Joseph II (1741-1790) was Holy Roman emperor from 1765 to 1790. He is one of the best examples of Europe's enlightened despots.
Born in Vienna on March 13, 1741, the first son of Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, and Francis Stephen of Lorraine, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Joseph achieved his first triumph merely by being born a boy. A year earlier, as Joseph's grandfather Charles VI left no male heirs, Maria Theresa had succeeded to the hereditary dominions of the house of Hapsburg. Her succession, challenged by Frederick II of Prussia, had unleashed a general European war (War of the Austrian Succession), and the fact that Maria Theresa had previously given birth to three daughters had raised further questions about the succession.
The War of the Austrian Succession cost the house of Austria one of its richest provinces, Silesia, a loss confirmed in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Maria Theresa and her chief ministers were determined first to recover that province and later to compensate themselves somehow for its loss. Both of these aims required a general overhaul of the monarchy's inadequate armed forces, which in turn would require a general overhaul of the machinery of state in order to raise the necessary funds. Joseph was educated with these considerations in mind.
By the time he had reached the age of 20, with a high forehead, piercing blue eyes, a Roman nose, pouting lips, and a somewhat receding chin, Joseph had learned his lessons rather too well. In 1761 he submitted to his mother a memorandum proposing a general reform of the state that suggested a general centralization so pervasive that it not only would have done away with all of the remaining powers of the provincial estates but also would have overridden most of the national differences of the widespread dominions of the house of Austria. He was politely told to tend to his business. Meanwhile, he had married Isabella of Bourbon Parma in 1760; in 1762 she gave birth to a daughter, Maria Theresa; a year later Isabella died, a blow from which Joseph was never to recover. Although, for reasons of state, he entered into a second marriage, with Josepha of Bavaria, he treated her with disdain, and when she died in 1767, he refused to consider a third marriage. The death of his daughter in 1768 confirmed him in his growing misanthropy and finished the job of making him a compulsive worker.
In 1765 Joseph's father, who had with his wife's backing been elected Holy Roman emperor in 1742, died. Joseph was duly elected to succeed him in that dignity. His position was now an anomaly. His father, in spite of his high-sounding title, had been essentially a prince consort; Maria Theresa had given him no share in the administration of her dominions. Joseph was unwilling to play such a passive role. His mother now granted him the title of coregent, but it soon became clear that it too was an empty one. For the next 15 years Joseph would complain that he was unable to initiate what he regarded as necessary reforms.
The Empress did turn over to Joseph prime responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs. In 1772, in the wake of a joint Prussian-Russian initiative, the kingdom of Poland was partitioned. Maria Theresa was reluctant to participate in what she regarded as a blatantly immoral action, but Joseph insisted and Austria received the southern Polish province of Galicia. In 1778 Joseph attempted to take advantage of the fact that the ruling family of Bavaria, the house of Wittelsbach, had died out. Pressing some rather doubtful Hapsburg claims to the succession, he sent in Austrian troops. This action provided an opportunity for Frederick II of Prussia to pose as the defender of German liberties by declaring war on Austria. As neither side was anxious for a major war, operations soon degenerated into a desultory war of maneuver, contemptuously dubbed the "Potato War" by participants, who spent more time in digging up fields for food than in fighting. The Treaty of Teschen (1779) gave Austria insignificant territorial gains.
Enactment of Reforms
In 1780 Maria Theresa died, and Joseph, who now became sole ruler of all the Hapsburg dominions as well as emperor, was in the position of implementing the program of changes he had long desired. The reforms that Joseph now introduced had, with few exceptions, been under consideration in his mother's reign and were organically related to policies formulated under her. At any rate, the Josephinian reforms addressed themselves broadly to the inequities of the old regime.
In 1781 Joseph abolished serfdom, although the Austrian peasantry still was left with serious financial and work obligations. In the same year an edict of toleration lifted the Protestant and Greek Orthodox subjects of the monarchy to a condition of near equality. The next year the Jews of Austria also were granted a measure of toleration. The dominant position of the Catholic Church was further undermined by the creation of the Commission on Spiritual Affairs, which came perilously close to establishing secular control over the Church. At the same time Joseph ordered the dissolution of the majority of the monasteries in Austria. These events moved Pope Pius VI to take the unprecedented step of traveling to Vienna, but Joseph refused to give way on any question of substance, and Pius returned to Rome empty-handed.
In 1783 Joseph commuted the robot, the work obligation owed by the Austrian peasants to the noble owners of the land, to money payments, an action that led to untold difficulties. In order to assess the amount due by the peasants accurately, it was necessary to survey and register all land holdings. But, as the nobility had traditionally concealed a portion of its holdings in order to escape taxation, it now began to oppose Joseph in earnest and could do so more easily, for the Emperor had all but abolished censorship. In 1786 he did away with the restrictive craft guilds, a reform which was designed to create a distinct economic advantage but which added considerably to the number of Joseph's enemies. Finally, in 1789, Joseph abolished the robot entirely.
These reforms, striking as they did at the economic advantage enjoyed by the privileged orders, would have been difficult to enforce under ideal circumstances. As it was, Joseph's peculiar conduct of foreign policy in the 1780s did not contribute to the strength of his position. In 1784 he had tried to acquire Bavaria once more, this time in exchange for the Austrian Netherlands. Frederick II managed to block the scheme once more, this time by representing himself as the leader of the League of German Princes, dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo. Far worse, in 1787, as the result of an alliance recently concluded with Russia, Joseph involved Austria in a war with the Ottoman Empire. It was meant to be a joint venture with the Russians, but they were involved in a separate campaign against Sweden and left him to his own devices. The result was a military fiasco that brought on painful losses of territory and ruined Joseph's health. Concurrently his subjects in the Netherlands, resenting his attempts to enforce his ecclesiastical reforms there, rose in rebellion. Hungary, with the support of Prussian agents, was threatening secession. In 1790 Joseph was forced to repeal his reforms for Hungary. On Feb. 20, 1790, he died.
Further Reading on Joseph II
In English, the most recent biographies of Joseph are Saul K. Padover, The Revolutionary Emperor: Joseph II of Austria (1934; rev. ed. 1967), and Paul P. Bernard, Joseph II (1968). See also Edith M. Link, The Emancipation of the Austrian Peasant, 1740-1798 (1949).
Additional Biography Sources
Beales, Derek Edward Dawson, Joseph II, Cambridge Cambridgeshre; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Blanning, T. C. W., Joseph II, London; New York: Longman, 1994.