We have seen her in war; there she yielded only to Frederick and Pitt in military statesmanship, in scope of view and pertinacity of purpose, in courage confronting defeat. Said Frederick in 1752: “Except the Queen of Hungary and the King of Sardinia [Charles Emmanuel I], whose genius triumphed over a bad education, all the princes of Europe are only illustrious imbeciles.”3 Elizabeth I of England before her, and Catherine II of Russia after her, excelled her in the art of rule; no other queens. Frederick thought her “ambitious and vengeful,”4 but did he expect her to seek no redress for his rape of Silesia? The Goncourts saw in her “a good average brain with a loving heart, an exalted sense of duty, astonishing powers of work, an imposing presence and exceptional charm; … a true mother of her people.”5 She was the soul of kindness to all who did not attack her empire or her faith; note her warm reception of the Mozart family in 1768.6 She was a good mother to her children; her letters to them are models of tenderness and wise counsel; had Joseph listened to her he might not have died a failure; had Marie Antoinette followed her advice she might have escaped the guillotine.
Maria Theresa was not an “enlightened despot.” She was no despot; Voltaire thought “she established her reign in all hearts by an affability and popularity which few of her ancestors had ever possessed; she banished form and restraint from her court; … she never refused audience to anyone, and no person ever departed from her presence dissatisfied.”7 She was far from enlightened in Voltaire’s sense; she issued intolerant decrees against Jews and Protestants, and remained a devout Catholic to the end. She saw with tremors the infiltration of religious skepticism into Vienna from London and Paris; she tried to stem the tide by a fervent censorship of books and periodicals, and she forbade the teaching of English “because of the dangerous character of this language in respect of its corrupting religious and ethical principles.”8
And yet she was not untouched by the anticlericalism of her councilors and her son. They pointed out that the territorial and other wealth of the clergy was rapidly increasing through priestly suggestions that moribund patients might expiate their sins and propitiate God by bequeathing property to the Church; at this rate the Church—already a state within a state—must soon be master of the government. Convents and monasteries were multiplying, removing men and women from active life, and excluding more and more property from taxation. Young women were being induced to take conventual vows before they were old enough to realize the significance of these lifelong dedications. Education was so completely controlled by the clergy that every growing mind was being molded into giving its supreme allegiance to the Church rather than to the state. The Empress so far yielded to these arguments as to order some substantial reforms. She forbade the presence of ecclesiastics at the making of wills. She reduced the number of religious establishments, and ordered the taxation of all religious property. No vows were to be taken by persons under twenty-one years of age. Churches and convents were no longer to afford asylum to criminals by “right of sanctuary.” No papal brief was to be recognized in the Austrian realm until it had received Imperial consent. The Inquisition was subjected to governmental supervision, and was in effect suppressed. Education was reorganized under the direction of Gerhard van Swieten (the Queen’s physician) and Abbot Franz Rautenstrauch; in many professorships Jesuits were replaced by laymen;9 the University of Vienna was brought under laic administration and state control; the curriculum there and elsewhere was revised to widen instruction in science and history.10 So the pious Empress anticipated in some measure the ecclesiastical reforms of her skeptical son.
She was a model of morality in an age when the courts of Christendom rivaled Constantinople in polygamy. The Church might have used her as an argument for orthodoxy, except that Augustus III, the Catholic King of Poland, and Louis XV of France were the most avid pluralists of all. The Viennese aristocracy did not follow her example. Count Arco fled to Switzerland with his mistress; Countess Esterházy eloped to France with Count von der Schulenburg; Prince von Kaunitz took his current mistress with him in his coach, and when the Empress remonstrated he told her, “Madame, I have come here to speak about your affairs, not mine.”11 Maria Theresa looked with disgust upon this laxity, and issued Draconic decrees to enforce the Sixth Commandment among the people. She ordered that women’s skirts should be lengthened at the bottom and blouses at the top.12 She organized a corps of Chastity Commissioners empowered to arrest any woman suspected of prostitution. Casanova complained that “the bigotry and narrow-mindedness of the Empress made life difficult, especially for foreigners.”13
A great part of her success as a ruler was due to her able ministers. She accepted their lead and earned their devotion. Prince von Kaunitz, despite the failure of his “reversal of alliances,” remained in charge of foreign affairs, and served the Empire well for forty years. Ludwig Haugwitz transformed internal administration, and Rudolf Chotek reorganized the economy. These three men did for Austria what Richelieu and Colbert had done for France; in effect they created a new state, immeasurably stronger than the disordered realm that Maria Theresa had inherited.
Haugwitz began by rebuilding the Imperial army. He believed that this had collapsed in the face of Prussian discipline because it was composed of independent units raised and commanded by semi-independent nobles; he proposed and created a standing army of 108,000 men under unified training and central control. To finance this force he recommended that nobles and clergy, as well as commoners, be taxed; nobles and clergy protested; the Empress braved their wrath and laid upon them a property and an income tax. Frederick praised his enemy as an administrator: “She put her finances in such order as her predecessors had never attained, and not only recouped by good management what she had lost by ceding provinces to the Kings of Prussia and Sardinia, but she considerably augmented her revenue.”14 Haugwitz went on to co-ordinate the law, to free the judiciary from domination by the nobles, and to bring the feudal lords under control by the central government. A new and unified legal code, the Theresianische Halsgericht-sordnung, was proclaimed in 1768.
Meanwhile Chotek strove to invigorate the sluggish economy. Industry was hampered by monopolies that favored nobles, and by guild regulations which remained in force till 1774; nevertheless Linz had woolen mills with a total of 26,000 employees, Vienna excelled in glass and porcelain, and Bohemia led the Empire in metallurgical operations. Both Austria and Hungary had productive mines; Galicia had great salt deposits, and Hungary mined seven million gulden’ worth of gold per year. Chotek protected these industries with tariffs, for Austria, frequently at war, had to be made self-sufficient in necessary goods; free trade, like democracy, is a luxury of security and peace.
Even so, the Empire remained agricultural and feudal. Like Frederick, the Empress, facing war, dared not risk social disruption by attacking the entrenched nobility. She gave a good example by abolishing serfdom on her own lands, and she imposed upon the haughty magnates of Hungary a decree empowering the peasant to move, marry, and bring up his children as he liked, and to appeal from his lord to the county court.15 Despite these mitigations the peasantry in Hungary and Bohemia was almost as poor as in Russia. In Vienna the lower class lived in traditional poverty, amid lordly palaces, elaborate operas, and magnificent churches dispensing hope.
Vienna was beginning to rival Paris and its environs in royal splendor. Schönbrunn (“Beautiful Spring”), just outside the city, included 495 acres of gardens, laid out (1753-75) in emulation of Versailles, with straight towering hedges, fanciful grottoes, symmetrical ponds, lovely statues by Donner and Beyer, a “Menagerie,” a botanical garden, and, on a hill in the background, a “Gloriette” built in 1775 by Johann von Hohenberg—a colonnaded arcade in chaste Romanesque. The Schönbrunn palace itself, an immense congeries of 1,441 rooms, had been designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in 1695, but had been left unfinished in 1705; Maria Theresa engaged Niccolo Pacassi to remodel it; work was resumed in 1744, and was completed in the year of the Empress’ death (1780). Within was a Great Gallery 141 feet long, with a rococo ceiling painted by Gregorio Guglielmi (1761). Schönbrunn housed the court from spring till fall.
The court numbered now some 2,400 souls. Two hundred and fifty stewards and grooms were needed to care for the horses and carriages. Altogether the maintenance of the palace and its grounds cost 4,300,000 gulden per year.16 The Empress herself practiced economy, and excused the splendor of her palace as necessary to the histrionics of royal rule. She offset the luxury of her court with the extent of her charities. A generation later Mme. de Staël reported of Austria: “The charitable elements there are regulated with great order and liberality; private and public beneficence is directed with a fine spirit of justice … Everything in this country bears the mark of a parental, wise, and religious government.”17
Despite poverty there was hardly any begging, and relatively little crime.18 The people found their simple pleasures in exchanging visits, rubbing elbows in the squares, cooling their heat in shady parks, promenading on the tree-lined Hauptallee of the Prater, picnicking in the countryside, or, at their lowest, thrilling to ferocious fights arranged between famished animals. Prettier were the dances, and, above all, the formal minuet; in this the man and the woman rarely touched each other, every movement was governed by tradition and rule, and was performed with restraint and grace. Music was so large a part of Viennese life that it commands a chapter to itself.
By comparison literature was mediocre and immature. Austria, sacerdo-tally controlled, had no share in the Sturm und Drang movement that excited Germany. Maria Theresa was no patron of learning or belles-lettres. There were no literary salons in Vienna, no mingling of authors, artists, and philosophers with women, nobles, and statesmen as in France. It was a static society, with the charm and comfort of old and calculable ways, saved from the turmoil of revolution but missing the zest of challenging ideas. The Viennese newspapers, carefully censored, were dull impediments to thought, perhaps excepting the Wiener Zeitung, founded in 1780. The Viennese theaters were given to opera for the aristocracy and the court, or to coarse comedies for the general public. Leopold Mozart wrote that “the Viennese public, as a whole, has no love of anything serious or sensible; they cannot even understand it; and their theaters furnish abundant proof that nothing but utter trash, such as dances, burlesques, harlequinades, ghost tricks, and devil’s antics will go down with them.”19 But Papa Mozart had been disappointed with Vienna’s reception of his son.
Over this medley of actors, musicians, populace, serfs, barons, courtiers, and ecclesiastics the great Empress ruled with maternal watchfulness and solicitude. Her consort, Francis of Lorraine, had been crowned emperor in 1745, but his talents inclined him to business rather than government. He organized manufactures, provided the Austrian armies with uniforms, horses, and arms, sold flour and provender to Frederick while Frederick was at war with Austria (1756),20 and left the management of the Empire to his wife. Matrimonially, however, he insisted on his rights, and the Empress, loving him despite his adulteries,21 bore him sixteen children. She brought them up with love and severity, scolded them frequently, and gave them such doses of morality and wisdom that Marie Antoinette was glad to escape to Versailles, and Joseph flirted with philosophy. She plotted skillfully to secure cozy berths for her other offspring: she made her daughter Maria Carolina queen of Naples, her son Leopold grand duke of Tuscany, her son Ferdinand governor of Lombardy. She devoted herself to preparing her eldest son, Joseph, for the formidable responsibilities that she would bequeath to him; and she watched with anxiety his development through education and marriage, through the storms of philosophy and the bereavements of love, to the time when, in a transport of affection and humility, she raised him up, aged twenty-four, to sit beside her on the Imperial throne.