Austria Under Maria Theresa

Austria was the only European country in the eighteenth century fortunate enough to be ruled by three monarchs who considered reform an absolute priority. Joseph II and Leopold II were both theorists, but Maria Theresa regarded reform as a practical necessity. For her the catalyst of innovation was Austria's poor performance against Prussia in the First and Second Silesian Wars (1740–2 and 1744–5). In her Political Testament, written between 1749 and 1750, Maria Theresa made it quite clear that it was the humiliation of losing Silesia to Frederick the Great which produced the decision to reform: ‘And when I saw that I must put my hand to the Peace of Dresden, my state of mind suddenly changed, and I directed my whole attention to internal problems and to devising how the German Hereditary Lands could still be preserved and protected.’ The need for substantial change was evident, for ‘Divine Providence had shown me clearly that the measures essential for the preservation of the monarchy could not be combined with these old institutions, nor put into effect while they existed.’ She was advised by her leading ministers that any chance of Austria's regaining Silesia would depend on the maintenance of an army of 110, 000 men, together with the necessary reform of the central and local government institutions. Hence Maria Theresa did not hesitate and was prepared ‘to alter the whole rotten constitution, central and provincial’.1

This was an essentially pragmatic response and it would be difficult to claim that the determination to reform was conditioned by any theoretical or philosophical considerations. Nevertheless, the eighteenth–century Enlightenment did, in certain circumstances, exert some influence, although usually indirectly. Maria Theresa herself was not connected with the mainstream of European intellectual development, unlike Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great and Joseph II; indeed, she was intensely suspicious of the French and German philosophers of the period. She was, however, served by ministers like Haugwitz and Kaunitz who were openly sympathetic to the Enlightenment. Although these adopted a practical approach to institutional reform, their ideas reflected current theories and doubtless derived some inspiration from them. Some advisers, including van Swieten, Muller, von Sperghes and von Sonnenfels, had a direct impact on the Church and education. Their enthusiasm for the Enlightenment, however, was never allowed to get out of hand. Maria Theresa gave them only a certain amount of leeway before seeking to reimpose the clamps of conservatism. Here ministers normally accepted the limits she imposed, but there were occasions on which they clearly regarded her as obstructive and joined with her son and co–regent, Joseph II, in defying her. Maria Theresa became increasingly worried about the radical views of Joseph after 1765, with the result that the second half of her reign was concerned with maintaining the status quo.

The changes made during the reign will be dealt with in three sections: constitutional and judicial, economic and social, and religious.

In her Political Testament Maria Theresa considered that the basic problem which confronted her in the administration of the Habsburg Empire was the excessive independence of the provincial estates in Austria and Bohemia from the central government in Vienna. Another issue, with which the Political Testament seems to have been much less concerned, was the absence of any common institutions for the Habsburg Empire as a whole: Austria and Bohemia, Hungary, the Netherlands and Milan, all had different forms of government. But Maria Theresa was more immediately concerned with establishing her authority in the Austro–Bohemian Lands than with setting up a new structure which would also incorporate Hungary and Belgium. This decision was the result of a careful appraisal of the political situation. Recentralization at the expense of the Austrian and Bohemian estates seemed a much more realistic proposition than a large– scale attack on Hungarian and Belgian separatism. The former had been identified, with ministerial advice, as a limited objective which could be achieved by careful reform. The latter was little more than a remote ideal and could well precipitate revolution.

The reform of central government in the Austro–Bohemian Lands was to be carried out in two main phases, in direct response to Austria's military failures against Prussia in the Silesian Wars and the Seven Years’ War. During the first phase the central departments of the administration were restructured for greater efficiency and were given specialized functions.* As yet, however, there was no really effective co–ordinating body. This was provided during the second phase and took the form of the State Council, which now supervised the activities of those bodies concerned with finance, commerce, justice, internal affairs and foreign affairs. On the whole, the system was more complex than that of Prussia, from which it derived much of its inspiration. This meant that there was less scope for effective royal control at all levels, and that Maria Theresa's bureaucracy was therefore more dependent on the initiative of ministers than Frederick the Great's.

Local government changes were introduced mainly because the inadequate revenues provided by the Provincial Estates made the maintenance of a large army in wartime virtually impossible. In Maria Theresa's words, The Crown's resources began to dry up.’1 Haugwitz, therefore, substituted the annual payment of contributions by the Estates for a ten–year grant, and proceeded to under mine provincial autonomy by extending the scope of central government intervention. Each province within the Hereditary Lands was placed under the control of royal officials, although this replacement of local aristocratic powers by a new bureaucracy met some resistance. The results were not quite as extensive as Maria Theresa had hoped. Nevertheless, there was a steady increase in revenue, that of Bohemia being 25 per cent higher in 1763 than it had been in 1739.*


Figure 9. The Austrian Empire in 1738

In 1751 Haugwitz suggested the application of these central and provincial reforms to Hungary. Maria Theresa, however, refused, showing a pronounced degree of cautious conservatism. She was not prepared to risk internal chaos for the sake of establishing the principle of uniformity, even though it was quite clear that uniformity was what her ministers, and later Joseph II, wanted. In 1741 she had agreed with the Hungarian Diet that fundamental Hungarian liberties should be maintained in return for military contributions, and she realized that a frontal assault of the type later attempted by Joseph would certainly be resisted. Consequently, she adopted piecemeal measures, restraining her ministers from producing systematic plans. These measures included enticing the magnates of Hungary into imperial service by granting special honours and privileges, which met with relative success during her reign. From 1765, however, Joseph II made no secret of his reservations; and his eventual solution, direct rule, was the exact opposite of Maria Theresa's. Once the latter's restraining hand had been removed, Joseph threw caution to the winds. He observed, in words which would have made his mother shudder, ‘I have tried to grasp the nettle by the root. Should this prove ineffectual, the die has been cast for rebellion.’2

The influence of the Enlightenment was directly apparent in the changes made in central and local government in the area concerning the judiciary and the law, particularly in the establishment of an independent Supreme Court. The principle of the separation of powers, especially judicial and executive, was characteristic of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and was best expressed in Montesquieu's L'Esprit des Lois. Maria Theresa tolerated a far greater degree of judicial independence than did Frederick the Great, who put a stop to attempts to apply the principle in practice in Prussia. The reason for the acceptance of the separation of powers in Austria was probably that the country's archaic judicial structure needed extensive rationalization, and that this theory seemed to provide a workable basis for a simple and effective solution. The question of codification, however, presented problems: the conservative Codex Theresiana (1766) and Nemesis Theresiana (1770) were both criticized by ministers like Kaunitz and by intellectuals like Martini and Sonnenfels, all supported by Joseph II. Their complaint was that the Codes contained many anachronisms and that they compromised too heavily with tradition at the expense of improvement. Typically, the result was a long period of stalemate, as Maria Theresa shelved the issue rather than adopt measures she considered innovatory.

The loss of Silesia and, with it, 25 per cent of the Habsburgs’ potential revenue, acted as a strong inducement for Maria Theresa's government to stimulate economic growth. The measures taken were not at first influenced directly by the Enlightenment (or, in this instance, by the Physiocrats).They tended, at least until the Co–Regency, to conform to mercantilist tradition which had been practised in many European countries in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, including France and Brandenburg–Prussia. The importance of direct government interference was acknowledged and this was achieved through various commissions. The main effects were the gradual industrialization of Bohemia, extensive improvements in transport, and the encouragement of exports by government subsidies. On the other hand, the reforms had an unfinished quality which was recognized by Joseph II. Although not always in agreement with Physiocratic theories, Joseph did agree with Turgot's attack on guild privileges, and he favoured a system which encouraged greater competition. He observed, for example: ‘Nothing is more necessary than liberty for commerce and industry; nothing is more harmful than exclusive rights and monopolies.’3 Less cautious than Maria Theresa, Joseph recommended changes which were not actually introduced until he became sole ruler from 1780. A major example of his more radical approach was his belief that the internal free trade within the Habsburg lands should include Hungary as well as Austria and Bohemia. Maria Theresa had excluded Hungary because of its political separatism and the consequent difficulty of establishing a uniform fiscal and economic structure. Joseph adopted a more theoretical solution to both problems.

The issue of serfdom was directly related to Austria's need to make maximum use of her resources. The institution was therefore attacked mainly on fiscal grounds: that the Robot (labour dues) and other forms of subjection to the nobility usually reduced the capacity of the peasantry to contribute to the state revenues. This was an argument which the Enlightenment frequently advanced. Quesnay, for example, wrote: ‘Poor peasant, poor kingdom; poor kingdom, poor king.’4 Maria Theresa's attitude was influenced less by theoretical considerations than by financial need and her own personal aversion to some of the worst excesses of serfdom. More radical by far was the opinion of Sonnenfels, who reflected the general philosophical view of the eighteenth century: ‘Despotism of oppressive princes over people is a horror. Yet the most obnoxious, the most intolerable despotism is the one which citizens exercise over their fellow citizens.’5 Similar views came from Joseph II, who repeatedly reproached the Estates in Austria and Bohemia for their unwillingness to alleviate the burdens of the serfs voluntarily. Yet this more radical approach failed to make much impact while Maria Theresa lived. Some specific concessions, it is true, were granted. These included the right of serfs to marry freely (1753), the fixing of Robot dues to a total of three days per week in Silesia in 1771 and two days per week in Lower Austria in 1772, and the introduction of the Robot Patent (1775). These, however, were inadequate, especially since they were accompanied by an Edict in 1772 which provided for heavy punishment for intransigent behaviour by the peasantry, and therefore confirmed the nobility's dominance. Slow and limited measures were not to Joseph's taste, and he issued a series of patents emancipating the serfs within one year of Maria Theresa's death.

According to Voltaire, ‘The law of intolerance is absurd and barbaric: it is the law of tigers.’6 The one thing which all the philosophers had in common was a desire for universal religious freedom. Several rulers were affected by the same belief, particularly Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great. Maria Theresa, however, was not among them. She remained staunchly Catholic, and at times appeared rigidly repressive. She told Joseph II in 1777: Toleration, indifference are precisely the true means of undermin ing everything, taking away every foundation.’7 Her attitude to the Jews was especially violent: ‘I know no worse public plague than this people, with their swindling, usury and money making. they are therefore to be kept away from here and avoided as far as possible.’7 Her bigotry was thoroughly unacceptable to her ministers and advisers and Joseph II came into conflict with her more than once. He observed, for example, in 1777: ‘In politics, difference of religions in a state is an evil in so far as there exist fanaticism, disunity and party spirit.’7 As for the Jews, Joseph indicated clearly that he was in favour of their emancipation.

Maria Theresa may have possessed strong prejudices as a side–effect of sincere religious belief. But she did not necessarily equate her convictions with maintaining the power and structure of the Church in its existing form. Again, she showed a pragmatic approach in allowing her ministers to progress so far in the direction of anticlericalism before calling a halt. In 1766, a Decree was issued enforcing a tax on all lands acquired by the Church since 1716. In 1769 the United Bohemian and Austrian Chancellery was given a subcommittee called the Concessus in Publico Ecclesiasticis,which proceeded to take a series of actions against monasteries. Furthermore, although Maria Theresa expressed dismay about the suppression of the Society of Jesus in Austria in 1773, she took no direct action to prevent it. It seems possible that she reluctantly sanctioned the efforts of Kaunitz and Sonnenfels to reduce the power of the Church because she felt that this could only lead to the strengthening of monarchical power; she probably regarded it as a struggle against Ultramontanism and papal pretensions. When she felt that the basic tenets of religion were threatened, however, she proved implacable. Kaunitz, Sonnenfels and Joseph II could not budge her from her decision to maintain a rigid censorship and she pointedly told Joseph: ‘He is no friend of humanity...who allows everyone his own thoughts.’7 Toleration for the Protestants and Jews therefore had to wait until the end of the co–regency.

The reign of Maria Theresa was essentially a link between the old, archaic Austria which had been struggling to find a new role after the end of the Counter Reformation, and the new experimental period introduced by Joseph II after 1780. Like Frederick William I of Prussia, she presided over extensive institutional changes and, according to Frederick the Great, ‘she put her finances into an order unknown to her ancestors’.8 Yet she was always conscious of the pull of tradition and she constantly feared the implications of new ideas. ‘I am too old to accommodate myself to such ideas, and pray to God that my successor will never try them.’9


* The first reforms occurred during the 1740s and early 1750s. They included the reorganization of the Hofkriegsrat (War Council) and the establishment of the Staatskanzlei (for foreign affairs), the Oberste Justizstelle (Supreme Court), and the Directorium in Publicis et Cameralibus. The Directorium was in charge of internal affairs and also supervised the Hofkammer (Treasury), the Kommerzdirektorium (Directory of Commerce) and the Hofrechnungskammer (Accounting Office). At first it was assumed that the Directorium would be able to co-ordinate the activities of the various bodies; the Seven Years' War, however, soon revealed that it was unequal to the task, and that Austria needed an overall supervisory institution. This was provided in 1760. Consisting of a core of influential ministers and advisers, the new Staatsrat (State Council) directed the activities of all other chancelleries and directories. In 1761 the Directorium in Publicis et Cameralibus was replaced by the United Austrian and Bohemian Chancellery, which had special responsibility for local government, but no longer for finance.

* The basic territorial unit of local government was the province. Each province was brought under the control of a Reprasentation und Kammer (Representation and Treasury) or, to use a term which came into use later, a Gubernium. The Gubernia were subdivided into Kreise (circles), each of which was under the authority of a Kreishauptman (district official).

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