Monday, September 12, 2011

Monarch Profile: Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria-Hungary

The last monarch of the old school, as he called himself, Kaiser Franz Josef I von Österreich-Ungarn, was practically an institution himself by the end of his long life and eventful reign which encompassed the greatest challenges faced by the Austrian Empire and, later, the Dual-Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was, over all, one of the good ones. Like any mortal he had his flaws and made his mistakes, however, even his errors were honorably made. He always had the best intentions and the peace and preservation of his empire at heart. As Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, Francis Joseph was driven, first and always, by duty, duty, duty. He had an appreciation for history and looked back on the Hapsburg legacy, to the likes of Emperor Charles V, Empress Maria Theresa or his grandfather Emperor Francis I (whom he greatly admired) and was determined that he would not do them dishonor. He came to the throne in a time of crisis and left it in a time of crisis but through it all displayed his matchless work ethic, providing an anchor of stability, a bulwark of conservative tradition and doing his best, as he told President Teddy Roosevelt, to protect his people from their governments.

Francis Joseph was born in Vienna on August 18, 1830 to Archduke Francis Charles (Franz Karl) of Austria and Princess Sophie of Bavaria. Even very early on Francis Joseph was noticeably disciplined and serious, yet kind. As a boy he was very attached to his younger brother, Ferdinand Maximilian, and when he was quarantined with sickness wrote his little brother letters and drew him pictures every day. Given the state that Emperor Ferdinand I was in, and the nature of his father, Princess Sophie raised Francis with the expectation that he would, sooner rather than later, be Emperor of Austria. He was schooled in statecraft by Prince Klemens von Metternich and at the age of 13 was made a colonel in the Austrian army, starting his military education and what would be a lifetime of austere habits. For the rest of his life he almost always wore the uniform of a junior army officer and slept on a simple army cot. When the Revolutions of 1848 broke out he saw his baptism of fire fighting the Italians with Marshal Radetzky. Imperial leadership was needed in such a crisis and so, with his father willing to be passed over, on December 2, 1848 Emperor Ferdinand I abdicated in favor of his nephew and Francis Joseph I became Emperor of Austria, inheriting an empire in crisis.

The new Emperor got to work right away, putting down the rebellions against the Hapsburg Crown. Marshal Radetzky was successful in suppressing the Italians but a serious revolt had broken out in Hungary that loyal elements seemed powerless to stop. Francis Joseph sought the aid of HIM Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, the “Gendarme of Europe” who obligingly sent 200,000 Russian troops to Hungary to stamp out all revolutionary dissent. With all opposition having been put down, the Emperor set about instituting reforms in an effort to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. Alexander Bach was appointed Interior Minister to lead this effort and the results, endorsed by Francis Joseph, made the Austrian Empire one of the most efficient and just governments in the world. The law courts were reformed and made independent of the executive so that each could balance the other, trial by jury was established, the tax code was reformed to be more fair and internal passports to travel from one country to another within the empire were abolished. The educational system was reformed, government offices were opened to anyone of talent regardless of their ancestry and the requirement that peasants work a set period of time solely for the benefit of their landlords was abolished.

Austria began to industrialize, somewhat later than other powers but without the oppression and horrid conditions that existed in other countries. Emperor Francis Joseph was adamant that the strong would never tyrannize the weak in his empire and he took special steps to ensure justice for all. In addition to the special protection given to the peasants and workers, he also made special provision for the Jewish minority, respecting their religion and granting them exemptions from anything that would violate their customs. Because of this, he was very popular with the Jews who seized on one of his often overlooked titles and hailed him as the “King of Jerusalem” (though the title was also claimed by the Bourbons and Savoys as well). The Emperor also insisted on a formal court protocol with a great deal of pomp and ceremony. Some have tried to use this to portray Francis Joseph as stuffy and aloof but it was done specifically to emphasize the importance of the monarchy, the sacred nature of the “office” which he regarded as a trust given him by God and which was the one crucial element that held his disparate peoples together.

The one area that was neglected was the military. The Austrians had never been a militaristic people and, although the Emperor was interested in military matters and loved his army, he was not a military man. Money was spent on civil priorities while the military lagged behind in modern improvements, new weapons and tactics. They looked perfectly grand and colorful on the parade ground but, as time would tell, the lack of attention paid to the armed forces would tell in time of war. In 1853 he was caught in the middle of the Crimean War between Russia on one side and Great Britain, France, Ottoman Turkey and Piedmont-Sardinia on the other. Each expected Austria to support their side but Francis Joseph regarded neither as justified and deplored the whole conflict. He tried, without success, to arrange peace and while the Russians responded to his efforts to limit the fighting the French and British would not. In the end Russia was defeated and felt betrayed by Austria, who was indebted to them for their assistance in 1848. It was not a happy time for the Emperor who was also distracted by his recent marriage to the Bavarian Princess Elisabeth who was feuding with his formidable mother and, shall we say, having difficulty adapting to life as an empress.

However, he had little time to dwell on issues in the east as Italy was once more approaching the boiling point. Nationalist sentiment was growing in the Austrian Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia and the elites there looked to support from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. When Count Camillo Cavour mobilized the Piedmontese army, Francis Joseph reacted at once. When he brought up the issue with the retired Prince Metternich the old statesman said, “For God’s sake Majesty, no ultimatum! No ultimatum!” to which the Emperor replied, “It went out last night”. Calling for a total disarmament of Piedmont-Sardinia there was no chance of it being accepted and the Second French Empire could intervene on the side of the Italians with Austria occupying the role of the big bully. Austrian troops invaded but moved so slowly that France had time to block them and the resulting fighting was bloody and inconclusive. Nonetheless, Austria had been blocked and a disheartened Francis Joseph ordered a retreat. Lombardy was lost, but not Venice though it would go later as the unified Kingdom of Italy was created. On the world stage the prestige of the French Emperor Napoleon III grew as he was seen as having defeated the venerable Austrian Empire.

At home, the Empress had suffered her first major nervous breakdown and new troubles began to arise from the Kingdom of Prussia which, under the leadership of Bismarck, was aiming to surpass Austria as the first power among the German states. Prussia began moving in on Austrian-allied territories and, though Francis Joseph wanted no conflict, his long-held suspicions toward the Italians was again used to provoke him into war. A little movement by Piedmont-Sardinia was sufficient to prompt Francis Joseph to call out his army and Bismarck at once declared that Austria was threatening Prussia and declared war. It is important to remember that, prior to this, liberal agitation had pressured Francis Joseph into setting up a parliament which had budget oversight. This was not regarded as too critical but it allowed them to further cut back on military spending. So it was that the Austrian army was in a poor state of preparedness to take on the very modernized and efficient army of Prussia which had reveled in their military prowess since the days of Frederick the Great. The result was a swift and stunning defeat for Austria in the Seven Weeks War which saw the Prussians firmly replace the Austrians as the dominant German-speaking power and bringing Bismarck one step closer to his goal of a united Germany ruled from Berlin. This was also taken as a demonstration of Austrian weakness by many nationalists in Hungary who began increasing their demands for autonomy, independence or even total separation. The result was the famous Compromise of 1867 by which the Hapsburg realm became a “Dual Monarchy” consisting of the equal and independent Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. Each would have their own governments, legal systems, militaries and so on but remained joined in a personal union with the Hapsburg Crown. Only the military and foreign affairs remained under central control, though even then Austria and Hungary each had their own ministries for each.

That same year also saw the tragic end of the Emperor’s younger brother Maximilian who, in 1864 had gone against his elder brother’s advice to the Americas to be crowned Emperor of Mexico. The French Emperor Napoleon III was backing the venture, which did not endear the enterprise to Francis Joseph, and the two Hapsburg brothers had had something of a falling out over the issue, so adamantly was Francis Joseph opposed to it. Ultimately, it all came down to the civil war raging in the United States. When the southern secession movement was crushed the U.S. was able to threaten Napoleon into withdrawing his troops and then ensure the victory of the Mexican revolutionaries who captured Emperor Maximilian and had him executed by a firing squad. In 1889 more tragedy came with the death of the Emperor’s only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, at Mayerling. The two had not really gotten along well, Rudolf being too liberal and influenced by the wrong crowd as his father saw it. Officially the death is considered a suicide though there remains considerable evidence that this may not have been the case.

The Empress was deeply hurt by the death of her son but in 1898 she herself was assassinated by an anarchist in Switzerland. Emperor Francis Joseph was never quite the same, even though the two often had problems and he had become rather used to enduring heartaches. Still, he was a man devoted to duty and nothing ever hindered his daily routine. He carried on with his work, keeping Austria-Hungary stable and at peace for decades. When his nephew and heir Francis Ferdinand insisted on an unequal marriage the Emperor seemed inordinately disturbed by the idea and the two never really got along because of it. In 1903 Francis Joseph ruffled some feathers in Rome when he invoked his veto power in the papal conclave called after the death of Pope Leo XIII. The expected choice was HE Mariano Cardinal Rampolla but the Emperor blocked his election, though the reason why has never been known. Most assume it was for fear that Rampolla would be too favorable toward the French. In any event, the veto worked and Pope Pius X was elected instead -and promptly did away with the imperial veto which was a left-over from the days of the old Holy Roman Empire (the Kings of France and Spain had also claimed the right but it had not been used since 1830/31 when King Ferdinand VII of Spain blocked the election of Cardinal Guistiniani).

In the lead-up to the First World War, Francis Joseph always advised caution and patience. He knew from first-hand experience that wars never seemed to end well for Austria-Hungary. Many professed outrage at the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia but the province had long been occupied by Austria-Hungary and the Bosnians, Christians and Muslims alike, fared well under Hapsburg rule. However, nationalism was a constant threat from a number of surrounding countries and Serbia was no exception. Given that his wife and brother had been murdered, when his nephew Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in Bosnia in 1914 it is not surprising that Emperor Francis Joseph wanted harsh measures taken. Like a song everyone had heard before, a strident ultimatum was sent to Serbia, certain to be refused, and the fuse was lit for a war that would be disastrous for Austria-Hungary. However, Francis Joseph was no warmonger and it ultimately took a lie (his Foreign Minister claiming that Serbian troops had already attacked Austria-Hungary) for the Emperor to consent to the declaration of war.

Even then, the Emperor ordered only a partial mobilization against Serbia alone but Russia, under pressure from the French, intervened, causing full mobilization, with Germany supporting Austria-Hungary the result was a world war. Emperor Francis Joseph had been very cautious about the whole affair though he did at times reason that a military confrontation with Serbia would have to come sooner or later to put an end to the constant agitation aimed toward the Slavic population of the Dual-Monarchy. Once the war came, the Emperor, old and weary, had little to do with how it was pursued. Finally, after almost 68 years on the throne, Emperor Francis Joseph I died in Vienna at Schönbrunn Palace at the age of 86. His rule had been a succession of tragedies and disasters for the Hapsburg empire but through it all the Emperor had been a source of strength, unity and calm. He was an upright man, matchlessly devoted in his duty and a monarch who recognized the sacred nature of his position. He could be stubborn at times and did make some mistakes but they were always honest mistakes and every action he undertook was done with the best of intentions to hold his empire together and to live up to the legacy of his most celebrated forebears. He was, perhaps, fortunate in that he did not live to see the dissolution of the empire he had spent his entire life defending, dissolved in a most outrageous and underhanded way.


  1. Thanks for this, he was one of our greatest Apostolic Kings.

  2. He was also the greatest head of czech state in 20th century. Thanks for this article.

  3. An interesting man, no doubt about it.
    Have you done a Monarch Profile on Emperor Napoleon yet? Just out of interest.

    The Austrian Empire is interesting, and was great, but it was difficult for it to adapt to Nationalism in the Modern World. I can see it revived though, as a more decentralized coalition.

  4. Not yet, I still plan to, but not yet. I may have to do a purely opinion piece first and then a profile because of the "issues" I have with Napoleon. He is one of those subjects (of which there are several) wherein I upset absolutely everyone, too anti-Napoleon for some, not anti-Napoleon enough for others.

  5. That one painting of him really resembles his brother Maximilian! To be honest, I have not really studied Francis Joseph I enough, but this really helps. I like this guy already, so thanks! The Austrian Empire was one of the great empires of the western world... so sad to see that it has been shattered.

    You should definitely do Napoleon sometime (and his nephew!), even if the first was a child of the revolution (but an amazing general) and his nephew was, well, Mr. I-failed-two-coups-in-a-row-but-I'll-try-again and generally overshadowed by the former (though I think he is grossly underrated).

  6. My great, great Grandpa tried his best and lost his wife Archduchess Elisabeth of Bavaria to murder. He lost a wife he truly loved and cherished. My great, great grandma. Was it worth it? Christine Spielman.


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