Thursday, June 7, 2012
Still Explaining Joseph II
I point this out only because the reason often given for supporting the Emperor over the Pope (on the part of Catholics) is that, in these certain cases, they will argue that it was actually the Emperor who was looking out for the best interests of Christendom whereas the Pope had more narrow and self-serving interests. However, in spite of such attitudes, in my experience, the case of Emperor Joseph II is the one that is totally beyond the pale and even the most devoted admirers of the House of Hapsburg seldom have one good thing to say about the man. This is because, of course, of his rather anti-clerical policies and his “Enlightenment” effort to make religion more “reasonable”. Because of these attitudes I am often compelled to explain myself when it comes to my opinion of Emperor Joseph II because he is another one of those who manages to be on my “best” and “worst” lists at the same time. There are plenty of reasons for old fashioned Catholics (the best kind) to dislike the man, aside from the fact that he was not, personally, a very likeable fellow. All of these I would agree with and his religious policies are ones I cannot condone or overlook and would certainly never approve of. Yet, I also cannot help but think that some of the criticism of Joseph II goes a bit overboard and that there was also quite a bit to recommend him. As I said, I frequently feel the need to “explain” Joseph II.
Had the Hapsburg empire become the strongest in Europe, I think things may well have worked out for the better (who can ever know for sure) and part of this involved, for Joseph II, German consolidation. His court was a very cosmopolitan one as was usual for Hapsburg Vienna, but Joseph II considered Germany the core of strength for his empire and one of his more controversial ideas was his effort to make German the common language of the Hapsburg domain. This is something some people have a problem with and I can certainly understand the fear of losing ethnic languages and the encroachment of dull uniformity. However, lest we forget, the nominal “state” of which Joseph II was Emperor was the “Holy Roman Empire of the German People”. The Roman part was historical, the legacy of Charlemagne and all of that but there was never any doubt that the core lands of this empire was Germany, not the Italian peninsula and the people who made up the bulk of the population were Germans and not Latins who mostly spoke a variety of German dialects rather than a variety of Italian ones and, of course, no longer Latin though it remained fairly widespread amongst the educated class. Given all of that, it does not seem entirely unreasonable that German be enforced as a common language. Of the multitude of languages spoken in the Hapsburg lands, there would be a greater justification for making German the official language rather than any of the others. This would also not mean (necessarily) that other minority languages would be abolished, only that in addition to your ethnic language everyone would be required to know (probably) High German. The diverse nature of the empire, ethnically and linguistically, is appealing but it was also a detriment in terms of administration, trade and the military, as was seen increasingly in the future, when everything had to be written in such a vast array of different languages. I cling to the archaic idea that a common language is not always necessary for a successful state but I do recognize that it usually helps.
In similar fashion I have seen Francis Joseph I credited for his humility, displayed by sleeping on an army cot and preferring to wear a uniform as his usual attire. Yet, Emperor Joseph II also normally wore an army uniform rather than an elaborate civilian costume and, despite his often disagreeable personality, was known for opening up the parks to the entire public rather than just the aristocracy who complained somewhat over having to share their afternoon walks with peasants. The Emperor famously remarked that if he insisted on associating only with those of equal rank to himself, as Emperor, he would have to spend all his time in the imperial crypt. There are also numerous stories of Joseph II and his comical interactions with commoners who he would pick up in his carriage and give a ride to, revealing his lofty identity only well into the trip. On one such occasion he picked up a peasant who, after traveling for a little while, sought to pass the time by asking the Emperor to guess his occupation. They played that little game and then Joseph II asked the man to guess his occupation. The man looked him over and guessed he was a soldier. The Emperor said no, but that he did have a connection with the army. He asked if he was a government worker and the Emperor said no, but that he did have a connection with the government. After several wrong guesses the man asked in exasperation, “Well, who are you then, the Emperor?!” to which Joseph II responded in the affirmative. The man was horrified, dropped to his knees and begged to be let out of the carriage but the Emperor persuaded him to stay, saying that each then knew who the other was and they could continue on just as friendly as they had been when they first met.
Some have tried to compare Joseph II to one of the previous Holy Roman Emperors, the “Wonder of the World” Frederick II of the House of Hohenstaufen. This is, all in all, rather unfair. Whereas Frederick II truly seemed to be something of a skeptic, keeping his own harem, incurring excommunication and at times being openly at war with the Pope and once so arousing the Roman nobles against him that the Pope was driven out of Rome. He also tried to gather a council to depose the Pontiff. Joseph II, on the other hand, had no desire to conquer Italy, never went to war against the Pope or sought to have him removed and, despite his occasional skeptical comments, heard mass every morning of every day of his life. To say he was a better Catholic than Frederick II is, of course, not saying much but it at least shows that his problems with the Church certainly did not rise to the level of Frederick II or even a number of his other predecessors on the imperial throne. His own Hapsburg ancestor Charles V, known as a champion of Catholic Europe, fought against the Pope and his troops (quite without imperial knowledge or approval) devastated Rome itself on a level more gruesome than any of the barbarians of ancient times had ever done. Things were, of course, different in the times when Popes were political figures and engaged in wars and alliances with and against various powers, usually shifting between Catholic France and Catholic Austria for fear of either one becoming too powerful and thus threatening Papal Rome. The actions of Joseph II could more justly be compared to those of King Louis XIV of France who also was at odds with the Pope over his effort to bring the Catholic Church in France under royal control. Where Joseph II differed from the “Sun King” was in the conduct of his personal life. In that regard, Joseph II was as far from the amorous, philandering Bourbon king as the east is from the west.
Joseph II wanted things to be simple and practical. His closure of about a third of the monasteries and convents (not all of them) was because he saw no practical value in people living cloistered lives of contemplation. He closed churches but also built a great many of them (using the money from confiscated Church properties) so that parishes would be more evenly distributed throughout the empire rather than scattered about. So, we have the picture of a man who drastically cut down the number of holy days (since these reduced productivity by giving people so many days off work) but who also wanted all of his subjects to have to travel no more than about an hour to reach a church. This is why, as much as I oppose his religious policies, I cannot see him as having a malicious intent behind them in the way that the French Revolutionaries did later. Similarly, whereas they eventually invaded Rome and carried off the Pope as a prisoner, Pope Pius VI felt comfortable enough with Emperor Joseph II to leave Rome willingly to pay him a visit. The Emperor treated the Pontiff with all due respect and behaved in every way as a good Catholic should have toward him but, showing his famous single-mindedness and authoritarian nature, refused to change any of his policies after hearing the arguments of the Pope. An unfortunate thing to be sure, but two men meeting in a palace and stating their opposing cases is quite a far cry from troops besieging Castel Sant Angelo or someone standing barefoot in the snow for days on end. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia, both before and after listing all the “problems” Joseph II had with the Church says that, “Joseph undertook his reforms with the best intentions”.