1741–1914

His Imperial Majesty deigns to announce ... the Court and the public domain

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As a result of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, monarchs everywhere found their status under threat. The Habsburgs too, since Joseph II, had been divested of the religious exaltation which had previously bolstered their position. The absolutist principle of the all-powerful ruler, responsible only to God, turned into the ideal of the ‘first servant of the state’.

In the nineteenth century, the doctrine of divine right was replaced by the principle – in modified form – of legitimacy built on tradition and origins, which declared the claim to imperial office hereditary within the house of Habsburg. Harmony and order in the family and at Court were propagated as symbolic of an orderly state mechanism under a righteous monarch. Joseph II, Franz II (I) and Franz Joseph ostentatiously celebrated their closeness to the people as ‘Bürgerkaiser’ (‘citizen-emperors’), but had to achieve a balancing act of maintaining the mystique of the inaccessibility of their imperial majesty, while at the same time making clear that their existence was directed only at the welfare of their people.

For this reason, the image of the imperial house had to be simultaneously bathed in a golden light and, through ingenious management, be popularized. Criticism was unwanted, and in order to prevent less flattering glimpses of the human weaknesses of the highest rulers of the land, the Court lived in complete seclusion from the public eye. It had to be prevented from becoming the subject of public debate, and thus discretion in relation to the outside world was the highest precept. The Court was expected to refrain from engaging in the politics of the day.

Indeed this was laid down by law; the buildings of the Court administration were not subject to the administrative authority of the respective local district, and the local police had no right to intervene in the life of the Court. Scandals were cleared up internally, and nothing was to sully the unblemished reputation of the Court. Even in serious cases of corruption and theft, no charges were brought or criminal proceedings instituted.

Neither was the Court required to account for its financial or political affairs in relation to the government. The only point of contact with government agencies was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which at the same time functioned as the Ministry of the Imperial House and was responsible for official announcements.

The press was fed in traditional fashion with press communiqués dictated by the Court. Newspaper reports about the Court and its members had to be worded extremely carefully, and criticism was only possible between the lines. However, the release of indiscreet information to the press became an increasing problem during the latter period of Franz Joseph’s reign. The Court attempted to maintain a resolute silence in the face of reported scandals. When they could no longer be ignored, then Franz Joseph ended the discussion with an ‘allerhöchstes Handschreiben’ (letter in the monarch’s own hand), in which, in order to protect the Court offices, he took all responsibility upon himself, for criticism of the Emperor was completely taboo.

Martin Mutschlechner