Who Was Joseph II?
Future Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II became co-regent with his mother, Maria Theresa, in 1765, and sole ruler in 1780. During his time in power, Joseph issued decrees that promoted equality and education, but the speed and scope of his reforms led to problems for him and his empire. Joseph died in Vienna on February 20, 1790, at the age of 48.
On March 13, 1741, in Vienna, Austria, Habsburg heir Joseph (baptized as Joseph Benedict Augustus Johann Anton Michael Adam) was born. His mother, Maria Theresa, was the ruler of the Habsburg empire. His father, Francis I, held the title of Holy Roman emperor. As the firstborn son, Joseph spent his childhood knowing he would grow up to take the reins of power. In 1765, after his father died, Joseph became Joseph II, Holy Roman emperor.
The Enlightened Despot
When Maria Theresa died in 1780, Joseph became the absolute ruler of the Habsburg domains and enacted many reforms that his mother had refused to consider. During his reign, Joseph put forth an average of 690 decrees a year. Maria Theresa had made fewer than 100 each year. Joseph's reforms included abolishing serfdom, ending press censorship and limiting the power of the Catholic Church. And with his Edict of Toleration, Joseph gave minority religions, such as Protestants, Greek Orthodox and Jews, the ability to live and worship more freely.
Joseph was considered an "enlightened despot," and his reforms were open-minded, to a point. However, Joseph's main aim was to make the empire more efficient and financially secure. Believing that he was doing what was right and necessary, Joseph did not bother to smooth the way with nobles or clergy who felt threatened by his changes.
Joseph's reforms convinced people in the Austrian Netherlands that their historical privileges were not being respected. Hungarian nobles tried to reject Joseph's decrees on the grounds that he had not gone through an official coronation there. Even peasants were often more concerned with the taxes that the empire demanded than with their new freedoms.
Joseph also encountered difficulties outside his empire. To counter Prussia's strength, Joseph forged an alliance with Catherine II of Russia, which brought the empire into a conflict in Turkey. This stretched the empire's resources and also opened the door for more unrest.
Death and Legacy
By 1790, Joseph faced numerous problems in his empire, including a loss of control in the Austrian Netherlands. In a weakened state after being ill for years, Joseph made the painful decision to undo his reforms in Hungary in order to maintain the empire's power there.
On February 20, 1790, when he was 48 years old, Joseph passed away in Vienna. It was a lonely death. Joseph had been married twice, but had lost both wives to smallpox, and had no living children. His brother, Leopold, who was to be Joseph's successor, did not visit his bedside.
Joseph died believing that his reforms had weakened his empire instead of strengthening it. However, his support for ideals like religious tolerance led to lasting changes in Europe, and he paved the way for the complete abolition of feudalism in 1848. Although Joseph felt he had been a failure, history would show he did make a difference.
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