Thanks to the unusual path his life had taken for a Habsburg prince, Archduke Johann had his ear to the ‘voice of the people’ and saw the problems and dangers that were bearing down upon the Monarchy. Despite his belief in progress and his enthusiasm, he was deeply pessimistic about the future.
His fears were realized with the outbreak of revolution in 1848. Popular dissatisfaction with the rigid Metternich system could no longer be suppressed through censorship and the police state. The pent-up frustration of the masses boiled over, and in all the larger cities of the Monarchy protests took place that ended in violence.
Forced onto the defensive, the Viennese Court now attempted to deploy the archduke, who had hitherto been shunted onto the sidelines, as an ‘ambassador’ for the dynasty. Because of his popularity, often his mere presence was enough to placate public anger. When the imperial family fled to Tyrol in May 1848 Emperor Ferdinand appointed Johann his representative. This liberal outsider was now vested with ‘absolute authority as constitutional Emperor of Austria’.
This attempt at appeasement was condemned by the reactionary forces within the dynasty, foremost among them Archduchess Sophie, as an indefensible act of bowing to popular will. When this hardline faction within the Habsburgs eventually began to gain the upper hand and succeeded in persuading Emperor Ferdinand, who in their eyes was far too willing to make concessions, to abdicate, Johann soon found himself isolated and without any support within the dynasty.
The most notable expression of his popularity among broad sectors of the populace was his election as Reichsverweser or Regent of Germany by the Frankfurt Parliament, which was convened in May 1848. The aim of this parliament was to work out a constitution and catalogue of basic rights. The hitherto reactionary and anti-liberal regimes in the various German monarchies had been convulsed by the revolution, and now there was a common will to create a nation state out of the huge number of minor German states under the leadership of a constitutional monarch. Underlying this was the romantic idea of reviving the Holy Roman Empire that had been dissolved in1806, but in the form of a German nation state.
The election of Archduke Johann as Regent of Germany in June 1848 represented a compromise. On the one hand Johann was a member of the venerable Habsburg dynasty and as such an acceptable candidate for the conservative German princes. On the other, Johann was regarded as an innovator who was informed by modern ideas and enjoyed popular support, as demanded by the liberal forces.
Johann’s position as regent was basically that of an acting head of state. It was expected that the archduke would accept the provisions pertaining to the future of the German lands that the Parliament was attempting to hammer out. He was thus a kind of locum tenens until a permanent solution could be found.
In this difficult position the idealistic Johann was soon stretched to his limits and eventually came to grief on the conflicting demands of reality. The liberal middle-class forces were divided and at the same time the archduke lost the support of the German princes. When the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV declined the imperial crown, thus demonstrating the failure of the parliamentary assembly meeting in the Pauluskirche in Frankfurt, Johann resigned from office in December 1849. His lack of support within his own family is revealed in the attitude taken by the newly appointed Emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph, who mockingly referred to his great-uncle Johann as the ‘Reichsvermoderer’, a pun on his official title of Reichsverweser (the verb ‘verwesen’ can mean both to administer and to decay in German; the verb ‘modern’ means to go mouldy).