Francis Joseph

Francis Joseph (1830-1916) was emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. He was the last noteworthy ruler of the Hapsburg Empire.

Born on Aug. 18, 1830, at Schönbrunn (Vienna), the elder son of Archduke Francis Charles, who was the second son of Emperor Francis I (Holy Roman emperor Francis II), Francis Joseph (German, Franz Josef) was not in direct line of succession. Yet, because his mentally impaired uncle Ferdinand I proved childless, Francis was immediately viewed and educated as an heir presumptive.

Proclaimed emperor after Ferdinand's abdication on Dec. 2, 1848, Francis Joseph began his rule by subduing a series of revolutions in his realm. The most serious of these, the Hungarian revolution, he crushed with Russian help. Then, after this dearly won victory, he had to reconstruct his near-defunct empire. Begun under the aegis of a constitution (March 4, 1849), this reconstruction continued throughout the 1850s, although in 1851 constitutionalism was replaced by a system of absolutist centralism.

Foreign-policy reverses during the 1850s, however, compelled Francis Joseph to reconsider his position on constitutionalism. Thus there soon ensued a period of constitutional experiments ("October Diploma" of 1860 and "February Patent" of 1861) which kept the empire's political life in a constant state of crisis up to 1867. These crises, together with Austria's expulsion from Italy and Germany (1866), convinced Francis Joseph of the necessity of coming to terms with his subjects. He opted for a compromise with the strongest nationality, the Magyars. The result was the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867, which brought about the dualistic reconstruction of the empire (Austria-Hungary), with both halves receiving their own constitutional governments and internal autonomy, and their common affairs being reduced to matters of foreign and military policy and some finances.

Although the new political structure was much more favorable for the evolution of political democracy and capitalism than the previous absolutist system, it still preserved the hegemony of the earlier ruling classes. Francis Joseph did not regard the compromise as an ideal solution, but he fought all attempts to alter it for fear of disrupting the unity of his empire. The weakness of this arrangement was revealed not only in the continued rivalry between the two partners but also in the growth of German-Czech national antagonism and extremism in Bohemia and in the increasingly bellicose Serbian irredentism.

Having been pushed out of Italy and Germany, the empire under Francis Joseph became increasingly active in the Balkans, which resulted in its occupation (1878) and later annexation (1908) of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This policy, however, soon placed Austria-Hungary on a direct collision course with Russia, forcing Francis Joseph to seek support in Bismarckian Germany in the form of the Dual Alliance (1879). This alliance later proved to be the first step in the direction of the political polarization of Europe, a polarization that, together with the nationality struggle in the Danubian and Balkan region, was of decisive importance in the outbreak of World War I and the dissolution of the empire.

Francis Joseph was a man of simple tastes. His political thinking was as uncomplicated and simple as his private life. He was basically a benevolent despot, unable to grasp the meaning and purpose of modern ideologies and popular political institutions. At the same time he was devoted to duty, to honor, and to the welfare of his people. Above all, he believed in the calling and destiny of his beleaguered dynasty. His death at Schönbrunn on Nov. 21, 1916, signaled the passing of an age.

Further Reading on Francis Joseph

The best works about Francis Joseph are the products of Austro-German historiography. Fortunately, a number of them have also appeared in English. Of these, Josef Redlich, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria: A Biography (1929), is undoubtedly the best and most readily available account. Karl Tschuppik, The Reign of the Emperor Francis Joseph, 1848-1916 (trans. 1930), is also excellent. Valuable, but not of the same caliber, are Albert Margutti, The Emperor Francis Joseph and His Times (1921), and Eugene Bagger, Francis Joseph: Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary (1927). Chester Wells Clark, Franz Joseph and Bismarck: The Diplomacy of Austria before the War of 1866 (1934), and Charles W. Hallberg, Franz Joseph and Napoleon III, 1852-1864 (1955), are excellent monographs, but they deal only with certain limited aspects of Francis Joseph's reign. Among the popular works on the Emperor's family and personal life is Bertita Harding, Golden Fleece: The Story of Franz Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria (1937).