In the shadow of imperial splendour – the Emperor's difficulties with his staff

Theo Zasche: Unpacking glasses on the return of the Court after a journey, drawing, 1898

Artur Halmi: Ischl; before the arrival of the Court, drawing, 1898

Theo Zasche: In the office of First Aulic Councillor Wetschl, drawing, 1898

Theo Zasche: Log porter Franz Meidl, drawing, 1898

Theo Zasche: In the tea salon, drawing, 1898

Critical contemporaries of Franz Joseph perceived the Viennese Court as an ossified relic, trapped within its own history. An organization such as the Habsburg Court, programmed for safeguarding tradition, naturally had difficulty with the modernization that became necessary. However, a number of problems had become entrenched throughout the Hofburg.

Theo Zasche: Unpacking glasses on the return of the Court after a journey, drawing, 1898

Artur Halmi: Ischl; before the arrival of the Court, drawing, 1898

Theo Zasche: In the office of First Aulic Councillor Wetschl, drawing, 1898

Theo Zasche: Log porter Franz Meidl, drawing, 1898

Theo Zasche: In the tea salon, drawing, 1898

As a result of financial straits and political changes which could no longer be ignored, Franz Joseph was finally forced to implement reforms. Right at the beginning of his reign, he embarked upon a thoroughgoing reform of the Court Household.

The problems requiring remedy consisted of wastage, embezzlement and corruption. Vast quantities of food went missing; purportedly damaged Court property, which was then ‘discarded’, ending up in the hands of employees who then took full advantage. Court servants took free rides in Court carriages. A tremendous amount of abuse went on through the illegal subletting of grace-and-favour apartments. To summarize: huge sums were consumed, and this was money which was in short supply elsewhere.

The biggest problem was the lack of coordination, in that the various offices gave each other contradictory instructions. Blatant nepotism prevailed when it came to filling court posts; it was not qualifications but connections which counted. Enrichment using the court’s assets was considered to be a peccadillo, and in the lower ranks of service, staff unceremoniously requested gratuities for the smallest service rendered.

The result of the reforms was a restructuring of the entire organization. The Obersthofmeister was now the senior manager of the court, and all the other Court departments answered to him. Streamlined administration, together with thorough documentation of procedures for the purpose of monitoring, led to greater efficiency and control.

A particularly rigorous attitude was adopted towards the senior members of the lesser nobility, since here, Franz Joseph set uncompromising moral standards. Noble birth was for him not just a privilege, but also a duty. The biggest scandal under Franz Joseph was the suicide of Oberstküchenmeister Count Wolkenstein who, when large-scale embezzlement was uncovered in his department, could no longer live with the ignominy.

He was more tolerant towards simple servants, being fully aware of their hard and monotonous daily work routine. Employees who were overstretched or unsuitable, and indeed even staff shown to be guilty of embezzlement, were not dismissed, but relocated or, by way of strictest disciplinary measure, pensioned off at one third of their working pay.

This was indicative of Franz Joseph’s patriarchal understanding of the Court as a ‘family’, to which all those who lived under the emperor’s roof belonged, for better or worse.

Martin Mutschlechner