Austria Under Joseph II

Turgot, influential Physiocrat and Director General of the French finances between 1774 and 1776, once observed that, given five years of despotism, he could make France free. This paradox expressed the disillusionment of eighteenth–century philosophers with any Régime neither bold nor powerful enough to impose sweeping reforms from above. The best prospect of success seemed to be offered by those rulers who associated themselves closely with the Enlightenment while retaining their powers intact. This did not really apply to France, but in Austria in the 1780s there was a chance to prove the validity of Turgot's statement. Joseph II, after the removal of his mother's restraining hand in 1780, ruled as an absolute monarch for ten years and introduced a series of radical changes.

Joseph II's enlightened despotism contained two basic elements. First, his politicies and intentions usually had a theoretical foundation. He said, for example: ‘Since I have ascended the throne and wear the first diadem in the world, I have made philosophy the legislator of my Empire.’1Second, the application of these policies depended on their unquestioning acceptance by his subordinates. ‘I insist most forcibly that the principles and orders which I issue are followed and carried out without exception.’2 He believed, therefore, that enlightenment could be achieved only by absolute rule.

Unfortunately, Joseph II ultimately failed to live up to the reputation of model ruler which he possessed at the beginning of his reign. The reason is often sought in his ideas; but these were fundamen tally sound and need not necessarily have been impossible to implement. A more convincing interpretation would blame his methods and the actual use of his autocratic powers. Frederick the Great, who commented freely on most of his contemporaries, believed that Joseph II, in everything he attempted, committed the blunder of taking the second step before the first. Certainly Joseph seemed to move too quickly and impatiently, without adequate preparation or consolidation. The result was twofold. His haste to introduce changes sometimes led him to take short cuts and to endanger some of the very principles which he claimed to uphold. At times, therefore, he came perilously close to crossing over from enlightened despotism to unqualified tyranny. Moreover, sound and urgently needed institutional changes confused and infuriated the people on whom they were imposed, largely because of the lack of any preliminary information, consultation or compromise. Ironically, the most progressive and enlightened of all the Habsburgs became one of the most unpopular, and his own disillusionment was inevitable. Joseph remarked towards the end of his reign that ‘almost no–one is animated by zeal for the good of the fatherland; there is no–one to carry out my ideas’.3 In 1788 and 1789 there was a rapid slide into a reactionary policy, based on extensive police powers, until the whole experiment was abandoned in 1790.

These general comments will be developed in a more detailed examination of Joseph II's administrative and judicial, social and economic, and religious and intellectual changes.

Joseph II was more aware than any of his predecessors of the lack of administrative cohesion within the Habsburg dominions. He accepted and developed the previous measures of centralization initiated during the reign of Maria Theresa, but he was, at the same time, impatient to complete the process. The growth of the bureaucracy had, before 1780, been confined to the Hereditary Lands of Austria and Bohemia. Joseph now intended to spread this from the core of the Habsburg dominions to the peripheral areas, including Hungary, Belgium and Milan. He believed that ‘all the provinces of the Monarchy constitute one whole and therefore can have only one aim’.2 As an overall policy this was clearly desirable; only too often Maria Theresa had shelved the problems of the non–German lands, and in Hungary had maintained harmony only by negative measures.

The changes in the administration within the Habsburg lands were conducted strictly according to Joseph's principle of uniformity. The bureaucracy in Austria and Bohemia was not altered fundamentally; the emphasis was on streamlining the departments at the centre and reducing the number of Gubernia at local level. The real alterations came to Hungary, who lost her autonomy and was now ruled by the Hungarian and Transylvanian Chancellery. Hungary became a single Gubernium and was divided into provinces ruled by Commissars. These provinces were further divided into Comitati (counties), which were administered by Vizegespane. A similar model was applied to Belgium, consisting of a General Council which was served at regional level by intendants, the lowest divisions being localities, governed by Commissars. Milan's structure included the new Consiglio di Governo, which operated through eight provinces.4 Joseph's intention was to implement some of the political ideals of the Enlightenment, by establishing administrative harmony, eliminating wasteful regional antipathies, and providing the basis for a common judicial structure and economic policy. In practice, however, the whole system collapsed. His efforts at recentralization misfired and provoked the worst outbreak of regionalism experienced by the Habsburgs in the eighteenth century.

The main reason for this was the method by which the reforms were introduced. Joseph decided from the beginning to deal summarily with any opposition or hesitation, with any vested interest or regional liberty. He tried to achieve within a few years the type of homogeneous empire which had eluded his predecessors for centuries, without taking the essential first step of seeking the confidence of his subjects. For example, he antagonized the Magyars at the beginning of his reign by refusing to be crowned King of Hungary and by withdrawing the concessions which Maria Theresa had made to the nobility. Worse followed when, in 1784, he decreed that German should be the sole official language. This applied to Hungary as well as to Austria and Bohemia, and was an obvious attempt to cement the main parts of the Habsburg dominions together by attacking the basis of their heterogeneity—linguistic and cultural differences. But such precipitate policies were less likely to succeed in establishing uniformity than were carefully planned and phased measures. Joseph II was attempting to solve an historic problem in a single edict. In his haste he overlooked the powerful traditions of the Magyar nobility and managed only to accentuate their dislike of too close a connection with the German core of the Habsburg Empire.

Joseph had the advantage of a corps of officials who had already experienced administrative changes in Austria and Bohemia during the reign of Maria Theresa. Yet he failed to take advantage of their knowledge and, at times, treated them badly. He prevented the formation of a cabinet of ministers, fearing, like Frederick the Great, that it would undermine royal autocracy. He frequently upset his officials by ignoring their advice, and Kaunitz reproached him for this on many occasions. He regarded officials as having a purely executive function, and during his reign the conditions of service deteriorated rapidly, as he demanded that ‘they must never flag, physically or mentally’.3 He bombarded them with abuse and instituted a system of secret police and private dossiers just as extensive as that employed in Prussia. The result was growing resentment and a gradual decline of initiative. Joseph became increasingly impatient with what he saw as deliberate obstruction, laziness and unwillingness to carry out policies. By 1790 the secret police had been extensively reorganized under Pergen and was obvious proof of reaction. Joseph had succumbed to the use of measures which were no more progressive than those of Frederick the Great or Catherine the Great.

Maria Theresa had dabbled with judicial reform but had shown an innate caution which Joseph had found oppressive. The changes after 1780 in the judicial structure and the legal codes of the Habsburg lands were among the most radical in the eighteenth century, and were clearly influenced by the Enlightenment, particularly by Beccaria, Sonnenfels and Martini. Joseph confirmed the principle of the separation of executive and judicial powers and concentrated also on the centralization of the whole system, particularly in Hungary, Belgium and Milan. The overall pattern, introduced from 1781, was of a series of courts of first instance at local and central level, side by side with courts of appeal. Belgium, for example, now possessed sixty–four courts of first instance, two courts of appeal and a Supreme Court of Revision. Criminal law was extensively re–examined by the Penal Code of 1781, which was followed by the Code of Criminal Procedure (1788). The results were remarkable. Where else among the major powers of Europe was the principle of equality before the law fully recognized? What other country had abolished the death sentence? Compared with Prussia, Russia or France, eighteenth–century Austria appears eminently civilized. Yet, even here, Joseph's methods invited opposition. Judicial changes were connected too obviously with administrative centralization, the intention being to undermine simultaneously the political and judicial powers of the nobility. Once again regionalism resisted the new structure, especially in Belgium. Moreover, Joseph himself tended to circumvent some of the basic principles of justice by resorting to undercover methods of dealing with political opposition.

In his consideration of the role of the peasantry in society, Joseph was basically in harmony with the views of the Physiocrats. Serfdom was considered objectionable on two grounds. It was morally indefensible, an inhumane anachronism in an era of progress; and it was economically inefficient: the peasantry could not be a fully productive part of the economy, or contribute effectively to the state revenues, while being bound by heavy feudal obligations. Joseph's measures were the most extensive undertaken by any government of a major continental power before the French Revolution. The Leibeigenschaftspatent (1781) conferred a considerable degree of personal freedom on the serfs, enabling them, among other things, to marry without the consent of their lords. The Grundeinkaufungspatent (1781) enabled the peasantry to buy their strips of land, while the Untertanspatent (1781) gave them access to a system of appeals against their landlords at the very time when similar appeals were criminal offences in Russia and Prussia. Finally, the Strafpatent (1781) greatly weakened the jurisdiction of the noble courts and clearly defined the punishments which they could and could not impose.5 Again, this was in marked contrast with the situation in Russia and Prussia, where the judicial powers of the nobility were being confirmed rather than weakened.

Radical theory and progressive legislation were not, however, followed by their successful application. The opposition of the nobility was a foregone conclusion, particularly in Hungary. Yet Joseph made no attempt to soften the blow of a fundamental social upheaval. In fact, he openly expressed his dislike of class distinctions, and was prepared to put aristocratic titles up for sale. Joseph had not been careful to isolate the issue of serfdom and to win acceptance for a specific measure and as a result the nobility felt that their whole status was threatened. Alexander II of Russia managed to avoid the same mistake; after issuing his Edict of Emancipation in 1861, he was prepared to confer certain political powers on the nobility in his local government reforms three years later. What was more surprising was that Joseph did not win the overwhelming support and gratitude of the peasantry. Although little memorials were erected to him in villages after 1790, he aroused some resentment and hostility during his lifetime by several measures which were less radical than a sign of ill–considered opportunism. For example, in 1786 he decreed that peasant holdings should be indivisible, the motive being to ensure the continuing value of the land for the purpose of tax assessment, with much consequent hardship for large families. Furthermore, the peasantry were subject to a harsh system of military recruitment, and most of the reforms generally stopped short of complete emancipation in practice. Smouldering resentment was further aggravated by Joseph's religious changes, which will be examined in the next section.

In his economic policy Joseph tended to combine the latest Physiocratic theories with traditional mercantilism. His intention was clearly to promote economic growth within his dominions, and reference to a few statistics shows that this was not without success. The number of workers employed in the woollen industry in Bohemia and Moravia grew from 80,000 in 1775 to 152,000 in 1789, while the number of factories in Bohemia increased from 24 in 1780 to 86 in 1788.6 Government revenues advanced from 53.8 m. florins in 1777 to 92.5 m. in 1787. But there is always the feeling that economic growth was less than it could have been and that fundamentally sound policies were weakened by being arbitrarily applied or were undermined by the interference of other motives. Two examples can be used to illustrate this, the land tax and the use of tariffs.

Joseph's proposed land tax was intended to raise a uniform levy of 12–22 per cent of the yield of agricultural land throughout the Habsburg dominions. It was heavily influenced by the Physiocrats, who argued that the impôt unique was the most effective and the fairest form of raising revenue, reducing the powers of the local Estates to negotiate their fiscal contributions and, at the same time, spreading the load more evenly. According to Chapter II of the 1789 Patent introducing the tax, the objective was ‘to establish equality through a proportionate allocation of land taxes, and thus enable the owners of land to carry out their civic duties without hardship’.7 Certainly, a system which guaranteed that the peasantry would now lose no more than 30 per cent of their total earnings in dues to the state and the nobility would have been regarded with envy by oppressed peoples all over Europe. Yet the scheme was unsuccessful because the opposition to it was too intense to resist. The nobility resented the methods used by the land commissioners in their preliminary survey of land ownership. This was especially noticeable in Hungary, where the nobility regarded the whole scheme as further evidence of heavy–handed bureaucratic encroachment. Even the peasantry found grievances, for they were given no details about the scheme. Those included in the scheme were thoroughly apprehensive about the prospect of making monetary payments to the state, while those who were excluded resented having to continue paying dues (although greatly reduced) to their lords. The last two years of Joseph's reign saw a series of revolts by the peasantry, most of them directed against the nobility. Eventually Joseph had to shelve a promising scheme which had never been properly presented or explained.

Joseph pursued a dual policy over tariffs. Within the monarchy he removed internal customs duties, creating a large free trade area. At the same time, imports from outside the monarchy were curtailed. This policy was sound enough in principle but erratic in application, and was sometimes carried to extremes, arousing extensive opposition from all sections of the community. The abolition of internal tolls was a device which placed Hungary under a great deal of pressure, since it was unevenly enforced. From 1786 Austrian goods could enter Hungary without restriction; but the reverse did not apply. The Magyars rightly deduced that Joseph was using this one way trade to squeeze Hungary for the financial contributions which they were resisting in taxation. The tariff wall round the monarchy was fiercely resisted by a substantial part of the middle class, who considered that it would restrict the flow of trade with other countries. Such fears proved justified; Turkey, Prussia and Saxony all reduced the number of imports from the Habsburg dominions and Joseph was faced with the problem of finding alternative external markets.

Although his economic policies were progressive and adventurous, Joseph tied his own hands as the reign progressed by pursuing an active but unsuccessful foreign policy. His war against the Ottoman Empire as an ally of Russia was a disastrous drain on the finances of his dominions and caused him to adopt any expedients to extract further revenues from his subjects at the very time that the original policies needed explaining. Kaunitz, less bold but also less impulsive, seemed to realize that the population needed to be reassured, and he proposed that the more equal distribution of taxation and the use of tariffs should be allowed to stimulate greater wealth and improved living standards rather than subsidize adventures abroad. On this, as on many other issues, Kaunitz and Joseph II disagreed profoundly.

At one level, Joseph's personal interference in the lives of his subjects was desirable and productive. At another, it was counter–productive and greatly resented. Both were apparent in his approach to religious issues.

At his best, Joseph possessed all the most advanced attitudes of the eighteenth century, as his views on toleration suggest. ‘Toleration is the effect of the propagation of the Enlightenment which has now spread through all Europe. It is based on philosophy and on the great men who have established it.’8 He publicized his contempt for bigotry and persecution and seemed to live up to his pronouncements in his Toleration Patent of 1781 and a series of Jewish Patents in 1781, 1782 and 1789, all of which removed many instances of state persecution and granted a number of defined and circumscribed civil rights. His attitude to the Church as an institution was also influenced by the Enlightenment. He believed, for example, that the power of the Church should be carefully limited by the State. This policy was not uncommon among eighteenth–century monarchs, and there was no reason why Joseph should necessarily encounter any major opposition in its application.

Unless, of course, his methods were too heavy handed. Joseph managed to provoke a quite unnecessary and rather artificial alliance between the Church and the various sections of society, particulary the nobility in Belgium and the peasantry in the Hereditary Lands. His greatest mistakes were to proceed too rapidly with the secularization of monastic lands from 1781, which instantly placed the papacy on the offensive, and, unwittingly, to provide the papacy with considerable public support. In 1782 Pope Pius VI visited Vienna to try to persuade Joseph to reconsider some of his measures. He warned Joseph that ‘the hand of the Lord will fall heavily upon you; it will check you in the course of your career, it will dig under you an abyss where you will be engulfed in the flower of your life’.8 Joseph was not particularly impressed by these threats but he was clearly concerned about the massive demonstrations of popular loyalty for the Pope in the city. The reason for this and future support was intense opposition to Joseph's attempts to alter the liturgy, define the length of Church services, influence the type of religious music and, most important of all, remove the element of superstition in the religion of the peasantry. As an idealist himself, Joseph could have anticipated that interference in the details of religious observance would be more likely than any institutional changes to provoke violent opposition.

During the co–regency Joseph had always maintained the importance of freedom of expression. Shortly after becoming sole ruler he withdrew most forms of censorship (1781) and actually encouraged each section of society to articulate its views. The results clearly showed that the change had been too sudden and that there had been inadequate preparation. It has been argued that the sudden removal of censorship resulted in a flood of criticisms by the Fourth Estate against the nobility and the Church which rapidly exceeded Joseph's expectations. Confronted by a public which had come to demand measures more radical than could be accommodated by enlightened despotism, Joseph was forced to retreat. He reimposed censorship and relied increasingly on spies and secret agents to identify opposition to his policies and Régime.9 Psychologically this was a disastrous move. The withdrawal of concessions because of implied abuse always causes more resentment than the initial reluctance to grant them. By 1790 Joseph's dominions were seething with dissent. Belgium and Hungary were in open revolt against his religious and administrative policies and Austria and Bohemia experienced violence in the rural areas. Even his final act, revoking his constitutions for Hungary and Belgium, failed to restore order. Kaunitz, on being informed of his death, observed that it was not before time, and advised Leopold II to avoid Joseph's main characteristics, ‘harshness, exaggerated severity, over hasty decisions, despotic behaviour, obsession with innovations’.10

Time, however, has been more favourable to Joseph II than to most other rulers. His shortcomings as an autocrat, more obvious than anything else in 1790, were later considered redeemed by the quality of his intentions. Whatever his personal failings, he was the most radical monarch of pre–revolutionary Europe. His reforms, however, were saluted not by his subjects, who also experienced his methods, but by the revolutionaries of 1848 who had lived through a period of despotism unrelieved by enlightenment.

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