By 1750, five European powers had come to dominate European affairs. They were Austria, Prussia, France, Britain, and Russia. All five had strong centralized governments. Although Spain and the Ottoman Empire ruled parts of Europe, these once powerful empires were in decline.
As these five nation-states competed with one another, they formed various alliances to maintain the balance of power. Though nations sometimes switched partners, two basic rivalries persisted. Prussia battled Austria for control of the German-speaking states. At the same time, Britain and France competed for power and influence both in Europe and in their growing overseas empires.
On occasion, these rivalries resulted in worldwide conflict. The Seven Years' War, which lasted from 1756 until 1763, was fought on four continents.
In Europe, Prussia and Britain battled Austria, France, Russia, and Sweden. Britain and France also battled for power in India, Africa, and North America, where the conflict became known as the French and Indian War.
Absolutism reached its peak in the mid-1700s. Four of the five great European powers were ruled by absolute monarchs. Britain, with its strong Parliament, was the only exception.
At the same time, new ideas were circulating about natural rights and the role of government. In time, demands for change and reform would topple French absolutism, revolutionize European societies, and transform the balance of power in Europe.
The Seven Years' War in Europe pitted Europe, Prussia, and Britain against Austria, France, Russia, and Sweden. This painting shows a December 1757 battle in which the Prussians defeated the Austrians.
How did European nations maintain a balance of power?