The Most Dynamic Ruler

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Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Emperor Joseph II of Austria; painting by Joseph Hickel, 1771

Within a twenty-year span during the late eighteenth century, two revolutions, one in the North American colonies, the other in France, unleashed the two most powerful forces of our contemporary world: on one hand, the liberal and libertarian ideas that would inexorably lead to democratic ones; on the other hand, an empowerment of the common people that would eventually forge the bonds of national communities. Both were “revolutionary” processes, transformations from below (in some sense); they yielded modern politics and society.

Yet in the exact space between those events, a grandiose attempt took place to achieve such modernization with no reference at all to liberalism or nationalism, indeed wholly from above, on the monarchic principle alone. It was the work of one of the most extraordinary and enigmatic of all European rulers, and the most dynamic bar none; the only one who ever gave his name to a whole program: Josephinismus, rendered into English as Josephism or Josephinism according to taste.

However, Joseph II has been little known. Though it is hard not to notice his Viennese monuments, whether the gargantuan General Hospital or his giant equestrian statue outside the Hofburg (where Harry Lime’s car accident occurred in The Third Man), and some recall his relentless wanderlust, his—carefully staged—wielding of the plow, and his deathbed recantations, no accessible and coherent view of Joseph’s activities has ever been presented. For he belonged to the wrong dynasty, the wrong state. His patrimony as a Habsburg was the Austrian monarchy, now long defunct, whose governments would spend most of its last phase of existence advancing ultimately unavailing survival strategies, conservative efforts to fend off pressure from democracy and nationalism.

A crippling consequence of that failure has been the neglect of the earlier history of the Habsburgs within the new countries formed from the realms where they ruled until the dissolution of their empire after World War I. Abroad, ironically enough, there was more recognition, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. In the 1970s and 1980s two British historians moved independently to disinter Central Europe’s great eighteenth-century reform enterprise. Their pathbreaking books were published simultaneously and complemented each other. Peter Dickson at Oxford exposed the structures of government and society under Joseph’s mother, Maria Theresa; whereas at Cambridge Derek Beales began a biography of Joseph himself, covering the long and frustrating period when he waited “in the shadow of Maria Theresa,” before he could enjoy full power.

Twenty-two years later Beales has completed his awesome project on Joseph with another monumental volume, this time on the final decade, the ten years—actually just over nine—of his sole rule in Austria. And what a rule! In the first twelve months Joseph issued over four hundred decrees (five times the energetic Maria Theresa’s output). By 1786 some provincial authorities were receiving upward of 50,000 instructions per annum. There were …

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