The bitterness of those final months was complete. Hungary and Belgium were in revolt, the Turks were advancing, his army was mutinous, his own people, the Austrians, who once had loved him, had turned against him as the violator of their sacred customs and beliefs. The priests denounced him as an infidel, the nobles hated him for freeing their serfs, the peasants cried out for more land; the urban poor were near starvation; all classes cursed the high taxes and prices caused by the war. On January 30, 1790, in full surrender, Joseph rescinded all reforms decreed since the death of Maria Theresa, except the abolition of serfdom.
Why had he failed? He had accepted in full faith and generous trust the thesis of the philosophes that a monarch of good education and good will would be the best instrument of enlightenment and reform. He had a good education, but his good will was tarnished by love of power, and ultimately his eagerness to be a conqueror overcame his zeal for putting philosophy on the throne. He lacked the philosopher’s capacity for doubt; he took for granted the wisdom of his means as well as of his ends. He tried to reform too many evils at once, and too hurriedly; the people could not absorb the bewildering multiplicity of his decrees. He commanded faster than he could convince; he sought to achieve in a decade what required a century of education and economic change. Basically it was the people who failed him. They were too deeply rooted in their privileges and prejudices, in their customs and creeds, to give him the understanding and support without which, in such challenging reforms, his absolutism was impotent. They preferred their churches, priests, and tithes to his taxes, spies, and wars. They could not put their trust in a man who laughed at their beloved legends, badgered their bishops, and humiliated their Pope.
Through all those exacting years since 1765 his body had rebelled against his will. His stomach could not digest his pace; repeatedly and in vain it cautioned him to rest. The Prince de Ligne warned him that he was killing himself; he knew it, but “what can I do?” he said; “I am killing myself because I cannot rouse up others to work.”81 His lungs were bad, his voice was feeble and hollow; he had varicose veins, running eyes, erysipelas, hemorrhoids … He exposed himself to all kinds of weather in the war with the Turks; like thousands of his troops he contracted quartan fever. Sometimes he could hardly breathe; “my heart palpitates at the slightest movement.”82 In the spring of 1789 he began to vomit blood—“almost three ounces at once,” he wrote to Leopold. In June he had violent pains in the kidneys. “I observe the strictest diet; I eat neither meat nor vegetables nor dairy products; soup and rice are my nourishment.”83 He developed an anal abscess; this and his hemorrhoids had to be lanced. He developed dropsy. He summoned Leopold to come and take over the government. “I do not regret leaving the throne,” he said; “all that grieves me is to have so few people happy.”84 To the Prince de Ligne he wrote: “Your country has killed me. The taking of Ghent was my agony; the loss of Brussels is my death. … Go to the Low Countries; bring them back to their sovereign. If you cannot do this, stay there. Do not sacrifice your interests to me. You have children.”85 He made his will, leaving generous gifts to his servants, and to “the five ladies who bore my society.”86 He composed his own epitaph: “Here lies Joseph, who could succeed in nothing.”87 He received with resignation the last sacrament of the Catholic Church. He begged for death, and on February 20, 1790, it was given him. He was forty-eight years old. Vienna rejoiced at his passing, and Hungary gave thanks to God.
Was he a failure? In war, unquestionably. Despite Laudon’s victories Leopold II (1790-92) found it advisable to make peace with Turkey (August 4, 1791) on the basis of the status quo ante. Unable to pacify the Hungarian barons, Leopold revoked the grant of freedom to the serfs. In Bohemia and Austria most of the reforms were preserved. The toleration edicts were not repealed; the closed monasteries were not restored; the Church remained subject to the laws of the state. The economic legislation had freed and stimulated commerce and industry. Austria passed without violent revolution from a medieval to a modern state, and shared in the diverse cultural vitality of the nineteenth century.
“Deeply convinced of the integrity of my intentions,” Joseph had written to Kaunitz, “I hope that when I am dead posterity—more favorable, more impartial, and therefore juster than my contemporaries—will examine my actions and goals before judging me.”88It has taken posterity a long time to do this, but it has learned at last, while deploring his autocracy and haste, to recognize in him the bravest and most thoroughgoing, as well as the least judicious, of the “enlightened despots.” After the reaction under Metternich had passed away, the reforms of Joseph II were one by one restored, and the revolutionaries of 1848 laid a wreath of grateful acknowledgment upon his tomb.