Joseph II came into the world as the son and heir of Maria Theresa. He saw himself as God-given ruler who nevertheless wanted to be there for his people. Despite this incontestable claim to the throne he stood firmly in the Enlightenment tradition, seeing himself as ‘first servant’ of the State. He preferred a modest lifestyle and reduced costs at court.
He was Coregent from 1865 and it was only after the death of Maria Theresa in 1780 that he ruled alone. His measures would, in the long term, lead to controlled freedom of faith in the form of the Patent of Tolerance in 1781, which above all benefited Protestants, Orthodox Christians and Jews. The universities were opened up to non-Catholics too. After all, it was expected that these minorities become loyal state subjects.
The primacy of Catholicism was not called into question, even though he made radical reforms in the state church. Around a third of the monasteries which failed to provide a service were closed and their assets seized under protests from clerics and the Pope.
With the abolition of serfdom in 1781, Joseph II made the first step towards establishing equal rights for the rural population. Censorship was done away with, a strong, loyal bureaucracy built up and the ethnically diverse monarchy developed into a central state. This led to an economic and cultural boom - the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His military escapades were mostly unsuccessful but had terrible consequences for troops and civilians. The enlightened absolutist Joseph II realised that such reforms were the only way to maintain the Habsburg Empire.
Photo: Gerhard SIndelar