The emperor behind the plow

Good will is a prerequisite, but it alone is not enough.

One of the most interesting, but also most contradictory rulers of the 18th century is Joseph II of Habsburg-Lorraine, Archduke of Austria-Lorraine (13. 3. 1741 - 20. 2. 1790). From 1765-1780 also Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

His mother was Maria Theresa of Austria (5/13/1717 - 11/29/1780), from 1740 heiress to the throne of the unstable, multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural Habsburg Empire, which included Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Hungary, Bohemia, the Catholic archbishoprics of Cologne, Mainz, and Treves, various and changing parts of Italy, and the Austrian Netherlands (roughly the Belgium of today).
His father was Francis Stephen I of Lorraine (1708-1765); from 1745 as Francis I Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Joseph II had 15 siblings, several of whom died young. Of the survivors were of historical importance:
* Leopold II of Austria-Lorraine (1747-1792), the successor to Joseph II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1790-92.
* Maria Karolina of Austria-Lorraine (1752-1814), Queen of Naples-Sicily from 1768.
 * Marie-Antoinette of Austria-Lorraine (1755-1793), 1770 Dauphine of France, Queen of France from May 1, 1774.

These were difficult times in which the philosophers of the Enlightenment questioned everything - from the monarchy to the church.
The princes' forms of government vacillated between the Baroque understanding of rule of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) and the models of the Enlightenment. The reputation of the churches was shaken, but this only spurred them on to fight tooth and nail to retain their power.

The economy was essentially based on agriculture, handicrafts and trade, with some mining and some manufactures; often shaken by wars, crop failures, famine and epidemics. Above all, human labor was important, and the many serfs had a status only marginally better than the slaves of antiquity once had.
The population in Central Europe declined sharply as a result of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648)[i] slowly gained weight and often did not know how to feed herself.[ii]
Some relief came from long-distance trade in colonial countries such as England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. These states were able to send part of their growing populations overseas and exploit their colonies.
Without their contemporaries - especially the intransigent nobility - realizing it, their feudal, exploitative economy was reaching its limits. There was much turbulence, which led to revolutions toward the end of the 18th century. One can debate at length whether the theories of the philosophers triggered the revolutions, or economic constraints such as energy shortages, crop failures, resource shortages, epidemics, national bankruptcy, freak weather[iii] and poor management. Or were they all playing together?
Only the industrial revolution, which began in England in the middle of the 18th century, was able to shift the energy boundaries and initiate a previously unimaginable economic growth.

Despite many difficulties, the Habsburg Empire under Maria Theresa afforded itself a bloated, luxurious court following Spanish, Roman and French models:
"Under Maria Theresa and her gallant husband, Francis of Lorraine, the Viennese court...took on a very brilliant form and the castle and the imperial pleasure palaces became the scenes of noisy carousels, operas, ballets and balls, to which often two thousand guests received invitations. The court also cost a total of 6 million guilders a year.[iv]. The furniture of the imperial dining room cost 90,000 florins, the solid gold dinner service weighed 4.5 hundredweight; each of the fifty-eight plates cost 2,000 florins, the whole 1,300,000 florins. At the court, 12,000 fathoms were annually[v] Wood was burned, 2,200 horses stood in the marsh stables. During excursions, the empress loved to lavish herself with Kremnitz ducats.[vi] to the beggars on the left and on the right from the wagon. Their profligacy, which in the naiveté of absolutist rulers regarded the pouches of their subjects as their own, was eagerly imitated by the aristocracy, and a gambling frenzy swept in among the women of distinguished society in particular..." (3, S. 346).

The designated heir to the throne
After three older sisters, two of whom had died in infancy, the longed-for heir to the throne, Joseph II, was finally born in 1741.
From an early age, he was aware of his importance as heir to the throne.
He received a varied education, which was not left to the Jesuits alone due to the influence of his father. Thus, Joseph learned about the ideas of the Enlightenment at a young age and read - to the displeasure of his mother - the most important Enlightenment writings, which influenced him throughout his life.
In addition to the instruction necessary for an heir to the throne in justice, the military, politics, languages, state doctrine, etc., physical training, e.g. fencing and horseback riding, also played a role.
"The ruler...has enjoyed a contradictory upbringing. His educators were, on the one hand, men of the church,...on the other, French free spirits.... In addition, a group of professors...showered the young monarch with knowledge and advice. The result of this contradictory and mostly superficial education was an ambitious young man who had in mind the ideal of improving everything in his country." (5, S. 474).
The typical problem of the politician education also of today: Should one know from almost everything a little only superficially, or nevertheless better a field of expertise profoundly penetrate?

At the age of twenty, Joseph presented his mother with a memorandum that already anticipated the most important points of his later reform program and was strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.
Even under the bigoted Maria Theresa, there were cautious attempts at reform, such as the abolition of some holidays and torture, but they went nowhere near as far as her son's thoughts.
For Maria Theresa's goal was above all to transform the federal Austria, with its almost autonomous crown lands, into a centralized unitary state. To achieve this, many privileges had to be abolished. This became the birth of the civil service and the bureaucracy, which contributed not insignificantly to the fact that the multiethnic state of the Habsburgs could hold on into the 20th century. Unfortunately, there was also already a secret police. (3. S. 346).
Joseph II's appreciation of Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), one of the few enlightened monarchs whom he met twice, was difficult to bear for Maria Theresa, who saw the Prussian king as a "bad man".

As co-regent
After his father's death (1765), Joseph II became co-regent alongside or under his mother, the highly respected Empress Maria Theresa, who presided amid her bloated court household in one of the largest Baroque palaces (the summer residence at Schönbrunn). Her entourage consisted mainly of courtiers who saw everything through the lens of the nobility, knew little of the lives of peasants, artisans, merchants, serfs, soldiers - by far the largest part of the population - and took no interest in the struggles and plight of the poor.
Joseph II was to be slowly introduced to the business of government. At first, he did not have many decision-making options, and his "modern" ideas, such as religious tolerance, led to tensions with his strict Catholic mother. The Habsburgs had, after all, been a spearhead of the Counter-Reformation since the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

Perhaps to avoid dissonance with his mother, Joseph II managed to break out of court ceremonial, travel incognito throughout the country, and experience firsthand the lives of the majority of his subjects. His travels took him not only through the Habsburg lands, but far beyond, through large parts of Europe, from France and Italy to Russia. Under the traffic conditions of the time, this was quite an exhausting undertaking.
He saw the suffering of ordinary people, which touched him deeply.
When he had to get out of his carriage in Moravia in August 1769 because of a broken wheel, he took up a plow himself in a nearby field and drew a furrow. Word of this spread quickly. The "emperor as farmer" became a symbol of closeness to the people, and Joseph's "plow" became a relic for the museum.
In 1777 he finally arrived in Paris, the most glamorous metropolis in Europe, to visit his favorite sister Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the French royal couple, at Versailles.
To everyone's surprise, Joseph II took up quarters in the city of Paris to experience something of the "real life" of the people. The Parisians were enthusiastic about him. Many things repelled him, and the conditions in the Hotel-Dieu, the great hospital of Paris, shocked him. In 1784, he arranged for the construction of the General Hospital in Vienna, the most modern hospital of its time.
Unfortunately, Joseph II did not succeed in convincing his brother-in-law, Louis XVI, that he, too, needed to break out of the fossilized court ceremonial and see something of the life of the people. Thus, Joseph II could only warn the latter against a revolution that seemed inevitable from Joseph II's point of view without timely reforms.
Apparently, no one in the European governments recognized the importance of the American struggle for freedom, with its Declaration of Independence of 1776, although this war of the later USA against England would probably have failed without the effective help of France.

Joseph II's private life was unhappy. His first wife, Isabella of Parma, whom he loved dearly, died after only three years of marriage.
The beloved daughter, named Maria Theresa, lived only seven years.
A marriage with Maria Josepha of Bavaria, necessary for dynastic reasons, was inharmonious and ended after only two years with Maria Josepha's demise.
After that, Joseph II did not allow himself to be forced into another marriage.

Too far ahead of his time as an enlightened absolutist ruler
When Maria Theresa died in 1780, sincerely mourned by her son Joseph, who had loved her despite all differences of opinion, Joseph II became the ruler of the difficult Habsburg Empire.

In the field of foreign policy, he failed to achieve success; he was unable to expand or consolidate his empire. National vanities and political tensions between the continental powers - France, Habsburg, Prussia, Russia, Turkey - remained high.
A possible annexation of Bavaria in exchange for the Habsburg Netherlands was thwarted by Prussia, which would not tolerate such an expansion of the Habsburg Empire's power and threatened war. The economic conditions of the disparate Habsburg possessions were not sufficient to raise an army that would have been a match for Prussia (as a much smaller country).
Joseph II was not a gifted general either, but he was a convinced reformer.

The most important of his reforms
* Abolition of serfdom. Much to the annoyance of the nobility, who lost income.
* Officially, Joseph II was "Vicar of Christ," "Advocate of the Christian Church," and "Protector of Palestine" (1, p. 198); but he decreed religious freedom, including for Jews (Edict of Tolerance), and control of the church by the state.
These measures prompted Pope Pius VI to take the unusual step of leaving Italy in February 1782 and intervening personally in Vienna. He was received politely, but was unable to achieve anything.
* Abolition of monasteries that neither cared for the sick nor ran schools. This affected a large part of the approximately 1,500 men's monasteries and 500 women's monasteries in Austria. (3, S. 344).
* Elementary schools, girls' schools, high schools and universities were supported. The universities were to train civil servants in particular. The training of military doctors was also promoted.
* Abolition of holidays and processions. Maria Theresa had already abolished some of the 150 or so holidays; now several more followed. Often to the displeasure of the church-going population.
The "Protestant work ethic[vii] increased labor output, among other things by abolishing many holidays. The superiority of the economy of the Protestant North over that of the Catholic South could not be denied; countermeasures had to be considered.
* In the judicial system, there were reforms of criminal and civil law, procedural codes, etc. The death penalty was abolished.
* Abolition of internal tariffs in favor of high import tariffs.
This measure allowed domestic manufacturers to sell poorer quality at higher prices and created tensions with neighboring countries.
* Abolition of guild regulations dating back to the Middle Ages, which hindered industrial development.
Joseph II opposed the proliferation of machines for fear that they would "deprive thousands of their livelihood." (1, S. 196).
* To promote the circulation of capital, the ban on interest was lifted and a Jewish banker was ennobled as a baron.
* As a follower of physiocracy[viii] Joseph II wanted to tax only landed property.
This required a complete resurvey of the entire empire.
According to this new law, a peasant should keep 70 % of his yield or income, pay 12 % to the state, and divide the rest between feudal dues and church tithes.
Previously, he had to pay about 34 % to the state, 29 % to the landowner and 10 % to the church, leaving him with only 27 %. (1, S. 198).
The nobles protested, and in Hungary there was an open revolt against this plan.

Joseph II's reforms were like a revolution from above. They were contrary to traditional customs, the privileges of the nobility and the old rights of patricians, guilds and merchants.
For all his understanding of the people's suffering, he was not willing to engage in dialogue with his subjects. All decisions were to come from above.
From the Netherlands to Hungary there were great cultural, legal and traditional differences, and the unified imperial order sought by Joseph II met with many protests and even provoked uprisings.

At last, everything seemed to turn against him:
Hungary was in open rebellion against Joseph II edicts and demanded independence. There was a revolt in the Austrian Netherlands. The deposition of Joseph II was demanded and the "Seven Provinces" of the Austrian Netherlands declared their independence.

The USA had become an independent, democratic nation. In France, there had been revolution since 1789. The whole old world that Joseph II had known seemed to be collapsing.
He did not have to live through the execution of his sister and brother-in-law, the French royal couple, or the rise of Napoleon.

Joseph II's health had been failing for years; he was overextending himself in his reforming zeal. Now he began to suffer seriously and probably sensed the coming death. Pressed by his brother Leopold, as the designated successor, Joseph II abandoned all resistance. On January 30, 1790, he revoked all reforms ordered since the death of Maria Theresa, except for the abolition of serfdom.
 He died of tuberculosis on February 20, 1790.

He was succeeded by his brother Leopold II.
"Unable to pacify the Hungarian barons, Leopold revoked the grant of freedom to the serfs. In Bohemia and Austria, most of the reforms remained. The edicts of toleration were not revoked, the closed monasteries were not readmitted, and the church remained subject to the laws of the state. Economic legislation had liberated trade and industry, giving them a sustained boost. Austria made the transition from a medieval to a modern state without bloody revolutions and participated in the diverse cultural life of the 19th century." (1, S. 214).

Joseph II, with his 'enlightened absolutism', had a remarkable understanding of rule for an autocratic ruler of the 18th century:
He went from the People saw the sufferings, worries and problems of his subjects and wanted to alleviate their burdens. A difficult, almost utopian undertaking under the economic, political and social conditions of the time.
Even today, under completely different conditions, it is not uncommon - even in democracies - to still speak of the State The aim is to stabilize the state, expand its sphere of influence and strengthen its grip. The common good often has to take a back seat to state goals, and the slogan "prosperity for all" (Ludwig Erhard) is forgotten. This is regularly followed by rampant bureaucracy, regulatory frenzy and restrictions on personal freedom.
A bloated propaganda industry then has to convince voters that all this serves their welfare and disguise the fact that the alleged protection of the state is primarily intended to preserve a democracy in great need of reform with weak, divided, selfish parties.

Joseph II has gone down in history as a far-sighted reformerwho wanted too much too quickly. For despite all his good will and personal example, he did not succeed in inspiring his people with the various reforms.
The still - almost as in the Middle Ages - predominantly "tradition-driven" The majority clung to the traditional. The nobility, merchants, church and guilds insisted on the often complicated "old rights". They did not want to accept that many things were outdated and stood in the way of further development.
The "internally steered"Joseph II, who was open to the "New Thought" and unfortunately not physically healthy, felt under time pressure and overworked himself. With the best will in the world, he enforced his convictions with the power given to him to serve the welfare of the people entrusted to his care.
The "old thinking" and the "new knowledge" stood opposite each other without understanding.

Here a Summarizing assessment of the complicated personality of Joseph II by a historian who was still relatively close to him at the time and who had to flee Germany after the revolution of 1848/49:
"Joseph led a simple and active way of life. He was neither a gourmet in food nor a cynic in dress like Frederick[ix]. There were never more than six bowls on his table, very rarely he drank wine. If he did not wear the uniform of one of his regiments, he wore a simple skirt of dark color. He reduced his mother's court by half and was content to spend half a million florins a year instead of six million. He loved music, especially German music, and played the violoncello. He held Mozart in high esteem, who, under his reign, wrote his magnificent tone works....
The haste with which his sanguine-choleric temperament made the emperor put his reform plans into action made them fail....
But his intentions were pure and serious, his enthusiasm for enlightenment and the happiness of the people was sincere. In spite of all the misfortune that haunted his endeavors, it was he who undertook to rescue Austria from the Spanish-medieval mire and to relate it to the modern movement."
(3, page 362).

His tomb is a simple coffin, not a magnificent baroque structure.

On Joseph II's monument in Vienna it is aptly written:
"Saluti publicae vixit non diu sed totus".
(He lived to the common good, not long, but whole).

(1) Durant, Will: "Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit" Volume XXX, Editions Recontre Lausanne, o. J.
(2) Reinalter, Helmut: "Joseph II.", C. H. Beck, Munich, 2011.
(3) Scherr, Johannes: "Deutsche Kultur- und Sittengeschichte," Agrippina, Wiesbaden, o. J.
(4) Zierer, Otto: "Neue Weltgeschichte," Fackelverlag, Stuttgart, n. d.
(5) Zierer, Otto: "Kultur- und Sittenspiegel" Band III, Fackelverlag, Stuttgart, n. d.
(6) "Joseph II - Emperor and Rebel," television film co-produced by ORF III with ZDF-arte, broadcast on arte on 4/15/2022.

[i] The population of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia increased from 18,700,000 in 1780 to 21,000,000 in 1790. (1, p. 198).

[ii] Read about it "Why we are stumbling into the population trap".

[iii] Read about this in "Short, sweet, curious" on page 110 "How the climate makes history".

[iv] The name "florin" comes from gold florins of the city of Florence, called "Florentines", hence the abbreviation fl. Florentine gold florins had about 3.5 g of gold. Later, "florin" was also a unit of account.
"Around 1754, for one guilder, a master craftsman had to work two days, a journeyman two and a half days, and a day laborer three days at 13.5 hours each." (
For comparison: in the German Empire, a 10 mark gold coin had a fineness of approx. 3.58 g of gold.

[v] One fathom of wood was equal to about three cubic meters.

[vi] Ducats were common gold coins in Europe with a fineness of about 3.44 g of gold. Kremnitz is a former mining town in Slovakia.

[vii] Read about it in "500 Years of Reformation" under "Commemorative Days" the chapter "The Protestant Work Ethic."

[viii] Physiocracy ("rule of nature") assumes that only nature produces values, and therefore land is the only source of a country's wealth.

[ix] Frederick II of Prussia, called "the Great".