IN 1789 Austria was one of the major states of Europe, proud of its history, its culture, and its power, with an empire far wider than its name. That name, from Auster, the south wind, justly conveyed the sense of a people Teutonically tough but good-natured and good-humored, sharing happily the joie de vivre and music madness of Italy. It had been a Celtic nation when, shortly before Christ, the Romans conquered it, and it seemed to have retained, across two millenniums, some Celtic vivacity and wit. At Vindobona (which became Vienna and then Wien) the Romans built an outpost of their civilization against intrusive barbarians; there Marcus Aurelius, between golden thoughts, held back the Marcomanni about A.D. 170; there Charlemagne placed the East Mark, or eastern boundary, of his realm; there in 955 Otto the Great set up his Osterreich, or Eastern Kingdom, against the Magyars; and there in 1278 Rudolf of Hapsburg established the rule of a dynasty that continued till 1918. In 1618–48 the south wind blew strongly Catholic, leading the old faith against the new in thirty years of war; and that faith was fortified when, in 1683, Vienna for a second time served as a bulwark of Christendom, throwing back the Turks. Meanwhile the Hapsburg monarchy spread the rule of Austria over the adjacent duchies of Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, and the Tirol; over Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), Transylvania (Romania), Hungary, Polish Galicia, Lombardy, and the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium). Such was the scattered realm that Europe knew as the Austrian Empire when, in 1797, Napoleon first knocked at Vienna’s gates.
The Hapsburg dynasty reached its final peak in the reign of Maria Theresa (r. 1740–80), that willful and wonderful matriarch who rivaled Catherine II and Frederick the Great among the monarchs of her time. She lost Silesia to Frederick’s Machiavellian grasp, but thereafter, with her people and her allies, she fought him to a deadlock of exhaustion. Surviving that conflict, she lived to place five of her sixteen children upon thrones: Joseph in Vienna, Leopold in Tuscany, Maria Amalia in Parma, Maria Carolina in Naples, Marie Antoinette in France. She reluctantly transmitted her realm to her oldest son, for she distrusted his agnosticism and reforms, and foresaw that her people, immovably in love with her, would be unhappy under any disturbance of their traditional beliefs and ways.
Her judgment seems justified by the troubles that bewildered Joseph, who shared the throne with her from 1765 to 1780, and then held it for ten years more. He shocked the aristocracy by freeing the serfs, and shocked the strongly Catholic population by flirting with Voltaire, allowing Protestant worship, and harassing Pius VI. Unsupported by the bureaucracy that enveloped him, he had to confess, in his last days, that the peasants, suddenly separated from their feudal lords, had made a mess of their liberty; that he had disrupted the economy; that he had driven the upper classes in Hungary and the Austrian Netherlands to revolt, threatening the very existence of the Empire. His purposes were benevolent, but his methods were to rule by innumerable decrees which dictated the end without preparing the means. Frederick the Great said of him: “He invariably takes the second step before he takes the first.”1 He died (February 20, 1790) regretting his impetuous procedure, and mourning the popular conservatism that loved habit too much to bear reform.
His brother Leopold shared his aims but avoided his haste. Though he was only eighteen when made grand duke of Tuscany (1765), he tempered his power with caution, gathered about him mature Italians (e.g., Cesare Beccaria) familiar with the people, needs, and possibilities of the duchy, and, with their help, gave his historic realm a government that was the envy of Europe. When the death of his brother raised him to imperial leadership he had had twenty-five years of experience. He moderated some of Joseph’s reforms, and canceled others, but fully acknowledged the obligation of an “enlightened despot” to raise the educational and economic opportunities of his people. He withdrew the Austrian Army from Joseph’s ill-considered attack on Turkey, and, with some use of it, persuaded Belgium to return to the Austrian allegiance. He pacified the Hungarian nobles by recognizing the national authority of their Diet and constitution. He appeased the Bohemians by restoring to Prague the crown of Bohemia’s ancient kings, and accepting coronation there in St. Vitus’ Cathedral. He knew that in government the substance can be withdrawn if the form is retained.
Meanwhile he resisted the attempt of French émigrés and European kings to involve him in war with Revolutionary France. He felt for the plight of his younger sister, Marie Antoinette, but he feared that war with France would mean his loss of still unreconciled Belgium. Nevertheless, when the flight of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was stopped at Varennes, and they were led back to Paris to live in daily danger of their lives, Leopold proposed to his fellow monarchs that they take united action to control the Revolution. Frederick William II of Prussia met with Leopold at Pillnitz, and signed with him a declaration (August 27, 1791) threatening intervention in France. Louis XVI made this awkward by accepting the Revolutionary constitution (September 13). But disorder continued and rose, again endangering King and Queen; Leopold ordered the mobilization of the Austrian Army; the French Assembly demanded an explanation; Leopold died (March 1, 1792) before the message arrived. His son and successor, Emperor Francis II, aged twenty-four, rejected the ultimatum; and on April 20 France declared war.