The difficulty of Joseph’s revolutionary enterprise was doubled by the diversity of his realm. He knew Austria well, but, despite arduous travels, he had not realized how deeply entrenched were the Hungarian magnates in the economic and political life of their nation, and how the patriotism of the Hungarian masses could outweigh class interests. On acceding to power he had refused to follow tradition and go to Pressburg to be crowned king of Hungary, for in that ceremony he would be required to swear allegiance to the Hungarian constitution, which sanctioned the feudal structures of society. He had offended every Hungarian by ordering the crown of Hungary’s patron St. Stephen to be removed from Buda to Vienna (1784). He had replaced Latin with German, not Magyar, as the language of law and instruction in Hungary. He had angered Hungarian businessmen by impeding with tariffs the export of their products into Austria. He had shocked the Catholic Church by interfering with traditional rituals, and by allowing Hungarian Protestant communities to multiply from 272 to 758 in one year (1783-84). Hungary fell into a turmoil of conflicting classes, nationalities, languages, and faiths.
In 1784 the peasants of Wallachia (between the Danube and the Transylvanian Alps) broke out in a violent Jacquerie against their feudal lords, set fire to 182 baronial châteaux and sixty villages, slaughtered four thousand Hungarians,74 and announced that they were doing all this with the blessing of the Emperor. Joseph sympathized with their resentment of long oppression,75 but he was seeking to end feudalism peaceably by legislation, and could not allow the peasants to rush matters by arson and murder. He sent troops to put down the insurrection; 150 leaders were executed, and the rebellion halted. The nobles blamed him for the uprising, the peasants blamed him for its failure. The stage was set for national revolt against the Emperor in 1787.
In November, 1780, Joseph came in person to study the problems of the Austrian Netherlands. He visited Namur, Mons, Courtrai, Ypres, Dunkirk, Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Audenaarde, Antwerp, Malines, Louvain, Brussels. He made a side trip into the United Netherlands—to Rotterdam, The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Spa (where he dined with the philosophe Ray nal). He was struck by the contrast between the prosperity of Holland and the relative stagnation of the Belgian economy. He attributed this to the activity and opportunities of Dutch businessmen, and to the closing of the River Scheldt to oceanic trade by the Treaty of Münster (1648). He returned to Brussels, and entered into conferences seeking to improve commerce, administration, finance, and law. In January, 1781, he appointed his sister Maria Christina and her husband, Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, governors of the Austrian Netherlands.
Now for the first time he perceived how opposed to his reforms were the traditional privileges of the upper classes in this historic land. One province, Brabant, had a charter of liberties dating back to the thirteenth century, and known as the Joyeuse Entrée; any ruler entering Brussels was expected to swear fidelity to this charter, and one clause declared that if the sovereign violated any article his Flemish subjects would have the right to refuse him all service and obedience. Another clause required the sovereign to maintain the Catholic Church in all its existing privileges, possessions, and powers, and to enforce all the decisions of the Council of Trent. Similar constitutions were cherished by the patricians and clergy in the other provinces. Joseph resolved not to allow these traditions to defy his reforms. After a brief visit to Paris (July, 1781) he returned to Vienna.
In November he began to apply to these provinces his Edict of Toleration. He made the Belgian monasteries independent of the pope, closed several of them, and confiscated their revenues. The bishops of Brussels, Antwerp, and Malines protested; Joseph passed on to extend to “Belgium” his regulations on votive tablets, processions, and ritual. He withdrew control of the schools from the bishops, saying that “the children of Levi should no longer have a monopoly on the human mind.”76 He abrogated the exclusive privileges long enjoyed by the University of Louvain. He established there a new seminary free from episcopal dominance, and ordered that all Belgian candidates for the priesthood should study for five years in this institution.77 Eager to improve provincial government, he replaced (January, 1787) the provincial Estates, or assemblies, and the old aristocratic privy councils, with a single Council of General Administration under a plenipotentiary appointed by the emperor; and he substituted a unified and secular judiciary for the existing feudal, territorial, and ecclesiastical courts. All persons, of whatever class, were declared equal before the law.
The nobles and many bourgeois joined the clergy in resisting these measures. Their hostility was not appeased by the futile efforts that Joseph made to reopen the Scheldt to oceanic commerce; Holland refused to permit it, and France, despite the pleas of Marie Antoinette, joined in the refusal. In January, 1787, the Estates of Brabant notified Joseph that changes in the existing constitution of the province could not be made without the consent of the Estates; in effect they informed him that his rule in the Austrian Netherlands must be a constitutional, not an absolute, monarchy. He ignored the declaration, and ordered the enforcement of his decrees. The Estates refused to vote taxes unless attention was paid to their remonstrances. Agitation flared into such widespread violence that Maria Christina promised annulment of the hated reforms (May 31, 1787).
Where was the Emperor during this turmoil? He was flirting diplomatically with Catherine II, believing that an entente with Russia would isolate Prussia and strengthen Austria against the Turks. Even before the death of his mother Joseph had visited the Czarina at Mogilev (June 7, 1780), and thence he had gone on to Moscow and St. Petersburg. In May, 1781, Austria and Russia signed an alliance that pledged each to come to the aid of the other in case of attack.
Thinking that this agreement would immobilize the septuagenarian Frederick, Joseph again (1784) offered the Austrian Netherlands to Elector Charles Theodore in exchange for Bavaria. The Elector was tempted, but Frederick roused all his energies to foil the plan. He stirred up revolt against the Emperor in Hungary and Belgium; he induced the Duke of Zweibrücken—heir to Bavaria—to oppose the exchange; he sent agents to convince the German princes that their independence was threatened by Austrian expansion; and he succeeded in organizing (July 23, 1785) Prussia, Saxony, Hanover, Brunswick, Mainz, Hesse-Cassel, Baden, Saxe-Weimar, Gotha, Mecklenburg, Ansbach, and Anhalt into a Fürstenbund, or League of Princes, pledged to resist any expansion of Austria at the expense of a German state. Joseph again appealed to his sister at Versailles; Marie Antoinette used her charm on Louis XVI to win his support for her brother; Vergennes, foreign minister, cautioned Louis against consent; Joseph confessed himself defeated by the old fox who had been the idol of his youth. When, in August, 1786, he received news of Frederick’s death, he expressed a double grief: “As a soldier I regret the passing of a great man who has been epoch-making in the art of war. As a citizen I regret that his death has come thirty years too late.”78
Now the Emperor’s only hope of extending his realm lay in joining Catherine in a campaign to divide between them the European possessions of Turkey. When the Empress of Russia set out in January, 1787, to visit and awe her new conquests in the south, she invited Joseph to meet her en route and accompany her to the Crimea. He went, but did not at once agree to her proposal for a united crusade. “What I want,” he said, “is Silesia, and war with Turkey will not give me that.”79 Nevertheless, when Turkey declared war against Russia (August 15, 1787) Joseph’s hand was forced; his alliance with Catherine required him to help her in a “defensive” war; besides, now that Turkey was so critically engaged, Austria had a chance to regain Serbia and Bosnia, perhaps even a port on the Black Sea. So, in February, 1788, Joseph sent his soldiers to war, and told them to take Belgrade.
But meanwhile the Swedes seized the opportunity to send a force against St. Petersburg. Catherine summoned troops from the south to defend her capital. The Turks, relieved of Russian pressure, concentrated their power against the Austrians. Joseph, going to lead his army, saw it weakened by apathy, desertion, and disease; he ordered a retreat, and returned to Vienna in despair and disgrace. He turned over the command to Laudon, a hero of the Seven Years’ War; the old Marshal redeemed Austrian arms by capturing Belgrade (1789). Sweden’s sortie against Russia having failed, Catherine’s soldiers swarmed backward to the south, and survived in slightly superior number in competitive holocausts with the Turks. Joseph was rejoicing in the prospect of long-awaited martial glory when Prussia, England, Sweden, and Holland, fearing Russian aggrandizement, intervened to help the Turks. Suddenly Joseph found nearly all of Protestant Europe united and arming against him. Once more he appealed to France, but France, in 1789, was busy with revolution. Prussia, under Frederick William II, signed an alliance with Turkey (January, 1790), and sent agents to foment revolt against the Emperor in Hungary and the Austrian Netherlands.
Hungary welcomed these machinations, for it was in open rebellion against Joseph’s edicts of conscription, taxation, language change, and religious reform. In 1786 Emerich Malongei called upon the Hungarians to elect their own king. In 1788 Remigius Franyó organized a plot to make Frederick William king of Hungary; Counts Esterházy and Károlyi betrayed the plot to the Emperor, and Franyó was sentenced to sixty years’ imprisonment. In 1789 the Hungarian Estates appealed to Prussia to free Hungary from Austria. When news of the French Revolution reached Hungary the country rang with cries for independence. Joseph, who felt death in his veins, had no more strength to maintain his stand. His brother Leopold urged him to yield. In January, 1790, he announced:
We have decided to restore the administration of the Kingdom [of Hungary] … to the status of 1780. … We instituted [the reforms] out of zeal for the common good, and in the hope that you, taught by experience, would find them pleasing. Now we have convinced ourselves that you prefer the old order. … But it is our will that our Edict of Toleration, … as well as that concerning the serfs, their treatment and their relation to the seigneurs, remain in force.80
In February the crown of St. Stephen was carried back to Buda, and was acclaimed with public rejoicing at every stop on the way. The revolt died down.
The revolt in the Austrian Netherlands went full course, for there it felt the heat of the revolutionary movement in neighboring France. Joseph refused to confirm the promise his sister had given to the Estates of Brabant that the reforms they resented would be annulled; he ordered their enforcement, and bade his soldiers fire upon any crowds resisting them. It was so done; six rioters were killed in Brussels (January 22, 1788), an unknown number in Antwerp and Louvain. A Brussels lawyer, Henri van den Noot, summoned the people to arm themselves and enroll as volunteers in an army of independence. The appeal was actively supported by the clergy; an anomalous inspiration was added by news that the Bastille had fallen; soon ten thousand “Patriots,” ably led, were in the field. On October 24 a manifesto of “the Brabantine people” announced the deposition of Joseph II as their ruler. On October 26 a force of Patriots defeated the Austrian soldiery. Town after town was occupied by the insurgents. On January 11, 1790, the seven provinces declared their independence, and proclaimed the Republic of the United States of Belgium, taking the name of the Belgic tribes that had troubled Caesar eighteen centuries before. England, Holland, and Prussia were happy to recognize the new government. Joseph appealed to France for help, but France herself was busy deposing her King. All the old world that Joseph had known seemed to be falling apart. And death was calling him.