The common theme of “Wars of Succession” in the 18th century affected Spain, Austria, and even Poland. However, the War of Bavarian Succession (1778-79) is widely overlooked by most. It did shape the basis for Napoleonic Central Europe in the upcoming years of turmoil on the Continent.
The Austrians had suffered defeat in their own War of Succession in the 1740s, but Maria Theresa still kept her throne. One of the main parts of Austrian lands they lost was Silesia, a strip of modern-day Poland which belonged to Prussia. When Maria Theresa gave up her title as Holy Roman Empress, the throne passed to her son Joseph II, who wanted to revive Austrian influence in Germany. His reforms of the Austrian military cast a shadow over his reign, as many Austrians were filled with discontent. The situation in the Empire was tense: they wanted to restate their claim as the most important German nation and also reclaim land lost in the Seven Years’ War and War of Austrian Succession.
In December of 1777, the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian III, died and caused a power vacuum akin to previous problems of succession. Charles Theodore became the new ruler and ceded Bavaria to the Austrians in exchange for the Austrian Netherlands. Joseph II’s pressure on Charles caused the deal to go through, much to Prussia’s disgust. Prussia backed Charles August, Duke of Zweibrucken, and countered the Austrians. When Imperial troops occupied Bavaria, Frederick II declared war. Joseph II led his troops against the Prussians, but no real engagements were fought. Most were simple supply raids through the winter, which led the war to be known as either the “Potato War” or the “Plum Scrum.” Many soldiers on both sides died of starvation in the frigid winters or of diseases which ravaged camps. The Austrians and Prussians lost a combined 39,000 men and 5,000 horses in a war with no major battles.In May of 1779, the aging Maria Theresa intervened, as she was still ‘King’ of Bohemia and Hungary (the throne was legally supposed to be occupied by a man). She organised a separate peace with Frederick, and the war came to a close. Charles Theodore was kept on the throne of Bohemia but Austria would renounce her claims to Bavaria.