The ethos that originates from the era of the emperor and partly reflects his personality is still around today.
The fragments we need to understand a person emanate from the underlying system of his or her era. Franz Joseph I—the penultimate emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who died a century ago on 21 November—is no exception. For nearly 70 years, the history of this erstwhile great state cannot be separated from the character of its emperor. The subject of numerous pieces of research, Franz Joseph I as a personality tends to remain only half-explained, as he gets lost amid “great” historical events. Several biographers who have studied the emperor from the various dimensions of his life have stated that there is a kind of opacity to him—it seems that the surface and depth of his personality are one and the same. This despite the abundance of illustrative material, detailed documentation on the emperor’s everyday life, speculation on the tragedies that struck his family, and hundreds of academic and popular research works on his person and empire.
It is perhaps because the material has proven unyielding that many have considered Franz Joseph dull, robust and unemotional. Lifting the veil of privacy reveals cases that seem to confirm this first impression. This is why I consider it more fruitful to view the life of the emperor in its entirety, from childhood to old age, not relationship-by-relationship or scene-by-scene. True, if one is to apply this approach, political events and private life become a mere framework for the biography of the ruling individual. However, one can imagine that, towards the end of Franz Joseph’s long life and rule, he began to esteem quite different things on which to look back and meditate than in his younger days—his childhood and education, personal traits—and, as he grew older, the heritage of his family. From this point of view, it seems that Franz Joseph was one the most complex personalities among the Habsburgs next to Maximilian I. More distant mental connections, such as the authority of a monarch who endures across eras and forms of public order, and the invisible survival of federacy in the Austrian state, are also intriguing.
The birth of Franz Joseph in 1830 ensured the continuation of the Habsburgs’ male line. The mental and physical deficiencies of Ferdinand, the firstborn son of the then emperor Franz I, ruled out his siring of successors, but the emperor’s second son Franz Karl and his wife Sophie of the House of Wittelsbach amply fulfilled his dynastic expectations, raising four healthy sons.
Franz Joseph was a particular favourite of the emperor, and grandfather influenced the boy greatly until he died when the child was six. The mentally deficient Ferdinand acceded to the throne, and little Franzi, as he was called at home, became second in the line of succession after his father. The upbringing that the energetic and ambitious Sophie organised for her son was based on the same principles that Franz I had prescribed for his sons. The child was never left alone and idle—he was under the constant supervision and monitoring of teachers and mentors. The programme accentuated physical and professional rather than intellectual preparation. It was noted that Franz Joseph had many of the traits of an exemplary regimental commander: limited views, personal courage and unconditional loyalty. However, his education corresponded to the reality that awaited the future ruler—good riding skills, military preparation and proficiency in languages were more important than the ability to enjoy poetry or the beauty of history.
Notwithstanding that a tempestuous 50 years had passed, there were no differences worthy of note between the upbringing of grandfather and grandson; only the minority languages of the empire had gained a greater presence in the curriculum. Despite the seemingly broad reach of the training, it was designed to cultivate a distaste of liberalism and prepare the youth for authoritarian rule in the spirit of the good old days, since at the time no one imagined the crumbling of that world order. All of this left an indelible mark on the personality of Franz Joseph; even in his dotage he preferred to dress in uniform—a simplified version of the one he had worn 65 years earlier on the battlefield at Santa Lucia.
The words that the teenage Franz Joseph heard most often from his secular and clerical mentors were probably legitimacy, duty and faith. The heir to the throne was taught the unchanging credo of the House of Habsburg: the family had been chosen by God to realise His will and they had to dedicate their lives to serving Him; they had been called to rule by following tradition, and for the benefit of their subjects they would sacrifice their lives and personal preferences to achieve the contentment and happiness of their subjects. Almost the same arguments can be found in the Austrian press today, especially when a politician’s abuse of his or her office or other slip-up becomes public knowledge. The heritage of the Habsburgs is thus still very much alive.
However, let us return to Franz Joseph’s time. Alas, these inherently noble ideals did not allow subjects to have free will or the ability to decide what would make them happy. As revolutions erupted in 1848, there were few governments in Europe that could respond to events adequately. The real threat for the Habsburgs arose not in rebellious Vienna but in Hungary, while the future of the dynasty was in the hands of a youth wearing the epaulettes of a colonel, who was in fact still too young to be even a lieutenant. Still, it was mainly due to his youth and the hopes for the future represented by it that Franz Joseph was met with moving affection and loyalty to the dynasty in all country regions, so different from the surly and discontent Vienna, on his way to the headquarters of commander-in-chief Radetzky. The fighting that followed was successful for the Habsburgs, although it came at the price of Vienna being besieged (the first siege since 1683), urban warfare, and many deaths and prisoners.
By that time the Habsburg family council had reached the unanimous decision that the mentally feeble Ferdinand could be an emperor with the support of his councillors in peacetime, but not in the new circumstances. The throne was to be passed on to the next generation. They ran into legal difficulties with the family’s statutes, which did not recognise the options of the emperor abdicating or an heir to the throne rescinding his rights or handing power over to the next-but-one in the succession. In fact, the pressure for change came from a small group—General Windischgrätz, Empress Maria Anna, Archduke Johann and Archduchess Sophie—and was an anti-traditionalist, even revolutionary act based on the collective consciousness of the Habsburgs rather than the family’s written laws. Since a coronation in the strict sense of the word was not possible, the change in power was simply called an accession to the throne, although there was no throne or imperial regalia at the actual event.
It was, in essence, a coup, and the Hungarians were especially keen to dispute the legitimacy of the young emperor. Appeasing the Hungarian rebellion became the primary task of Franz Joseph as a ruler. After a strenuous effort, peace was restored in the Habsburg realm but various stakeholders attributed a different value and meaning to it. As Austria-Hungary was a large state, stability and order were considered the ultimate merits and it was the main task of the empire to guarantee them. From the point of view of nationalists, the bitterness that emerged from the crushing of their aspirations for freedom killed the hope of a lasting peace between the various parts of the empire. During the following 20 years until the creation of the dual monarchy, Hungarian dissidents retreated but continued to support Ferdinand as their lawful monarch.
The image of the new monarch was consciously cultivated from the start. Franz Joseph gradually and systematically established himself in the people’s imagination as the “first servant” of the nation, modelling himself on Joseph II and Leopold I—even the names he chose for himself upon accession paid homage to his great-great uncle Joseph II and his grandfather Franz I. The family primarily counted on the emperor’s youth and energy. Thanks to photography, Franz Joseph was a familiar face to his future subjects almost from birth and his first communion was turned into a national event with the help of widely circulated print photographs. With some 3,300 preserved images taken throughout his lifetime, Franz Joseph was more visible to the public than any Habsburg before him.
After marrying the Bavarian princess Elisabeth, his role as an affectionate lover and dedicated pater familias was emphasised. This picture did not quite correspond to reality. The emperor’s feelings towards his wife that had emerged on first sight never waned throughout his life. The empress’s feelings, on the other hand, probably never budded at all. In many ways, Franz Joseph’s marriage was a conflict of fictional quality between strong emotions and never-ending duties. Unfortunately for the parties in the relationship but fortunately for the state, the sense of duty always won. When the political compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867 restored Hungary’s historical position as a kingdom, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned Hungarian monarchs in Budapest as a show of reconciliation. This was the only time that the empress, reluctant to perform official duties, had a significant political role. Her enthusiasm towards all that was Hungarian (she learnt to speak the language fluently and preferred to engage Hungarian aristocrats to serve her) was an act of rebellion against the society life in Vienna that she detested; in addition, this made her hugely popular in Hungary. This benefited the Ausgleich a great deal, just like the overall image of the imperial family: the emperor, not yet 40, with his gorgeous empress and three lovely little children whom he clearly adored. The wounds that had been inflicted during the violent repression of the Budapest rebellion seemed to have been healed in light of this idyllic sight. It is true that the state’s bureaucracy became even more complicated: a Hungarian entity (königlich) was added to the Austrian element (kaiserlich). Despite everything, the fulfilment of hopes and optimism about the future was in the air. Indeed, the Hungarian compromise of 1867 marked the beginning of one of the most stable periods of Franz Joseph’s reign.
To counter the active development of national and class-based movements, the state had to find new ways of strengthening loyalty to the ruling dynasty. The monarchy’s grasp, which reached from the past to the future, was most consistently expressed in architecture. The first manifestation of this was the Votivkirche in Vienna, which had been erected to commemorate the emperor’s safe deliverance from an attempted assassination in 1853. After that, numerous cities showed their patriotism by naming hospitals, schools and orphanages after the emperor and empress. Often a member of the imperial family would participate in the opening ceremony, which was another way of bringing the monarchy closer to the people. Thus, the ruler transformed into a person of flesh and blood, whom many subjects had seen with their own eyes. The persons of the emperor and empress, and their wedding anniversaries, were also a focal point for expressing loyalty: the imperial couple’s silver anniversary in 1879, the wedding of crown prince Rudolf and princess Stephanie of Belgium in 1881, the celebration of 1,000 years of Hungarian monarchy in 1896, the emperor’s jubilees in 1898 and 1908, etc.
When the emperor reached a more mature age, it was said that several generations of Austro-Hungarian children knew what God looked like—he was a bearded man with a determined gaze who looked down from the walls of every classroom. The dark background in the portrait was, however, significant. The emperor’s intimate circle had become very quiet. Franz Joseph’s parents, his little daughter, two brothers, the crown prince and the empress had died years before. Of those closest to him, only his younger brother Viktor Ludwig was still with the emperor, but his lifestyle simply embarrassed Franz Joseph. He seemed to remain the same. Towards the end of his life, when he was nearly 80, Franz Joseph seemed to become an icon, as if he was already among those who dwelled in the imperial crypt. Anxieties about the new century were in the air, but for Vienna and the empire the bearded old man who carried himself well—the elderly gentleman from Hofburg—signified a past that could not be returned to.
But it is not just the past. A few years ago, I inadvertently witnessed an intimate scene at the Burggarten in Vienna that seems so significant and symbolic today that I must describe it here. It was dusk and a middle-aged (judging by his walk) man stepped over a low wrought-iron fence, walked to the monument of Franz Joseph that stood nearby and placed his hand on the statue’s shoe. He stood quietly for some minutes, meditating or reminiscing, then left as discreetly as he had come. We can only imagine the context of this gesture. Was there a personal connection that stretched across generations, old family lore? Was the commemorator a descendant of a friend or servant of the emperor? Maybe he was even of the Habsburg blood? Or was it just an ordinary citizen who had tired of hectic modern times and honoured the better periods of the past?
Strictly speaking, we cannot say that Franz Joseph was an autocratic ruler, since the emperor never had absolute power. He certainly never hesitated to take personal responsibility for the numerous problems and failures in war and peace that occurred during his reign. The personal notes he wrote in old age portray him as a pedantic and mannerist individual. At times, he seems a kind old monarch with such modest personal needs that he slept in a narrow iron bed (this was his deathbed, which is displayed in the Schönbrunn Palace), while in other instances he became an autocratic general who would fly into a rage over a junior officer’s sleeve button that did not conform to regulations. As an old man, the emperor preferred an orderly life free from interruptions and confusion. His working methods, which had developed decades before, never changed.
The empire Franz Joseph ruled over and which was widely ridiculed was, indeed, special in the constitutional sense but it was also unique in its ambivalence, just like the House of Habsburg itself. It has been stated that, upon close observation, one can detect something artistic in the appearance, actions and attitudes of many members of the dynasty —something that Franz Joseph seems not to possess at first glance. However, we need to recall the unmoving calm, almost lunatic inerrable ethos that characterised the young man in his 20s when he was planning a modern bureaucratic autocracy, which he considered the only possible countermeasure to the revolutions that were ravaging his entire state. This can be seen as the determined attitude of an artist towards his uncooperative material, out of which he wants to sculpt his world.
In some comprehensible but not fully explicable way, the Habsburgs blot out the line between past and present, as they cross it with their own continuum. At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Austrian army won a grand prix for the most elegant uniform; at the same time, modernism was bubbling to the surface in all forms of art in the Austrian capital. In this pluralist and fermenting cultural space, described by the term “Vienna 1900”, the Habsburgs’ penchant for effect and cultivating one’s image turned out to be the perfect hothouse for the motley lushness of fin de siècle.
Franz Joseph was naturally aware of new currents in culture and society, and although he did not personally like them, he was not discouraged by change as such. He had to cope with a world in which power was slipping from his hands, where it had naturally belonged owing to an ancient birthright. The nature and manifestations of his success may be debated, but we can hardly say that he failed in his aspirations.
The ethos of Franz Joseph’s age, which partly also reflects his personality, has spread to present-day Austria—it can be seen upon close inspection both in everyday life and in the country’s politics. As deep-rooted currents of mentality are inert, and have their own historical background, their logic of emergence, development and persistence, the temporal distance should be no surprise in this instance.
Specifically, the Austrian mindset shows the intertwining of two opposing world-views. On the one hand, there is the federative world-view and a large state dating back to imperial times that can be said to be represented by the Habsburgs; while on the other, there are much more limiting elements that place importance on nationhood, being a nation-state and embracing “all that is our own” in the Austrian identity. I can easily get the mental picture of the meeting of two currents headed in opposite directions—a situation that can create breakers, vortices and gulfs. In everyday public administration, this manifests itself in the two-tier Austrian system that consists of the federal states and federal government—it is not at all easy to justify the practicability of such a system in a small country like Austria. Austrians naturally understand it themselves. The subject of abolishing the federal states as administrative units has been raised from time to time but discussion has been fruitless. Thinking outside the twin frames of “duchy” and “empire” seems to disturb some sort of basic instinct in the soul of an Austrian—the two levels have simply always been there. Austrians like to administer and be administered, and the argument of saving money has so far always lost out to tradition.
These two primary world-views are clearly manifested in the internal policy of Austria as well. In recent decades, the federative notional “large state” element has been represented by two main political forces, social democracy and Christian democracy. The nationalist movement was dealt a serious blow because of National Socialism and has not played a significant part since World War II. It received a new lease of life with the rise in popularity of the right-wing Freedom Party that saw the movement enter government for the first time in the 1980s. Looking at recent events, the same kind of mental tension was built into the 2016 Austrian presidential election, the final results of which were recently released. The debate, which lasted for months, put two almost polar opposites up against one another: 72-year-old professor of economics Alexander Van der Bellen, an expert on fiscal policy and public management, a convinced Europhile (more specifically, supporter of a federal Europe), seasoned politician and the descendant of immigrants; and Norbert Hofer, a 45-year-old weapons enthusiast with an engineering degree who made a career in the Freedom Party—a populist who flirted with the promise of a referendum on “Öxit” and who is allegedly even more radical than he lets on, as he masks his views with oratory and charm.
Bystanders shouldn’t, of course, judge whether Austrians’ choices are good or bad, but the number of discontented voters would have remained more or less the same if the results had been reversed. What we can say is that, in oscillating between the mental poles described above, the elections provided a new mandate for federacy and membership within Europe, thereby also indirectly celebrating the heritage of the Habsburgs and the Austrian empire. Franz Joseph would most probably be pleased.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.