Benevolent Dinosaur

Francis Joseph was Emperor of Austria from 1848 to 1916—that is, for almost sixty-eight years. This is the longest period of effective rule by one person in European history. The exceptional length of his reign had real significance. He ruled so unconscionably long that in the minds of many he has subsumed all Austrian sovereigns. When I tell people that I am writing the life of Joseph II, his great-great-uncle, who incidentally became ruler of Austria exactly sixty-eight years before him, they usually assume I must be talking about Francis Joseph. Indeed, one elderly Czech assured me that as a schoolboy he had actually seen Joseph II in the flesh. The emperor he had seen, of course, was Francis Joseph.

Francis Joseph’s almost mythical status reflects not only the inordinate length of his reign but also the fact that he ruled over such a vast and ancient empire. It included the whole of present-day Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia, substantial parts of Serbia. Romania, Poland, Ukraine and Italy—and, at the very end of his reign, Bosnia-Herzegovina as well. This huge agglomeration of territories had been accumulated over many centuries by the Habsburg dynasty, of which he was the heir. But his empire survived him by only two years, and its very existence now seems barely credible.

Anyone who has visited Vienna will know that Francis Joseph holds a place in the Austrian historical consciousness rivaled only by Joseph II’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Alan Palmer, whose Twilight of the Habsburgs is a biography of Francis Joseph, claims that he “continues to attract more personal sympathy than any other ruler in continental Europe since the Napoleonic upheavals.”


Francis Joseph became emperor during the 1848 revolutions. The Austrian Court had decamped to Olmütz in Moravia because Vienna was at the mercy of revolutionary workers and students. The last-minute grant of a constitution by the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand had not satisfied his subjects. On the contrary, leaders of many of the numerous nationalities of the Empire were demanding autonomy or independence. Hungary was in revolt and seemed beyond recovery. In this crisis Ferdinand was induced to abdicate; his brother, Francis Joseph’s father, was passed over; and the young Francis Joseph, who had just reached the age of eighteen, was made emperor instead. His mother, the manipulative Archduchess Sophie, had been scheming for some time to place him on the throne. He had shown some military aptitude, was handsome and responsible, and he seemed to the grandees of the Empire to offer the best chance of restoring imperial power.

Within a few months all the provinces had been pacified, but to subdue Hungary Francis Joseph had had to ask for the help of a Russian army—a humiliation for the Emperor, and to the Hungarians proof of his despotism. The Emperor soon threw what he called “all that constitutional stuff overboard” and inaugurated a phase of “neo-absolutism.” In 1859 he embarked on a war intended to preserve his Italian provinces…

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