Maria Theresa gave orders that he was only to be taught as if he were amusing himself; the result was that Joseph acquired a habit of crude and superficial study. His real education was given him by the writings of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, and by the example of Frederick the Great. His useful training was conferred by government officials, who were directed to instruct him in the mechanical details of the administration of the numerous states composing the Austrian dominions and the Empire.
He was made a member of the newly constituted council of state (Staatsrath) and began to draw up minutes (to which he gave the name of "Reveries") for his mother to read. These papers contain the germs of his later policy, and of all the disasters which finally overtook him. He was a friend to religious toleration, anxious to reduce the power of the church, to relieve the peasantry of feudal burdens, and to remove restrictions on trade and on knowledge. So far he did not differ from Frederick, Catherine of Russia or his own brother and successor Leopold II, all enlightened rulers of the 18th century stamp.
Where Joseph differed from great contemporary rulers, and where he was very close akin to the Jacobins, was in the fanatical intensity of his belief in the power of the state when directed by reason, of his right to speak for the state uncontrolled by laws, and of the reasonableness of his own reasons. Also he had inherited from his mother all the belief of the house of Austria in its "august" quality, and its claim to acquire whatever it found desirable for its power or its profit. He was unable to understand that his philosophical plans for the moulding of mankind could meet with pardonable opposition. The overweening character of the man was obvious to Frederick, who, after their first interview in 1769, described him as ambitious, and as capable of setting the world on fire. The French minister Vergennes, who met Joseph when he was travelling incognito in 1777, judged him to be "ambitious and despotic".
Until the death of his mother in 1780 Joseph was never quite free to follow his own instincts. After the death of his father in 1765 he became emperor and was made co-regent by his mother in the Austrian dominions. As emperor he had no real power, and his mother had resolved that neither her husband nor herson should ever deprive her of sovereign control in her hereditary dominions. Joseph, by threatening to resign his place as co-regent, could induce his mother to abate her dislike to religious toleration. He could, and he did, place a great strain on her patience and temper, as in the case of the first partition of Poland and the Bavarian War of 1778 - 1779, but in the last resort the empress spoke the final word.
During these wars Joseph travelled much. He met Frederick the Great privately at Neisse in 1769, and again at Mährisch-Neustadt in 1770. On the second occasion he was accompanied by Prince Kaunitz, whose conversation with Frederick may be said to mark the starting-point of the first partition of Poland. To this and to every other measure which promised to extend the dominions of his house Joseph gave hearty approval. Thus he was eager to enforce Austria's claim on Bavaria upon the death of the elector Maximilian Joseph in 1777. In April of that year he paid a visit to his sister the queen of France, Marie Antoinette, travelling under the name of "Count Falkenstein". He was well received, and much flattered by the encyclopedists, but his observations led him to predict the approaching downfall of the French monarchy, and he was not impressed favourably by the French army or navy.
In 1778 he commanded the troops collected to oppose Frederick, who supported the rival claimant to Bavaria. Real fighting was averted by the unwillingness of Frederick to embark on a new war and by Maria Theresa's determination to maintain peace. In April 1780 Joseph paid a visit to Catherine II of Russia, against the wish of his mother.
The death of Maria Theresa on November 27 1780 left Joseph free. He immediately directed his government on a new course, full speed ahead. He proceeded to attempt to realise his ideal of a wise despotism acting on a definite system for the good of all. The measures of emancipation of the peasantry which his mother had begun were carried on by him with feverish activity. The spread of education, the secularisation of church lands, the reduction of the religious orders and the clergy in general to complete submission to the lay state, the promotion of unity by the compulsory use of the German language: everything which from the point of view of 18th century philosophy appeared "reasonable" was undertaken at once. He strove for administrative unity with characteristic haste to reach results without preparation.
Multiple interferences with old customs began to produce unrest in all parts of his dominions. Meanwhile Joseph threw himself into a succession of foreign policies, all aimed at aggrandisement, and all equally calculated to offend his neighbours - all taken up with zeal, and dropped in discouragement. He endeavoured to get rid of the Barrier Treaty, which debarred his Flemish subjects from the navigation of the Scheldt; when he was opposed by France he turned to other schemes of alliance with Russia for the partition of Turkey and Venice. These plans also had to be given up in the face of the opposition of neighbours, and in particular of France. Then Joseph resumed his attempts to obtain Bavaria - this time by exchanging it for Belgium - and only provoked the formation of the Furstenbund organized by the king of Prussia.
Finally Joseph joined Russia in an attempt to pillage Turkey. It began on his part by an unsuccessful and discreditable attempt to surprise Belgrade in time of peace, and was followed by the ill-managed campaign of 1788. He accompanied his army, but showed no capacity for war. In November 1788 he returned to Vienna with ruined health, and during 1789 was a dying man. The concentration of his troops in the east gave the malcontents of Belgium an opportunity to revolt. In Hungary the nobles were all but in open rebellion, and in his other states there were peasant risings, and a revival of particularist sentiments. Joseph was left entirely alone. His minister Kaunitz refused to visit his sick-room, and did not see him for two years. His brother Leopold remained at Florence. At last Joseph, worn out and broken-hearted, recognised that his servants could not, or would not, carry out his plans. On January 30 1790 he formally withdrew all his reforms, and he died on February 20 1790.
Joseph II married twice, firstly Isabella, daughter of Philip, duke of Parma, to whom he was attached. After her death on November 27 1763, a political marriage was arranged with Josepha (d. 1767), daughter of Charles Albert, elector of Bavaria (the emperor Charles VII). The second marriage proved extremely unhappy. Joseph left no children, and was succeeded by his brother Leopold II, but he did have a daughter by his first wife that died young named Maria Theresa after his mother, the empress of Austria.
Many volumes of the emperor's correspondence have been published. Among them are:
Names in other languages: German: Joseph II, Czech: Josef II, Slovak: Jozef II, Hungarian: II. József
Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor
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Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor