Despots

William Doyle

  • Joseph II. Vol. I: In the Shadow of Maria Theresa 1741-1780 by Derek Beales
    Cambridge, 520 pp, £35.00, December 1986, ISBN 0 521 24240 1
  • Finance and Government under Maria Theresia 1740-1780 by P.G.M. Dickson
    Oxford, 491 pp, £45.00, August 1987, ISBN 0 19 822570 9

The very title of one of these two massive works represents a minor act of courage, and, I suspect, authorial obstinacy in the face of editorial conservatism. It is high time that English-speaking authors began to call Maria Theresia by the name she was given at the font. Only a decade ago, Oxford University Press refused to allow authors to do so; and Cambridge, apparently, still does if we are to judge from Professor Beales’s subtitle. I cannot believe him conservative enough to prefer Maria Theresa if left a free hand, for he is no less bold a scholar than Dr Dickson. Both authors came new to Habsburg history, that most labyrinthine of subjects, with reputations already made in other fields. Both have spent many years mastering secondary literature in a wide range of languages, and in sampling archives all over Europe and even America. These years of patient, careful and imaginative scholarship have now borne fruit, happily enough in the same year, in books which make a fundamental reappraisal of the reign of the Queen-Empress and her tempestuous son. It is appropriate that new perspectives should extend to the name she bore.

Scholars spend their lives criticising previous work, and they all know that sooner or later their own writings will come in for the same treatment. Those who work in the history of countries other than their own are particularly conscious of how little they can do compared with natives who live close to their sources. Dickson and Beales have both seen enough of the mountainous unpublished material available to realise that they could never do more than make considered forays into it; and they frankly say so. But the choices they have made in this selective exercise command respect – and both works, incidentally, are a tribute to unselfish co-operation between researchers. Innumerable footnotes in both show how frequently, once they realised they were working on parallel and complementary lines, the two authors collaborated and exchanged information. Not all academics are so generous. Generosity, after all, is not what they are trained in; and in this field, as both writers show, the progress of knowledge depends on pitiless criticism of an incestuous secondary literature increasingly remote from the stimulus of archives. These two monuments of English scholarship are a rebuke to the inertia and lack of curiosity displayed by previous Habsburg historians.

Beales discovered just how profound their shortcomings were when he first began to work on Joseph. In a sensational article published in 1975 under the title ‘The False Joseph II’, he demonstrated that the best-known printed collection of the Emperor’s letters was largely a forgery. That meant that most of the juiciest and most frequently reproduced quotations attributed to him in all the literature were bogus. This was bad enough: but Beales also pointed out that the letters in question had actually been shown to be a forgery as early as 1868. Admittedly the demonstration was in a remote and inaccessible learned journal, but self-respecting scholars should have known about it. Most did not – or if they did, they found its arguments too painful or inconvenient. Consequently the forged collection continues to be quoted as authentic down to our own day, even after Beales’s own conclusive article. The whole story is a sad indictment of scholarly inertia, and it is deeply symptomatic. Lesser examples abound throughout both books. As Dickson insists, the main problem with Habsburg history is not the much-blamed linguistic diversity of the lands once ruled by the monarchy: it is the reluctance of those writing about it to go beyond secondary literature, or at best printed sources, and plunge into the dusty business of investigating manuscripts.

Maria Theresia is the central figure in both books. Even Beales’s is as much about her as Joseph II. The Emperor will only take the centre of the stage when Volume II appears. From 1765 to 1780, though undisputed Holy Roman Emperor, he shared power with his mother in the Habsburg dominions, and the share he had never equalled hers. Except in military matters, where she allowed him extensive executive authority from an early stage, he was never much more than Maria Theresia’s chef de cabinet, and even then not consistently. Despite repeated offers to retire and end her days at her devotions, she never seriously thought of surrendering the authority so precariously held on to in the 1740s, and so extended and transformed in the 1750s. The monarchy which Joseph was impatient to change root and branch from his earliest manhood had in fact already been changed profoundly over his mother’s reign, and by her explicit authority. In the history of the Habsburg monarchy, it is becoming increasingly clear that Maria Theresia was the true revolutionary, and that Joseph was merely the Napoleon who could have attempted little without the ground-clearing which she had already accomplished.

The full scale of the Theresian achievement is set forth in unprecedented detail by Dickson. Within three months of succeeding her father on the throne of perhaps the most complex political system in Europe, she found herself under attack from all sides. Joseph was born in 1741 when, she noted, ‘I no longer possessed any undisputed lands, so that in the following year I didn’t know where to go for the birth of my next child, as I couldn’t stay in Vienna, with Bohemia and Upper Austria lost, Lower Austria threatened by the Bavarians, Italy and the Netherlands invaded, and Hungary so plague-ridden that, when my baggage arrived at Pest, the gates were shut because of the contagion and it had to be sent back.’ She was ‘without money, without credit, without an army’. She survived the crisis by an incredible combination of diplomatic good fortune and hand-to-mouth efforts which have left no systematic records; but the province of Silesia was lost and the state apparatus left in total confusion. Maria Theresia emerged from the war determined never to be reduced to such straits again. To make sure she was not, she turned to a new generation of officials with a vision of the future which involved a massive reorientation of priorities. Among these officials two stood out. One was Kaunitz, who dominated the making of Habsburg foreign policy from the late 1740s until the early 1790s, concentrating it first on recovering Silesia and when that failed on finding compensations elsewhere. By the 1760s he was a dominant figure in internal policy, too: both authors confirm that royal authority in the 1760s and 1770s was in effect exercised by a triumvirate of Maria Theresia, Joseph and Kaunitz. The other official was Haugwitz, who is Dickson’s hero insofar as he has one. Although he died two decades before Kaunitz, and his system was abandoned barely a decade after its introduction, between 1749 and the late 1750s he it was who tried to create the organisation and resources to back up his colleague’s grandiose international ambitions. He attempted to centralise political and fiscal authority under a single omnicompetent Directorium, eliminate so far as was possible the representative Estates from levying direct taxes and end the great nobility’s and the Church’s exemptions. The result was intended to be a standing army of 107,000 men, enough to match and beat the dreaded Prussians. None of these aims was entirely achieved. By the middle of the Seven Years’ War the state was once more perceived to be on the verge of collapse, and at Kaunitz’s suggestion a new supreme advisory body, the Staatsrat, was set up. But it had no executive authority, and central government continued to be a matter of warring departments quite independent of one another. The Queen-Empress was their only connecting link, and as the amount of government business grew, she found it impossible to give all the necessary orders without which no department of state would move.

It was at this point that Joseph came of age: within a couple of years, following the sudden death of his father, he was Emperor. From the start he showed himself hungry for power and impatient with everything that limited or circumscribed it. In a memorandum of 1763, innocently entitled Mes Rêveries, he declared that the only way to save the state was to give him ten years of despotism during which he would attempt to destroy the power of the landed magnates. In the end, he did get exactly ten years of relatively unfettered power and during it he did attack the magnates. But in 1763, Maria Theresia was shocked by her son’s Mein Kampf, and no uncensored text of it ever appeared as long as the monarchy lasted – or, indeed, until Beales came along. So long as his mother lived the young Emperor had to content himself with an ill-defined share of power, and no more. Sometimes he could not bear it: he would explode, and demand that his mother and Kaunitz step aside, leaving him dictatorial powers. Rebuffed, he would threaten to withdraw from public life. Many of his famous journeys (fully chronicled by Beales), which took him to the remotest corners of the monarchy as well as France, Italy and Russia, seem to have been undertaken to escape the tension of shared power and the constant emotional blackmail through which his mother usually got her way. But in the end his travels only made matters worse, for he returned better-informed and more opinionated than ever, having sown confusion wherever he went within the monarchy, and given offence or provoked alarm about Habsburg ambitions abroad.

What Joseph never realised was that power must be decently clothed. He hated ceremonial, as had his father (whom both these books rescue from an undeserved reputation for nullity). He insisted on travelling simply and incognito – as if that were really possible – and reacted badly when his pose was not respected. That seems the main reason behind his famous snub to Voltaire. He always wore simple uniform rather than court dress. For company he preferred narrow soldiers and sentimental ladies rather than the magnates of the court whose good will it was essential for an absolute monarch to conciliate; even among his intimates he was abrasive and contradictory. ‘He likes,’ noted one of the ladies who knew him best, ‘monopoly in everything.’

So had Louis XIV, the archetypal courtier monarch, and so, in her devious way, did Maria Theresia. But unlike Joseph, they both knew the value and importance of ceremonial, display, tedious public appearances, routine, hypocrisy and scrupulous politeness for the exaltation and underpinning of royal authority. They understood that authority was not synonymous with power. Joseph did not. Later called by one British observer ‘the first Jacobin of his time’, he shared with the French revolutionaries the delusion that the transparency of his own good intentions was enough to produce willing compliance with his orders among all honest men. No wonder everybody dreaded the moment of his mother’s death, when his own inclinations would be subject to no further checks. And no wonder, when that moment came, he soon ran into all the trouble that had been predicted. His subjects’ resistance forced him to abandon much of what he had tried to do during a decade of breakneck reform. Maria Theresia, in contrast, wrought a permanent change in central and provincial government, substantially diminished the independence of the Church and the privileges of the nobility, and brought a substantial rise in the monarchy’s financial ability to sustain an ambitious foreign policy, without incurring any of the revolts against government (as opposed to revolt provoked by famine, as in Bohemia in the early 1770s) that beset her son by the late 1780s.

There is little doubt that Joseph aspired to be a despot, and had the temperament of one. Only the presence of his mother, and to a lesser extent Kaunitz, prevented him from indulging these inclinations to the full in the period covered by these books. But Beales’s unprecedentedly thorough plumbing of his character offers little comfort to those scholars who still cling to the rusty idea of enlightened despotism. The emperor’s despotism was temperamentally rather than ideologically driven. A remarkable investigation of his education by Professor Beales shows the lengths his parents went to to protect him from the insidious thought of the age, and to instil a respect for ‘the mild Austrian government, which cannot be too highly praised’. His adult contempt for this government, then, clearly did not originate in his schooling. On the other hand, his religious radicalism perhaps did. He had been taught to seek a spare, unaesthetic, utilitarian and more pastoral style of Catholicism by copious readings from Muratori: he did not draw his inspiration from the jibes of Voltaire. Only in the 19th century, by which time it could be seen as the thin end of the wedge, was being unpleasant to the Pope accepted as a sign of conversion to the Enlightenment. Joseph’s overriding aim as a ruler was to be practical, effective and prompt. The fact that these qualities were also exalted by certain enlightened writers was quite coincidental.

None of this, on the other hand, is to deny the general impact on government of the thought of the age, as administrators at every level grappled with the complexities of making deeply-rooted and hidebound structures of government and society respond more effectively to politico-military demands that could not be evaded. If ideas seemed promising, they were tried. More important, if enlightened arguments lent plausible justification to policies pursued for quite different reasons, they were invoked. The public explanations for the alleviation of serfdom are a case in point.

These considerations are enough to persuade Dickson that enlightened absolutism, at least, was a reality in Austria under both Joseph and his mother. Beales, who can be as sybilline as he is subtle, broaches the question several times only to draw back. But surely it is now high time for the increasingly slender thread by which such concepts hang to be allowed to break. They date from times when factual paucity needed to be supplemented by conceptual boldness. With these two magnificent works, the facts are available and abundant as never before, and even absolutism emerges as a more complex idea than we have hitherto thought. To complicate it with the otiose qualification of enlightened now impedes more than it promotes historical understanding.