Joseph II

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JOSEPH II (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (17411790; ruled 17651790)

JOSEPH II (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (17411790; ruled 17651790), the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa (ruled 17401780) and Francis of Lorraine (ruled 17451765), succeeded his father on the imperial throne in 1765, after which he acted as co-regent with his mother in ruling the Habsburg domains. Although the imperial dignity meant little in the non-Habsburg lands of the Holy Roman Empire, it was of real importance within the Austrian domains. These were held together constitutionally only by the person of the emperor and the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, in which Emperor Charles VI (ruled 17111740) had declared the Austrian lands to be indivisible and that the various titles and thrones would descend to his daughter Maria Theresa. To this minimal constitutional framework Maria Theresa added the Council of State (Staatsrat) in 1762, part of a continuing effort to strengthen the central administration of her lands. Her constant policy, which her son would accelerate, was to increase royal power at the expense of provincial autonomy.

The domains that Maria Theresa and Joseph II ruled were the most diverse in all of Europe. Belgium belonged to the Habsburgs, as did some Italian provinces, the Duchies of Austria, Styria, Carniola, Carinthia, the kingdom of Bohemia, Croatia, the kingdom of Hungary, and other assorted lands and duchies. All spoke different languages, had different histories, laws, and customs, and were accustomed to being ruled according to their own traditions. Maria Theresa and Joseph II made it their overriding political aim to bring together administratively provinces and kingdoms that were otherwise separate, and which defended local privileges and immunities with tenacity and vigor.

Maria Theresa and Joseph II had two aims in their efforts to strengthen the central monarchy at the expense of provincial autonomy. The first, and easier to obtain, was centralization, which involved transferring political decision-making power from local notables to the royal councils. The second, much more difficult aim was uniformity, which meant treating all provinces and all social and legal classes alike in matters of law and administration. These policies constituted the core of enlightened despotism, in which reforms and modernization were imposed from above upon often hostile and unappreciative subjects. As enlightened despots, Maria Theresa and Joseph II had good intentions. For Maria Theresa, the difficulties in achieving centralization and especially uniformity had made her cautious, but Joseph was impatient, and his enlightened rationalism was as absolute as his despotism.

In 1780, the courteous, modest, diligent, and likeable Joseph II became sole ruler of Austria at the death of his mother, which enabled him to push his aims as hard and fast as he liked. He had several programs, which he instituted quickly throughout all of his diverse domains. Joseph disliked the independent power of the Roman Catholic Church. He began his reign with an edict of religious toleration (13 October 1781), fulfilling the Enlightenment ideal that religious persecution was squalid, loathsome, and beneath the moral dignity of a modern monarch. This followed the Edict on Idle Institutions (1780), which began the closure of monasteriesultimately about seven hundred of themwith their property seized to support secular state schools and charitable institutions. Joseph believed in religious liberty for everyone. His general religious opinions may be discerned from his comment that service to God was the same as service to the state.

Joseph combined secularism with reform of the courts and law within the Austrian crownlands. Centralization and uniformity were the basic principles he used to bring order and coherence to the chaos of multiple legal inheritances. He abolished the law that made mixed marriages a crime against religion, and he closed a number of ecclesiastical courts. Beyond these particular changes, Joseph simply nationalized the judicial system. Manorial and municipal courts had their jurisdiction circumscribed, and they came under much closer governmental scrutiny. He established new appellate courts, which were uniform throughout all his lands. He engaged in a favorite project of enlightened rulers and philosophers: codification of the existing welter of medieval law into a modern and coherent code that would apply uniformly to all the realm. He continued the work begun by Maria Theresa, who in 1770 had issued a criminal code, the Nemesis Theresiana. Joseph reformed this further with the Penal Code of 1787 and the Code of Criminal Procedure in 1788. A notable feature of this code was a substantial reduction in the death penalty. He also reformed civil law, with a code of the law of persons and of property in 1786. Finally, he abolished the patrimonial courts in the kingdom of Hungary, establishing new courts of first instance and bringing Hungarian procedure in line with the rest of the Austrian crownlands. Such judicial reform is rarely easy. Joseph's reforms deeply angered the Hungarian rural nobility, who complained about the loss of their ancestral privileges.

Joseph II departed most dramatically from his mother's pattern of cautious reform in the area of land and the abolition of serfdom. On 1 November 1781, he abolished some of the worst disabilities of serfdom in the lands of Bohemia and Austria, and he extended these reforms to Transylvania in 1783 and Hungary in 1785. In 1789 he abolished the remaining obligations of serfdom and changed the existing tax structure into a single tax on land. This was the culmination of his social reforms, which turned the serfs from patrimonial into royal subjects.

Joseph had tried to reform everything, never learning that politics is the art of the possible, not the perfect. He appears to have been convinced that imperial power was sufficient to change virtually every aspect of social and communal relationships in the crownlands. A flood of decrees would improve everything. In Joseph's world, however, inertia had greater power than command. He attempted to use central power to create the state, whereas it was the state that must come first for the central power to be effective.

See also Austria ; Bohemia ; Holy Roman Empire ; Hungary ; Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) .


Beales, Derek Edward Dawson. Joseph II. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1987.

Bernard, Paul P. Joseph II and Bavaria: Two Eighteenth-Century Attempts at German Unification. The Hague, 1965.

Gagliardo, John G. Reich and Nation: The Holy Roman Empire as Idea and Reality, 17631806. Bloomington, Ind., 1980.

Krieger, Leonard. The German Idea of Freedom: History of a Political Tradition. Chicago, 1972.

Padover, Saul K. The Revolutionary Emperor: Joseph the Second, 17411790. New York and London, 1934.

James D. Hardy, Jr.

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Joseph II

Joseph II (1741-1790) was Holy Roman emperor from 1765 to 1790. He is one of the best examples of Europe's enlightened despots.

Born in Vienna on March 13, 1741, the first son of Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, and Francis Stephen of Lorraine, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Joseph achieved his first triumph merely by being born a boy. A year earlier, as Joseph's grandfather Charles VI left no male heirs, Maria Theresa had succeeded to the hereditary dominions of the house of Hapsburg. Her succession, challenged by Frederick II of Prussia, had unleashed a general European war (War of the Austrian Succession), and the fact that Maria Theresa had previously given birth to three daughters had raised further questions about the succession.

The War of the Austrian Succession cost the house of Austria one of its richest provinces, Silesia, a loss confirmed in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Maria Theresa and her chief ministers were determined first to recover that province and later to compensate themselves somehow for its loss. Both of these aims required a general overhaul of the monarchy's inadequate armed forces, which in turn would require a general overhaul of the machinery of state in order to raise the necessary funds. Joseph was educated with these considerations in mind.

By the time he had reached the age of 20, with a high forehead, piercing blue eyes, a Roman nose, pouting lips, and a somewhat receding chin, Joseph had learned his lessons rather too well. In 1761 he submitted to his mother a memorandum proposing a general reform of the state that suggested a general centralization so pervasive that it not only would have done away with all of the remaining powers of the provincial estates but also would have overridden most of the national differences of the widespread dominions of the house of Austria. He was politely told to tend to his business. Meanwhile, he had married Isabella of Bourbon Parma in 1760; in 1762 she gave birth to a daughter, Maria Theresa; a year later Isabella died, a blow from which Joseph was never to recover. Although, for reasons of state, he entered into a second marriage, with Josepha of Bavaria, he treated her with disdain, and when she died in 1767, he refused to consider a third marriage. The death of his daughter in 1768 confirmed him in his growing misanthropy and finished the job of making him a compulsive worker.

Early Reign

In 1765 Joseph's father, who had with his wife's backing been elected Holy Roman emperor in 1742, died. Joseph was duly elected to succeed him in that dignity. His position was now an anomaly. His father, in spite of his high-sounding title, had been essentially a prince consort; Maria Theresa had given him no share in the administration of her dominions. Joseph was unwilling to play such a passive role. His mother now granted him the title of coregent, but it soon became clear that it too was an empty one. For the next 15 years Joseph would complain that he was unable to initiate what he regarded as necessary reforms.

The Empress did turn over to Joseph prime responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs. In 1772, in the wake of a joint Prussian-Russian initiative, the kingdom of Poland was partitioned. Maria Theresa was reluctant to participate in what she regarded as a blatantly immoral action, but Joseph insisted and Austria received the southern Polish province of Galicia. In 1778 Joseph attempted to take advantage of the fact that the ruling family of Bavaria, the house of Wittelsbach, had died out. Pressing some rather doubtful Hapsburg claims to the succession, he sent in Austrian troops. This action provided an opportunity for Frederick II of Prussia to pose as the defender of German liberties by declaring war on Austria. As neither side was anxious for a major war, operations soon degenerated into a desultory war of maneuver, contemptuously dubbed the "Potato War" by participants, who spent more time in digging up fields for food than in fighting. The Treaty of Teschen (1779) gave Austria insignificant territorial gains.

Enactment of Reforms

In 1780 Maria Theresa died, and Joseph, who now became sole ruler of all the Hapsburg dominions as well as emperor, was in the position of implementing the program of changes he had long desired. The reforms that Joseph now introduced had, with few exceptions, been under consideration in his mother's reign and were organically related to policies formulated under her. At any rate, the Josephinian reforms addressed themselves broadly to the inequities of the old regime.

In 1781 Joseph abolished serfdom, although the Austrian peasantry still was left with serious financial and work obligations. In the same year an edict of toleration lifted the Protestant and Greek Orthodox subjects of the monarchy to a condition of near equality. The next year the Jews of Austria also were granted a measure of toleration. The dominant position of the Catholic Church was further undermined by the creation of the Commission on Spiritual Affairs, which came perilously close to establishing secular control over the Church. At the same time Joseph ordered the dissolution of the majority of the monasteries in Austria. These events moved Pope Pius VI to take the unprecedented step of traveling to Vienna, but Joseph refused to give way on any question of substance, and Pius returned to Rome empty-handed.

In 1783 Joseph commuted the robot, the work obligation owed by the Austrian peasants to the noble owners of the land, to money payments, an action that led to untold difficulties. In order to assess the amount due by the peasants accurately, it was necessary to survey and register all land holdings. But, as the nobility had traditionally concealed a portion of its holdings in order to escape taxation, it now began to oppose Joseph in earnest and could do so more easily, for the Emperor had all but abolished censorship. In 1786 he did away with the restrictive craft guilds, a reform which was designed to create a distinct economic advantage but which added considerably to the number of Joseph's enemies. Finally, in 1789, Joseph abolished the robot entirely.

These reforms, striking as they did at the economic advantage enjoyed by the privileged orders, would have been difficult to enforce under ideal circumstances. As it was, Joseph's peculiar conduct of foreign policy in the 1780s did not contribute to the strength of his position. In 1784 he had tried to acquire Bavaria once more, this time in exchange for the Austrian Netherlands. Frederick II managed to block the scheme once more, this time by representing himself as the leader of the League of German Princes, dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo. Far worse, in 1787, as the result of an alliance recently concluded with Russia, Joseph involved Austria in a war with the Ottoman Empire. It was meant to be a joint venture with the Russians, but they were involved in a separate campaign against Sweden and left him to his own devices. The result was a military fiasco that brought on painful losses of territory and ruined Joseph's health. Concurrently his subjects in the Netherlands, resenting his attempts to enforce his ecclesiastical reforms there, rose in rebellion. Hungary, with the support of Prussian agents, was threatening secession. In 1790 Joseph was forced to repeal his reforms for Hungary. On Feb. 20, 1790, he died.

Further Reading

In English, the most recent biographies of Joseph are Saul K. Padover, The Revolutionary Emperor: Joseph II of Austria (1934; rev. ed. 1967), and Paul P. Bernard, Joseph II (1968). See also Edith M. Link, The Emancipation of the Austrian Peasant, 1740-1798 (1949).

Additional Sources

Beales, Derek Edward Dawson, Joseph II, Cambridge Cambridgeshre; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Blanning, T. C. W., Joseph II, London; New York: Longman, 1994. □

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Joseph II, 1741–90, Holy Roman emperor (1765–90), king of Bohemia and Hungary (1780–90), son of Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, whom he succeeded. He was the first emperor of the house of Hapsburg-Lorraine (see Hapsburg).

Early Reign

From the death of his father (1765) to the death of his mother (1780) Joseph ruled the Hapsburg lands jointly with his mother but had little authority. As a young man he had been profoundly impressed by the subhuman conditions of the peasantry that he saw while touring the provinces. Joseph was impatient with the slowness of Maria Theresa's reforms and on her death he was ready with a full revolutionary program.


After his mother's death Joseph instituted far-reaching reforms that were more the result of his personal philosophy and principles than of the philosophy of Enlightenment. He contemplated nothing less than the abolition of hereditary and ecclesiastic privileges and the creation of a centralized and unified state administered by a civil service based on merit and loyalty rather than birth. He planned a series of fiscal, penal, civil, and social laws that would have established some measure of social equality and security for the masses. A strong exponent of absolutism, he used despotic means to push through his reforms over all opposition in order to consolidate them during his lifetime.

Although Joseph was a faithful Roman Catholic, he also instituted a series of religious reforms aimed at making German Catholicism independent of Rome. He forbade religious orders to obey foreign superiors, suppressed all contemplative orders, and even sought to interfere with the training of priests. A personal visit (1782) of Pope Pius VI to Vienna did not halt these measures. The Patent of Tolerance (1781) provided for extensive, although not absolute, freedom of worship.

Joseph's main piece of legislation was the abolition (1781) of serfdom and feudal dues; he also enabled tenants to acquire their own lands from the nobles for moderate fees and allowed peasants to marry whom they wished and to change their domicile. Joseph founded numerous hospitals, insane asylums, poorhouses, and orphanages; he opened parks and gardens to the public; and he legislated to provide free food and medicine for the indigent. In judicial affairs Joseph liberalized the civil and criminal law codes, abolishing torture altogether and removing the death penalty.

Opposition and Failure

In fiscal matters Joseph was influenced by the physiocrats. He ordered a general reassessment of land preparatory to the imposition of a single land tax. This reform met with widespread opposition. Still more unpopular, however, was his attempt to abrogate local governments, customs, and privileges in his far-flung and multilingual dominions, which he divided into 13 circles centrally administered from Vienna. He even sought to impose German as the sole official language; a multilingual administration seemed irrational to him.

Revolts broke out in Hungary and in the Austrian Netherlands (see Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish); these were subsequently halted during the reign of Leopold II, Joseph's brother and successor, who rescinded Joseph's reforms in these lands. Most of Joseph's reforms did not outlive him. His failure to make them permanent was largely caused by his lack of diplomacy, by his untimely death, by the reaction produced by the French Revolution, and by his unsuccessful foreign policy. Moreover, his scattered and varied lands offered poor conditions for reform.

Foreign Problems

Joseph's plan to annex Bavaria to Austria and thus to consolidate his state was frustrated in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–79); his project to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria was thwarted (1785) by King Frederick II of Prussia, who formed the Fürstenbund [princes' league] for that purpose. Joseph allied himself with Czarina Catherine II of Russia (whom he accompanied incognito on her Crimean journey), hoping to share in the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. Austria joined Russia in the war of 1787–92 against the Ottoman Empire, but was unsuccessful.


Obsessed with his social responsibility, Joseph found only occasional time to interest himself in any but the utilitarian arts. With the exception of the pliable Kaunitz, Joseph's ministers found it difficult to collaborate with him. Joseph was hated and ridiculed by the clergy and nobles, but he was the idol of the common people. Judgments on Joseph II vary widely, but it is certain that he left a socially freer state on his death than he had found on his accession.


See S. K. Padover, The Revolutionary Emperor, Joseph II (rev. ed. 1967); P. P. Bernard, Joseph II (1968); D. E. D. Beales, Joseph II (2 vol., 1987–2009).

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Joseph II (1741–90) Holy Roman Emperor (1765–90). Co-ruler with his mother, Maria Theresa, until 1780, he introduced sweeping liberal and humanitarian reforms while retaining autocratic powers. Some of his reforms were reversed by his successor, Leopold II.