Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Monarch Profile: Emperor Francis I of Austria
This is something which some people remain at odds about even today, which is probably unavoidable for a move which was so historic. Did Francis have the authority to do what he did? Ultimately, the whole argument is academic. So much of what had been the Holy Roman (German) Empire was rather vague to begin with, being one thing in theory but something else in fact. It came about in an odd way and survived for so long because it was so changeable. Before the Revolution it had become essentially the Austrian Empire already plus those minor states allied to them with the Kingdom of Prussia being effectively independent. No emperor had actually been fully emperor, crowned by the Pope, for centuries and the electoral nature of it had long been a mere formality. Francis simplified things and brought what existed in fact into existing in name as well. His struggle with France was certainly not over and thanks to his leadership the Austrian Empire would remain as the dominant German power in the end.
Emperor Francis I risked everything in this war, betting all the chips that Austria had but this time Napoleon was defeated and as the allied armies closed in on Paris in 1814, the French emperor abdicated and was exiled to Elba. A short time later, he would return to make his last bid for power but met with a crushing and decisive defeat at Waterloo after which he was sent to St Helena, never to return. For Emperor Francis of Austria, this was the high point of his reign and a moment of the greatest prestige for Austria. Allied leaders met in his capitol, in the Congress of Vienna, to redraw the map of Europe and organize a new, post-revolutionary international order. The Austrian Empire benefited greatly, giving up territories such as Belgium which was distant and next to impossible to defend while regaining the Tyrol and other areas and gaining new territory in Italy and Dalmatia (what had been the Republic of Venice).
Although he famously said that he had no knowledge of “the people” but only “subjects” he was not some distant, aloof sort of autocrat as he is often portrayed. Each week he set aside two half-days to meet with any of his subjects, whether high born or low, who made an appointment to see him. He would listen to their opinions or concerns and was able to converse with them in their own language, no matter what part of his polyglot realms they came from. In that way he was more accessible to the public than just about any republican president in any European country today (or most in the rest of the world at large for that matter). In a way, he inherited qualities from both of his immediate predecessors. From his father, who it was said ran the most successful secret police force in the world as Grand Duke of Tuscany, he had a talent at keeping himself well informed about what was going on within his empire and from his uncle Joseph II he had the ability to talk easily to anyone, be they prince or ploughman.
At home, Emperor Francis I kept things calm and orderly. Trade was not much promoted and agriculture remained the primary industry of most imperial subjects. In this area, Francis can be faulted somewhat as his policy, summarized by his words, “I won’t have any innovations,” and “Let the laws be justly applied; they are good and adequate” as this allowed more business-friendly Prussia to have an economy and industry that expanded faster than Austria. The army was also neglected in terms of spending (while the overall debt continued to climb) which had negative effects for Austria later. Dissent in Hungary, however, remained as problematic for Francis as it had been for his predecessors and after a meeting of the Central Hungarian Diet in 1825 he was forced to agree not to raise taxes without their consent. In foreign matters, his primary concern was in suppressing any hints of nationalist or revolutionary sentiment in Germany and Italy. In the short-term, these were successful but in the long-term they proved fruitless. Nonetheless, Francis I was convinced that he was correct and that it only took a firm hand and a sharp eye to ensure that things remained as they were.