The War of the Austrian Succession began with the death of Maria Theresa’s father, Emperor Charles VI, in October 1740. King Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the succession of Maria Theresa as a moment of weakness and determined to attack Austria.
The Salic law governing the empire had prevented a female succeeding to the throne, and Charles VI had devoted much of his reign to gaining the acceptance of the European powers to accept Maria Theresa as his successor in spite of her sex. Beset by the Prussian invasion, the youthful Joseph II may have been his mother’s secret weapon in the war.
Needing Hungary’s help against Frederick, Maria Theresa appeared before the Hungarian magnates at Pressburg, holding the infant boy in her arms, at her coronation there on June 19, 1741. The overwhelming wave of affection for the young mother and son did more to cement Hungary’s ties to Austria than any treaty.
Joseph’s education was largely supervised by his mother, who saw herself as a child of the Enlightenment and chose to rule over Austria and Hungary as an “enlightened despot,” a philosopher-queen who desired to better the lives of her subjects.
Joseph was therefore raised with the Enlightenment quest for toleration and just government. On the death of Emperor Francis I in 1765, Maria Theresa chose her son to rule jointly with her, which would continue until her death on November 29, 1780.
In 1778, Joseph II received his first taste of war with the War of the Bavarian Succession. Two years later in 1780, upon the death of his mother, he began to make policy for the Austrian empire on his own terms. Joseph II became an activist emperor who dedicated his reign to the improvement of his subjects’ lives.
With his campaign to improve the life of the peasantry, Joseph pursued a program of land reform that was far ahead of his time. His reformist views had often received resistance from his more conservative mother, and his assumption of the throne became to him a mandate for change.
While Czar Alexander II of Russia has gained praise for his abolishment of serfdom in 1861 in the Russian Empire, it is less-often noted that Joseph II of Austria abolished serfdom a full 80 years earlier in 1781.
The most revolutionary part of his program was Joseph’s insistence that the peasantry be able to purchase land at fair prices and marry without restrictions. Joseph’s internal reforms also embodied an embryonic social welfare state more than a century before German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck established one in the German Empire in the 19th century.
In terms of religion, Joseph II showed himself to be a child of the Enlightenment as well. While not apparently a Freemason himself, Joseph showed himself friendly to the doctrines of Freemasonry in the empire.
Certainly Joseph II was a patron of the great Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who entered a Masonic lodge in 1784 and remained a Mason until his premature death in 1791. Joseph also carried out reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, he issued his Patent of Toleration in 1781.
While Joseph II showed himself at his best in reforming the empire internally, his foreign policy of expansionism was carried out with a recklessness that had rarely been the mark of the rulers of the House of Habsburg. He had already been instrumental in bringing about the First Partition of the Kingdom of Poland between Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1772.
He pursued various means to ally with Russia for the partition of Turkey and Venice. Throughout his reign, his policy of carrying out ruthless centralization of the empire had steadily increased opposition among the people of the empire.
The population was not nearly as progressive as its ruler, and he rubbed roughly against parochial interests and traditions that had remained virtually untouched since the Middle Ages. Much of Hungary was in unrest because of his determination to use German as the official language of the army and empire. As with many reformers filled with zeal, Joseph had displayed a lack of tact.
Joseph was relatively immune to retribution so long as he appeared to rule a strong empire. However, his failures at foreign policy fueled his opponents’ perception of him as a weak monarch. Resistance to his reforms, long muted, burst into the open. Throughout the empire, there was upheaval.
On January 30, 1790, Joseph II was forced to capitulate on his reforms. A broken man, he died almost exactly a month later, on February 20, 1790. Since he died childless, he was succeeded as Holy Roman Emperor by his brother, who would reign as Emperor Leopold II. Yet as sickness had begun to take its toll in 1789, the French Revolution erupted in Paris in July.
Soon, the ancient institutions of the empire, which he, perhaps sensing the future, had tried to reform, would be struck down by the revolutionary doctrine of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The upheaval caused by the French Revolution would strike the Austrian empire with the force of a tidal wave that would make the reforms of Joseph II seem light by comparison.