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The Most Dynamic Ruler

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 Habsburg1 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.2

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 swaths of legislative action in every imaginable area of public policy. Bold and apparently simple measures, such as the abolition of serfdom, of censorship, and even of the death penalty, and the introduction of religious tolerance, ran alongside a complex administrative reorganization, which rested on thoroughgoing centralist principles and new bureaucratic cadres.

Joseph laid the basis for recasting the whole fiscal and legal system across his vast and disparate realms. He dissolved many monasteries and created many new parishes and schools; he initiated a raft of health and welfare provisions; he established factories and instructed the peasants how to farm; he surveyed and enumerated and classified. He also endlessly fine-tuned, meddled, and interfered at all points; and he was perfectly capable of undoing the benefits of a grand innovation by uncharitable interpretation of individual cases, as when he commuted capital sentences into the arguably more dreadful punishment of hauling barges up the Danube under utterly inhuman conditions.

The combination of these over- ambitious schemes and this micromanagement soon brought Joseph’s realms to a state of crisis, exacerbated by a terrible war against the Turks, into which he insisted on leading his armies. He died, embittered and isolated, of a disease carried back from the battlefield. His tomb in the Habsburg family crypt, by his own instruction, carries no ornament or inscription but his bare name (another of those isolated tidbits that many remember about Joseph). “I am unfortunate in everything I undertake” was his private verdict; and a deep sense of rancor pervaded his last months.

Clearly Joseph had been frustrated by much vested interest, structural hindrance, collective apathy, and disinclination. Yet Beales is at pains to stress that his was a very personal crusade and a very personal failure. Beales goes as far as to say that Joseph’s “conception of monarchy was as personal as any ruler’s has ever been.” The whole apparatus of reform served to enhance his own exercise of power. Joseph held no theory of “absolutism” but a remarkably conventional belief in strong monarchical authority.

So what kind of character was this very special monarch? Beales supplies much material that allows us to judge, from the writings of the Emperor himself—not least his decrees and instructions, many of which have a highly individual flavor—and from some of those closest to him. Dynamism and commitment were accompanied by less attractive traits: haste and impatience, after years of waiting in the wings; arrogance, brusqueness, sarcasm, and frequent ill-temper. Joseph cultivated a rhetoric of service and mission: he claimed “to do only what the general good of the state and the great number requires.” Such broadly utilitarian justifications became a mantra for him. Indeed, he thought it “impossible to be more dedicated to the general good and to devote oneself to it more laboriously and unselfishly than I do.” With that went an obsessive desire to be informed, to grant audiences to ordinary folk, to receive petitions. But how much of this was a pose, a deliberate attempt to be celebrated as a Volkskaiser, a “people’s emperor”? On his continual tours of inspection, Joseph traveled ostensibly incognito, but the alias he always adopted, “Count Falkenstein,” was transparent. One contemporary found him “thoroughly proud of his humility.”

More seriously, Joseph neither inspired nor conveyed much affection. He was often at odds with his family (except, curiously, for his sister Marie Antoinette, who as queen of France might have seemed to represent a frivolousness and sentimentality utterly foreign to him). It was the same with helpers, advisers, servants: sometimes Joseph would, briefly, stop to listen, but he always wanted to be obeyed. He thought himself beleaguered—“against the world,” in Beales’s subtitle—but the isolation was largely of his own making. Despite the occasional gesture of handsome recognition, he mainly operated in demanding and ungrateful fashion, placing huge burdens and moral obligations on his underpaid and overextended officials. It was one thing, perhaps, to follow his own opinion “as the only one that is certainly disinterested”; quite another to alienate the very core group on whom he relied for the implementation of policy.

Alongside his presentation of Joseph’s career as a traditional biography, Beales persuasively asserts another old-fashioned priority: the significance of the foreign relations of the Habsburg state. It is hard these days, he reminds us, to reconstruct the mental world of an “absolute sovereign whose basic aim was necessarily to preserve his territory intact with the aid of a large army and by the most cunning diplomacy he could devise.” Beales seeks to acquit Joseph of naked bellicosity, albeit his ambitions in southeastern Europe surely brought him close to it at times.

As for his acquisitiveness, Joseph even coveted the Italian state of Tuscany for himself, though it was already a Habsburg possession, and his designs predictably stirred up trouble with his younger brother Leopold, who was ruling there. Typically “imperialist” designs, we might say—but that is a deceptive term in relation to Joseph. He had been emperor, i.e., the elected ruler of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, since 1765; but he exercised very little authority there, as he had quickly found during his initial abortive attempts to reform it. Besides, German problems were apt to become international ones by the continuing ratchet effect of the Westphalian settlement, which over a century before had brought in foreign powers to guarantee the constitutional status quo. Yet many of the Habsburg territories proper lay within the borders of the Empire, and Beales can still argue for Germany as the locus of Joseph’s chief ambitions. He famously nursed a huge admiration for Frederick “the Great” of Prussia; but it was Frederick who had humiliated Joseph’s mother and raised up his country to be the chief rival to Austria. To the end the Prussian monarch remained for Joseph “the irreconcilable enemy of my House.”

The basic problem, then and later, was the Habsburgs’ diplomatic over-commitment across half a continent. Beyond the challenges and rivalries in Germany and Italy, there was for Joseph the Polish imbroglio, as the fading Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania laid itself open to partition, and the increasing weakness of the Ottoman Empire. Both those troubled areas lay in the east, where they drew Joseph into an uneasy—and fateful—alliance with Russia. However, Beales brings into sharp relief one particular neuralgic point in the west of Europe, where foreign and domestic spheres intersected. This was the Austrian Netherlands, roughly today’s Belgium, a small but precious territory that the Habsburgs had traditionally ruled from an indulgent distance.

Beales shows how Belgium represented for Joseph a potential asset but a practical liability. It offered resources, especially commercial and economic ones, but at the price of conflict with Western powers. The clash was exacerbated by two further conflicting lines of policy, so that it became Joseph’s nemesis. On one hand he sought the full incorporation of Belgium into his monarchy, directing his fiercest campaign of innovation against the previously autonomous province, and unleashing full-scale revolt there by 1789. On the other hand he negotiated for years to swap Belgium for the Bavarian lands, which (unlike Belgium) were contiguous with Austria, and where the main line of the local hereditary ruling house was about to be extinguished. The ploy was not unfamiliar or markedly unethical by the standards of eighteenth-century Europe; but Joseph’s confrontational methods yielded a rising chorus of disapproval in the German Reich and beyond.

It seems an irony that resistance to Joseph in this, the Habsburgs’ most advanced dominion, came from the most conservative quarter. For prosperous Belgium was deeply Catholic and full of clergy, especially the kinds of monks and nuns for whom the Emperor had no time, but who themselves had plenty of time to orchestrate opposition. Grievances about religion have long been recognized to lie at the heart of Josephinism (Beales did some previous sleuthing to show the origins of the locution in nineteenth-century church politics).3 Joseph took direct issue with the papacy as no one had done since the days of Luther and Calvin—indeed, Pius VI saw him as more dangerous than the Reformation and undertook the first papal journey outside Italy for over two centuries to upbraid him in Vienna. At issue were weighty questions of jurisdiction, centered in Joseph’s claim that “the state is not in the Church, but assuredly the Church is in the state.” However, disputes over jurisdiction often manifested themselves in local rivalries, such as the choice of bishops in the pope’s Italian backyard, or in matters of everyday observance, such as Joseph’s notorious burial regulations, with their reusable coffins and unmarked graves—which, as Beales points out, explain the otherwise strange circumstances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s funeral as a “pauper.”4

Musée Historique Lorrain, Nancy/Scala/White/Art Resource
Maria Theresa, mother of Joseph II; painting by François Eisen, 1757

Such measures proved deeply unpopular throughout Catholic society. Yet on the whole Joseph’s religious reforms lasted. Most successful was his full toleration of the various non-Catholic faiths in the monarchy, which at a stroke made Austria more confessionally permissive than contemporary Great Britain, as Edmund Burke noted. So how could Joseph protest himself—and Beales takes him at his word—to be “a good Catholic in the full meaning of the term”? He seems to have looked to state management and allegiance as better guarantors of proper piety and devotion than the Church’s own hierarchy. He certainly used ecclesiastical assets only to establish new parishes and schools, not for purely secular ends. And his overtures to other faiths carried a subtext of possible future conversion, or at least assimilation, particularly evident in the far-reaching steps he took toward emancipation of the Jews, without which the later age of Freud, Mahler, Herzl, Kafka, and many others in Central Europe would have been inconceivable.

Toleration liberated human resources for service to the Austrian cause. It went with much freer circulation of information and even criticism—a flood of publications in realms where opinion had till then been closely controlled. Some limits remained: Beales gives a fascinating account of what was still considered “objectionable” (anstößig) on the theater stage; and Joseph had no patience with the aims of scholars, whose printed work he deemed useful “only for wrapping cheese.” Much the same applied to “enlightened” debates: the Emperor rarely contributed to them, especially if they were conducted in the fashionable lodges of the Freemasons, of whom he was deeply suspicious. Yet Beales finds that the new openness was genuine enough: maybe Joseph, himself a master of the caustic comment, simply enjoyed the cut and thrust and the atmosphere of irreverence. And his aversion to Masonry mainly derived from its identification in his mind with secretive and pretentious mumbo-jumbo.

Thus the people at large, or at least educated ones, could contribute to a more participatory culture in the Austrian lands; but they enjoyed no representation at all. Joseph ended the vestiges of political involvement by his subjects, whereby the estates of the various provinces, mainly noble corporate bodies, had taken a share in government. “I do not need your consent for doing good,” as he told them at one point. Above all he railed in private, and sometimes in public, against the obstructive Hungarian lords and their collective selfishness tricked out as constitutionalism. Yet he put nothing in the place of the estates: just his long-suffering advisers (the bulk of the senior ones were, in fact, as Beales notes, still aristocrats, many inherited from Maria Theresa’s time) and that army of undermotivated bureaucrats we have already encountered. With these came the priorities of a real army, for Joseph promoted military values at court and in society in a style his predecessors would have thought tasteless, and as a result provision for his troops had to loom large in his policymaking.

Still less did Joseph recognize the other kind of demand that would soon be voiced from below by revolutionaries in France and elsewhere. He was blind to any national question in his ethnically multifarious realms. It did not even form part of his elaborate statistical surveys to establish what nationalities he ruled over and how numerous they were. Yet Joseph did have a kind of quasi-national agenda: he wanted to create a loyalty to the Austrian state—of which he saw himself as the chief servant—and in that endeavor it seemed to him natural to employ the language of the majority of his chief subjects and its culture. Not only did he ordain the use of German for official purposes in most parts of his lands; he even renamed his court players a German National Theater. Being Joseph, he also ran this himself, and almost single-handed.

Beales is especially good on the denouement: how the threads in the complex but loosely spun tapestry of Joseph’s reformist project began to unravel with growing rapidity during his last year. That coincided with the debilitating war in the Balkans—even though the conquest of Belgrade could give rise to mass popular celebration as late as October 1789. But by that stage the Emperor was already mortally sick and facing open rebellion in Belgium and Hungary (while continuing to give day-by-day directions to his theatrical underlings in Vienna). It was the traditional forms of representation and national allegiance that brought him down: noble estates’ fury at the destruction of their privileges; regional rage over the draining of all power to Vienna.

Hence after Joseph’s death a conservative retreat allowed his brother Leopold to recover much ground at home. (From his marriages to Isabella of Parma and Maria Josepha of Bavaria, the latter a sadly cold arrangement, Joseph left no heirs.) Abroad too Leopold could profit from the reserves of trust in the Habsburgs that Joseph had squandered. Leopold even recovered Belgium for a couple of years, before control was lost there again after the larger military contest with revolutionary France had been joined. Eventually Belgium would be swapped after all, but for Venetia, not Bavaria: a troublesome Italian dominion rather than an amenable German one. How different might the future of Habsburg Central Europe have been if Joseph’s bargain for Bavaria had been struck!

Beales reflects only briefly on Joseph’s larger legacy. After 1,200 pages of text in his two volumes he has done enough. He argues plausibly that Joseph came closer to achieving his goals than many critics have given him credit for. If he had died (or, per impossibile, called a halt) in the mid-1780s, even as late as 1788, much could have been salvaged. Besides, the balance sheet showed assets as well as liabilities, both material and immaterial. Thus on one hand it was Joseph’s army reforms that actually helped the monarchy weather the Napoleonic onslaught; and on the other he cemented the place of Vienna as cultural capital of Central Europe, furthering particularly its heritage in music—not by chance the least political of the arts. Beales comprehensibly rehabilitates Joseph as a sympathetic patron of Mozart. Apparently the Emperor did not quite accuse the composer of writing “too many notes”; yet the celebrated story remains ben trovato. Mozart might have retorted that Joseph wrote too many decrees.

In the end the monarchy never proved to be quite fit for purpose as a modern state. Internationally it remained a sort of empire, but a muddled one. Joseph had still been, like his Habsburg predecessors for centuries back, “German Kaiser,” sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire, which as we know contained some of his lands of direct rule but not others. Once that Reich was destroyed by Napoleon, nineteenth-century Austrian rulers never fully sustained its imperial traditions—but they could not emancipate themselves from its shadow either. Hence their ultimately disastrous alliance with the new empire of Bismarck after 1871 (which ironically confirmed Joseph as a posthumous hero for many German nationalists). Domestically the monarchy failed to deliver the kind of Austrian citizenry that Joseph’s policies seemed to envisage. In the face of the European social turmoil with which his death coincided, Joseph’s regal revolution turned into a royalist reaction under his puny successor Francis (whose father Leopold died, like Joseph, at just the wrong moment, on the eve of war against the French in 1792). The reaction lasted for over fifty years and left Austria desperately vulnerable to the forces of liberalism and nationalism, once they were fully unfolded.

In light of all this, Joseph’s reign may look like a massive preemptive strike to forestall the need for people power in the creation of a progressive polity serving the physical and spiritual needs of its whole population. A monarch of extraordinary vision and creativity, he was nevertheless also as much a figure of the ancien régime as that beloved sister of his, Marie Antoinette. As Derek Beales, ever the sage and balanced commentator concludes, “it was magnificent, but it was not politics.”

  1. 1

    Strictly speaking the house from Joseph onward was “Habsburg-Lorraine,” since the Habsburg heiress Maria Theresa had married Francis of Lorraine; not a trivial point (it had given rise to the mid-century War of the Austrian Succession), but it would be fussy to insist on it after this initial explanation.

  2. 2

    P.G.M. Dickson, Finance and Government under Maria Theresia (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, two volumes, 1987); Derek Beales, Joseph II: Volume 1, In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 1741–1780 (Cambridge University Press, 1987).

  3. 3

    See the chapter “Joseph II and Josephism” in his Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth-Century Europe (I.B. Tauris, 2005).

  4. 4

    Mozart died more than a year after Joseph, but the lack of any ceremony or recognition was a consequence of the continuing application of the latter’s ordinances.

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