Francis II (1768-1835) reigned as the last Holy Roman emperor from 1792 to 1806. As Francis I, he was emperor of Austria from 1804 to 1835. During his reign Austria became the principal bastion of European reaction.

Born in Florence on Feb. 12, 1768, Francis was the eldest son of Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany. As his uncle Emperor Joseph II had no heirs, Leopold had been designated as his successor; and since Francis thus would someday succeed to the imperial throne, he was educated accordingly. At the age of 16, he was sent to Vienna, where Joseph himself supervised his introduction to the art of government. In 1789 he was given nominal command of the Austrian armies fighting against the Turks in the Balkans, but he showed no remarkable aptitude for military leadership.

In 1790 Leopold succeeded Joseph as emperor, and Francis began a long apprenticeship in which he was gradually to share equally in governing the empire. These plans were upset when Leopold died very suddenly on March 1, 1792, and Francis found himself elevated to the throne. In spite of his careful preparation for his responsibilities, he was neither remarkably mature nor very confident that he was equal to his task.

Conflict with France

Francis inherited an uncommonly difficult situation. In foreign affairs the Treaty of Pillnitz, which his father had negotiated with Austria's old antagonist Prussia just before his death, made war with revolutionary France likely, if not inevitable. Indeed, France declared war on the two German powers in April, beginning a struggle which, with some interruptions, would last over 2 decades and which would reveal the weakness of the Austrian monarchy. In the first phase the Austrians, after bungling the opportunity to inflict a rapid and decisive defeat on a still-disorganized France, suffered defeat on all fronts and lost all their Italian territories south of the Adige. The loss was only somewhat counterbalanced by Austria's share in the Third Partition of Poland (1795).

After Napoleon came to power in France, Francis attempted to muster patriotism to counter French pressure by proclaiming himself emperor of Austria in 1804. The attempt was a flat failure, but it did result in the preservation of an imperial title for the Hapsburgs after 1806, when under French pressure Francis agreed to the dissolution of the ancient Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile, further defeats by France had resulted in the loss of Venetia, the Tirol, and Anterior Austria. Francis sought to rectify the losses by fighting Napoleon in 1809. Again the results were catastrophic, for not only were the Austrians defeated, but Napoleon entered Vienna. Francis was constrained to give Napoleon his daughter Marie Louise in marriage and to supply an auxiliary corps for Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. Only after Napoleon's defeat there did Francis draw back from this enforced alliance and join the great coalition against Napoleon in 1813.

Growing Conservatism

By the time the French had finally been defeated and the powers gathered in Vienna to make the peace (1815), Francis had had his fill of French radicalism. In internal affairs, too, he had moved steadily toward a more conservative pattern. His father had convinced him that the reforms of Joseph II were dangerous because they weakened the existing institutions of the monarchy; Leopold, however, had not lived long enough to establish the validity of his own, more restrained, but nevertheless enlightened system. Moreover, an Austrian Jacobin conspiracy had been discovered in 1794; it amounted to little, but it helped to convince Francis that French radicalism was an article for export, to be feared as much as French armies.

By the time of the Congress of Vienna, then, Francis believed that orderly society could be preserved only if France was permanently restrained from extending its influence beyond its borders and, more important, if political radicalism was stamped out wherever it appeared. In this belief he was reinforced by his brilliant chief minister, Prince Metternich. So, the last 2 decades of Francis' reign saw Austria, in association with Prussia and Russia, solidly lined up behind a policy devoted to the preservation of the status quo and to political reaction. This policy was formalized by the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 and resulted in Austrian intervention to put down revolutions on several occasions.

Internally also, repression was the rule. Censorship was more strictly applied than at any time during the last three reigns, the peasantry continued to be oppressed by the great landowners, and every attempt by the various nationalities to assert themselves in any way was either suppressed or stifled in bureaucratic delay and inefficiency. Francis died in Vienna on March 2, 1835, leaving a feebleminded son, Ferdinand, to preside over this rickety structure.

Further Reading on Francis II

A biography of Francis II is Walter Consuelo Langsam, Francis the Good: The Education of an Emperor, 1768-1792 (1949). He is discussed in Carlile Aylmer Macartney, The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918 (1969).