Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia and Hungary

(1741–1790)
   Few Habsburg rulers had so immediate and direct an impact on their lands as did Joseph II. Few also aroused so much controversy and heated opposition. Though his formal education was relatively conventional, Joseph began to think seriously about improving the situation of Habsburg government and its subjects as a very young man. But as long as his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, lived he was constrained by her wishes, which reflected her increasingly cautious, even passive, temperament. Though Joseph was elected German king in 1764 and was named his mother’s coregent a year later, he had very little influence on domestic policy. He redirected some of his energies into a series of journeys that he took throughout Europe in the 1760s and 1770s, which further stimulated his thoughts about reform.
   Once Maria Theresa had passed from the scene, Joseph pressed for far-reaching changes in the governance and institutions of the monarchy and its culture. His goals—the centralization of sovereign power in Vienna and increasing the productivity of his peoples everywhere— were very much the same as those of the late empress. Many segments of society, however, were both offended and threatened by the single-minded way in which he pursued his aims. The landed nobility throughout the Habsburg territories were politically and economically aggrieved by his efforts to curb the powers of local estates and to force them to pay regular taxes on their properties and incomes. The Catholic church opposed his measures to turn men and women in cloistered religious vocations into economically active subjects and to make clerical education the responsibility of secular authority. In Hungary, always the most resistant to Habsburg efforts to centralize monarchical rule, his requirement that German be the administrative language of his realms was hotly contested by the nobility of the Hungarian national estates, for whom Latin remained the language of true rulers. His decision to abolish the traditional counties into which Hungary had been divided and to replace them with newer and more rationally structured administrative districts was also much resented.
   By the time of Joseph’s death, important areas of the monarchy, Hungary and the Austrian Netherlands among them, were in open rebellion against his rule. However, he left a legacy of programmatic reform that served at least as a partial model for those of his successors who had to confront many of the issues he had. Chief among 172 • JOSEPH II, HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR, KING OF BOHEMIA AND HUNGARY these was his abolition of serfdom (1781) and his Edict of Religious Toleration (1781), which applied to the Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish subjects of his realms. He also took important steps in the modernization and professionalization of the Habsburg bureaucracy.
   See also Economy; Habsburg Empire; Religion.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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