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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Wenzel Anton Kaunitz

Austrian prince, statesman (1711-1794)

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Errata* for Wenzel Anton Kaunitz:

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Kaunitz, WENZEL ANTON, an Austrian prince and statesman, b. at Vienna February 2, 1711; d. there June 27, 1794. His parents had destined him for the Church, and at the age of thirteen years he already held a canonry at Munster. Soon, however, he gave up the idea of becoming an ecclesiastic, and studied law at Vienna, Leipzig, and Leyden. He afterwards made an extensive educational journey through England, France, and Italy, and was then made aulic councillor in 1735. At the German Diet of Ratisbon in 1739 he was one of the imperial commissaries. In March, 1741, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Florence, Rome, and Turin, and in August, 1742, was appointed Austrian ambassador at Turin. Two years later he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to the Government of the Netherlands, in which capacity he was to all intents the actual ruler of the Netherlands, because Archduchess Marianne, whom Maria Theresa had invested with the government of the Netherlands, died a week after his arrival, and her husband, Prince Charles of Lorraine, was commanding the Austrian army in Bohemia against the King of Prussia. When Brussels was taken after a three weeks' siege by Maurice de Saxe on February 20, 1746, Kaunitz went to Antwerp, and, when the French army followed him to that place, he left for Aachen, whence his urgent request to be recalled from his difficult position was finally heeded by the empress in June, 1746. In 1748 he represented the interests of Austria at the Congress of Aachen, and reluctantly signed the treaty on October 23, 1748. Extremely displeased at the treaty which deprived Austria of the provinces of Silesia and Glatz, guaranteeing them to Frederick II, Kaunitz sought a way to regain these provinces and destroy the predominance of the King of Prussia. He advocated an alliance with France, and, when sent as ambassador to Paris in September, 1750, began to lay the foundation for this alliance, which, however, was not concluded until six years later. In 1753 he was recalled and became chancellor of state and minister of foreign affairs.

Towards the end of 1755 he again began negotiations with France concerning an anti-Prussian alliance. This time the circumstances were in his favor. France felt itself slighted at the alliance into which Prussia had entered with England, and a defensive alliance between Austria and France, known as the Treaty of Versailles, was entered into on May 1, 1756. This treaty, however, was only the preliminary to the so-called Second Treaty of Versailles, signed on May 1, 1757; in this it was stipulated that the two powers would fight against the King of Prussia, until Silesia and Glatz were restored to Austria. A similar alliance was effected with Russia on February 2, 1757. Both these alliances owed their existence to Kaunitz who was also practically the supreme manager of Austrian affairs during the ensuing Seven Years War. Empress Maria Theresa placed implicit reliance in his ability and devotion to his country, and no reform of any importance was undertaken during her rule, which did not originate from Kaunitz or at least bear the impress of his cooperation. In 1760 he founded the Austrian Council of State, consisting of six members, improved the financial management, and introduced various other governmental changes. In 1764 he was created a prince of the empire with the title of Count von Rittberg.

The paramount influence which Kaunitz wielded during the reign of Maria Theresa grew considerably less during the reign of her son, Joseph II. In the main, Joseph II and Kaunitz pursued the same ends, viz. territorial expansion, increase of the central state authority and limitation of the authority of the nobility, entire subjection of the Church to the State, the supervision of the latter over the former even in the minutest ritual and disciplinary regulations, a better education of the common people, and more consideration for their legal rights. But, despite the unity of their aims, they had numerous disagreements, because each was too opinionated to give up his views in deference to those of the other. In addition, Kaunitz was extremely vain and eccentric. He spent hours preparing his elaborate toilet at which he was assisted by a host of servants, having each a particular duty to perform. He manifested a childish fear of contagious diseases and could not bear to hear the word death or plague mentioned in his presence. Emperor Joseph in a letter to his brother Leopold, written about two weeks before his death, says of Kaunitz: "Would you believe that I have not seen him for almost two years. Since the day on which I returned sick from the army I can no longer go to him, and he does not come to me for fear of contagion". Despite his many faults, Kaunitz always had Austria's welfare, as he understood it, at heart, and his long experience and cautiousness often put a wholesome restraint on the rash and impulsive disposition of Joseph II. He favored the first Partition of Poland in 1772, was instrumental in obtaining Bukowina from the Turks in 1775, and, though unsuccessful in his intended annexation of Bavaria in 1778, he obtained for Austria at the Peace of Teschen in May, 1779, the so-called Innviertel, i.e. that part of the territory of Berghausen which lies between the Danube, the Inn, and the Salza.

In matters of religion Kaunitz was one of the foremost adherents of the intellectual movement known as the "Enlightenment" (Aufklarung). He even surpassed Joseph II in his endeavors to make the Church and its clergy mere tools in the hands of state officials. When Pius VI visited Vienna in 1782, Kaunitz treated him very rudely and advised that the clergy be forbidden to come to Vienna while the pontiff was visiting there. He also counseled Joseph II on this occasion to make no concessions to the pontiff in ecclesiastical affairs. He imbibed his deep hatred for the clergy as ambassador at Paris, where he had for some time Jean-Jacques Rousseau as private secretary. He was moreover a friend and great admirer of Voltaire and the French Encyclopedists, whose works had become his chief mental pabulum. His influence which was on the wane during the reign of Joseph II grew still less during the reign of Leopold II (1790-2). At the accession of Francis II in 1792 he resigned as chancellor.


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