Francis Joseph

views updated Jun 08 2018


dualist constitutionalism
nationalism and (german) imperialism

FRANCIS JOSEPH (1830–1916), emperor of Austria (1848–1916) and king of Hungary (1867–1916).

Francis Joseph was born 18 August 1830 in Vienna and died 21 November 1916 in Vienna. Emperor of Austria from 2 December 1848 until his death in 1916, Francis Joseph was one of the longest-reigning monarchs of nineteenth-century Europe. His reign saw great changes in the Austrian Empire, including a profound change in the structure and character of that state, into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867. While he presided over large-scale modernization of his Monarchy's economy and society, and tolerated its political modernization, acting in his later decades as a quasi-constitutional monarch, Francis Joseph was unable to overcome the shortcomings of the Habsburg Monarchy in handling its ethnic, national diversity. One of these shortcomings was Francis Joseph's own refusal to cede real power over the Monarchy's foreign policy and military, or indeed over crucial aspects of domestic political life. His hold on power, even in his "constitutional" phase, means that an account of his career is inseparable from the political history of the Monarchy as a whole. Tellingly, his personal fate and that of his Monarchy came to be so inextricably tied together in the Austro-Hungarian public's mind that many predicted that his death would see the collapse of the Monarchy. Yet it was while he was still alive that Francis Joseph effectively signed Austria-Hungary's death warrant by declaring war on Serbia in 1914, hence starting World War I.

Francis Joseph's career falls into three main parts: the era of reaction and neo-absolutism; the large middle period of his reign, of constitutionalism and Austro-Hungarian dualism; and the final couple of decades marked by crises at home and abroad stoked by nationalism and imperialism (not primarily Austrian).


Francis Joseph was made emperor of Austria on 2 December 1848, after the forced abdication of his uncle Ferdinand I (r. 1835–1848), as a response by the Habsburg family and its advisors to the 1848 revolutions. Raised by his mother, Sophie of Bavaria (1805–1872), to be a champion of divine-right absolutism in the spirit of his grandfather, Francis I (last Holy Roman emperor as Francis II [1768–1806] and emperor of Austria [1804–1835]), and without being bound by promises to the revolutionaries as was his uncle, Ferdinand I, Francis Joseph was seen by the Habsburg family and its advisors as the person who could use his youthful vigor and willpower to restore Habsburg fortunes, but in a new, more dynamic way. Under the tutelage of his prime minister, Felix zu Schwarzenberg, Francis Joseph did achieve an apparent restitution of the Habsburg position, in reasserting control in Germany and Italy, as well as, eventually and with Russian help, crushing the Hungarian rebellion in 1849. In domestic politics, he initially went along with the constitutionalism introduced by the revolution, but soon (against Schwarzenberg's advice) reverted to the absolutism of his upbringing, abolishing the constitution of March 1849 (that he had himself decreed) and restoring his absolute rule by the Sylvester Patent of 31 December 1851.

Francis Joseph was determined to rule henceforth as a modern absolute monarch. His conservative religious faith led to a cession of power to the papacy in the Concordat of 1855, but, otherwise, the ensuing period of "neo-absolutism" saw widespread reform in education, administration, and the economy, intended to modernize Austria from above and hence enhance Habsburg power within international affairs. His marriage for love to the beautiful Elizabeth of Bavaria in 1854 was also symbolic of a youthful breaking with past convention.

The partial success of neo-absolutism in modernizing Austria was heavily outweighed by the catastrophic failures in military and foreign policy, for which Francis Joseph was, after the death of Schwarzenberg in April 1852, ultimately responsible. Austrian ambivalence in the Crimean War (1854–1856) left Austria isolated, and this led to defeat by France in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859. Francis Joseph made himself Austrian commander-in-chief in the decisive battle of Solferino and was hence directly responsible for this defeat. The resulting loss of Lombardy and of all confidence in Austria's shaky finances led to the collapse of neo-absolutism.

dualist constitutionalism

From 1860 Francis Joseph was forced to undertake a complete overhaul of the governing structures of his monarchy, which meant a return to a form of the constitutionalism that he had proudly abolished in 1851. At first a conservative-federalist structure (October Manifesto of 1860) was tried, then a liberal-centralist one (February Patent of 1861). Then the failed attempt to reassert hegemony in the Germanic Confederation led to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, in which the Austrians suffered a resounding defeat at the battle of Königgrätz (Sadowa), with the result being their ejection from German affairs and the loss of Venetia to Italy (Prussia's ally). In the aftermath of this further disaster, Francis Joseph was forced to make peace with the Magyar leadership, led by Ferenc Deák, on their terms. The result was the Ausgleich (Compromise) of 1867, which effectively split the Austrian Empire into two states, the kingdom of Hungary and the rest, which came to be known as Cisleithania but continued to be informally known as Austria. Francis Joseph was to attempt to change the basis of at least the Austrian half of his monarchy in 1871, when the Fundamental Articles were proposed as a means to give the Czechs more autonomy. This was not successful, however, and it was thus the Ausgleich, and the two constitutional systems set up in Hungary and Austria in its wake, that remained the basis of what was known as the Dual Monarchy, or Austria-Hungary, until its end.

Despite the fact that he had struggled against becoming one, Francis Joseph proved quite an adept constitutional monarch, or at least quasi-constitutional monarch. (In both halves of his monarchy he retained large prerogatives, especially veto power, and military and foreign policy remained his prerogative alone.) As king of Hungary he was prepared to allow the Magyar liberal nationalists, led after 1875 by Kálmán Tisza, full rein, as long as they remained compliant with his foreign policy goals. In Austria as well he tolerated German Liberal hegemony in politics and their progressive agenda, despite much Slav opposition to this and his own personal distaste for many aspects of the Liberals' ideology and praxis, especially their anticlericalism. Partly from his own conviction, he went along with the rescinding of the Concordat in the wake of the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870. When, however, the

German Liberal leadership challenged his prerogative over foreign policy by opposing the annexation, or at least occupation, of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878–1879, his response was to concentrate all his efforts on unseating them from power. He achieved this through the electoral success of Count Eduard von Taaffe, whose "Iron Ring" coalition of Slavs, conservatives, and federalists dominated Austrian politics in the 1880s, furthering a culturally conservative (but socially quite progressive) agenda and diminishing German hegemony within the state apparatus. At the same time, Francis Joseph fully approved of the Dual Alliance that Gyula Andrássy, his foreign minister, negotiated in 1879 with Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of the German Empire.

nationalism and (german) imperialism

Francis Joseph's relative success in the 1880s did not last. The death of his only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, in the legendarily murky murder-suicide at Mayerling on 30 January 1889, was not only a major state crisis and a personal tragedy for the emperor, but also ushered in a period that saw the collapse of the political status quo in both halves of the Monarchy. The failure of the Bohemian Compromise of 1890 led to prolonged political turmoil and national conflict between Czechs and Germans, which saw the collapse of Taaffe's ministry and reached a crescendo in the near-revolutionary events surrounding German protests at the Badeni language ordinances of 1897. The assassination of his wife Empress Elizabeth, "Sisi," in 1898 added a personal dimension to a catalogue of political woes that were only partially resolved by the skills of the Austrian prime minister from 1900 to 1904, Ernst Körber. Meanwhile in Hungary, the build-up of nationalist pressures eventually erupted in 1903 in a major crisis over the status of German as the language of command in the joint Habsburg army, with the Magyars directly challenging one of Francis Joseph's most cherished prerogatives.

Once again, Francis Joseph responded with vehemence to a threat to his powers. In 1905 he threatened to expand the franchise to include the Magyar lower classes and the other nationalities of the kingdom, hence ending the political hegemony of the Magyar gentry ruling class, and he withdrew this threat only when the Magyar leadership surrendered. With his powers maintained, Francis Joseph reverted to his relatively acquiescent style as king of Hungary, especially once István Tisza became Hungary's de facto leader in 1910.

While Francis Joseph had used franchise reform as a threat in Hungary, he was instrumental in the introduction of actual universal suffrage in Austria in 1906. He appears to have thought that this was a way to reduce the power of the nationalist parties in the Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) and hence was prepared to pursue radical reform, and even be in effect an ally of the socialists, but all in order to achieve a more compliant assembly that would better fund his military and foreign policy goals. The new parliament proved, however, no more manageable than the old, and the various national conflicts continued unabated. Partly to distract from these internal woes, and to provide some focus of unity, Francis Joseph fully supported the plans of his foreign minister, Baron Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal, to practice a more aggressive foreign policy, culminating in the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in October 1908. This proved in the short term an effective boost to Habsburg prestige, but was in the long term a disaster, riling South Slav dissent in Serbia as well as within the Monarchy, where Magyar nationalist policies and the refusal of the Austrian emperor to intervene with the king of Hungary (both Francis Joseph) had severely alienated Serb and Croat opinion in both halves. Consciousness of this internal South Slav unrest, coupled with fear of a hostile and ever larger and more successful Serbia as a result of the First (1912–1913) and Second (1913) Balkan Wars, had led by 1914 to Austrian foreign policy, still overseen by Francis Joseph, being focused on stopping Serbia at all costs. The assassination of his nephew, the heir apparent Francis Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 thus led eventually to the declaration of war against Serbia on 28 July, despite the fact that Francis Joseph had never much liked his heir and despised him for his marriage to a mere noble-woman.

Having started World War I, Francis Joseph then lost any further control over events. The Austro-Hungarian military campaign was run not by the emperor but by Conrad von Hötzendorf, the chief of the general staff, and the poor performance of the Habsburg army had led by September 1916 to an Austro-German Joint High Command being instituted, with Austria-Hungary very much the junior partner to its overbearing German ally. The emperor appears to have realized the tragic course events were taking and made efforts at peace abroad and liberalization at home, but it was too little too late. He died on 21 November 1916 with his state already on the way to being subordinated to Hohenzollern Germany and eventual dismemberment.

See alsoAdler, Victor; Alliance System; Aristocracy; Austria-Hungary; Deák, Ferenc; Lueger, Karl; Revolutions of 1848.


Beller, Steven. Francis Joseph. London and New York, 1996.

Corti, Egon C. Vom Kind zum Kaiser. Graz, Austria, 1950.

——. Mensch und Herrscher. Graz, Austria, 1952.

——. Der alte Kaiser. Written with Hans Sokol. Graz, Austria, 1955. Comprehensive three-volume biography.

Sked, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire, 1815–1918. London, 1989.

Steed, Henry Wickham. The Habsburg Monarchy. New York, 1969. Reprint of the 1914 2nd edition.

Steinitz, Eduard von, ed. Erinnerungen an Franz Joseph I. Berlin, 1931.

Redlich, Joseph. Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria: A Biography. New York, 1929.

Steven Beller

Francis Joseph

views updated May 14 2018

Francis Joseph

Francis Joseph (1830-1916) was emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. He was the last noteworthy ruler of the Hapsburg Empire.

Born on Aug. 18, 1830, at Schönbrunn (Vienna), the elder son of Archduke Francis Charles, who was the second son of Emperor Francis I (Holy Roman emperor Francis II), Francis Joseph (German, Franz Josef) was not in direct line of succession. Yet, because his mentally impaired uncle Ferdinand I proved childless, Francis was immediately viewed and educated as an heir presumptive.

Proclaimed emperor after Ferdinand's abdication on Dec. 2, 1848, Francis Joseph began his rule by subduing a series of revolutions in his realm. The most serious of these, the Hungarian revolution, he crushed with Russian help. Then, after this dearly won victory, he had to reconstruct his near-defunct empire. Begun under the aegis of a constitution (March 4, 1849), this reconstruction continued throughout the 1850s, although in 1851 constitutionalism was replaced by a system of absolutist centralism.

Foreign-policy reverses during the 1850s, however, compelled Francis Joseph to reconsider his position on constitutionalism. Thus there soon ensued a period of constitutional experiments ("October Diploma" of 1860 and "February Patent" of 1861) which kept the empire's political life in a constant state of crisis up to 1867. These crises, together with Austria's expulsion from Italy and Germany (1866), convinced Francis Joseph of the necessity of coming to terms with his subjects. He opted for a compromise with the strongest nationality, the Magyars. The result was the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867, which brought about the dualistic reconstruction of the empire (Austria-Hungary), with both halves receiving their own constitutional governments and internal autonomy, and their common affairs being reduced to matters of foreign and military policy and some finances.

Although the new political structure was much more favorable for the evolution of political democracy and capitalism than the previous absolutist system, it still preserved the hegemony of the earlier ruling classes. Francis Joseph did not regard the compromise as an ideal solution, but he fought all attempts to alter it for fear of disrupting the unity of his empire. The weakness of this arrangement was revealed not only in the continued rivalry between the two partners but also in the growth of German-Czech national antagonism and extremism in Bohemia and in the increasingly bellicose Serbian irredentism.

Having been pushed out of Italy and Germany, the empire under Francis Joseph became increasingly active in the Balkans, which resulted in its occupation (1878) and later annexation (1908) of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This policy, however, soon placed Austria-Hungary on a direct collision course with Russia, forcing Francis Joseph to seek support in Bismarckian Germany in the form of the Dual Alliance (1879). This alliance later proved to be the first step in the direction of the political polarization of Europe, a polarization that, together with the nationality struggle in the Danubian and Balkan region, was of decisive importance in the outbreak of World War I and the dissolution of the empire.

Francis Joseph was a man of simple tastes. His political thinking was as uncomplicated and simple as his private life. He was basically a benevolent despot, unable to grasp the meaning and purpose of modern ideologies and popular political institutions. At the same time he was devoted to duty, to honor, and to the welfare of his people. Above all, he believed in the calling and destiny of his beleaguered dynasty. His death at Schönbrunn on Nov. 21, 1916, signaled the passing of an age.

Further Reading

The best works about Francis Joseph are the products of Austro-German historiography. Fortunately, a number of them have also appeared in English. Of these, Josef Redlich, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria: A Biography (1929), is undoubtedly the best and most readily available account. Karl Tschuppik, The Reign of the Emperor Francis Joseph, 1848-1916 (trans. 1930), is also excellent. Valuable, but not of the same caliber, are Albert Margutti, The Emperor Francis Joseph and His Times (1921), and Eugene Bagger, Francis Joseph: Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary (1927). Chester Wells Clark, Franz Joseph and Bismarck: The Diplomacy of Austria before the War of 1866 (1934), and Charles W. Hallberg, Franz Joseph and Napoleon III, 1852-1864 (1955), are excellent monographs, but they deal only with certain limited aspects of Francis Joseph's reign. Among the popular works on the Emperor's family and personal life is Bertita Harding, GoldenFleece: The Story of Franz Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria (1937). □

About this article

Francis Joseph

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic