Joseph as a representative of Enlightened Absolutism: a philosopher on the imperial throne?

J. B. Lampi the Elder (?): Emperor Joseph II in general's pose, oil painting, 18th century

Joseph had internalized the ideals of the Enlightenment and presented himself as a philanthropist, but at times did not hesitate to act in the ruthless traditions of international power politics.

J. B. Lampi the Elder (?): Emperor Joseph II in general's pose, oil painting, 18th century

Reason and utilitarianism were Joseph’s weapons in his struggle against meaningless traditions that hindered the new social order of the Enlightenment in its development. Not even his own office as ruler was spared Joseph’s fundamental criticism of existing conditions. In a move calculated to appeal to the general public, he drastically limited expenditure on outward display, rejecting pomp and ceremony and preferring a spartan lifestyle. Thus Schönbrunn, his mother’s life work, was shut up and no longer used as a residence, and Joseph spent his summers at Laxenburg and the Josephsstöckl in the Augarten, where he resided in modest style. His model was the ideal monarch as the first servant of his state.

Nonetheless, the mask of the enlightened philosopher and philanthropist was also dropped at times: in his foreign policy Joseph pursued an aggressive strategy designed to preserve Austria’s status as a Great Power. His goal was to restore the role of the Habsburgs as the leading power in Central Europe and to limit Prussia’s territorial ambitions.

Thus he was the driving force behind the annexation of Galicia in 1772 in the First Partition of Poland. Condemned by many as an injustice against the Poles, it was also heavily criticized by Maria Theresa.

In 1775 Austrian troops occupied the Bukovina, in a move that exploited the weakness of the Ottoman Empire in its conflict with the expansionist policy of the Russian Empire.

Joseph forged plans to acquire further territory when the main line of the Wittelsbach dynasty became extinct upon the death of the Bavarian elector Maximilian Joseph in 1777. In the ensuing War of Bavarian Succession Austrian troops occupied the Electorate. The late elector’s successor, Karl Theodor from the Palatinate branch of the dynasty, agreed to the partition put forward by Joseph. This would have brought Austria substantial territorial gains but was rejected by Prussia and other European powers. The result was a protracted and tortuous war with Prussia fought on Bohemian territory. Known because of the lack of major battles as the ‘Plum Fuss’ or ‘Potato War’, the conflict nonetheless cost thousands of human lives and devastated broad swathes of Bohemia. At the Treaty of Teschen in 1779 Austria was awarded the Innviertel, its sole gain from the conflict. The acquisition of Bavaria remained Joseph’s great project. He was never entirely to relinquish his plans of exchanging the outlying territory of the Austrian Netherlands for the Electorate that lay on Austria’s doorstep.

Emperor Joseph’s military enterprises against the Ottoman Empire in the Turkish War of 1787 were largely unsuccessful. In alliance with Catherine II of Russia he planned to wrest the European territories of the Turks from Ottoman dominion. Driven by fantasies of Great Power status, Joseph envisaged the Black Sea region and Constantinople falling to Russia, with the Habsburg sphere of influence being extended with the acquisition of the western Balkan territories.

This military campaign failed miserably when the supposedly weak adversary put up surprisingly strong resistance. It ended in a fiasco that cost many lives and led to general doubts about Joseph’s capabilities as a military leader. Furthermore, during the campaign in the raw Balkan climate he contracted a lung complaint from which he was never to recover. Joseph’s policy of aggression threatened to turn into a dangerous conflict between the Great Powers of Europe. Only the early death of the emperor prevented total escalation.

Martin Mutschlechner