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Joseph II (Joseph Benedikt Anton Michael Adam; 13 March 1741 – 20 February 1790) was Holy Roman Emperor from August 1765 and sole ruler of the Habsburg lands from November 1780 until his death. He was the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Emperor Francis I, and the brother of Marie Antoinette. He was thus the first ruler in the Austrian dominions of the House of Lorraine, styled Habsburg-Lorraine. Joseph was a proponent of enlightened absolutism; however, his commitment to modernizing reforms subsequently engendered significant opposition, which resulted in failure to fully implement his programmes. He has been ranked, with Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia, as one of the three great Enlightenment monarchs. His policies are now known as Josephinism. He died with no sons and was succeeded by his younger brother, Leopold II.

Early life

Joseph was born in the midst of the early upheavals of the War of the Austrian Succession. His formal education was provided through the writings of Voltaire and the Encyclopédistes , and by the example of his contemporary (and sometimes rival) King Frederick II of Prussia. His practical 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 Holy Roman Empire.

Marriages and children

Joseph married Princess Isabella of Parma in October 1760, a union fashioned to bolster the 1756 defensive pact between France and Austria. (The bride's mother, Princess Louise Élisabeth was the eldest daughter of the incumbent King of France. Isabella's father was Philip, Duke of Parma.) Joseph loved his bride, Isabella, finding her both stimulating and charming, and she sought with special care to cultivate his favor and affection. Isabella also found a best friend and confidant in her husband's sister, Maria Christina, Duchess of Teschen.

The marriage of Joseph and Isabella resulted in the birth of a daughter, Maria Theresa. Isabella was fearful of pregnancy and early death, largely a result of the early loss of her mother. Her own pregnancy proved especially difficult as she suffered symptoms of pain, illness and melancholy both during and afterward, though Joseph attended to her and tried to comfort her. She remained bedridden for six weeks after their daughter's birth. Almost immediately on the back of their newfound parenthood, the couple then endured two consecutive miscarriages—an ordeal particularly hard on Isabella—followed quickly by another pregnancy. Pregnancy was again provoking melancholy, fears and dread in Isabella. In November 1763, while six months pregnant, Isabella fell ill with smallpox and went into premature labor, resulting in the birth of their second child, Archduchess Maria Christina, who died shortly after being born. Progressively ill with smallpox and strained by sudden childbirth and tragedy, Isabella died the following week. The loss of his beloved wife and their newborn child was devastating for Joseph, after which he felt keenly reluctant to remarry, though he dearly loved his daughter and remained a devoted father to Maria Theresa.

For political reasons, and under constant pressure, in 1765, he relented and married his second cousin, Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria, the daughter of Charles VII, Holy Roman Emperor, and Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria. This marriage proved extremely unhappy, albeit brief, as it lasted only two years. Though Maria Josepha loved her husband, she felt timid and inferior in his company. Lacking common interests or pleasures, the relationship offered little for Joseph, who confessed he felt no love (nor attraction) for her in return. He adapted by distancing himself from his wife to the point of near total avoidance, seeing her only at meals and upon retiring to bed. Maria Josepha, in turn, suffered considerable misery in finding herself locked in a cold, loveless union. Four months after the second anniversary of their wedding, Maria Josepha grew ill and died from smallpox. Joseph neither visited her during her illness nor attended her funeral, though he later expressed regret for not having shown her more kindness, respect, or warmth. One thing the union did provide him was the improved possibility of laying claim to a portion of Bavaria, though this would ultimately lead to the War of the Bavarian Succession.

Joseph never remarried.


Joseph was made a member of the constituted council of state (Staatsrat) and began to draw up minutes for his mother to read.

Where Joseph differed from great contemporary rulers, and where he was akin to the Jacobins, was in the intensity of his belief in the power of the state when directed by reason. As an absolutist ruler, however, he was also convinced of his right to speak for the state uncontrolled by laws, and of the sensibility of his own rule. 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 molding of humanity 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 of Austria. The overweening character of the Emperor was obvious to Frederick II of Prussia, 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."

After the death of his father in 1765, he became emperor and was made co-regent by his mother in the Austrian dominions.

During these years, Joseph traveled much.

Joseph was also 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 of Austria, 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 favorably by the French army or navy. [4]

In 1778, he commanded the troops collected to oppose Frederick, who supported the rival claimant to Bavaria.

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).

Sole reign

The death of Maria Theresa on 29 November 1780 left Joseph free to pursue his own policy, and he immediately directed his government on a new course, attempting to realize his ideal of enlightened despotism acting on a definite system for the good of all. He undertook the spread of education, the secularization of church lands, the reduction of the religious orders and the clergy in general to complete submission to the lay state, the issue of the Patent of Tolerance (1781) providing limited guarantee of freedom of worship, and the promotion of unity by the compulsory use of the German language (replacing Latin or in some instances local languages)—everything which from the point of view of 18th-century philosophy, the Age of Enlightenment, appeared "reasonable". He strove for administrative unity with characteristic haste to reach results without preparation. Joseph carried out measures of emancipation of the peasantry, which his mother had begun, and abolished serfdom in 1781. In 1789, he decreed that peasants must be paid in cash payments rather than labor obligations. These policies were violently rejected by both the nobility and the peasants, since their barter economy lacked money. Joseph also abolished the death penalty in 1787, a reform that remained until 1795.

After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Joseph sought to help the family of his estranged sister Queen Marie Antoinette of France and her husband King Louis XVI of France. Joseph kept an eye on the development of the revolution, and became actively involved in the planning of a rescue attempt. These plans failed, however, either due to Marie Antoinette's refusal to leave her children behind in favor of a faster carriage or Louis XVI's reluctance to become a fugitive king. Joseph died in 1790, making negotiations with Austria about possible rescue attempts more difficult. It was not until 21 June 1791 that an attempt was made, with the help of Count Fersen, a Swedish general who had been favored at the courts of both Marie Antoinette and Joseph. The attempt failed after the King was recognized from the back of a coin. Marie Antoinette became increasingly desperate for help from her homeland, even giving French military secrets to Austria. Nevertheless, even though Austria was at war with France at the time, it refused to directly help the by now completely estranged French Queen.

When Maria Theresa died, Joseph started issuing edicts, over 6,000 in all, plus 11,000 new laws designed to regulate and reorder every aspect of the empire.

Joseph set about building a rationalized, centralized, and uniform government for his diverse lands, a hierarchy under himself as supreme autocrat.

As privy finance minister, Count Karl von Zinzendorf (1739–1813) introduced a uniform system of accounting for state revenues, expenditures, and debts of the territories of the Austrian crown. Austria was more successful than France in meeting regular expenditures and in gaining credit. However, the events of Joseph II's last years also suggest that the government was financially vulnerable to the European wars that ensued after 1792.

The busy Joseph inspired a complete reform of the legal system, abolished brutal punishments and the death penalty in most instances, and imposed the principle of complete equality of treatment for all offenders.

In 1781–82 he extended full legal freedom to serfs.

To equalize the incidence of taxation, Joseph caused an appraisal of all the lands of the empire to be made so that he might impose a single and egalitarian tax on land.

In the cities the new economic principles of the Enlightenment called for the destruction of the autonomous guilds, already weakened during the age of mercantilism.

To produce a literate citizenry, elementary education was made compulsory for all boys and girls, and higher education on practical lines was offered for a select few.

By the 18th century, centralization was the trend in medicine because more and better educated doctors were requesting improved facilities.

Joseph's policy of religious toleration was the most aggressive of any state in Europe.

Probably the most unpopular of all his reforms was his attempted modernization of the highly traditional Catholic Church, which in ancient times had helped establish the Holy Roman Empire beginning with Charlemagne. Calling himself the guardian of Catholicism, Joseph II struck vigorously at papal power. He tried to make the Catholic Church in his empire the tool of the state, independent of Rome. Clergymen were deprived of the tithe and ordered to study in seminaries under government supervision, while bishops had to take a formal oath of loyalty to the crown. He financed the large increase in bishoprics, parishes, and secular clergy by extensive sales of monastic lands. As a man of the Enlightenment he ridiculed the contemplative monastic orders, which he considered unproductive. Accordingly, he suppressed a third of the monasteries (over 700 were closed) and reduced the number of monks and nuns from 65,000 to 27,000. The Church's ecclesiastical tribunals were abolished and marriage was defined as a civil contract outside the jurisdiction of the Church.

Joseph sharply cut the number of holy days to be observed in the Empire and ordered ornamentation in churches to be reduced.

In his Patent of Toleration of 1781, the Catholic Church lost its monopoly on faith as it partains to the Emperor and his closest environment -Protestants and Jews were permitted to practice freely. Nevertheless, the Catholic precedence was upheld. This decision took effect especially in Austria.

The Secularization Decree issued on January 12, 1782 banned several monastic orders not involved in teaching or healing and liquidated 140 monasteries (home to 1484 monks and 190 nuns).

His anticlerical and liberal innovations induced Pope Pius VI to pay him a visit in March 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. Freemasonry attracted many anticlericals and was condemned by the Church. Joseph's feelings towards religion are reflected in a witticism he once spoke in Paris. While being given a tour of the Sorbonne's library, the archivist took Joseph to a dark room containing religious documents, and lamented the lack of light which prevented Joseph from being able to read them. Joseph put the man at rest by saying "Ah, when it comes to theology, there is never much light." Thus, Joseph was undoubtedly a much laxer Catholic than his mother.

In 1789 he issued a charter of religious toleration for the Jews of Galicia, a region with a large Yiddish-speaking traditional Jewish population.

The Habsburg Empire also had a policy of war, expansion, colonization and trade as well as exporting intellectual influences.

The Balkan policy of both Maria Theresa and Joseph II reflected the Cameralism promoted by Prince Kaunitz, stressing consolidation of the border lands by reorganization and expansion of the military frontier. Transylvania was incorporated into the frontier in 1761 and the frontier regiments became the backbone of the military order, with the regimental commander exercising military and civilian power. "Populationistik" was the prevailing theory of colonization, which measured prosperity in terms of labor. Joseph II also stressed economic development. Habsburg influence was an essential factor in Balkan development in the last half of the 18th century, especially for the Serbs and Croats.

Multiple interferences with old customs began to produce unrest in all parts of his dominions.

Nobility throughout his empire were largely opposed to his policies on taxes, and his egalitarian and despotic attitudes.

In Lombardy (in northern Italy) the cautious reforms of Maria Theresa enjoyed support from local reformers.

In 1784 Joseph II attempted to make German an official language in Hungary after he had renamed the Burgtheater in Vienna in German National Theatre in 1776. Ferenc Széchényi responded by convening of a meeting and said there: "We'll see whether his patriotism also passes to the Crown." Julius Keglević responded with a letter in German to Joseph II: "I write German, not because of the instruction, Your Grace, but because I have to do with a German citizen." The "German citizen" Joseph II let them bring the Holy Crown of Hungary to Vienna, where he gave the keys of the chest in which the Crown was locked to the Crown guards Joseph Keglević and Miklos Nádasdy. Joseph II refrained from staging a coronation, and Ferenc Széchényi pulled out of politics. The Allgemeines bürgerliches Gesetzbuch also called Josephinisches Gesetzbuch the predecessor of the Allgemeines bürgerliches Gesetzbuch the Civil Code of Austria, which applies to all citizens equally, was published on 1 November 1786 after 10 years work on it since 1776. § 1: "Every subject expects from the territorial prince security and protection, so it is the duty of the territorial prince, the rights of subjects to determine clearly and to guide the way of the actions how it is needed by universal and special prosperity." [31] It is a clear distinction between the rights of subjects and the duties of the territorial prince, and not vice versa. Territorial prince (Landesfürst) does not mean nationalist prince (Volksfürst). In Hungary there was no codified civil code until 1959. [[CITE|-1|]] The Crown was brought back to Hungary in 1790, on this occasion the people held a mass celebration. One reason for his refusal to be crowned with the Holy Crown of Hungary might have been, that Alcuin had written in a letter to Charlemagne in 798: "And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness."[10]

By 1790 rebellions had broken out in protest against Joseph's reforms in the Austrian Netherlands (the Brabantian Revolution) and Hungary, and his other dominions were restive under the burdens of his war with the Ottomans. His empire was threatened with dissolution, and he was forced to sacrifice some of his reform projects. On 30 January 1790, he formally withdrew almost all his reforms in Hungary.


In November 1788, Joseph returned to Vienna with ruined health and was left abandoned. 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, recognized that his servants could not, or would not, carry out his plans.

Joseph died on 20 February 1790.

Memory and legacy

In 1888, Hungarian historian Henrik Marczali published a three-volume study of Joseph, the first important modern scholarly work on his reign, and the first to make systematic use of archival research.

P G M Dickson noted that Joseph II rode roughshod over age-old aristocratic privileges, liberties, and prejudices, thereby creating for himself many enemies, and they triumphed in the end.

The Austrian-born American scholar Saul K. Padover reached a wide American public with his colorful The Revolutionary Emperor: Joseph II of Austria (1934). Padover celebrated Joseph’s radicalism, saying his “war against feudal privileges” made him one of the great “liberators of humanity.” Joseph’s failures were attributed to his impatience and lack of tact, and his unnecessary military adventures, but despite all this Padover claimed the emperor was the greatest of all Enlightenment monarchs. While Padover depicted a sort of New Deal Democrat, Nazi historians in the 1930s made Joseph a precursor of Hitler.

A new era of historiography began in the 1960s.

Joseph's image in popular memory has been varied.

The Budapest District of Józsefváros was named for the Emperor in 1777 and bears this name up to the present.

Like many of the "enlightened despots" of his time, Joseph was a lover and patron of the arts and is remembered as such. He was known as the "Musical King" and steered Austrian high culture towards a more Germanic orientation. He commissioned the German-language opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail from Mozart. The young Ludwig van Beethoven was commissioned to write a funeral cantata for him, but it was not performed because of its technical difficulty.

Joseph is prominently featured in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, and the movie based upon it. In the movie, he is played by actor Jeffrey Jones as a well-meaning but somewhat befuddled monarch of limited but enthusiastic musical skill, easily manipulated by Salieri; however, Shaffer has made it clear his play is fiction in many respects and not intended to portray historical reality. Joseph was portrayed by Danny Huston in the 2006 film Marie Antoinette .

Titles and styles

  • 13 March 1741 – 4 April 1764: His Royal Highness Archduke Joseph of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, Prince of Tuscany
  • 4 April 1764 – 18 August 1765: His Majesty The King of the Romans
  • 18 August 1765 – 20 February 1790: His Imperial Majesty The Holy Roman Emperor

Joseph II, by the grace of God elected Holy Roman Emperor, forever August[21]


See also

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