tariffs to protect Prussian industry, made more land available for agriculture

The power of the Estates (the Junkers) was weakened and elector Frederick William (Great Elector) assumed absolute control. The Great Elector (r. 1640-88) – started to rule Germany after it had been devastated by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). He reduced the power of the landed aristocracy (Junkers) and the estates, established the civil service and the army as the focus of the states’ power. He also used the military and civil service to control the state – top jobs went to the Junkers. In return he did not interfere with Junker control of the serfs.

He wanted to unite 3 areas: Prussia, Berlin, and the Rhine

There are 2 reasons he was successful
1) the wars between Sweden and Poland and the wars of Louis XIV seemed to create a sense of permanent crisis
2) the Junkers were unwilling to join the commoners against the crown

By 1688 Frederick I (r. 1688-1713) had made Prussia one state. He supported the Habsburgs in the war of Spanish Succession and was granted the title “King of Prussia”.

Frederick William I (r. 1713-40) “the soldier king” truly established Prussian absolutism. He created the best army in the world and gave society military values.

Frederick William I always wore a uniform

Created a strong centralized bureaucracy

Parliamentary government vanished as Frederick William enlisted the Junkers to help him

Prussia was 12th in population, 4th largest army clearly deserving of the title, the “Sparta of the north”.

Royal absolutism in Prussia was stronger than in Austria

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