Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Monarch Profile: Emperor Francis I of Austria

The man who would be the last “Holy Roman Emperor”(elect) and the first “Emperor of Austria”, Francis II and then Francis I, was born in Florence, Italy on February 12, 1768 to then Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany, who was the younger brother of Emperor Joseph II. Named Francis (or Franz as you please) like the founder of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family line, his mother was the Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain, daughter of His Catholic Majesty King Carlos III, he was the second of sixteen children. For little Francis, while his childhood years were happy ones, basking in the bosom of his family and the sunshine of Italy, his parents were not to be a major part of his life ultimately. The liberal-minded, autocratic Emperor had no heirs and so, Francis was obviously the one in whom the future of the House of Hapsburg and its empire would be invested. So, at the age of 16, he was plucked from his family and his uncle the Emperor took charge of his upbringing personally. The experience was one that might have made even the children of ancient Sparta gape in amazement.

Young Francis was deemed to be utterly unsatisfactory, his uncle basically describing him as spoiled, clumsy and dim. He was subjected to a vigorous regime of study and exercise to correct these problems and was shut up in isolation as a way to make him more self-reliant. The Emperor himself said that his approach toward his nephew was, “fear and unpleasantness”. The Emperor, who seemed to turn cold after the death of his beloved first wife, was a man who was beloved by the common people for the actions he took to improve their welfare. However, it would be a mistake to think that this was due to his compassionate nature. Rather, it was because Emperor Joseph II had a fixation, perhaps even obsession, with orderliness, justice and making all things reasonable and rational. Taking any sixteen-year-old boy from any background and trying to make him orderly and reasonable would seem an impossible task for most and may, perhaps, explain why the Emperor could seem such a tyrant. Nonetheless, he filled his nephew with a respect for him that would last as long as Francis lived. Francis admired his uncle with ‘fear and trembling’ and the impact he had on Francis, and which Francis subsequently had on the rest of Hapsburg history, would ensure that Emperor Joseph II would be upheld as the standard by which all Austrian emperors were judged.

When Francis was sent to join the imperial army (a regiment on garrison duty in Hungary) it was probably the least demanding part of his training for the crown. In 1790 Emperor Joseph II died and was succeeded by Leopold II whose reign was to be a very short one. He spent most of his time trying to regain the support of all those his brother had offended while simultaneously retaining most of his policies. Archduke Francis acted on his behalf while his father was engaged in those duties and within a very short time Leopold II grew ill and died. At the age of only 24 on March 1, 1791 Francis became King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia and was in due course (when all the formalities were attended to) was named Emperor-elect of the Holy Roman Empire of the German People, King in Germany and all the rest as Francis II. He inherited a Reich beset by threats but he was a good man to meet them. On the whole, more traditional than his uncle, he was just as, if not more, pragmatic and would make decisions he thought in the best interests of his empire, whether it cast him in a positive light or not. His first and immediate concern was France where revolution was raging and where revolutionaries were threatening to take their torches beyond their borders to set fire to the whole of monarchial Europe.

If one were to assume that the fate of the Austrian-born Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was foremost on the mind of Emperor Francis II (Kaiser Franz II), one would be mistaken. He did not really know his aunt and was not prepared to deal with traitors in order to save her. Emperor Joseph II had concocted a scheme to rescue his little sister but, at that time, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI thought it precipitous and a dereliction of duty to escape the country. By the time Francis II came along, the Queen was a prisoner and while Danton was willing to negotiate for her release (though considering the character of Danton it is entirely possible he was being false in the whole matter) Emperor Francis II refused to make any concessions and in due course the tragic queen was sent to the guillotine. For Francis, the only way to deal with the French Revolution was war and his empire went to war with France the same year he came to the throne. At first, he tried to take matters into his own hands during the failed Flanders campaign but he wisely decided to leave military matters to the experts and handed the army over to Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen. This was the right choice as the Archduke would prove to be the most formidable continental opponent of Napoleon, even if he was not quite able to best the brilliant Corsican.

The war policy of Emperor Francis was one of resistance whenever possible, peace when necessary but to always strike again when the situation seemed favorable. At the outset, Austria was defeated and Francis decided to come to an agreement with the French republic, ceding land in Germany in exchange for half of the territory of the Republic of Venice which had tried to remain neutral. In the War of the Second Coalition, Austrian troops marched against France again and again in the War of the Third Coalition but both were French victories and most critically saw France take leadership in the German states away from Hapsburg Austria. This greatly alarmed Francis II and he decided to take a drastic and unprecedented step. With the reorganization of Germany and the victorious Napoleon making no secret of his imperial pretensions, Francis feared that the Corsican would apply sufficient pressure to have himself elected Holy Roman Emperor a title which, elections aside, the Hapsburgs had come to view as their property. The idea was too terrible to contemplate so Francis II decided to abolish the empire rather than see it fall into the hands of Napoleon. He dissolved the historic institution, abdicating his throne on August 6, 1806 and became instead 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.

In 1809, taking advantage of what Napoleon called “the Spanish ulcer” Emperor Francis I of Austria went to war again but once again suffered a stunning defeat. What was worse, Napoleon was determined to make major changes in regards to his relationship with Austria because of this. After all, if these numerous lost wars can seem disheartening from the Austrian point of view, one must keep in mind that they were extremely damaging to Napoleon even though he was always victorious. Emperor Francis I had the land, the population, the resources and an able general to remain Napoleon’s most dangerous continental foe and Napoleon was tired of having to fight them over and over again. Finally, it seemed, Napoleon had the Austrians where he wanted them. Always a pragmatic man, the Kaiser decided he had no choice but to come to terms with l’empereur. He gave up considerable territory and even the hand of his daughter in marriage to Napoleon as well as joining the “Continental System” the French had set up in an (ultimately futile) effort to starve Britain into submission. This may have been the peak of Napoleon’s career. He seemed to have broken the back of his most powerful enemy on the continent of Europe and by his marriage to Archduchess Marie Louise he gained an heir to his throne and, what was seen anyway as, acceptance into the ranks of the established dynasties of Europe.

However, Emperor Francis II was simply being pragmatic and he would do what was necessary at the moment and bide his time to come out on top in the end. If it meant doing something unfortunate, so be it. The same thing occurred in relation to the great Austrian monarchist hero Andreas Hofer. At one point, the land Hofer had fought so hard for and which he had won in fair combat was handed over by the Emperor to the Bavarian allies of France. It had to be a difficult moment for the loyal Austrian patriot but the Emperor was making the hard choices that were necessary and he would ultimately get it all back. Despite the efforts of his daughter to convince him that Bonaparte was not such a bad guy, Emperor Francis had never truly accepted him as a legitimate monarch and never would. Thankfully for Austria, Napoleon could not resist overreaching and this he did with his invasion of the Russian Empire. The steppes of Russia swallowed the Grande Armee and in the aftermath a sixth coalition was formed, including Austria, to bring Napoleon down. Russian and Prussian armies pushed the French out of Germany, the Swedes hit Napoleon’s Danish ally and the British pushed up from Spain into southern France. At battles such as Kulm and Leipzig, Austrian forces played their part in a string of allied victories. Austria had a talented commander on hand in the person of Field Marshal Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg who had actually been picked by Napoleon himself to command the Austrian contingent of the invasion of Russia.

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).

More significant though, was the pride of place that the Austrian Empire received with the creation of the German Confederation, of which the Austrian Emperor was President, and the Holy Alliance of Prussia, Austria and Russia to safeguard religion and monarchy in central and eastern Europe (though Britain, the Pope and the Turks disliked it -an odd assortment). It was a very conservative and pragmatic new order that settled over Europe and that made it very much to the liking of Emperor Francis I whose chancellor, Prince Metternich, had arranged much of it. The Emperor and Metternich understood each other and worked well together, establishing an international order in Europe based on legitimacy and periodic international congresses to resolve disputes that prevented another pan-European war for a hundred years. Perhaps their only failing in this area was in their rejection of nationalism as a whole, thinking it could be suppressed rather than taking hold of it to steer in a beneficial direction. Nonetheless, what they did do produced undeniable results and, on the whole, worked for a very long time.

As a man and as a monarch, Emperor Francis I was probably unlike what most would suppose him to be. For enemies of the Austrian Empire he is often portrayed as a harsh, reactionary tyrant, paranoid and militaristic, cold and calculating. In fact, he was a complex man who understood the enormous responsibility he had as monarch and who tried to always do what was best, not for the sake of popular opinion but as a sacred duty. It is true that he had a very active and extensive secret police and his policies would today be seen as restrictive. They were certainly illiberal but no more so than many that exist in Europe today, the only difference being who they were aimed at stopping and the fact that, unlike modern European leaders, Emperor Francis never claimed to a liberal. His network of spies and use of censorship was a reaction to the horror and world war that came with the French Revolution and he was determined to prevent such words, ideas or movements ever gaining a foothold in the Austrian Empire. Much of Europe today has laws just as restrictive but where Francis banned “revolutionary rhetoric” or “egalitarian” or “anti-religious” and “republican” talk, today what is banned is called “hate speech” or “racist” or in some way offensive and “politically incorrect” talk. His ban on all things Jacobin could be compared to the current ban in Germany on all things Nazi and would be defended on the same grounds; that some ideas are too dangerous to tolerate.

To the charge of being a reactionary (which not everyone would consider a bad thing) Emperor Francis was more nuanced than most realize. He was certainly a man of very traditional and staunchly conservative politics but neither was he a radical legitimist. He favored policies which were as conservative as possible but was never so ideologically zealous as to hinder his pragmatism. This was partly why he opposed nationalism, because it interfered with the sort of monarchial territorial horse-trading that could benefit his empire. So, he had no qualms about northern Italy being absorbed by the Austrian Empire rather than being restored to Venice and he was more supportive of the King of the French, Louis Philippe, than the very traditional King Charles X of France whose policies, though the Emperor was probably sympathetic to, he feared were impractical and could lead to another revolution and potential trouble for the rest of Europe.

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.

If Emperor Francis was busy with his public duties, his private life was just as eventful. He married first in 1788 to the charming Elisabeth of Wurttemberg, a bride chosen by Emperor Joseph II, but she died in childbirth in 1790, her baby girl surviving her by less than a year. Later that year he married his first cousin, Princess Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, who bore him twelve children, though four died young. These offspring included a future Empress of the French and Queen of Italy (while Napoleon ruled), a future Emperor of Austria, Empress of Brazil and Queen of Saxony. They had a successful marriage and mostly a happy one, though she was very lively and he very serious. She died in 1807 at only 34, no doubt thoroughly exhausted. The following year he married another first cousin, Maria Ludovika of Austria-Este, a refugee from the Napoleonic conquest of Italy, but she died in 1816 at only 28. Later that year he married Princess Caroline Augusta of Bavaria who was quite popular and who survived him.

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.

After ruling for 43 years, quite unexpectedly, Emperor Francis I of Austria came down with a fever and died on March 2, 1835 at the age of 67. In character to the end, his last advice was to “change nothing”. Additionally, he advised his son and heir to preserve the unity of the Imperial Family. That would be done, though after the traumas of 1848 his eventual successor, Emperor Francis Joseph I, would be forced to make some considerable changes. History, on the whole, has not been kind or very fair to Emperor Francis I, portraying him as a narrow-minded arch reactionary who liked nothing more than fiddling with his wax seals or making toffee. However, in truth, he was the driving force behind all that was Austria for nearly half a century. Metternich usually gets the glory (or the blame, depending on one’s view) but he only persisted in his position because the Emperor wanted him there. Francis I saw Europe torn apart by revolution, took a firm stand in stamping it out and did his best to ensure that it never happened again -and so long as he lived it did not. He could be short-sighted and sometimes he had to make tough decisions for the good of his empire but by his actions, the Austrian Empire survived and finally triumphed over Napoleonic France, regaining the dominant position in German affairs and central Europe. While there were problems in isolated areas, the actions and leadership of Emperor Francis prevented widespread unrest until 1848 and created a system in Europe based on facts rather than idealism, legitimacy rather than populism and established peace and stability for the better part of a century. Not a bad record that.


  1. A well written article, as always, however, you've left me with two questions. First, if the Emperor of the French had claimed the tittle of Holy Roman Emperor, would this have strengthened or weakened his position in Europe? And secondly, if Franz I had not dissolved the Empire, would Austria have remained the dominant German power against the advance of Prussia?

    1. Napoleone's strength was upheld by bayonets, not titles but it would have been an indication of how dominant he was (being able to coerce the electors into choosing him) and it would have done more to bolster his image as a "legitimate" figure. As for the dissolution of the empire in regard to Austria vs Prussia, I don't think it really made any difference there. Prussia had effectively become totally independent by then, the Holy Roman Empire was largely a formality at that time and it was most the decisions of the Austrian government over a period of time that allowed Prussia to surpass the Austrians. The Prussians put the army first, whereas Austria tended to neglect the military, Prussia was more favorable to trade and industrial development while Austria was more agrarian and conservative and finally where Austria tried to suppress nationalist sentiment (to keep the empire together) the Prussians decided to put a saddle on the beast and ride it. I think that's it in a nutshell.


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