Archduke Johann’s vision of an ideal society

Johann Huber (after Johann Peter Krafft): Archduke Johann on the Hochschwab, oil painting, 1839

Early on in his life the young archduke developed an initially rather romantic enthusiasm for the Alps and their inhabitants. Johann was to retain his affection for the Alpine regions and his high regard for the peasantry for the rest of his life.

Johann Huber (after Johann Peter Krafft): Archduke Johann on the Hochschwab, oil painting, 1839

Today a common romantic notion, it was at that time highly unusual, even revolutionary, for a member of such an elevated social stratum. In this, Johann represented the spirit of the Romantic Age, which countered the challenges of the nascent industrial society with a clarion call of ‘back to Nature’.

However, Johann’s enthusiasm for the Alpine regions was not merely confined to venerating the beauties of Nature. In the harsh life of the peasantry he fancied he had found the ideal of a life lived in harmony with Nature. Imbued with Enlightenment ideas, the prince saw rural life as man’s true destiny. In the urban metropolis of Vienna, which was in the grip of the first wave of industrialization, he was confronted with the impoverishment of the proletariat and the wretched living conditions of the lowest strata of society. But even in the country, traditional village society was starting to change.

Johann became a proponent of the natural, innate dignity of mankind, regardless of rank and birth. In the free peasant estates of the Swiss Confederation and Tyrol, where the local municipalities enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and the representatives of the communal courts sat in the provincial diet, he saw a model for reshaping rural society. And in the self-assured bearing of the Alpine peasantry, which in contrast to most other regions in the Monarchy was less affected on both the economic and psychological level by the feudal privileges of the aristocratic and ecclesiastical landlords, he fancied the realization of the ideal of the responsible citizen, capable of defending his country in times of danger – not as a mercenary but as a loyal patriot devoted to dynasty and country.

Martin Mutschlechner