Joseph Benedikt Anton Michael Adam (March 13 1741 February 20, 1790) was Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790. He was the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis I. Joseph was a proponent of enlightened absolutism. He is most famous for the vehement opposition to his many reforms by peasants and lords, and their almost total failure.
He is known by the names in the languages of his territories: German: Joseph II., Hungarian: II. JózsefDutch: Jozef II, Italian: Giuseppe II, Czech: Josef II, Serbian: Јосиф II / Josif II Slovak: Jozef II, Slovene: Jožef II Romanian: Iosif al II-lea,, Croatian: Josip II., Polish: Józef II'.
He was made a member of the constituted council of state (Staatsrat) and began to draw up minutes (to which he gave the name of "Reveries") for his mother to read. These papers contain the germs of his later policy, and of all the disasters which finally overtook him. He was a friend to religious toleration, anxious to reduce the power of the church, to relieve the peasantry of feudal burdens, and to remove restrictions on trade and knowledge. In these, he did not differ from Frederick, Catherine of Russia, or his own brother and successor Leopold II, all enlightened rulers of the 18th century. He tried to liberate serfs, but that did not last after his death.
Where Joseph differed from great contemporary rulers, and where he was in the fanatical intensity of his belief in the power of the state when directed by reason, of his right to speak for the state uncontrolled by laws, and of the sensibility of his 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.
Until the death of his mother in 1780, Joseph was never quite free to follow his own instincts. After the death of his father in 1765, he became emperor and was made co-regent by his mother in the Austrian dominions. As emperor, he had no real power, and his mother had resolved that neither her husband nor her son should ever deprive her of sovereign control in her hereditary dominions. Joseph, by threatening to resign his place as co-regent, could induce his mother to abate her dislike for religious toleration. He could and did place a great strain on her patience and temper, as in the case of the first partition of Poland and the Bavarian War of 1778–1779, but in the last resort, the empress spoke the final word.
During these wars, Joseph traveled much. He met Frederick the Great privately at Neisse in 1769, and again at Mährisch-Neustadt in 1770. On the second occasion, he was accompanied by Count Kaunitz, whose conversation with Frederick may be said to mark the starting point of the first partition of Poland. To this and to every other measure which promised to extend the dominions of his house, Joseph gave hearty approval. Thus, he was 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.
In 1778, he commanded the troops collected to oppose Frederick, who supported the rival claimant to Bavaria. Real fighting was averted by the unwillingness of Frederick to embark on a new war and by Maria Theresa's determination to maintain peace. In April 1780, Joseph paid a visit to Catherine II of Russia, against the wish of his mother.
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).
In addition, Joseph abolished serfdom in 1781. Later, 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.
Also he abolished the death penalty in 1787 and it remained until 1795.
Joseph set about building a rational, centralized, and uniform government for his diverse lands, a hierarchy under himself as supreme autocrat. The personnel of government was expected to be imbued with the same dedicated spirit of service to the state that he himself had. It was recruited without favor for class or ethnic origins, and promotion was solely by merit. To further uniformity, the emperor made German the compulsory language of official business throughout the Empire. The Hungarian assembly was stripped of its prerogatives, and not even called together
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 the events of Joseph II's last years also suggest that the government was financially vulnerable to the European wars that ensued after 1792.
In 1781–82 he extended full legal freedom to serfs. Rentals paid by peasants were to be regulated by officials of the crown and taxes were levied upon all income derived from land. The landlords, however, found their economic position threatened, and eventually reversed the policy. Indeed, in Hungary and Transylvania, the resistance of the magnates was such that Joseph had to content himself for a while with halfway measures. Of the five million Hungarians, 40,000 were nobles, of whom 4,000 were magnates who owned and ruled the land; most of the remainder were serfs legally tied to particular estates. After the collapse of the peasant revolt of Horea, 1784–85, in which over a hundred nobles were killed, the emperor acted. His Imperial Patent of 1785 abolished serfdom but did not give the peasants ownership of the land or freedom from dues owed to the landowning nobles. It did give them personal freedom. Emancipation of the Hungarian peasantry promoted the growth of a new class of taxable landholders, but it did not abolish the deep-seated ills of feudalism and the exploitation of the landless squatters. Feudalism finally ended in 1848.
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. The goal was to modernize the relationship of dependence between the landowners and peasantry, relieve some of the tax burden on the peasantry, and increase state revenues. Joseph looked on the tax and land reforms as being interconnected and strove to implement them at the same time. The various commissions he established to formulate and carry out the reforms met resistance among the nobility, the peasantry, and some officials. Most of the reforms were abrogated shortly before or after Joseph's death in 1790; they were doomed to failure from the start because they tried to change too much in too short a time, and tried to radically alter the traditional customs and relationships that the villagers had long depended upon.
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. Joseph II's tax reforms and the institution of Katastralgemeinde (tax districts for the large estates) served this purpose, and new factory privileges ended guild rights while customs laws aimed at economic unity. Physiocratic influence also led to the inclusion of agriculture in these reforms.
By the 18th century, centralization was the trend in medicine because more and better educated doctors requesting improved facilities; cities lacked the budgets to fund local hospitals; and the monarchy's wanted to end costly epidemics and quarantines. Joseph attempted to centralize medical care in Vienna through the construction of a single, large hospital, the famous Allgemeines Krakenhaus, which opened in 1784. Centralization worsened sanitation problems causing epidemics a 20% death rate in the new hospital. which undercut Joseph's plan, but the city became preeminent in the medical field in the next century.
Probably the most unpopular of all his reforms was his attempted modernization of the highly traditional Roman Catholic Church. 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. Church courts were abolished and marriage was defined as a civil contract outside the jurisdiction of the Church.
Joseph sharply cut the number of holy days and reduced ornamentation in churches. He greatly simplified the manner of celebration. The results of these reforms included a deepening crisis of faith; the disappearance of piety; and the decline of morality. Opponents of the reforms blamed them for revealing Protestant tendencies, with the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and the emergence of a liberal class of bourgeois officials. Anti-clericalism emerged and persisted, while the traditional Catholics were energized in opposition to the emperor.
His anticlerical and liberal innovations induced Pope Pius VI to pay him a visit in July 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. 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 religion, there is never much light." Thusly, Joseph was undoubtedly a much laxer Catholic than his mother, perhaps even to the point of being Catholic in name only simply because it was a requirement for the throne.
In foreign policy, there was no Enlightenment, only greed for more territory and willingness to undertake unpopular wars. Joseph was an excessively belligerent, expansionist leader, a man who sought to make the Hapsburg monarchy the greatest of the European powers. Joseph's principal ambition was to acquire Bavaria, if necessary in exchange for Belgium (the Austrian Netherlands), but in 1778 and again in 1785 he was thwarted by King Frederick II of Prussia, who had a much stronger army. This failure caused Joseph to seek territorial expansion in the Balkans, where he became involved in an expensive and futile war with the Turks (1787–1791). Joseph's participation in the Ottoman war was reluctant, attributable not to his usual acquisitiveness, but rather to his close ties to Russia, which he saw as the necessary price to be paid for the security of his people.
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.
Finally, Joseph joined Russia in an attempt to pillage the Ottoman Empire. It began on his part in an unsuccessful and discreditable attempt to surprise Belgrade in time of peace, and was followed by the ill-managed campaign of 1788. He accompanied his army, but showed no capacity for war; the low point of this campaign was the extraordinary incident known as the Battle of Karansebes, in which the Austrian army ran away from an imaginary Ottoman army.
The nobility throughout his empire hated him: they hated his taxes, his egalitarianism, his despotism and his puritanism. In Belgium and Hungary everyone resented the way he tried to do away with all regional government, and to subordinate everything to his own personal rule in Vienna. The ordinary people were not happy. They loathed the Emperor's interference in every detail of their daily lives. Why should they be forbidden to bake ginger-bread just because Joseph thought it bad for the stomach? Why the Imperial edict demanding the breast-feeding of infants? Why the banning of corsets? From these and a thousand other petty regulations, enforced by a secret police, it looked to the Austrians as though Joseph were trying to reform their characters as well as their institutions Only a few weeks before Joseph's death, the director of the Imperial Police reported to him: "All classes, and even those who have the greatest respect for the sovereign, are discontented and indignant.
In Lombardy (in northern Italy) the cautious reforms of Maria Theresa in Lombardy enjoyed support from local reformers. Joseph II, however, by creating a powerful imperial officialdom directed from Vienna, undercut the dominant position of the Milanese principate and the traditions of jurisdiction and administration. In the place of provincial autonomy he established an unlimited centralism, which reduced Lombardy politically and economically to a fringe area of the Empire. As a reaction to these radical changes the middle class reformers shifted away from cooperation to strong resistance. From this basis appeared the beginnings of the later Lombard liberalism.
By 1790 rebellions had broken out in protest against Joseph's reforms in Belgium and Hungary, and his other dominions were restive under the burdens of his war with Turkey. His empire was threatened with dissolution, and he was forced to sacrifice some of his reform projects. His health shattered by disease, alone, and unpopular in all his lands, the bitter emperor died February 20, 1790. He was not yet forty-nine. Joseph II rode roughshod over age-old aristocratic privileges, liberties, and prejudices, thereby creating for himself many enemies, and they triumphed in the end. Joseph's attempt to reform the Hungarian lands illustrates the weakness of absolutism in the face of well-defended feudal liberties.
Behind his numerous reforms lay a comprehensive program influenced by the doctrines of enlightened absolutism, natural law, mercantilism, and physiocracy. With a goal of establishing a uniform legal framework to replace heterogeneous traditional structures, the reforms were guided at least implicitly by the principles of freedom and equality and were based on a conception of the state's central legislative authority. Joseph's accession marks a major break since the preceding reforms under Maria Theresa had not challenged these structures, but there was no similar break at the end of the Josephinian era. The reforms initiated by Joseph II were continued to varying degrees under his successor Leopold and later successors, and given an absolute and comprehensive "Austrian" form in the Allgemeine Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch of 1811. They have been seen as providing a foundation for subsequent reforms extending into the 20th century, handled by much better politicians than Joseph II.
Joseph II married, as his first wife, Isabella Maria of Parma, a daughter of Philip, Duke of Parma. They had a daughter, named Maria Theresa, who died just before turning eight in 1770. After Archduchess Isabella's death on November 27, 1763, a political marriage was arranged with Maria Josepha of Bavaria (d. 1767), a daughter of Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria (the former emperor Charles VII) and Marie Amalie, Archduchess of Austria. The second marriage proved extremely unhappy.
Joseph was succeeded by his brother, Leopold II.
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 clueless 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.
Many volumes of the emperor's correspondence have been published. Among them are: