Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria-Hungary
by Claudia Willetts
Edmond Taylor observes in The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order 1905-1922, that to the world of our (grand-)fathers, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria-Hungary was a symbol of human and institutional permanence. In all, he reigned sixty-eight years, from 1848 to 1916. After Queen Victoria, he was the supreme personification of nineteenth-century values and tradition. Francis Joseph was born in 1830, and had a Spartan upbringing as the nephew of Emperor Ferdinand I, who personally groomed the young Archduke to become the next Emperor. In 1848, the year of political eruptions throughout Europe, Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his eighteen-year-old nephew.
Joseph Redlich tells us in Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria: A Biography, of the extent and difficulty of the task which fell to the young emperor in his early youth. The whole weight of the problems of his realm rested on him; he stood firm, and this was his distinguishing mark. Constitutional forms might alter, but the Emperor retained his conception of the ruler whose will is always the strongest political force in his realm. He upheld the belief that in the exercise of the office given him by Providence, the Christian ruler was limited only by his own conscience. His life exposed to us over a lengthy period of rule, is the history of his countries and peoples, of Europe, and of the world.
Jonathan F. Scott informs us in Twilight of the Kings, that the two great divisions of the Emperor’s realm, Austria and Hungary, were placed on an equal footing in 1867. Each division had an elected Parliament, and political and personal liberties were guaranteed. However, the Emperor was the one unifying force in the Dual Monarchy (Crown of St Wenceslas and Crown of St Stephen respectively). The various nationalities in his dominions, Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Poles and more, were usually at swords’ points with one another. Edward Crankshaw in The Fall of the House of Habsburg, remarks that it was precisely because the Emperor stood high above all interests, all parties, all aristocratic pretensions, that Austro-Hungarian society became democratic. Further, the author states that the existence of a strong Parliament is not synonymous with democracy. The government of Austria was not Parliament, but the administration working for the Emperor, and the administration drew its members from all races and all levels of society.
Francis Joseph’s personal life, according to Eclipse of Kings: European Monarchies in the Twentieth Century, by Denis Judd, was filled with family and dynastic tragedy. Although he loved his beautiful young Empress, she stayed away from her husband, the Imperial court, even Austria, for months. Edmond Taylor writes that their first-born, a daughter, died in the early years of their married life. In 1867, Francis Joseph lost the favourite comrade of his boyhood, his younger brother Maximilian, who was shot by firing squad while Emperor of Mexico. Then in 1889, the gifted but unstable heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolph was found dead beside the corpse of his mistress. The crowning bereavement was the death of his beloved Empress, stabbed by an anarchist in 1898. Finally, Denis Judd tells us that in1914, when there was no indication of impeding doom, the next heir to the throne, the Emperor’s nephew Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated while on an official visit to the Balkans. Amidst the turmoil and gloom of World War I, the eighty-six-year-old Emperor died in 1916. He left his great-nephew, the good and dedicated Karl I, who was driven into exile by forces beyond his control, without having abdicated, after less than two years’ reign, He died in penurious exile in 1922, leaving his son Archduke Otto to be the Head of the House of Habsburg.