Mozart’s emperor

May 29 2015

In 1780 Maria Theresa was succeeded by her son Joseph II.

She was the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Francis died in 1765. Maria Theresa went into perpetual mourning.

Joseph succeeded Francis as Emperor and lived until 1790. His successor was Leopold II.

His mother continued to rule the Hapsburg lands of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia jointly with her son, as, after the War of the Austrian Succession, she had done with her husband. (Another of her children, Marie Antoinette, married Louis XVI.) Joseph’s war against feudal privileges began at her death.

Joseph was a devoted disciple of the French philosophers, and he attempted to carry out uncompromisingly in backward Austria that transformation of society which was accomplished a few years later in such partial measure in progressive France. The actual achievements of the French Revolution were none the less stupendous, however short they fell of their aim, and they were only made possible by the spiritual response of the Nation to the philosophers’ gospel. Joseph undertook the mission of the “philosopher-king,” and attempted by means of “Strong Government” to wrench unenlightened populations out of their cherished traditions and convert them forcibly by the accomplished fact. Neglecting all local differences of language, religion, and custom, he proceeded to refashion his dominions on a pedantically uniform plan.

Joseph’s crusade was a disastrous failure. Reform was checkmated by revolt, and he was killed by ten years of unrelieved disappointments. Yet his short reign has determined the course of the Monarchy’s internal history ever since.

He contrived to range Nationality and Enlightenment in opposite camps. His dogmatic disregard for national feeling awakened it into frantic life, and it arrayed itself for the battle not in the “Rights of Man” (of which it had never heard), but in the familiar harness of mediæval vested interests. The centres of nationalistic resistance were the provincial “estates,” bodies representative not of peoples but of castes. They were dominated by the nobility and the Church, so that nationalism in the Hapsburg Empire started with a strong feudal and clerical bias, which has left permanent effects. The movement has remained legalistic instead of becoming philosophic. It looks to the past rather than to the future, and has fallen a willing victim to the malady of “historical sentiment.”

Joseph’s death in 1790 concluded the first bout in the contest between enlightened despotism and nationalistic reaction, but the factors of success and failure were too evenly divided between the two forces to allow a speedy decision. The struggle continued intermittently till the revolutionary year of 1848 brought it to a head.

Maron, Joseph II

Anton von Maron, Joseph II (1741-90), Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, in the uniform of a field marshal of Austria, wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece, the Military Order of Maria-Theresa and a plaque of the Order of St Stephen of Hungary, Château de Versailles

Nationality and the War, Dent, 1915

One Response to “Mozart’s emperor”


  1. […] Hence the era which saw the ‘rational’ reforms of the Emperor Joseph II in Austria [recent post, older one], the Revolution in France, the birth of modern democracy in America, and the programmes […]


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