Franz Joseph I or Francis Joseph I ( 18 August 1830 – 21 November 1916) was Emperor of Austria, and King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia. From 1 May 1850 until 24 August 1866 he was President of the German Confederation.
In December 1848, Emperor Ferdinand abdicated the throne at Olomouc as part of Ministerpräsident Felix zu Schwarzenberg’s plan to end the Revolutions of 1848 in Austria. This allowed Ferdinand’s nephew Franz Joseph to accede to the throne. Largely considered to be a reactionary, Franz Joseph spent his early reign resisting constitutionalism in his domains. The Austrian Empire was forced to cede its influence over Tuscany and most of its claim to Lombardy–Venetia to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, following the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859 and the Third Italian War of Independence in 1866. Although Franz Joseph ceded no territory to the Kingdom of Prussia after the Austrian defeat in the Austro-Prussian War, the Peace of Prague (23 August 1866) settled the German question in favour of Prussia, which prevented the unification of Germany under the House of Habsburg.
Franz Joseph was troubled by nationalism during his entire reign. He concluded the Ausgleich of 1867, which granted greater autonomy to Hungary, hence transforming the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire under his dual monarchy. His domains were then ruled peacefully for the next 45 years, although Franz Joseph personally suffered the tragedies of the execution of his brother, Maximilian in 1867, the suicide of his son, Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889, and the assassination of his wife, Empress Elisabeth in 1898.
After the Austro-Prussian War, Austria-Hungary turned its attention to the Balkans, which was a hotspot of international tension due to conflicting interests with the Russian Empire. The Bosnian crisis was a result of Franz Joseph’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, which had been occupied by his troops since the Congress of Berlin (1878). On 28 June 1914, the assassination of his nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo resulted in Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia, which was Russia’s ally. This activated a system of alliances which resulted in World War I.
Franz Joseph died on 21 November 1916, after ruling his domains for almost 68 years. He was succeeded by his grandnephew Charles. He was the longest-reigning Emperor of Austria and the third longest-reigning monarch of any major country in European history, after Louis XIV of France and Johann II of Liechtenstein.
Franz Joseph was born in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the eldest son of Archduke Franz Karl (the younger son of Holy Roman Emperor Francis II), and his wife Princess Sophie of Bavaria. Because his uncle, from 1835 the Emperor Ferdinand, was weak-minded, and his father unambitious and retiring, the young Archduke “Franzl” was brought up by his mother as a future Emperor with emphasis on devotion, responsibility and diligence. Franzl came to idolise his grandfather, der Gute Kaiser Franz, who had died shortly before the former’s fifth birthday, as the ideal monarch. At the age of thirteen, Franzl started a career as a colonel in the Austrian army. From that point onward, his fashion was dictated by army style and for the rest of his life he normally wore the uniform of a military officer.
Franz Joseph was soon joined by three younger brothers: Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (born 1832, the future Emperor Maximilian of Mexico); Archduke Karl Ludwig (born 1833, and the father of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria), and Archduke Ludwig Viktor (born 1842), and a sister, Maria Anna (born 1835), who died at the age of four.
Following the resignation of the Chancellor Prince Metternich during the Revolutions of 1848, the young Archduke, who it was widely expected would soon succeed his uncle on the throne, was appointed Governor of Bohemia on 6 April, but never took up the post. Instead, Franz was sent to the front in Italy, joining Field Marshal Radetzky on campaign on 29 April, receiving his baptism of fire on 5 May at Santa Lucia. By all accounts he handled his first military experience calmly and with dignity. Around the same time, the Imperial Family was fleeing revolutionary Vienna for the calmer setting of Innsbruck, in Tyrol. Soon, the Archduke was called back from Italy, joining the rest of his family at Innsbruck by mid-June. It was at Innsbruck at this time that Franz Joseph first met his cousin Elisabeth, his future bride, then a girl of ten, but apparently the meeting made little impact.
Following victory over the Italians at Custoza in late July, the court felt safe to return to Vienna, and Franz Joseph travelled with them. But within a few months Vienna again appeared unsafe, and in September the court left again, this time for Olmütz (now Olomouc) in Moravia. By now, Alfred I, Prince of Windisch-Grätz, the influential military commander in Bohemia, was determined to see the young Archduke soon put on the throne. It was thought that a new ruler would not be bound by the oaths to respect constitutional government to which Ferdinand had been forced to agree, and that it was necessary to find a young, energetic emperor to replace the kindly, but mentally unfit Ferdinand.
By the abdication of his uncle Ferdinand and the renunciation of his father, the mild-mannered Franz Karl, Franz Joseph succeeded as Emperor of Austria at Olmütz on 2 December. At this time he first became known by his second as well as his first Christian name. The name “Franz Joseph” was chosen to bring back memories of the new Emperor’s great-great uncle, Emperor Joseph II, remembered as a modernising reformer.
Under the guidance of the new prime minister Prince Schwarzenberg, the new emperor at first pursued a cautious course, granting a constitution in early 1849. At the same time, a military campaign was necessary against the Hungarians, who had rebelled against Habsburg central authority in the name of their ancient liberties. Franz Joseph was also almost immediately faced with a renewal of the fighting in Italy, with King Charles Albert of Sardinia taking advantage of setbacks in Hungary to resume the war in March 1849. However, the military tide began to swiftly turn in favor of Franz Joseph and the Austrian whitecoats. Almost immediately, Charles Albert was decisively beaten by Radetzky at Novara and forced to sue for peace, as well as renounce his throne. In Hungary, the situation was more severe and Austrian defeat seemed imminent. Sensing a need to secure his right to rule, he sought help from Russia, requesting the intervention of Tsar Nicholas I, in order “to prevent the Hungarian insurrection developing into a European calamity”. Russian troops entered Hungary in support of the Austrians and the revolution was crushed by late summer of 1849. With order now restored throughout his Empire, Franz Joseph felt free to renege on the constitutional concessions he had made, especially as the Austrian parliament meeting at Kremsier had behaved—in the young Emperor’s eyes—abominably. The 1849 constitution was suspended, and a policy of absolutist centralism was established, guided by the Minister of the Interior, Alexander Bach.
The next few years saw the seeming recovery of Austria’s position on the international scene following the near disasters of 1848–1849. Under Schwarzenberg’s guidance, Austria was able to stymie Prussian scheming to create a new German Federation under Prussian leadership, excluding Austria. After Schwarzenberg’s premature death in 1852, he could not be replaced by statesmen of equal stature, and the Emperor himself effectively took over as prime minister.
On 18 February 1853, Franz Joseph survived an assassination attempt by Hungarian nationalist János Libényi. The emperor was taking a stroll with one of his officers, Count Maximilian Karl Lamoral O’Donnell, on a city bastion, when Libényi approached him. He immediately struck the emperor from behind with a knife straight at the neck. Franz Joseph almost always wore a uniform, which had a high collar that almost completely enclosed the neck. The collars of uniforms at that time were made from very sturdy material, precisely to counter this kind of attack. Even though the Emperor was wounded and bleeding, the collar saved his life. Count O’Donnell struck Libényi down with his sabre.
O’Donnell, hitherto only a Count by virtue of his Irish nobility (as a descendant of the Irish noble dynasty O’Donnell of Tyrconnell), was made a Count of the Habsburg Empire (Reichsgraf), and conferred with the Commander’s Cross of the Imperial Order of Leopold. His customary O’Donnell arms were augmented with the initials and escutcheon of the ducal House of Austria, along with the double-headed eagle of the Empire. These arms are emblazoned on the portico of No. 2 Mirabel Platz in Salzburg, where O’Donnell later built his residence. Another witness who happened to be nearby, the butcher Joseph Ettenreich, quickly overwhelmed Libényi. For his deed he was later elevated to the nobility by the Emperor and became Joseph von Ettenreich. Libényi was subsequently put on trial and condemned to death for attempted regicide. He was executed on the Simmeringer Heide.
After this unsuccessful attack, the Emperor’s brother Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, later Emperor of Mexico, called upon Europe’s royal families for donations to construct a new church on the site of the attack. The church was to be a votive offering for the survival of the Emperor. It is located on Ringstraße in the district of Alsergrund close to the University of Vienna, and is known as the Votivkirche.
The 1850s witnessed several failures of Austrian external policy: the Crimean War and the dissolution of its alliance with Russia, and defeat in the Second Italian War of Independence. The setbacks continued in the 1860s with defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, which resulted in the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.
Political difficulties in Austria mounted continuously through the late 19th century and into the 20th century. However, Franz Joseph remained immensely respected; the Emperor’s patriarchal authority held the Empire together while the politicians squabbled among themselves.
The main foreign policy goal of Franz Joseph had been the unification of Germany under the House of Habsburg. This was justified on grounds of precedence; from 1452 to the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, with only one period of interruption under the Wittelsbachs, the Habsburgs had generally held the German crown. However, Franz Joseph’s desire to retain the non-German territories of the Habsburg Austrian Empire in the event of German unification proved problematic. There quickly developed two factions: one party of German intellectuals favouring a Greater Germany (Großdeutschland) under the House of Habsburg; the other favouring a Lesser Germany (Kleindeutschland) . The Greater Germans favoured the inclusion of Austria in a new all-German state on the grounds that Austria had always been a part of Germanic empires, that it was the leading power of the German Confederation, and that it would be absurd to exclude eight million Austrian Germans from an all-German nation state. The champions of a lesser Germany argued against the inclusion of Austria on the grounds that it was a multi-nation state, not a German one, and that its inclusion would bring millions of non-Germans into the German nation state. If Greater Germany was to prevail, the crown would necessarily have to go to Franz Joseph, who had no desire to cede it in the first place to anyone else. On the other hand, if the idea of a smaller Germany won out, the German crown could of course not possibly go the Emperor of Austria, but would naturally be offered to the head of the largest and most powerful German state outside of Austria—the King of Prussia. The contest between the two ideas thus quickly developed into a contest between Austria and Prussia. After Prussia decisively won the Seven Weeks War, this question was solved; Austria lost no territories as long as they remained out of German affairs.
On 28 June 1914 Franz Joseph’s nephew and heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his morganatic wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist, during a visit to Sarajevo. When he heard the news of the assassination, Franz Joseph said that “one has not to defy the Almighty. In this manner a superior power has restored that order which I unfortunately was unable to maintain.”
While the emperor was shaken, and interrupted his holiday to return to Vienna, he soon resumed his holiday at his imperial villa at Bad Ischl. With the emperor five hours away from the capital, most of the decision-making during the “July Crisis” fell to Count Leopold Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister; Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the chief of staff for the Austro-Hungarian army, and the other ministers. On 21 July, Franz Joseph was reportedly surprised by the severity of the ultimatum that was to be sent to the Serbs, and expressed his concerns that Russia would be unwilling to stand idly by; yet he nevertheless chose to not question Berchtold’s judgment. A week after the ultimatum, on 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and two days later the Austro-Hungarians and the Russians went to war. Within weeks, the Germans, French and British entered the fray. Because of his age, Franz Joseph was unable to take an active part in the war in comparison to past conflicts.
Franz Joseph died in the Schönbrunn Palace on the evening of 21 November 1916, at the age of eighty-six. His death was a result of developing pneumonia of the right lung several days after catching a cold while walking in Schönbrunn Park with the King of Bavaria. He was succeeded by his grandnephew Charles I, who reigned until the collapse of the Empire following its defeat in 1918.
He is buried in the Kaisergruft in Vienna, where flowers are still left by monarchists.
It was generally felt in the court that the Emperor should marry and produce heirs as soon as possible. Various potential brides were considered: Princess Elisabeth of Modena, Princess Anna of Prussia and Princess Sidonia of Saxony. Although in public life Franz Joseph was the unquestioned director of affairs, in his private life his formidable mother still wielded crucial influence. Sophie wanted to strengthen the relationship between the Houses of Habsburg and Wittelsbach—descending from the latter house herself—and hoped to match Franz Joseph with her sister Ludovika’s eldest daughter, Helene (“Néné”), who was four years the Emperor’s junior. However, Franz Joseph fell deeply in love with Néné’s younger sister Elisabeth (“Sisi”), a girl of fifteen, and insisted on marrying her instead. Sophie acquiesced, despite her misgivings about Sisi’s appropriateness as an imperial consort, and the young couple were married on 24 April 1854 in St. Augustine’s Church, Vienna.
Their marriage would prove to be an unhappy one; Sisi never truly acclimatized to life at court and frequently had disagreements with the imperial family. Their first daughter Sophie died as an infant, and their only son Rudolf died by suicide in 1889 in the infamous Mayerling Incident.
In 1885 Franz Joseph met Katharina Schratt, a leading actress of the Vienna stage, and she became his friend and confidante. This relationship lasted the rest of his life, and was—to a certain degree—tolerated by Sisi. Franz Joseph built Villa Schratt in Bad Ischl for her, and also provided her with a small palace in Vienna. Though their relationship lasted for thirty-four years, it remained platonic.
The Empress was an inveterate traveller, horsewoman, and fashion maven who was rarely seen in Vienna. She was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in 1898 while on a visit to Geneva; Franz Joseph never fully recovered from the loss. According to the future empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma he usually told his relatives: “You’ll never know how important she was to me” or, according to some sources, “You will never know how much I loved this woman.