Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor

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Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II

Joseph II (March 13, 1741February 20, 1790) was Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790. He was the eldest son of the empress Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I. Joseph was one of the so-called "enlightened monarchs".

Joseph as heir and co-regent

Joseph was born in the midst of the early upheavals of the War of the Austrian Succession. Maria Theresa gave orders that he was only to be taught as if he were amusing himself; the result was that Joseph acquired a habit of crude and superficial study. His real education was given him by the writings of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, and by the example of Frederick the Great. His useful training was conferred by government officials, who were directed to instruct him in the mechanical details of the administration of the numerous states composing the Austrian dominions and the Empire.

He was made a member of the newly constituted council of state (Staatsrath) and began to draw up minutes (to which he gave the name of "Reveries") for his mother to read. These papers contain the germs of his later policy, and of all the disasters which finally overtook him. He was a friend to religious toleration, anxious to reduce the power of the church, to relieve the peasantry of feudal burdens, and to remove restrictions on trade and knowledge. In these, he did not differ from Frederick, Catherine of Russia, or his own brother and successor Leopold II, all enlightened rulers of the 18th century stamp.

Where Joseph differed from great contemporary rulers, and where he was very close akin to the Jacobins, was in the fanatical intensity of his belief in the power of the state when directed by reason, of his right to speak for the state uncontrolled by laws, and of the reasonableness of his own reasons. He had also inherited from his mother the belief of the house of Austria in its "august" quality and its claim to acquire whatever it found desirable for its power or profit. He was unable to understand that his philosophical plans for the moulding of mankind could meet with pardonable opposition.

Joseph was documented by contemporaries as being impressive, but not necessarily likeable. In 1760, his arranged consort, the well educated Isabella of Parma, was handed over to him. Joseph appears to have been completely in love with her, but Isabella preferred the companionship of Joseph's sister, Marie Christine Hapsburg. The overweening character of the Emperor was obvious to Frederick II of Germany, who, after their first interview in 1769, described him as ambitious, and as capable of setting the world on fire. The French minister Vergennes, who met Joseph when he was travelling incognito in 1777, judged him to be "ambitious and despotic."

Until the death of his mother in 1780, Joseph was never quite free to follow his own instincts. After the death of his father in 1765, he became emperor and was made co-regent by his mother in the Austrian dominions. As emperor, he had no real power, and his mother had resolved that neither her husband nor her son should ever deprive her of sovereign control in her hereditary dominions. Joseph, by threatening to resign his place as co-regent, could induce his mother to abate her dislike for religious toleration. He could and did place a great strain on her patience and temper, as in the case of the first partition of Poland and the Bavarian War of 17781779, but in the last resort, the empress spoke the final word.

During these wars, Joseph traveled much. He met Frederick the Great privately at Neisse in 1769, and again at Mhrisch-Neustadt in 1770. On the second occasion, he was accompanied by Prince Kaunitz, whose conversation with Frederick may be said to mark the starting point of the first partition of Poland. To this and to every other measure which promised to extend the dominions of his house, Joseph gave hearty approval. Thus, he was eager to enforce Austria's claim on Bavaria upon the death of the elector Maximilian Joseph in 1777. In April of that year, he paid a visit to his sister the queen of France, Marie Antoinette, traveling under the name of "Count Falkenstein." He was well received and much flattered by the Encyclopedists, but his observations led him to predict the approaching downfall of the French monarchy, and he was not impressed favourably by the French army or navy.

In 1778, he commanded the troops collected to oppose Frederick, who supported the rival claimant to Bavaria. Real fighting was averted by the unwillingness of Frederick to embark on a new war and by Maria Theresa's determination to maintain peace. In April 1780, Joseph paid a visit to Catherine II of Russia, against the wish of his mother.

As the son of Francis I, Joseph succeeded him as titular Duke of Lorraine and Bar, which had been surrendered to France on his father's marriage, and titular King of Jerusalem and Duke of Calabria (as a proxy for the Kingdom of Naples).

Joseph as ruling emperor

The death of Maria Theresa on November 27, 1780, left Joseph free. He immediately directed his government on a new course, full speed ahead. He proceeded to attempt to realise his ideal of a wise despotism acting on a definite system for the good of all. The measures of emancipation of the peasantry which his mother had begun were carried on by him with feverish activity. The spread of education, the secularisation of church lands, the reduction of the religious orders and the clergy in general to complete submission to the lay state, the promotion of unity by the compulsory use of the German language—everything which from the point of view of 18th century philosophy appeared "reasonable"—were undertaken at once. He strove for administrative unity with characteristic haste to reach results without preparation.

His anti-clerical innovations induced Pope Pius VI to pay him a visit in July 1782. Joseph received the pope politely and showed himself a good Catholic, but refused to be influenced. On the other hand, Joseph was very friendly to Freemasonry, as he found it highly compatible with his own Enlightenment philosophy, although he apparently never joined the Lodge himself.

Multiple interferences with old customs began to produce unrest in all parts of his dominions. Meanwhile, Joseph threw himself into a succession of foreign policies, all aimed at aggrandisement, and all equally calculated to offend his neighbours—all taken up with zeal, and dropped in discouragement. He endeavoured to get rid of the Barrier Treaty, which debarred his Flemish subjects from the navigation of the Scheldt. When he was opposed by France, he turned to other schemes of alliance with Russia for the partition of Turkey and Venice. These plans also had to be given up in the face of the opposition of neighbours, and in particular of France. Then Joseph resumed his attempts to obtain Bavaria—this time by exchanging it for Belgium—and only provoked the formation of the Frstenbund, organized by the king of Prussia.

Finally, Joseph joined Russia in an attempt to pillage Turkey. It began on his part in an unsuccessful and discreditable attempt to surprise Belgrade in time of peace, and was followed by the ill-managed campaign of 1788. He accompanied his army, but showed no capacity for war; the low point of this campaign was the extraordinary incident known as the Battle of Karansebes, in which the Austrian army ran away from an imaginary Turkish army. In November 1788, he returned to Vienna with ruined health, and during 1789, was a dying man. The concentration of his troops in the east gave the malcontents of Belgium an opportunity to revolt. In Hungary, the nobles were in all but open rebellion, and in his other states, there were peasant risings and a revival of particularist sentiments. Joseph was left entirely alone. His minister Kaunitz refused to visit his sick-room and did not see him for two years. His brother Leopold remained at Florence. At last, Joseph, worn out and broken-hearted, recognised that his servants could not, or would not, carry out his plans. On January 30, 1790, he formally withdrew all his reforms, and he died on February 20, 1790.

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Joseph II (right) with his brother and successor Leopold II (left)
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Joseph II (played by Jeffrey Jones) looks at a written score as Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) plays seated at the fortepiano in the 1984 film Amadeus

Joseph II married twice, first Isabella, daughter of Philip, duke of Parma, to whom he was attached. They had a daughter, named Maria Theresa after his mother, by his first wife but this child had died young. After her death on November 27 1763, a political marriage was arranged with Josepha (d. 1767), daughter of Charles Albert, elector of Bavaria (the emperor Charles VII). The second marriage proved extremely unhappy. Joseph was succeeded by his brother Leopold II because he had left no surviving children.

Like many of the "enlightened monarchs" of his time, Joseph was a lover and patron of the arts. He was known as the "music king" and steered Austrian high culture towards a more Germanic orientation. He commissioned the German-language opera Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail from Mozart.

Many volumes of the emperor's correspondence have been published. Among them are:

  • A Ritter von Arneth (editor): Maria Theresia und Joseph II: Ihre Korrespondenz—samt Briefen Josephs an seinen Bruder Leopold (1867 – 1868)
  • A Ritter von Arneth (editor): Joseph II und Leopold von Toskana. Ihr Briefwechsel 17811790 (1872)
  • A Ritter von Arneth (editor): Joseph II und Katharina von Russland. Ihr Briefwechsel (1869)
  • A Ritter von Arneth (editor): Maria Antoinette, Joseph II und Leopold II. Ihr Briefwechsel (1866)
  • Joseph II, Leopold II und Kaunitz. Ihr Briefwechsel, edited by A Beer (1873)
  • Correspondences intimes de l’empereur Joseph II avec son ami, le comte de Cobenzl et son premier ministre, le prince de Kaunitz, edited by S Brunner (1871)
  • Joseph II und Graf Ludwig Cobenzl. Ihr Briefwechsel, edited by A Beer and J von Fiedler (1901)
  • Geheime Korrespondenz Josephs II mit seinem Minister in den Oesterreichischen Niederlanden, Ferdinand Graf Trauttmannsdorff 17871789, edited by H Schlitter (1902).


Names in other languages: German: Joseph II, Czech: Josef II, Slovak: Jozef II, Hungarian: II. Jzsef.

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