Born on This Day: Franz Joseph I.

On this day, 18th August 1830., was born Franz Joseph I., the longest-ruling and the most beloved Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Emperor’s 68-year long rule was in fact the third-longest in history of Europe. His long rule was based on the union of ancient Divine Right and the modern Parliamentary Right.

As a child Franz Joseph worshipped his grandfather, who died when he was almost five years old. He had three younger brothers – Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (born 1832), Archduke Karl Ludwig (born 1833) and Archduke Ludwig Viktor (born 1842). His sister, Maria Anna, passed away when she was only four. At age 13 Franz Joseph had already taken up the position of colonel in the Austrian army, and fought on the Front in Italy during May of 1848. Soon afterwards he joined his family in Innsbruck, where they had taken refuge from the demonstrations and rebellions in Vienna. He first met his future wife, his cousin Elisabeth, in Innsbruck, when he was 10 years old.

When Elisabeth was 16, he fell in love with her and married her in Vienna on April 24, 1854. Yet the marriage was fraught with tensions both personal and political. To make matters worse, their first daughter Sophie died at a young age, and their only son Rudolf killed himself. They had two other daughters, Gisela and Marie Valerie. Elisabeth was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898, an event which emotionally crushed Franz Joseph. In 1885, though, Franz Joseph had taken actress Katharina Schratt as his mistress and felt justified in securing Schratt for himself due to his wife’s physical and emotional distance.

During Revolutions of 1848., family fled to Olomouc in Moravia. It was in Olomouc on December 2, 1848 that Franz Joseph became Emperor at the early age of 18. During the 1848 to 1860 absolutism era in the Empire, Franz Joseph was well respected and was the glue that held the Empire together during tough times. But the fact that he was so popular made him an obstacle to those who wished to destroy the Empire. In 1853., Hungarian nationalist János Libényi stabbed him in the neck from behind. Emperor’s life was only saved by a high, sturdy collar that was part of his uniform.

A Constitution was passed in 1861., but the defeat in war against Prussia in 1866. resulted in the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867., forming a dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy. But this left many other ethnicities – over half of the Empire’s population – dissatisfied. In fact, their situation became probably worse than it was before the Compromise. The German-Czech issue was a great problem during Franz Joseph’s reign, as were issues with Croats, Serbs and others. Franz Joseph attempted to give more autonomy to various ethnic groups – a move that could have saved the Monarchy – but was prevented by the Austrian and Hungarian parliaments.

When Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1806., it made many enemies. While the move was well-received in Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, as well as Croatia, Hungarian and Austrian parliaments were against the expansion due to changing balance of power within the Monarchy. Serbia also was against it as it wanted to annex Bosnia itself. This tension led to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, where the Archduke was overseeing military maneuvers. Assassination was a major insult, and since Serbia had supported the Black Hand previously, Austria-Hungary wrote an ultimatum which was essentially a declaration of war.

Habsburg bureaucracy is generally considered to be strict but honest and very well-organized. One of the reasons why Lombardy, Veneto and Tuscany are three successful Italian regions is that Austrians ruled there for some time. Likewise, Slovenia and Croatia were by far the most well-developed areas of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as well as SFR Yugoslavia, precisely due to having been part of the Habsburg Monarchy for centuries. Those two countries financially and economically carried first the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and then Socialist Yugoslavia – a very heavy burden.

Franz Joseph was understanding of the needs of his people in a way no elected politician tends to be. He united Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, Rijeka and Međimurje under their Ban. From his earliest youth, it was impressed upon him that he had been chosen as emperor, an office that was to be served with humility. His mental isolation was reinforced by court ceremonial, which elevated his imperial majesty to an almost religious level. Franz Joseph was wholly imbued with the concept of his divine mission as emperor.

With passing years, he became taciturn and withdrawn, letting few of his emotions show. He strove to preserve a measure of distance between himself and the people around him, both as monarch and in the family. Franz Joseph was an authoritarian father figure, a side that became especially evident in the tragic fate of his son Rudolf: the emperor reacted to his son’s liberal ideas with a complete lack of understanding, and found his subsequent suicide wholly incomprehensible.

Emperor was averse to modernism and liberalism, and only reluctantly signed the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Croatia decided to negotiate with Buda instead of Vienna, and so the Emperor signed the Croatian-Hungarian Compromise in 1868. All countries will go on to regret these compromises in the future, as the Compromises meant that the Empire was transformed from the personal union into a real union. Further reforms however were left to successors due to Emperor’s advancing age.

Franz Joseph was dryly pragmatic and dismissed the philosophizing views of his wife as “cloud-clambering”. He also developed conservative tastes in painting and architecture. He attended social events mostly out of a sense of duty but disliked them intensely. He was sober and unimaginative: aware of his obligations to the point of pedantry, he considered punctuality and orderliness to be the highest virtues. Franz Joseph was a bureaucrat who was capable of processing immense quantities of work and adhered to a strict routine, developing “… an almost religious belief in the value of bureaucracy” (Holler). While it helped him manage the Empire, he also found himself unable to delegate even the smallest matters. While his caution served him well in avoiding mistakes, it also often prevented him from acting decisively when doing so was necessary as he always asked for more reports and information.

In personal life, he was very modest. In the first decades of his reign he was also straitened by financial circumstances, as although his uncle Ferdinand had abdicated he had not waived his right to the family fortune, with the result that Franz Joseph was dependent on the comparatively modest appanage he received from state funds. Even Elisabeth’s wedding jewellery was paid for by Ferdinand. Only after death of his uncle in 1875. did Franz Joseph have Ferdinand’s large private fortune at his disposal, which immediately manifested itself in a huge rise in expenditure for his wife Elisabeth, whose extravagant wishes he was now able to fulfil more easily. While very modest and frugal himself, he was generous towards those who were important to him, such as his wife or his companion Katharina Schratt. Despite complete inability to comprehend the extragavance of two women, he financed it with little complaint.

Stoic and decent, Franz Joseph was variously described by people around him as stoic or even unfeeling in his reaction to the numerous political and military defeats he suffered as ruler, which he took as personal setbacks. He remained similarly composed in the face of personal tragedies, including the early death of his first child Sophie, the execution of his brother Maximilian, the failed emperor of Mexico, the suicide of his only son Rudolf and the assassination of his beloved Sisi.

Entire generations grew up under his rule, which was remembered as an era of stability and prosperity, of rule of law and justice. Numerous companies were created, even in Croatia, which achieved its economic, cultural and social zenith. Bosnia and Herzegovina was liberated from Ottoman rule in 1887., and started rapidly developing.

The Emperor is also remembered for his statement that “My role as a ruler of the old type is to protect my peoples from their politicians”.

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