Joseph II

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Joseph II (1741-1790): Holy Roman Emperor

One of the "Enlightened Despots" of the 18th century, Joseph aspired to increase the power and efficiency of the state by placing all subjects of the realm, including the Church and the feudal nobility, under benevolent monarchical rule. Committed to political reform, Joseph pledged to achieve the common good for all his subjects, and adhered to the Enlightenment tenet that the state's determination of the commonweal was based upon reason. Convinced that people should express their views freely, Joseph encouraged public debate, and issued decrees limiting press censorship and granting writers, journalists, scholars and scientists broad freedom to publish their works.

The eldest son of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, Joseph enjoyed the privileged life of an archduke of one of Europe's Great Powers. At the time of Joseph's birth, the Habsburgs ruled Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, parts of Italy and the Netherlands, and were accorded the rights of the Holy Roman Emperor in the German states. Habsburg power waned somewhat during the reign of Maria Theresa (1740-80), when Frederick II, the Great of Prussia annexed Silesia, defeated Habsburg armies in the War of the Austrian Succession (1741-42, 1744-45), and later in the Seven Years War (1756-63).

Joseph was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in March 1764. By 1770 he had already lost two wives and his sole surviving daughter. He did not remarry, kept no mistresses, and generally renounced private life. Minor reforms he introduced early in his reign so angered the nobility and clergy that his mother decided in 1765 to come out of retirement and force co-regency upon her son. The arrangement curbed Joseph's authority, leaving him only those powers his mother afforded him. Thereafter, Joseph was frequently at odds with Maria Theresa about the proper governing of the realm. Seeking escape in travel, he journeyed, often incognito, to France, Russia, and most of the Habsburg lands from 1765-80. His travels only deepened his commitment to comprehensive reform of the Empire. Surrounding himself with like-thinking advisors, he urged his mother to pursue more enlightened policies. The result of his efforts was a series of modest reforms establishing secular schools in Austria, banning torture as a way of securing evidence, and eliminating heresy as a crime. Because the prerogatives of the clergy and minor nobility were unchecked, Joseph remained unsatisfied. His frustration would induce him to direct his attention to foreign matters.

Eager to avenge the loss of Silesia and to bolster the Empire's international standing, Joseph advocated war in the early 1770s to accomplish these ends. He settled in 1772 for the partition of Poland, sharing the territorial spoils with Russia and Prussia. In 1777, he pressed a Habsburg claim to Bavaria following the death of the childless Bavarian elector Maximilian Joseph. Prussia, supported by France, bridled Joseph's designs, which resulted in a costly and painful foreign policy defeat.

With the death of Maria Theresa in 1780, Joseph concentrated once more on domestic reform. He personally scrutinized much administrative procedure. Abolishing feudal and ecclesiastical judicial rights, he resolved to abrogate aristocratic and clerical privilege. New penal codes he introduced treated all defendants equally. Cruel punishments and the death penalty were eliminated. He granted religious tolerance to Jews, Protestants and Orthodox Christians, and planned to emancipate the serfs in his domains by 1784. He required all parents to send their children to secular public schools, or to pay higher taxes. His revolutionary tax law of 1789 subjected everyone to the land tax, and eliminated the robot, the compulsory service peasants owed to feudal nobility.

This was playing for keeps, and Joseph's vision far outran the experience of his people. In attempting to please everyone, he succeeded in alienating most. By 1789, his radical reforms brought his Empire to the verge of revolt, and his foreign policy adventures in Belgium and Bavaria exacerbated his difficulties. In 1788, he joined Russia in a conflict to plunder the Ottoman Empire. With the nobility and the clergy set against him, the peasantry disillusioned about the lack of land reform, and his own health failing, he signed decrees in 1790 revoking his sweeping reforms. He died a disappointed man that year.

Further Reading:

Robert A. Kann. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1974.

Saul K. Padover. The Revolutionary Emperor, Joseph II of Austria, 1967.

Adam Wandruszka. The House of Habsburg, 1964.


David Keithly

American Military University

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