In Quest and Crisis

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Until twenty years ago, studies in English on the Habsburg Monarchy were rare indeed. Since then, however, the number of such studies has multiplied at an impressive rate, and their quality has improved remarkably as well. In eighteenth century Habsburg history, most of the recent works have focused on the reigns of Maria Theresa (1740-1780) and her son Joseph II (1780-1790)—and with good reason. These rulers both recognized some of the fundamental weaknesses in the Habsburg Monarchy and instituted substantial changes in its political, economic, and social structure in order to make possible its survival in the world. Within the last few years, however, scholars writing in English have applied their skills to the lesser-known members of the dynasty who preceded their more illustrious descendents. The results have been such welcome biographies as John P. Spielman’s Leopold I, Derek McKay’s Prince Eugene of Savoy (not a Habsburg or a ruler, but the skillful servant of the family for fifty-three years), and the subject of this review, Charles Ingrao’s In Quest and Crisis: Emperor Joseph I and the Habsburg Monarchy.

Joseph I became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and sovereign of the Habsburg lands for a brief but critical time in their history. When he assumed the throne, the Habsburg Monarchy was beset by foreign threats and internal rebellion that had begun during the reign of his father, Leopold I. In 1701, the Monarchy had become involved in the War of the Spanish Succession, which some scholars regard as the first European war with worldwide dimensions and repercussions. The war had begun with the death of the Spanish King, Charles II, a Habsburg but of the Spanish branch of the family. On his deathbed, Charles had willed his entire inheritence, including Spain proper and the Spanish possessions in Italy, Belgium, and the Americas, to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, the greatest and most feared monarch of his day. To prevent Spain from becoming a tool of French policy, Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Savoy, the Habsburg Monarchy, and most of the states of the Holy Roman Empire formed a coalition and declared war on Louis XIV and his grandson. The ensuing conflict featured four main battlegrounds for the Austrians: Belgium, Southern Germany, Italy, and Spain itself, where the allied candidate for the Spanish throne, Joseph’s brother Charles, tried to assert his claim by force. A war of this magnitude would have been serious enough by itself for any state to face, but only two years after it began, the Habsburg Monarchy was threatened by an internal crisis equally perilous: a revolt in Hungary. The uprising began in northern Hungary and soon spread throughout the land. The government seemed unable to stop it, since it dared not grant the concessions demanded by the rebels and could not recall sufficient troops from the battlefields in Western Europe to suppress it by force.

When Joseph became Emperor, the War of the Spanish Succession was four years old and the Hungarian rebellion, two years old, and neither was going particularly well for the Monarchy. One reason was the failure of Joseph’s father to come to grips with the problems at hand. A pious and devout man, Leopold believed that the interests of his dynasty would ultimately be defended by God, and no amount of human exertion could replace His efforts. Consequently, Leopold had failed to make the military and financial efforts necessary to prosecute the war effectively. When Joseph assumed the throne, the war in Italy was going badly, the armies everywhere were short of money and matériel, and the Hungarian rebellion was becoming increasingly serious. One must admit that the Habsburg forces had done well in southern Germany, where nine months before Leopold’s death, they and their British allies had scored a stunning victory over a combined Franco-Bavarian army at Blenheim (Höchstädt), a victory that led to the Austrian conquest of Bavaria and the reduction of the German Front to one of secondary importance for the remainder of the war.

Despite the success at Blenheim, Joseph at his accession faced formidable dangers indeed, and Ingrao’s book tells in detail how he dealt with those dangers. Dividing his study along topical rather than chronological lines, the author examines Joseph’s efforts at reforming the administration and especially at improving the Monarchy’s finances, his policies toward the German states, his efforts to subdue the Hungarian uprising, his conquest of most of Italy, and finally his difficulties in dealing with his allies, especially during the latter years of the war when the temptation for each government to conclude a separate peace with France became so great. The topical approach may be the only way to deal...

(The entire section is 1956 words.)