Leopold I of Austria

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The jacket of this book proclaims it the first biography of Leopold I since 1709. That fact is surprising, for Leopold’s reign was pivotal in the history of the Habsburg Monarchy. Not only was it the third longest of that illustrious house, but is also experienced some of the most important events in the emergence of the Austrian state as a great European power. Under Leopold the Habsburg Monarchy increased by more than one half the land area of its possessions. In doing so, it virtually eliminated the Turkish threat to eastern and central Europe that had existed for almost two centuries, and it effectively blocked the efforts of the great French king, Louis XIV, to become arbiter of Western Europe.

One would think also that a biographer of this important Habsburg monarch would have emerged before now, for Leopold ruled at a time when Europe was famous for its great sovereigns. While Louis XIV has undoubtedly enjoyed the most renown, the Continent also rang with the names of such formidable crowned heads as Peter the Great of Russia, Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick William the Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, John Sobieski of Poland, and William of Orange and England. The fame of these rulers is closely tied to the policies of royal absolutism, when the sovereigns of Europe were implementing the administrative centralization, fiscal reorganization, and military reforms that laid the foundations for modern state governments in Europe.

Since Leopold’s reign provided these services for Austria, one often wonders why he has not received more attention from historians. The almost unceasing warfare that the Monarchy experienced (of the forty-eight years Leopold ruled, he was engaged in war for thirty of them, and during nine years was fighting two major foes concurrently), and the numerous victories and conquests it enjoyed suggest that Leopold forged a solid and formidable state out of the lands he inherited. Since the reader would believe Leopold would compare favorably with the other absolute rulers of his age, he approaches this work expecting either an explanation of how Leopold himself contributed to the Monarchy’s success or at least how it became powerful even if its sovereign were not personally responsible for it.

John Spielman, a professor of History at Haverford College, struggles with these issues throughout his book, not always with satisfactory results. Spielman admits openly that Leopold was no absolutist in the mold of Louis XIV or the Great Elector. Apparently early in his reign Leopold had some dreams of becoming a reformer, for in 1660 he ordered the creation of commissions to investigate the Monarchy’s finances and administration and presumably to suggest ways of reforming them. Shortly thereafter he embarked on a five-month tour of his southern provinces to investigate what changes might be in order in those lands.

But this initial burst of reforming zeal passed rather quickly. Spielman notes that the threat of war with both Turkey and France in 1661 compelled the Emperor to abandon whatever thoughts of reform he had entertained in order to turn to more pressing matters. After these crises passed, he never returned to his initial enthusiasm for change, although he had ample opportunity to do so.

Leopold’s first real chance to implement absolutist reforms came in 1670, when a revolt erupted in the always volatile and independent-minded regions of Habsburg Hungary. The Austrian forces crushed the rebellion with unexpected decisiveness, and the victory offered a splendid opportunity for Leopold to bend the Hungarians to his will. While encouraged by many members of his government to institute centralizing measures, Leopold hesitated to do so. In fact, he allowed the Hungarian situation to deteriorate into a Roman Catholic witch hunt for Protestants that in the end solved nothing. The Emperor, according to Spielman, never...

(The entire section is 1596 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Books and Bookmen. XXII, May, 1977, p. 49.

Choice. XIV, June, 1977, p. 589.

Economist. CCLXII, March 12, 1977, p. 125.

Library Journal. CII, May 15, 1977, p. 1178.

Times Literary Supplement. July 29, 1977, p. 939.