The Last Monarch of the Old School: Emperor Francis Joseph

The story of the life of Emperor Frances Joseph in not so much a life story as it is a study in political power in the modern world, a history of the Habsburg monarch, his empire, and its tumultuous nature. His 68-year reign is the third-longest in the recorded history of Europe (after those of Louis XIV of France and Johannes II, Prince of Liechtenstein).

In his time he was Emperor of Austria, King of Bohemia, King of Croatia, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Galicia and Lodomeria, Grand Duke of Cracow and President of the German Confederation. This makes his name impossible to avoid in the ongoing political questions about Central Europe: what are viable social and cultural sources of support for state power in an ethnically-diverse part of the world? What institutions and mentalities can a government use to create at least a sense of unity in its territories? These were and are difficult problems, which many would claim to be practically insoluble in the context of the competing interests of Central Europe.

Francis Joseph, an honourable man in many respects, ruled over central Europe for almost seventy years, and yet, amazingly he was never skilful nor farsighted enough to tackle these problems. Throughout the period from 1848 to 1916, the Habsburg monarch ignored or was unable to deal with many of the ethnic and political complexities of his vast domain. He therefore chose to focus most of his attention and energy on the preservation of dynastic power, and concentrated his considerable efforts on military and foreign affairs. The deep irony of Francis Joseph's strategy was that even while trying to press domestic concerns to the margins of imperial policy, a near impossibility in late Austria-Hungary, his empire was still largely undone by failed military strategies and foreign policy mistakes. All of the stresses within the Habsburg monarchy, which were apparent to informed viewers prior to the First World War, came to a head during and immediately after the First World War and transformed the boundaries and politics of Central Europe.

Francis Joseph had little sympathy or real understanding for elections, party politics, or popular sovereignty, yet he introduced universal male suffrage to the empire in an effort to expand its political base and perhaps return the monarchy to its central position in late imperial Austria. The attempt largely failed. Nonetheless, Francis Joseph remained at the centre of policy making in the empire until the First World War.
Joseph's old school training and education convinced him that the power of the monarch should be absolute or nearly so. This vision of power did not, of course, mesh well with an age where liberal models of politics were gaining ground. In the view of most historians, he was far too concerned with the military and foreign policy to grasp all the intricacies of Austrian domestic politics, let alone to understand the social, cultural, and ethnic questions which were at the bottom of those politics. The monarch was also not always the best judge of character and sometimes appointed ministers who were either not up to the task or who were simply outmatched by political developments in the Habsburg monarchy. Finally, Francis Joseph had to come to terms with the assassination of his wife, Elizabeth (stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in 1898), and his nephew, Francis Ferdinand (1914), as well as with the suicide of his son, Rudolph (1889). It is easy, therefore, to feel sympathy for the old man and wonder if any monarch would have been up to the personal and political challenges inherent in a multiethnic empire in the late imperial period.

He did, however, miss several key opportunities to strengthen his monarchy. Even in matters of foreign policy and the military, Francis Joseph made several crucial mistakes. For example, he misread the situation in Italy in the war with Piedmont. He squandered several chances to move the empire away from political dependence on Germany in the post-1890 period. In addition, he did not always handle well or balance adroitly the numerous concerns of ethnic groups within the monarchy.
Recent literature tends to agree that Francis Joseph was responsible for many of his own political difficulties, and his policies and inactions helped shape the future history of the successor states of Central Europe. For example, he greatly encouraged the growth of a bureaucratic state that has became so much a part of Central European life. By constantly pursuing dynastic advantage over national cooperation, the emperor worsened ethnic tensions in the empire. Most importantly, Francis Joseph did not provide much in the way of a 'public education' for his subjects. Such an education would have downplayed the person of the monarch and fostered instead 'Austrian' or at least state patriotism to counter the ethnic and social meltdown that overtook the Habsburg monarchy. Francis Joseph did not merely preside over an immense empire, he helped bring it down and to create a problematic legacy for the countries which would rise in the vacuum created by its collapse.

In one of the longest and most important reigns in modern European history, this old man witnessed the birth of modern Europe itself and was spared only the final act in the dissolution of an empire by two years. What he did and did not do in response to these developments deserves close observation and analysis.

Further Reading:

Beller places the monarch at the heart of political decision-making in Austria and demonstrates Francis Joseph's role in exacerbating some of the chronic problems of Central Europe.

Focusing on the personal life of Emperor Francis Joseph and his family, Kiste examines their personal relationships against the turbulent background of the 19th century.