Joseph II

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Joseph II (1741–1790), Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Hapsburg (Austrian) territories, was the arch-embodiment of the Enlightenment spirit of the later 18th-century reforming monarchs known as the benevolent despots, or enlightened despots.[1] His career is notable for the scope of the reforms designed to modernize his empire, for the dedication with which he served the state, for the impetuosity with which he acted, for the violent opposition he aroused in all classes in every part of his empire for his excessive reforms, and for the failure which dogged most of his projects.


Joseph II was born on March 13, 1741, the eldest son of Maria Theresa and the future Holy Roman Emperor Francis I (r. 1745–1765). His youth coincided with the critical span of Austrian history marked by the mid-18th-century War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. In the course of this ordeal, the Habsburg monarchy narrowly avoided dismemberment; it was fortunate to escape with the loss of no more than its richest province, Silesia. This wartime experience conditioned Joseph's entire outlook, instilling in him a passion for reform as a means of enhancing the strength and efficiency of his dominions, a love for the army, and the ambition to leave his mark in history as a military conqueror.


Although he was carefully trained for his future career, Joseph's education in some respects could scarcely be termed successful. Opinionated and obstinate, with a tendency to react strongly against his environment, he baffled his strict tutors. He was repelled from the first by the elaborate etiquette and frivolity that characterized the Vienna court, and all his life affected manners of extreme simplicity. From childhood he withdrew himself from ordinary human associations, and he complained in later life that he had never enjoyed an intimate friendship.

All his interests were of a pragmatic and serious bent, unrelieved by any touch of humor; he was often fanatical. His favorite reading became the works of the French Encyclopedists and of the Physiocrats, and this reading made him a rationalist with definite ideas on government. Monarchy was a profession to which he dedicated himself for the purpose of advancing the well-being of the state and the happiness and welfare of its subjects. Efficiency, unity, equality, uniformity, and absolute authority for the monarch became the goals which he sought to realize by means of good laws, justly executed.

After the death of his beloved first wife, Isabella of Parma, he was pushed by his mother into an unhappy second marriage with Josepha of Bavaria. When she died he did not remarry; he had no children. His puritanism appears sharply in his letters to his sister Marie Antoinette. He was always trying to tell her how to behave and how to be Queen of France. "You are a charming young person," he wrote just after Louis XVI had become King, "who think all day only of your pleasures, your amusement, your attire."

Coregent with his mother, 1765–1780

In 1765, upon the death of Francis I, Joseph's mother Maria Theresa involved him actively in the government and bestowed the unprecedented status of coregent. A reformer herself, she always acted with a cautious respect for the conservatism of human nature and the strength of local prejudice. Her philosophy of government seemed too pedestrian for the impetuous Joseph, who sought to remake his heterogeneous inheritance at a stroke by a burst of rationalistic legislation. His mother rejected his approach; they quarreled frequently and there was mediation by the chancellor, Prince Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz (1711–94), who served nearly 40 years as the principal minister to Maria Theresa and Joseph.

Meanwhile, Joseph compensated for his frustration by extensive travel, a practice which he continued throughout his life. He systematically visited all his territories, studying their conditions and making notes on how to reform everything.


When Maria Theresa died on November 29, 1780, Joseph found himself at 39 free at last, absolute ruler over the most extensive realm of Central Europe. He started issuing edicts—6,000 in all, plus 11,000 new laws designed to regulate and reorder every aspect of the empire. The spirit was benevolent and paternal. He intended to make his people happy, but strictly in accordance with his own criteria.

Joseph set about building a rational, centralized, and uniform government for his diverse lands, a hierarchy under himself as supreme autocrat. The personnel of government was expected to be imbued with the same dedicated spirit of service to the state that he himself had. It was recruited without favor for class or ethnic origins, and promotion was solely by merit. To further uniformity, the emperor made German the compulsory language of official business throughout the Empire. The Hungarian assembly was stripped of its prerogatives, and not even called together

As privy finance minister, Count Karl von Zinzendorf (1739–1813) introduced a uniform system of accounting for state revenues, expenditures, and debts of the territories of the Austrian crown. Austria was more successful than France in meeting regular expenditures and in gaining credit. However, the the events of Joseph II's last years also suggest that the government was financially vulnerable to the European wars that ensued after 1792.[2]

Legal reform

The busy Joseph inspired a complete reform of the legal system, abolished brutal punishments and the death penalty in most instances, and imposed the principle of complete equality of treatment for all offenders. He ended censorship of the press and theatre.

In 1781–82 he extended full legal freedom to serfs. Rentals paid by peasants were to be regulated by officials of the crown and taxes were levied upon all income derived from land. The landlords, however, found their economic position threatened, and eventually reversed the policy. Indeed, in Hungary and Transylvania, the resistance of the magnates was such that Joseph had to content himself for a while with halfway measures. Of the five million Hungarians, 40,000 were nobles, of whom 4,000 were magnates who owned and ruled the land; most of the remainder were serfs legally tied to particular estates. After the collapse of the peasant revolt of Horea, 1784–85, in which over a hundred nobles were killed, the emperor acted. His Imperial Patent of 1785 abolished serfdom but did not give the peasants ownership of the land or freedom from dues owed to the landowning nobles. It did give them personal freedom. Emancipation of the Hungarian peasantry promoted the growth of a new class of taxable landholders, but it did not abolish the deep-seated ills of feudalism and the exploitation of the landless squatters. Feudalism finally ended in 1848.[3]

To equalize the incidence of taxation, Joseph caused an appraisal of all the lands of the empire to be made so that he might impose a single and egalitarian tax on land. The goal was to modernize the relationship of dependence between the landowners and peasantry, relieve some of the tax burden on the peasantry, and increase state revenues. Joseph looked on the tax and land reforms as being interconnected and strove to implement them at the same time. The various commissions he established to formulate and carry out the reforms met resistance among the nobility, the peasantry, and some officials. Most of the reforms were abrogated shortly before or after Joseph's death in 1790; they were doomed to failure from the start because they tried to change too much in too short a time, and tried to radically alter the traditional customs and relationships that the villagers had long depended upon.

In the cities the new economic principles of the Enlightenment called for the destruction of the autonomous guilds, already weakened during the age of mercantilism. Joseph II's tax reforms and the institution of Katastralgemeinde (tax districts for the large estates) served this purpose, and new factory privileges ended guild rights while customs laws aimed at economic unity. Physiocratic influence also led to the inclusion of agriculture in these reforms.

Education and medicine

To produce a literate citizenry, elementary education was made compulsory for all boys and girls, and higher education on practical lines was offered for a select few. He created scholarships for talented poor students, and allowed the establishment of schools for Jews and other religious minorities. In 1784 he ordered that the country change its language of instruction from Latin to German, a highly controversial step in a multilingual empire.

By the 18th century, centralization was the trend in medicine because more and better educated doctors requesting improved facilities; cities lacked the budgets to fund local hospitals; and the monarchy's wanted to end costly epidemics and quarantines. Joseph attempted to centralize medical care in Vienna through the construction of a single, large hospital, the famous Allgemeines Krakenhaus, which opened in 1784. Centralization worsened sanitation problems causing epidemics a 20% death rate in the new hospital. which undercut Joseph's plan, but the city became preeminent in the medical field in the next century.[4]


Joseph's policy of religious toleration was the most advanced of any state in Europe. In 1789 he issued a charter of religious toleration for the Jews of Galicia, a region with a large Yiddish-speaking traditional Jewish population. The charter abolished communal autonomy whereby the Jews controlled their internal affairs; it promoted Germanization and the wearing of non-Jewish clothing.

Probably the most unpopular of all his reforms was his attempted modernization of the highly traditional Roman Catholic Church. Calling himself the guardian of Catholicism, Joseph II struck vigorously at papal power. He tried to make the Catholic Church in his empire the tool of the state, independent of Rome. Clergymen were deprived of the tithe and ordered to study in seminaries under government supervision, while bishops had to take a formal oath of loyalty to the crown. He financed the large increase in bishoprics, parishes, and secular clergy by extensive sales of monastic lands. As a man of the Enlightenment he ridiculed the contemplative monastic orders, which he considered unproductive. Accordingly, he suppressed a third of the monasteries (over 700 were closed) and reduced the number of monks and nuns from 65,000 to 27,000. Church courts were abolished and marriage was defined as a civil contract outside the jurisdiction of the Church.

Joseph sharply cut the number of holy days and reduced ornamentation in churches. He greatly simplified the manner of celebration. The results of these reforms included a deepening crisis of faith; the disappearance of piety; and the decline of morality. Opponents of the reforms blamed them for revealing Protestant tendencies, with the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and the emergence of a liberal class of bourgeois officials. Anti-clericalism emerged and persisted, while the traditional Catholics were energized in opposition to the emperor.

Foreign policy

The Hapsburg Empire also had a policy of war and trade as well as intellectual influence across the borders. While opposing Prussia and Turkey, Austria was friendly to Russia though trying to remove Romania from Russian influence.

In foreign policy, there was no Enlightenment, only greed for more territory and willingness to undertake unpopular wars. Joseph was an excessively belligerent, expansionist leader, a man who sought to make the Hapsburg monarchy the greatest of the European powers. Joseph's principal ambition was to acquire Bavaria, if necessary in exchange for Belgium (the Austrian Netherlands), but in 1778 and again in 1785 he was thwarted by King Frederick II of Prussia, who had a much stronger army. This failure caused Joseph to seek territorial expansion in the Balkans, where he became involved in an expensive and futile war with the Turks (1787–1791). Joseph's participation in the Ottoman war was reluctant, attributable not to his usual acquisitiveness, but rather to his close ties to Russia, which he saw as the necessary price to be paid for the security of his people.

The Balkan policy of both Maria Theresa and Joseph II reflected the Cameralism promoted by Prince Kaunitz, stressing consolidation of the border lands by reorganization and expansion of the military frontier. Transylvania was incorporated into the frontier in 1761 and the frontier regiments became the backbone of the military order, with the regimental commander exercising military and civilian power. "Populationistik" was the prevailing theory of colonization, which measured prosperity in terms of labor. Joseph II also stressed economic development. Habsburg influence was an essential factor in Balkan development in the last half of the 18th century, especially for the Serbs and Croats.


The nobility throughout his empire hated him: they hated his taxes, his egalitarianism, his despotism and his puritanism. In Belgium and Hungary everyone resented the way he tried to do away with all regional government, and to subordinate everything to his own personal rule in Vienna. The ordinary people were not happy. They loathed the Emperor's interference in every detail of their daily lives. Why should they be forbidden to bake ginger-bread just because Joseph thought it bad for the stomach? Why the Imperial edict demanding the breast-feeding of infants? Why the banning of corsets? From these and a thousand other petty regulations, enforced by a secret police, it looked to the Austrians as though Joseph were trying to reform their characters as well as their institutions Only a few weeks before Joseph's death, the director of the Imperial Police reported to him: "All classes, and even those who have the greatest respect for the sovereign, are discontented and indignant."[5]

In Lombardy (in northern Italy) the cautious reforms of Maria Theresa in Lombardy enjoyed support from local reformers. Joseph II, however, by creating a powerful imperial officialdom directed from Vienna, undercut the dominant position of the Milanese principate and the traditions of jurisdiction and administration. In the place of provincial autonomy he established an unlimited centralism, which reduced Lombardy politically and economically to a fringe area of the Empire. As a reaction to these radical changes the middle class reformers shifted away from cooperation to strong resistance. From this basis appeared the beginnings of the later Lombard liberalism.

By 1790 rebellions had broken out in protest against Joseph's reforms in Belgium and Hungary, and his other dominions were restive under the burdens of his war with Turkey. His empire was threatened with dissolution, and he was forced to sacrifice some of his reform projects. His health shattered by disease, alone, and unpopular in all his lands, the bitter emperor died February 20, 1790. He was not yet forty-nine. Joseph II rode roughshod over age-old aristocratic privileges, liberties, and prejudices, thereby creating for himself many enemies, and they triumphed in the end. Joseph's attempt to reform the Hungarian lands illustrates the weakness of absolutism in the face of well-defended feudal liberties.[6]

Behind his numerous reforms lay a comprehensive program influenced by the doctrines of enlightened absolutism, natural law, mercantilism, and physiocracy. With a goal of establishing a uniform legal framework to replace heterogeneous traditional structures, the reforms were guided at least implicitly by the principles of freedom and equality and were based on a conception of the state's central legislative authority. Joseph's accession marks a major break since the preceding reforms under Maria Theresa had not challenged these structures, but there was no similar break at the end of the Josephinian era. The reforms initiated by Joseph II were continued to varying degrees under his successor Leopold and later successors, and given an absolute and comprehensive "Austrian" form in the Allgemeine Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch of 1811. They have been seen as providing a foundation for subsequent reforms extending into the 20th century, handled by much better politicians than Joseph II.


  1. Hamish H. Scott, ed. Enlightened Absolutism, (1990)
  2. P. G. M. Dickson, "Count Karl von Zinzendorf's 'New Accountancy': the Structure of Austrian Government Finance in Peace and War, 1781-1791." International History Review 2007 29(1): 22-56. Issn: 0707-5332
  3. Padover, The Revolutionary Emperor, 293-300
  4. Paul P. Bernard, "The Limits of Absolutism: Joseph II and the Allgemeines Krankenhaus." Eighteenth-Century Studies 1975 9(2): 193-215. Issn: 0013-2586 in Jstor
  5. Saul K. Padover, The Revolutionary Emperor, Joseph the Second 1741-1790. (1934) pp 384-85.
  6. P. G. M. Dickson, "Monarchy and Bureaucracy in Late Eighteenth-century Austria." English Historical Review 1995 110(436): 323-367. Issn: 0013-8266 Fulltext: in Jstor