Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Enlightened Despot: Emperor Joseph II

Known as one of Europe's "Enlightened Despots" was Joseph Benedict Augustus John Anthony Michael Adam von Habsburg-Lothringen. The son of Maria Theresa, over whom the War of Austrian Succession was fought, Joseph II broke with the devoutly Catholic policies of his mother to embrace the sweeping trend of the so-called "Enlightenment" which viewed traditional Europe as a place of injustice and intolerance. In fact, of all the so-called "Enlightened Despots", Joseph II was the only one not to be titled "the Great" despite the fact that he certainly lived up to the ideals to an infinitely greater degree than many others who were. His reign saw an increase in the German culture, Austrian dignity, and unheard of advances in social and religious toleration. In many ways he was a monarch years ahead of his time. Yet, his reign also saw the destruction of many of the core Catholic principles which had held the Holy Roman Empire together for a long time. I tend to think some Catholic writers have been rather too hard on Joseph II, but there is no doubt that he was not a friend of the favored position of the Church in Austria.

After the death of his father Joseph became, in name at least, Emperor of the Romans, King of Germany, Jerusalem, Hungary and Bohemia, Archduke of Austria, Grand Prince of Transylvania, Grand Duke of Tuscany, etc, etc. However it was not until the death of his mother that he became absolute ruler of Austria. Upon his ascension he gave his large inheritance to ease the national debt and ordered his brother to do likewise. He cut government spending, built the first truly public parks, charged the Church with caring for the sick and destitute and granted religious toleration to Jews and Protestants. He abolished such traditional Catholic devotions as the Rosary and religious processions, expelled the Jesuits and seized a great deal of Church property. Yet, throughout his reign, whether in Vienna or on the battlefield, he heard mass every morning and was an enemy of Protestant Prussia (though both monarchs had a great deal of respect for the other's abilities). It was under Joseph II that Wolfgang Mozart rose to fame, though his music was a little too extravagant for the very simple Joseph. Nevertheless his support of Mozart & his contemporaries earned Joseph the nickname, "The Musical King".
This taste in music corresponded with the rest of his reign, whether religious or political. He was very German, he favored always simplicity and efficiency. It was said that his poor houses and government buildings looked like army barracks. He himself usually wore a military uniform rather than the latest fashions and he despised court ceremony and lavish Church rituals. The fact that his cold relationship with the Church would probably not be so notable were it not for the fact that he was the Holy Roman Emperor, and the son of Maria Theresa, expected to be the Church's first defender. However, he was often disdainful of the ecclesiastical leadership, just as he was of the elites of society, whom he saw as contributing nothing to the good of the nation.

For all of these things Joseph was adored by the common folk but despised by the aristocracy and high clergy. Certainly the Emperor had his share of heartaches and trouble. His beloved first wife died early on and Joseph never recovered from the loss. Victory over Prussia's Frederick the Great constantly escaped him and his sister was the famous Marie Antoinette who was murdered by French revolutionaries. In the royal community of Europe, most of whom were also adherents of the "Enlightenment", Joseph was consistently held in very high regard. Czarina Catherine the Great of Russia was greatly impressed with the young monarch who oddly insisted on wearing an Austrian army uniform rather than lavish costumes, and Prussia's Frederick the Great never ceased to express his admiration for Joseph even when they faced each other in battle. In fact, it was partly the high esteem in which Joseph held the Prussian king that led to his desire to emulate his victories in the field.

Emperor Joseph viewed it as his duty, as an absolute monarch, to protect and serve his nation and all of his people, regardless of their religion or class. He was beloved by his people, but, perhaps unwittingly, removed some of the key supports of his empire. Yet, in the sense of helping the common people of his country, setting aside his anti-Church policies, he was probably the only "Enlightened Despot" who actually did improve the lives of his subjects.


  1. He sounds like a very interesting guy. I don't know too much about this area...I didn't know he was Marie Antoinette's brother. Always learning something new. :)

  2. Because of Hollywood most who have heard of him know him as Marie Antoinette's brother or the monarch who hired Mozart. He was one of the first monarchs I really read slot about (though that was a very long time ago) and hopefully I will do a more regular profile on him in the future.

  3. Well, there was the movie Amadeus, which portrayed him as musically deaf. The man really got beaten up (so to speak). One could argue that this marked the beginning of the Habsburgs' tragic streak, ending with Karl's death in Madeira.

  4. He didn't seem to come off *too* bad in that movie to me, though I'm somewhat 'on the fence' with Joseph II as to my opinion of him. In some ways he was really good and in others he comes off pretty bad. As for the Hapsburg overall, I remember what Archduke Otto said about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, that for a family like his, tragedy came with the territory. They had many "occupational hazards".

  5. Sorry to be getting a bit off topic, but in reference to the point about Habsburg tragedy, I think that many Catholic (or Orthodox) reigning families in modern times have been stalked by misfortune. The times are against them...

  6. I have long thought the same. I know I sound especially like a crazy person when I say so, but as I believe in God, I also believe in the devil -he is real, thinking, scheming being crawling around somewhere right now and it only stands to reason that he would focus his attacks on those who would be the greatest threat to him, whether individuals, nations or royal families.

  7. Wasn't he the one who said "Everything for the People, Nothing by the People?"

    He seems like a smart guy. :P

  8. WHILE I agree that the Enlightenment was a terrible time of destruction, I view those hwo initially became part of it, like Joseph the Second, as I view those who initially fell for Socialism or Communism in the 19th Century. Many were good, sincere people, even Dedicated Christians, who simply wanted society to be better off and take better care of the old, the infirmed, and the destitute. The Ideal behind Socialism is good, that we shoudl care for one anopther as a society and help those in need, and its even Compatable with the Christain Message. The Problem with Socialism is that the way they go about attempting to alleviate the sufferign in Society robs one set of peopel to pay anpther, and it destorys any Incintive to advance while restricting peopels Freedoms. Still, in the wide eyed Youth of the THeory, its promise and Elowuence of THeopry sounded good, and one can see wy peopel woudl embrace it, or perhaps Communism. Its not like anyone coudl point to the Soviet Union oor the Peopels Republic of China as exampels of Human Rights Abuses in 1890, and like those who were fool enough to beelive Locke and others about Republian Government and hwo it woudl elad ot more justice and peace, you can see how it would be beelivable. It rests ont he same deceptive Teqniweui too. When Paine wante to promote Republicanism, he would present his arguments for an Ideal Republic against a Real Monarchy. For that matter John Locke did the same thing in his Treatis on Government, but seemed less intentional in deciet. Basiclaly, you show the Flaws, Corruptions, and injustices in the Real World, and hten advocate the new Stystem in its THeoretical and Idealised form in order to show how wonderful and superior it is. For some odd reason people buy this, and never stop to think that perhaps the FLaws in the SYstem they ar ein now are casued by Human Nature and a vareity of corruot individuals, or Cercumstances. THey undertand the SYstem itself as Responcible for all of their woes, whilst clingign to this Imaginary perfect world creatd by the NEw System.

    No Real World system can ever compete with an Ideal, and so the argument words by Contrasting a Reality with a Drea, and gettong you excitign about he Dream.

    Once you are sold on the IDea, you only see the IDeal, even when you Implement the new Ideal and it doesn't work. Human Nature is an odd thing and peopel tend to not take honest assessments of whats happening. One of the Few good things I liked about THmas Jefferson was that he admited that the Republic that was Create din America wa snot Perfect and Human Nature will ensure it woudln't be. However, most of the Enlightenmetns thinkers, or COmmunist Revolutionaries later, continually held to the Ideal. ANy FLaw in the Government was readily explained away, Rationalised as a Kink in the System that woudl be fixed when everyone embraces the true Enlightenment/Communism/whathaveyou.

    Meanwhile, they never stop and ask if the same coudl have been true int he SYstem they deposed, or Stand agisnt. THey never, for example, ask if life under such and such a Monahc was bad because of inept Ministers or COrruption on a Local Level. THy never take the Idealic View of the Monarchy, or whatever htey oppse, and contrast it to the Reality. Instead, every flaw, every fault every mistake, and every ABuse only further illustrates why it is a Failed System. Only their system is perfect and the Flas caused by Human Nature.

    I think Joseph te Second was of the same mindset withthe Enlgihtenment, as were many.

  9. "When Paine wante to promote Republicanism, he would present his arguments for an Ideal Republic against a Real Monarchy." -*that* is an astute observation. Very, very true. I don't know that I've ever seen it put that way before but you are exactly right!


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