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 from the threat of French and Piedmontese attack. He had issued an ultimatum to Piedmont at the precise moment when it had backed down by agreeing to disarm. He thereby put Austria clearly in the wrong and lost the support of Britain and Prussia. Without allies, he was defeated and had to surrender Lombardy. It was partly because of the resulting loss of prestige that in the following year he restored to his subjects, as he put it, “a little parliamentary life.” But he reassured his mother that “the power remains in my hands.” In 1866 he lost another war which he had welcomed and had expected to win, this time against Prussia. He was forced to surrender Venetia to Italy and then had to permit Bismarck to unify Germany without reference to Austria.

Ejection from Italy and exclusion from Germany put an end to Austrian and Habsburg aspirations which dated back to the Middle Ages. It was in the shadow of these defeats that, by the Ausgleich or Compromise of 1867, Francis Joseph conceded to Hungary—which now meant the entire eastern half of the Empire—equality of status with the western half, commonly called Austria.

Henceforth Francis Joseph’s was a Dual Monarchy. Technically, while he was emperor of this much-enlarged Austria, he was only king of this much-enlarged Hungary, and the two countries had different administrations. But foreign policy, military affairs, and the finances to pay for them remained matters for the ruler and for three joint Austro-Hungarian ministers. “Policy?” he declared, as late as 1911. “It is I who make it…. My Minister for Foreign Affairs conducts my policy.” In principle, domestic issues were matters for the separate ministries of Austria and Hungary, responsible to their two parliaments. In practice, because of parliamentary squabbles and on the strength of emergency powers reserved to the emperor-king, he commonly decided questions of internal as well as foreign policy. With a soldier-emperor exercising something like absolute power by divine right, employing chiefly princes, counts, and barons as his ministers, and firmly associating himself with the Roman Catholic Church, Austria-Hungary was a salient example of what Arno Mayer called “the persistence of the ancien régime” in Europe into the twentieth century.


When, in 1911, the Emperor declared emphatically that Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy was his policy, he went on to define it as “a policy of peace.” From 1866 to 1914 the country was never involved in a major war, the longest such spell that most of its provinces have ever known. It was a time of extraordinary economic, social, and cultural development, continuing at a more rapid pace the advances of Francis Joseph’s early years. The country’s population rose during his reign from less than forty million to more than fifty million. Vienna itself grew dramatically, from a population of less than half a million to over two million people, Budapest from 120,000 to nearly a million. In both capitals grandiose public buildings were erected along wide new boulevards cut through mazes of ancient streets. With the Emperor’s encouragement, the whole vast country was covered by a network of railways. The monarchy became a huge free-trade region, within which people could migrate without interference.

The most remarkable figures are those for Jews, many of them refugees from Russian pogroms. By 1910 Hungary contained nearly a million Jews, Austria 1,300,000 Jews, the great majority of them living in the cities; and these figures did not include the very large numbers who had become Christians. Largely through the efforts of Jews, industry developed rapidly in some areas, for example around Vienna and in Bohemia. But most parts of the monarchy remained agricultural, and in the east, despite the abolition in 1848 of the peasants’ obligation to work for their lords, still virtually feudal.

During this age of peace Austria-Hungary, and especially Vienna, was the home of an unparalleled musical culture. Francis Joseph would not have been sympathetic to its modernist trends, but he presided over a system that tolerated them. Composers resident for long periods in the capital included Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern, and Alban Berg—as well as the lighter talents of Johann Strauss and Lehár. The Viennese School of painting, headed by Klimt and Schiele, if it hardly matched the achievements of the French Impressionists, made an impact of its own. Among the numerous Jewish intellectuals of Vienna were at least two men whose work has had a revolutionary effect on twentieth-century thinking, Freud and Wittgenstein. A third subject of Francis Joseph whose writings had comparable significance, Gregor Mendel, who made fundamental discoveries in genetics, was a monk and then the abbot of the chief monastery in Brno. In this astonishing period Catholics worked with Jews in the heartland of anti-Semitism, and the ancien régime provided patrons for the avant-garde.

As Francis Joseph grew older, his government was troubled by socialist, anti-Semitic, and nationalist agitations, for example in Bohemia, as well as by terrorism and by demonstrations that were sometimes violently suppressed. More and more critics and opponents vilified the Emperor’s rule for its repression, its censorship, its unfathomable bureaucracy, its hypocritical public morality, the sham of its parliamentary system, its perpetuation of an archaic social order, and its inconsistent attitudes to national minorities. But in the first decade of the twentieth century nearly all of Eastern Europe was still divided between four military empires, the Russian, German, Austrian, and Turkish, and of these the Austrian seemed by no means the weakest. Russia was defeated by the Japanese and experienced a revolution in 1905, and the Turkish empire was visibly breaking up, making possible Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908.

However, tensions in the Balkans were becoming increasingly difficult for the Great Powers to contain. In June 1914 Francis Joseph’s heir, Franz Ferdinand, visiting Sarajevo in the newly annexed province, was assassinated by a Serbian activist. Secure in the backing of its German ally, Austria sent an ultimatum to Serbia, peremptorily demanding that such terrorism be stamped out. As Dr. Radovan Karadzic recently told the press, “One drastic step leads to another drastic step.” Francis Joseph had approved the sending of the ultimatum, and the incident bears an uncanny resemblance to the blunder he had made in 1859 in precipitating the Italian war. But he was now eighty-four and failing, and the monarchy’s policy was no longer fully his. From that action followed the outbreak of the First World War, which led to the collapse of his Empire. As he remarked a few months later.

“My wars have always begun with victories only to finish in defeats. And this time it will be even worse and they will say of me, ‘He is old and cannot cope any longer.’ The revolutions will break out and it will be the end.”

When he at last died, late in 1916, his empire was already on the brink of ruin. Its armies had not proved large enough to face war on several fronts: they were badly led and inadequately equipped; hence they had suffered crippling defeats and appalling casualties. Its people were enduring terrible privations, since the agriculture of the Empire’s extensive territories was too backward to produce enough food for the whole population. In 1917 the Russian Revolution brought down the other great surviving ancien régime, and in 1918 Austria-Hungary virtually fell apart.



Most people rejoiced at the collapse of this old-fashioned, antinational or supranational conglomeration, and even those who regretted its dissolution realized that nothing could be done to save it. Before 1914 it was said: “If the Austrian Empire did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.” After 1918 the question was asked, as Goethe had asked about the Holy Roman Empire in the eighteenth century, how on earth the monarchy could ever have held together at all.

Things look different now. In retrospect Francis Joseph’s reign seems astonishingly stable, peaceful, and civilized, especially when it is compared with the fate of his lands during the equivalent periods of sixty-eight years before and after his death.

In the period preceding Francis Joseph’s rule, Joseph II had attempted to impose a program of drastic social reforms, including the abolition of serfdom, increased freedom of worship, and the abrogation of local governments and local privileges. Such measures had led to rebellion, to which the government reacted first by making large concessions, then with repression intensified by its fears of the French Revolution. Austria was at war, on and off, for a generation; parts of the monarchy became battlegrounds; and French troops occupied Vienna. Only after 1815 was stability restored under the stifling regime of Chancellor Metternich.

During the sixty-eight years following Francis Joseph’s death and the disintegration of his empire, the story was grimmer still. Initially, his territories were divided among seven successor states. Within a generation, all of these states save Italy were absorbed into the Third Reich. After Hitler’s defeat they fell under Communist rule, from which only the small republic of Austria had escaped by the time the sixty-eight years had passed—in the apocalyptic year 1984. The wars and upheavals that occurred under Francis Joseph, even including the First World War, took only a fraction of the toll in deaths that the Second World War and the two totalitarian empires exacted from his former lands. Most of the families of the Jews who had flourished under his rule were exterminated.

This terrible aftermath makes an apparent case for Francis Joseph’s regime, a case which is reinforced by the present situation in the former Yugoslavia. No wonder that, even in the parts of his empire where his rule was most hated, it was soon recalled with nostalgia. Already between the wars a Bosnian Serb priest planned to visit the Emperor’s grave and tell him, “Well, Franz, if only I had known what a mess Bosnia would be in after your death, I would never have worked to depose you.”1 The anniversary of his birthday is now celebrated with enthusiasm in Kracow, and some want to crown his heir in Budapest.

In these circumstances several questions about Francis Joseph’s life need to be answered. Did his personality and actions help to preserve the Empire after 1848? Did they foster the golden age that his territories enjoyed from 1866 to 1914? Could he have acted in such a way that the monarchy would have survived him for more than two years?

It is at first sight curious that the length of his reign and the importance of the questions it raises have not led biographers to write about him on a commensurate scale. Maria Theresa’s life and the achievements of her reign during the early eighteenth century were celebrated by Alfred von Arneth in a biography extending to no fewer than ten volumes. Yet she had ruled for a mere forty years, at a time when much less was recorded and published than in the later nineteenth century. Arneth, it is true, was writing under Francis Joseph’s patronage, glorifying his dynasty—and, incidentally, observing the rule of the imperial archives which enjoined scholars not to publish anything discreditable to it. Since 1918 there has been no emperor anxious to honor the memory of a predecessor, but that is not why no one will ever write a biography of Francis Joseph in the twenty or thirty volumes that would be required to match the scale of Arneth’s work.

The problems facing the biographer of Francis Joseph are immense. First, although fire and war have destroyed some of the archives, what remains of the remorseless bureaucratic record is far too large for any one person to master. Hardly anyone has the capacity, let alone the time, to read all that has been published on the subject in all the relevant languages. And unlike Maria Theresa, Francis Joseph had a flat style of writing, little charm, no panache, and no charisma; and he also ultimately failed.

In 1992 an English translation appeared of Jean-Paul Bled’s Franz Joseph.2 Like Alan Palmer’s Twilight of the Habsburgs, it attempts to cover the subject in around four hundred pages. Both authors have a deep knowledge of the monarchy and show much dexterity in organizing their accounts so as to include all the major events and to keep an eye on developments in all the provinces—though neither mentions Mendel, and neither makes more than a passing reference to the great composers whose works are the major artistic legacy of Francis Joseph’s reign.

But the style and emphasis of the two books are quite different. Franz Joseph sometimes reads awkwardly in translation, whereas Palmer’s writing is always clear and sometimes vivid and elegant. Bled is ready to abandon narrative, providing chapters about Austria on the eve of the 1848 revolutions, the Emperor’s court, and his work and daily life. He frequently pauses to discuss such matters as economic development and religious issues. Palmer, on the other hand, never interrupts his story and, though he is skillful in telling it, his account inevitably lacks the explanatory background which many readers are likely to need. For example, he mentions the peasants’ labor obligations just once. We are told that “the German Kulturkampf, then [in 1874] being waged so vigorously in Berlin and the Rhineland, would find no echoes inside the Dual Monarchy.” But the Kulturkampf, Bismarck’s campaign to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church in Germany in the wake of the papacy’s condemnation of liberalism, was clearly related to the partly successful attacks of Austro-Hungarian liberals on the entrenched position conceded to the Church by the concordat Francis Joseph had made with the Pope in 1855.


The claim of Palmer’s subtitle that his book deals with Francis Joseph’s times as well as his life is scarcely justified. What he has written is a first-rate conventional biography. Even Palmer, however, cannot make Francis Joseph’s personality seem lively or exciting. You have to hunt through his life to find a moment of irresponsibility. He once broke down a door in the archbishop’s palace at Olmütz to let off steam. But he had asked his mother’s permission first—though not the archbishop’s. His very eccentricities were dispiriting. He liked to wear the uniform of a junior officer, slept on a single iron bedstead, rose at three o’clock in the morning to start the day’s work, and refused to have a bathroom installed in his quarters. He was not without a sense of humor, but it was rarely expressed and dry. When he was asked to approve the appointment of a bishop named Cohn, he enquired “Is he at least baptized?”3 After climbing a pyramid, he wrote to his wife:

As [the Bedouins] mostly only wear a shirt, when they are climbing they leave a lot exposed, and that must be the reason why English women so happily and frequently like to scale the pyramids.

He liked the painting of Hans Makart, and his taste for neo-Baroque architecture determined the appearance of Vienna’s Ringstrasse. He preferred operettas to the great musical classics. He went swimming regularly every morning. He spent his brief holidays at Bad Ischl, hunting, shooting, and indulging a Platonic relationship with the actress Katharina Schratt.

This was an emperor who genuinely believed that God had placed him on the throne and that it was his duty to maintain himself there, for the sake of God, of his dynasty, and of his peoples. He was the archetypal slave of duty, a martyr to his conception of his divinely assigned task. For sixty-eight years he spent most of his days working through the paperwork submitted to him, taking note of what he was told, asking questions about it, seeing ministers and generals, chairing meetings, accepting and rejecting advice, and finally laying down policy. He made himself available to see his subjects, greeting them coldly and shyly but with invariable courtesy and correctness. He took great trouble to learn the main languages of his peoples, eventually speaking them all with more or less accuracy.

Though he lived simply in his opulent palaces, he believed it to be essential for the ruler to maintain etiquette, formality, and ceremony. When a deputation of princes attended upon him to congratulate him on his diamond jubilee, he saw them one by one. Between each audience he left the throne room to change into a new uniform, which would be that of a regiment in which he held some honorary rank in the army of the next prince on the list. Each year he attended an unvarying round of court balls at which the rigid protocol never changed. He considered it part of his duty to show himself often in public, always beautifully groomed, faultlessly mounted, and appropriately escorted. When he and his wife visited Budapest in 1866, they took with them 355 attendants. He was without physical fear and paid little attention to security risks. He traveled all over the monarchy. He opened exhibitions, he unveiled statues (among others, to himself and to Haydn). He attended army maneuvers; he went frequently to the opera and to theater, if only for a good sleep. He was prepared to sample a show of modern paintings and a play by Ibsen, though he did not pretend to enjoy them.

The personal drama in his life was supplied by his extremely wayward wife and son. This paragon of punctuality and prose married his truly beautiful cousin, Elizabeth of Bavaria, for love. She soon revealed herself to be a liability. She avoided nearly all public engagements, made herself famously thin by dieting, and became a fitness freak. She demanded custody of the children but was seldom on hand to look after them. While her husband slaved away at his duties in Schönbrunn Palace, she traveled around Europe. More surprisingly, she liked to visit English seaside resorts. It is difficult to imagine Cromer in Norfolk and Ventnor in the Isle of Wight as the royal vacation spots of the late nineteenth century, but they were. She became fascinated by Greece. The normally frugal Emperor, who remained besotted by her, built her a palace at Corfu, the Achilleion, and the Villa Hermes in a Vienna suburb.

As soon as one whim had been satisfied, she demanded something else. She compared herself to both the Seagull and the Flying Dutchman, displayed a passionate interest in the poetry of Heine, and took to writing poetry herself even on the sands of Cromer. In 1886 she was staying on one side of the Starnberger See when her cousin, King Ludwig of Bavaria, under restraint as a madman on the other side of the lake, drowned himself and his doctor. She began to think she was going mad too. In 1889 her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, debauched, drugged, and drunk, killed himself at Mayerling after shooting one of his mistresses in a suicide pact While staying by another lake, Elizabeth was assassinated by an Italian misfit in 1898. This was a far worse blow to the Emperor than his son’s tragedy. After it he reduced his public engagements, but he remained a paragon of duty by comparison, say, with Queen Victoria.

He had felt since the very beginning of his reign that “the Empire was like a volcano which was uneasily sleeping.” The constitution of the Dual Monarchy was practically unworkable and made it impossible to raise sufficient revenue to maintain an army adequate to the defense of such lengthy frontiers. Moreover, in their half of the Empire the Hungarians treated the subordinate ethnic groups—the Romanians, Croats, Slovaks—worse than the Austrians treated the Czechs. The huge influx of Jews provoked mounting anti-Semitism.

It was easy for intellectuals and nationalists to scoff at the stuffiness of Francis Joseph’s unending routine of bureaucracy and ceremony. But, as Palmer argues, the Emperor’s unshakable devotion to duty was essential to the running of the state machine, and clearly won the admiration of many of his subjects. He represented an enormous improvement over his pathetic predecessor, and his possible successors revealed serious defects of character. Franz Ferdinand, who became his heir after Rudolf’s death, was pacific in foreign policy but violently and openly hostile to everything Hungarian. Although the Emperor was prepared to start a war to avenge the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, he regarded his death as a divine deliverance for the monarchy.

In his early days, Francis Joseph made appalling mistakes in foreign policy, particularly in Italy, and it is surprising that he managed to live them down. But he learned prudence. He could show remarkable flexibility, for example in accepting the Ausgleich and in coming to favor the introduction of universal suffrage. A truly brilliant ruler might conceivably have avoided the disasters of his early years and preserved Austria’s position in Italy and Germany. But it is hard to imagine that the monarchy after 1867 would have been so peaceable and prosperous for so many decades without Francis Joseph’s devotion, punctiliousness, caution, and amazing longevity. If he had died sooner, the Empire might well have broken up long before 1914. If he had behaved differently over the ultimatum to Serbia, war would have been deferred, but it is unlikely that it would have been deferred for long. It is hard to see how Austria-Hungary could have survived involvement in a major war.

On occasion Francis Joseph thought it right to make a scapegoat of a minister or general in order to protect the monarchy, as when be fired General Ludwig von Benedek, who had commanded the army defeated by Prussia in 1866. He was sometimes ruthless in suppressing opposition. But in the light of what happened after his death, nothing seems more remarkable about him than his moderation and tolerance. During his last decade the population of Vienna included at various times his Austrian subject, Hitler, and Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin in exile. The year he died, as Jewish refugees poured into Vienna, ministers proposed that they be herded into camps away from the city. “If Vienna has no more room for refugees,” declared the Emperor, “I shall make Schönbrunn available for my Jewish subjects.” Of all Palmer’s telling quotations, none supports more emphatically his picture of Francis Joseph as a benevolent dinosaur.

This Issue

November 2, 1995