Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary

   A grandson of Emperor Francis I (1768–1835), Franz Joseph grew up in a sober and serious household that placed a high priority on piety, duty, and industriousness. These values took even deeper root in the character of the young prince under the formal spiritual tutelage of Joseph Othmar von Rauscher, later to become the cardinal-archbishop of Vienna. Although Franz Joseph had, and continues to have, many critics, few if any have ever questioned his devout Catholicism or his commitment to his responsibilities as he saw them.
   A succession crisis set off by the Revolutions of 1848 brought Franz Joseph to power. With the mentally unstable Emperor Ferdinand I (1793–1875) on the throne of the post Napoleonic Austrian Empire, key members of the house of Habsburg concluded that the survival of their empire required that he abdicate in favor of someone of sound mind and psyche. After considerable discussion and dispute, in which Franz Joseph’s mother, Archduchess Sophia (1805–1872), played a prominent and crucial role, the house called upon the 18year-old prince to replace his good-natured but erratic uncle. The young man began his lengthy reign on 2 December 1848. The first few years of Franz Joseph’s rule were spent in restoring the domestic position of a monarchy badly shaken by the liberal and national challenges of 1848. Convinced of the divine origins of his mission, and even further encouraged in his views by Prince Felix von Schwarzenberg (1800–1852), his first minister-president, Franz Joseph presided over a brief period of major social and economic change. Beneficial though these developments were, they took place in an environment of heavy censorship and political repression.
   The beginning of the Italian struggle for national unification in 1859, in which Franz Joseph personally commanded Habsburg troops for a time, ended this interlude. From that point on, until his death during World War I, the emperor’s state was challenged again and again by two potent ideological opponents of traditional dynastic rule. One was nationalism, the other, political and economic liberalism. Endowed like most of the Habsburgs with a solid sense of the possible, Franz Joseph allowed several constitutional programs to go forward that he and his advisors hoped would quiet these demands. So long as he retained final power over foreign policy and control of his military, he was not averse to compromise.
   The most lasting of these experiments was the Ausgleich of 1867. This agreement between what became the Austrian and Hungarian halves of his territories left him, as monarch, the central figure of the personal union that embodied the idea of the Habsburg Empire as one. Franz Joseph was also left in control of both the army and foreign policy of the reconfigured polity. But the relentless emergence of national states in central and east central Europe—Germany after the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866 and Serbia, whose long-sought independence from the Ottoman Empire won international recognition in 1878—made the continued existence of his polyglot domain ever more doubtful. Franz Joseph himself was especially troubled by the appearance of a kingdom of Serbia, which could, and eventually did, offer the South Slavic peoples of the Habsburg lands a political alternative to government from alien Vienna and Budapest.
   As he grew older, Franz Joseph became, if anything, more aloof and austere than he had been as a young man. He did, however, come to enjoy both the respect and even personal affection of his peoples. The travails of his private life humanized him for many. Deeply in love with his striking cousin, Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898), he had married her in 1854. The match rapidly soured, at least for her; in his later years, the emperor, with his wife’s approval, turned for companionship to Katharina Schratt (1855–1940), a Viennese actress. Nevertheless, Elisabeth’s death in 1898 at the hands of an anarchist shocked Franz Joseph deeply, as had the suicide of his son and heir, Archduke Rudolf (b. 1858), in 1889, and the execution in Mexico of his brother, Archduke Maximilian (b. 1832), in 1867. But publicly he retained the tight self-control for which he had become legendary. Even when he collapsed at the funeral of Archduke Rudolph, the emperor was back at his desk by the afternoon. Indifferent to most of the technological conveniences that the 19th century made available, he was, into his last years, a commanding presence erect on horseback.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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