Tuesday, July 18, 2017
The Strange Case of Emperor Rudolf II
What is the problem with Emperor Rudolf II? Why is so much ridicule and blame heaped on him? There is certainly, if most accounts are believed, much in him worthy of criticism. However, I think the reason why so much is heaped on him is, at least to a large extent, because he managed to alienate both ends by trying to steer a middle course in his policies. One will also notice that, to justify opposition or a negative opinion of Emperor Rudolf II, critics will more readily address his personal life rather than his policies because, if one looks at his policies, I think it becomes much more difficult for the “left” and the “right” (so to speak) to criticize him without more than a bit of hypocrisy or revealing their overreach. People want to look for scapegoats, they want to find a “villain” for every story and for many on both sides of the political spectrum, Emperor Rudolf II was an obvious target. What can make the disinterested observer feel some pity for Rudolf II is that, in modern times, he will be attacked from the right for doing certain things, attacked by the left for doing other things yet never praised by the left or the right for doing the things that the other side attacks him for.
In this regard though, I think Rudolf II was a victim of bad timing and those who heap undue amounts of blame on him, I think, tend to forget the historical context of his life. For example, Emperor Charles V, Rudolf’s great-uncle, also made concessions to the Protestants and, as those familiar with the horrific ‘Sack of Rome’ know, even used Protestant soldiers to make war on the Pope. Yet, Emperor Charles V was known to be a very staunch Catholic personally and, as a champion of Christendom, Catholics tend to forgive him for these things. Yet, it highlights the precedent that he set. Charles V had fought the Protestants to be sure but he ultimately made concessions to them because he considered it more important to have peace and at least some degree of unity in Germany so that he could focus on fighting the French, the Italians and the Turks. His younger son and heir to the German half of his continental empire, Emperor Ferdinand I (Rudolf’s grandfather), also opted for a policy of religious neutrality between the Catholics and Protestants in order to maintain the peace in Germany. He pushed for reform in the Catholic Church, was generally tolerant of Protestants but allowed them no further power, hoping that the division would be solved by reconciliation.
Emperor Rudolf II did make even further concessions to the Protestants but it was not because he agreed or sympathized with them but rather that he wanted to stop them from rebelling and if some greater degree of rights and privileges would do the job, he would give those to them. The reason why the outbreak of the Thirty Years War is so often laid at his feet is that it was these concessions which seemed to be threatened by his successor and which the Protestants rose up to demand be honored that led to the initial outbreak of hostilities. However, as well as what happened under the emperors before him, people also tend to forget what happened after him as his end ultimately came when his brother Matthias rebelled against him and ultimately deposed him, fearful that Rudolf was diminishing the imperial power. However, to gain the support of the Protestants in order to take power from his brother, Matthias too had to make further concessions to them and he too carried on the tradition of trying to find a middle path that would, if not reconcile, at least keep the peace between the Catholic and Protestant factions. Things only really boiled over when Emperor Matthias died and was succeeded by Emperor Ferdinand II who, for a change, was a very serious Catholic and who was most intent on seeing religious divisions ended in the empire by restoring Catholic supremacy.
So, his religious policies angered Catholics while still not earning any great loyalty from the Protestants and his foreign policy proved to be ineffective and costly. All of these concessions to various groups also encouraged opposition from within the Habsburg family ranks as they saw imperial power being diminished further and further yet, as mentioned above, the younger brother who ultimately dethroned him would find that he would have no choice but to do the same. Most, however, choose to focus on the personal life of Emperor Rudolf II and he was an unusual and rather colorful character to be sure. As monarchs do not tend to make a public issue of their sexual proclivities, I prefer to avoid the subject, to the frustration of some readers I have noticed. Rest assured, I am well aware that many regard King Frederick the Great of Prussia or King James I of Great Britain as homosexuals, I simply do not care. I think one could argue the point and I do not see how it could be proven with any degree of certainty one way or the other and, while I certainly think it matters in moral terms, as long as they keep it to themselves, it does not matter *to me*. Were they so inclined and were they to make a public issue of it, trying to push this as acceptable or praiseworthy behavior, then I would certainly have a problem with it.
I only mention this at all because it is something that Rudolf II does tend to be criticized for and yet, I have noticed that this is usually a red herring. Particularly among those who think there should be no limit to sexual practices, partners or proclivities at all, there is a noticeable habit of always trying to paint those you dislike as some sort of sexual deviant. Everyone knows, for example, that Eva Braun was the mistress of Adolf Hitler and everyone knows that Clara Petacci was the mistress of Benito Mussolini. Does anyone know the name of Franklin Roosevelt’s mistress? Does anyone know of any affairs by Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin? I doubt this is an accident. Consider also, if you live in the west, how many times you have seen those photos of Vladimir Putin riding a horse without a shirt splashed across the media. This, I think, illustrates my point well enough. Everyone knows who Eva Braun was but I bet no one reading this could name FDR’s secretary he had the affair with without looking.
In the end, it is safe to say that Emperor Rudolf II was not a successful monarch. He never married or produced legitimate offspring, imperial power was diminished under his rule, his foreign policy won no great victory and he provided no lasting stability as evidenced by the fact that he was ultimately overthrown by his younger brother. His critics are many and there is much in him that can be validly criticized. However, I do think some of the criticism of him is unfair and much of it, even if fair, is certainly unfortunate and does not cast his critics in a very favorable light either. In regards to the most serious accusation against him, that he must bear responsibility for the Thirty Years War is, I think, a considerable overstatement and lays too much blame on him for a disaster which was caused by the cumulative policies and events spanning the reigns of a number of German emperors. He certainly was not one of the best, but he was also far from being the worst national leader the world has ever seen.
Those interested may wish to read…
My Favorite Habsburg Emperors
MM Mini-View: The Habsburg Emperors