Emperor Francis Joseph: Life, Death and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire

Emperor Francis Joseph: Life, Death and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire

by John Van der Kiste

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In 1848, 28-year-old Francis Joseph became King of Hungary and Emperor of Austria. He would reign for almost 68 years, the longest of any modern European monarch. Focusing on the life of Emperor Francis Joseph and his family, this book examines their personal relationships against the turbulent background of the 19th century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752495477
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/19/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 338,896
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

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Emperor Francis Joseph

Life, Death and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire

By John Van der Kiste

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9547-7


Sovereign in Waiting

Archduke Francis Joseph was born on 18 August 1830, third in line to the imperial throne of Austria after his uncle, Emperor Ferdinand, and his father, Archduke Francis Charles. This was the infant on whom would rest the future of the house of Habsburg, a dynasty which could trace its lineage back through several centuries, but with an increasingly chequered history by the early nineteenth century.

In 1792 Emperor Francis had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Frankfurt, the Holy Roman empire being in effect a hereditary possession of the Habsburgs. With the proclamation of a republic in France that year, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, Francis sought a title to assert his superiority over the upstart Frenchman and also his authority over his Habsburg dominions. When Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1804, Francis thought it politic to take an hereditary imperial title, which would appear stronger than the 'elected' office of Holy Roman Emperor, and he accordingly became Emperor of Austria. His country's defeat at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 resulted in a settlement which left Austria considerably diminished in prestige, and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine a year later led to the final dissolution of the Holy Roman empire, as well as Francis's renunciation of the now redundant title. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, summoned to determine the shape of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon's France, the constituent territories of the Austrian empire were agreed. In addition to Austria and Hungary, they included Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, Silesia, Slovakia, Transylvania, the Bukovina, Croatia-Slavonia, Camiola, Gorizia, Istria, Dalmatia, Lombardy and Venetia.

Though the empire comprised eleven nationalities, with little geographic and economic unity, it emerged from the Congress of Vienna greatly enriched. It was the intention of the statesmen who had met in Vienna, particularly the Austrian foreign minister Prince Clemens von Metternich, to maintain the European status quo. Austria, he maintained, had a historic right to be the major standard bearer of the principle of legitimacy, of leadership on the continent. After more than two decades of conflict the major European powers were exhausted, and anxious to ensure that France should no longer be in a position to threaten Europe again. They did this mainly by surrounding her with states of equal if not greater power. The Austrian and Russian autocracies had survived, and Prussia was now more powerful, having absorbed some Saxon territory and with a new commanding position on the Rhine, in order to forestall French expansion across the northern Alps. With its possessions of Lombardy and Venetia in Italy, Austria likewise acted as an obstacle against French designs in the south. In addition, it assumed leadership of the confederation of German states.

Emperor Francis had been married four times and fathered thirteen children, but only two sons and five daughters survived infancy. All were the issue of his second wife, Maria Theresa of Bourbon-Naples, a first cousin twice over. Though not generally recognised at the time, such inbreeding was to have serious implications for the family, some members of which were physically or mentally deformed. At the time, the blame for such shortcomings was attributed to other factors that sound less credible today. For example, the mentally deranged and extremely ugly Archduchess Marie's problems were said to be a result of her mother having been chased during her pregnancy by an orang-utang from Vienna's Schönbrunn zoo.

The elder son and heir, Crown Prince Ferdinand, was a well-meaning, simple-minded soul and a victim of epilepsy. With his ugly shrunken figure and unnaturally large head, he could barely utter two connected sentences, lift a glass with one hand, or descend a staircase without assistance. In December 1830 the court physician Dr Stifft told him there was no medical reason why he should not marry, but warned the rest of the family that it was unlikely he would or could ever make any effort 'to assert his marital rights'. Two months later he married Princess Anna Maria of Savoy, who was said to be 'white as linen', and with a voice that shook perceptibly at the marriage ceremony. He reputedly suffered several seizures on the wedding night. The second in line to the throne, his brother Archduke Francis Charles was mentally and physically sound but regarded as a somewhat lightweight personality.

At one of the regular family gatherings comprising the Habsburgs and the Wittelsbachs (the royal house of Bavaria), Francis Charles became particularly attached to his cousin Sophie, daughter of Maximilian I, King of Bavaria, and his second wife Princess Caroline of Baden. The Bavarian children included two pairs of twin daughters, one of these younger twins being Sophie. She and her five sisters had a reputation for being strong-willed and authoritarian by nature, and the Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke would later refer to them collectively as 'the Bavarian sisters of woe'.

Francis Charles was clumsy, shy and not particularly handsome, with a long thin face out of all proportion to his slight body. Well meaning but rather slow on the uptake, he made no impression on Sophie at first. She adored her mother and her twin sister Marie, and at first any thoughts of marriage were far from her mind. But the Archduke would not be put off, and he travelled regularly from Vienna to Munich to be with her. He sent her presents and wrote her affectionate letters, which she answered politely without guessing his intentions. Thus encouraged, he plucked up the courage to ask her for her hand in marriage. She could hardly refuse, but as the time drew near for her to leave home, she was so distraught that she said farewell to all her friends as if she was about to take her leave of them forever. The thought of living far away from her family with a man of whom she was not particularly fond, and whom she did not yet know that well, appalled her. However, the proposal had been made and could not be withdrawn. Being second in line to the throne of Austria, and likely to become Regent when his brother Ferdinand succeeded to the crown, the Archduke was one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe.

The wedding was to take place in November 1824, and Sophie was pleasantly surprised by her rapturous welcome in Vienna. Moreover, she found encouragement in seeing that her diffident husband-to-be clearly acted with more confidence in his own homeland. It touched her that he was always thinking of surprises for his bride, constantly buying her fine dresses, coats, jewellery and ornaments. Soon she was clearly becoming besotted with the suitor whom she had at first regarded with little more than indifference. His mother-in-law, Queen Caroline of Bavaria, liked him but was not blind to his faults, calling him 'a good fellow' who wanted to do well, but in the same breath saying he was 'really terrible' and that 'he would bore me to death. Every now and then I would want to hit him.'

Opinion is divided on Sophie's attitude towards her husband in the early days of her marriage. Some said that at first she barely tolerated him, and only the presence at court of their nephew François, Duc de Reichstadt, the short-lived tubercular son of Napoleon Bonaparte and her sister-in-law Archduchess Marie Louise, proved her saving grace at Vienna. Others suggested that what had at first appeared to be a loveless match developed into a very happy marriage.

As she matured Sophie became ambitious and optimistic, and clearly cherished hopes of becoming Empress. When her mother asked her soon after her marriage if she was happy, she replied, 'I am content', a restrained remark which some misinterpreted as lack of enthusiasm. What did disturb her peace of mind were any threats to the old order elsewhere in Europe. When the Bourbons were deposed in France, she prayed for the divine destruction of revolutionary Paris, and regarded the Orléans regime as 'illegitimate'. She also lambasted her Hanoverian contemporary King William IV for his 'liberal stupidities' in presiding over the Great Reform Act in England.

Personal frustration was probably responsible to some extent for such intolerant behaviour. The couple dearly wanted a family, and during their first five years Sophie had five miscarriages. She underwent a number of cures in Ischl, and when another pregnancy was confirmed early in 1830 the doctors ordered her to take particular care of herself. Despite her longing for some fresh air, they insisted that she stay indoors during the long hot summer months. Some years later, after her name had become a byword for cold-hearted authoritarianism, a story was told that in the later days of her pregnancy, she threw the scalding contents of a cup of coffee in her husband's face, and told him that she would be delivered of a child on only one condition – that a free pardon was granted to some prisoner under sentence of death. The only Austrian subject who fitted this criterion was guilty of some of the worst crimes imaginable, though unspecified, but he was still released from prison as a result of her intervention.

In mid-August the long-awaited son arrived, and was named Francis Joseph, or sometimes 'Franzi' within the family. Almost from birth, he was granted his own apartment in the palace, though the rooms were en suite, with a never-ending procession of relations, servants and friends of the imperial family. His bedroom was situated above the guards' lavatory, and at each change of guard drums rolled and bugles were sounded directly beneath his window.

Franzi was the eldest of five children. In July 1832 a second son followed and was called Ferdinand Maximilian, though always known in the family as Max. Charles Ludwig was born in 1833, and a daughter Maria Anna in 1835. Her brothers were all healthy, but their sister was delicate from birth. Though the doctors did their best to reassure her that the baby girl would probably grow out of her complaint, Sophie realised that she suffered from the hereditary taint of epilepsy. By the time she was four, she was so ill that the physicians recommended her hair should be cut off and leeches applied to her forehead. It was to no avail, and within a few weeks she was dead. Franzi shared in his mother's grief, showing sympathy and understanding beyond his tender years. Max was puzzled at seeing their mother weep openly for the first time. Desperate to console her, he spent a month's pocket money on buying her a pet monkey, and as he presented it to her he apologised profusely for being unable to buy her another little girl.

At the time of her daughter's death Sophie was expecting another child, and gave birth to a stillborn son a few months later. Late in 1841 she knew she was pregnant again, and in May 1842 she had a fourth son, named Ludwig Victor. Having already lost two children, and aware that her childbearing days were probably over, she devoted herself completely at first to this new son, with a maternal love that bordered on the obsessive.

Although their early years were thus not free from sadness, by and large the young Habsburg Archdukes enjoyed a carefree, happy childhood. Francis Charles was a doting father, and enjoyed galloping about the nursery with little Franzi on his back, taking him to the park to feed the deer, or helping him entice pigeons to the windowsills of their apartment in the imperial palace, the Hofburg, by putting out scraps of bread or seed. Every evening the boys would play hide and seek or similar games around the corridors, or sit at their mother's feet while she read aloud to them from such titles as Gulliver's Travels and The Swiss Family Robinson. When they were a little older, both parents took them for outings, walks, visits to the theatre and exhibitions in Vienna. While the importance of good behaviour in public was impressed on them, they were allowed to move freely and informally around in the family circle, and were never banned from the adults' rooms.

On birthdays and name days the whole Habsburg clan gathered in the Hofburg for family feasts and exchanging of gifts, and the younger members performed in carefully drilled ballets, amateur theatricals, tableaux and recitations. With his gift for mimicry, his fine singing voice and outgoing charm, Max always enjoyed these the most. Sophie ensured that Franzi played the leading role as befitted the eldest brother, even though he had little talent for or love of acting. He was, however, the best dancer, and with his fondness for uniforms and fine clothes he was very proud when allowed to appear at a ball wearing tails for the first time. Max could not resist making fun of him, and after attracting everyone's attention by mimicking the affectations and poses of the dancers, he seized his brother's tails and made them both gallop round the edge of the ballroom.

Each year on Christmas Eve the whole family would gather outside the closed doors of the Emperor's apartments, the younger children trying to glimpse through the keyhole the Christchild leaving gifts. When the Christmas bells rang, the doors of the Red Salon were flung open. There stood an enormous lighted tree with generous imperial gifts: a perfect child-size carriage, large enough to be drawn by a small pony; or a palace guard in miniature, complete with sentry boxes, drums, and toy guns. All evening Francis drilled his archduke uncles. After Christmas, during carnival, there were children's balls, tables laden with sweetmeats, and the gayest of waltzes and polkas. At the end all the adults joined in the fun and games.

After Easter, when the weather improved and the days lengthened, the children could spend more time in the gardens of the Schönbrunn Palace, the imperial summer residence, riding in their donkey cart, swimming in the river, playing in the Indian wigwam one of the gardeners had made for them, or visiting a collection of exotic animals the Emperor had bought from a circus.

As infants, the Archdukes had their own household. Less than two years separated Franzi and Max, and they were entrusted to the same governess, Baroness Louise von Sturmfeder ('Aja'). She was devoted to her charges, and felt sorry for Franzi with his lack of privacy, lamenting that 'the child of the poorest day-labourer is not so ill-used as this poor little Imperial Highness'. Several others worked under her, including an assistant nurse, cook, chamberwoman, two maids and two footmen. Her diary gives some glimpses of the future Emperor in his earliest days. His favourite toys were a tambourine and a drummer girl given to him as Christmas presents when he was very small. A stoical child, he seemed much less concerned than everyone else when he arrived back from a walk in the park one bitter November afternoon with hands blue from cold because nobody had thought to give him any gloves.

Francis, Max and Charles Ludwig all enjoyed good health but Ludwig Victor was a sickly child, and his frequent bouts of illness gave his parents many an anxious moment, fearing they might lose him like his sister. Accidents and infections often kept him confined to bed for days if not weeks at a time. While ailing young archdukes and archduchesses were generally ministered to by nurses, Sophie was unusual in looking after him herself much of the time, rarely leaving his bedside if he was not well. If he was in bed during Christmas, she would postpone the main celebrations until he was able to take part. If the three elder brothers ever resented the fuss made of the baby of the family, they never showed it. On the contrary they were devoted to him, often bought him toys from their pocket money, and sometimes got together to stage small masquerades or theatrical performances for him. He showed his gratitude by regularly interrupting them while they were meant to be engrossed in their homework, and perhaps not surprisingly they were never reluctant to complain.

It was clear from early on that the down-to-earth Francis would be a soldier. Even as a toddler he loved military ceremonial, from sentries pacing beneath the nursery window each day, to the sound of bugle calls and the sight of parade-ground drill at the nearby barracks. From the age of four he enjoyed dressing up in uniform and playing with his toy soldiers. It was not long before he formed a collection in which every regiment of the Austrian army was represented, with the details of each uniform perfectly reproduced, and none of these soldiers was ever broken. By contrast the dreamy, more imaginative Max was always much more interested in the animals, birds and flowers to be seen near the palace.

From an early age, all four brothers were quite different from each other. Franzi was the most handsome and intelligent, with a strength of character and clear sense of self-discipline. Conscientious and hard-working, he had the utmost respect for authority. Max, romantic and given to daydreaming, was Sophie's favourite. As the second son who was unlikely to succeed to the throne, he could afford to be mischievous, the one who could never resist seeking out their tutors' weaknesses and teasing them mercilessly. If Franzi was their mother's strength, Max was her delight. Charles Ludwig ('Karly') was intelligent but lazy, greedy, lacking in self-motivation, interested in nothing but sport and shooting. Ludwig Victor ('Bubi'), weak and effeminate, was often grossly spoilt as the youngest.

The family spent the spring and autumn months at Schönbrunn and their retreat of Laxenburg, outside Vienna. Franzi and Karly preferred the latter where they could go shooting wild ducks and rabbits with their father. Maximilian liked Schönbrunn best, where he could always visit the zoo full of strange animals and the conservatory full of scented tropical plants. Every summer they moved to Ischl, a little mountain resort in the Salzkammergut, where they lived in a rented villa by the River Traun. Sophie believed in the therapeutic qualities of the Salzkammergut's saline springs, which she swore had helped her become pregnant after years of miscarriages.


Excerpted from Emperor Francis Joseph by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2013 John Van der Kiste,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Plates,
Genealogical Table,
One Sovereign in Waiting,
Two 'Physically and Morally he is Fearless',
Three 'A Firmness of Purpose',
Four 'Going Down with Honour',
Five 'Incredibly Devoted to his Duties',
Six 'He Stands Alone on his Promontory',
Seven 'One Cannot Possibly Think of Anything Else',
Eight 'Nothing at All is to Be Spared Me',
Nine 'A Crown of Thorns',
Ten 'The Machinations of a Hostile Power',
Eleven 'Why Must it Be Just Now?',

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