The long shadow of Emperor Franz Joseph

Kaiser Franz Joseph I.

August 18 marked the 130th anniversary of birth of one of the most distinct figures of the old Austrian empire, Emperor Franz Joseph I. He ruled his peoples for nearly seven decades, and although Czechs today don’t seem to identify with this particular period in their history, the legacy of the ‘aged monarch’, as he was semi-officially referred to towards the end of his life, is still apparent in most of his former empire today.

Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Franz Joseph was 18 when he ascended to the throne and 86 when he died. His reign lasted for over 67 years, which made him one of the longest ruling monarchs in European history.

When he took over the monarchy in 1848, he was hailed as someone who would lead the country from the turmoil and unrest of revolutionary times, and carry out some essential reforms to ensure its modernization and future peaceful development.

But by the end of his long reign, the monarch had lost most of his credit, at least in this part of the empire. He was deemed decrepit and out-of-touch, and was even ridiculed by some of the free thinkers who were soon to become the elites of the new countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Here is an example: Czechs sometimes called Franz Joseph “starej Procházka” or old Procházka. Procházka is a common Czech surname which literally means “walk”. A popular legend has it that when their Emperor opened a new bridge in Prague, the next day a picture appeared in the paper with caption, “Walk on the Bridge”. Since then, Czechs referred to the Emperor as Old Procházka.

But Franz Joseph’s influence over the disloyal Czechs continued long after he passed away in 1916, in the middle of the war that swept away the empire.

Czechoslovakia’s founding father, president Tomáš G. Masaryk, soon took up some of the thinking and physical mannerisms of the ancient regime. A professor of sociology, he liked to ride his white horse around his summer residence at the Lány chateau, wearing a semi-military uniform. Around him, he built up a court of sorts of advisors and confidants who helped him exercise unofficial influence over public affairs that had no constitutional basis.

Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Since Masaryk’s times, the magnificent Prague Castle, where Bohemian kings once dwelled, has been the seat of Czech presidents. Even today, Václav Klaus sometimes gives the impression that he is too big for the role of plain civilian figurehead, and that a crown would fit nicely on his head.

Czech are a markedly egalitarian people, with little appreciation for the social and political pyramid typical of the old empire. In reaction to the fusty, hierarchical and snobby Austro-Hungarian society, one of the first laws adopted by the newly emerged Czechoslovakia in 1918 banned the usage of aristocratic titles.

Despite this, one of the country’s most popular politicians today is Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg who stems from a high-ranking aristocratic family and does in fact have the title of prince, by which he is sometimes referred to by his supporters.

But the shadow of Emperor Franz Joseph is longer than that. His governments introduced thorough reforms of the constitution, administration and education. During his rule, Bohemia and Moravia became heavily industrialized, and the train network that was built in the second half of the 19th century was one of the densest in Europe.

The emperor liked to start working early, which is reportedly the reason why Czech factory workers start so early in the morning; until recently, factories started work at 6 AM.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire has often been described as the “Prison of Nations” because of the Emperor’s lack of empathy with the emancipating nations of the empire. But today, historians argue that the times of Old Procházka were in fact one of the happiest periods in modern Czech history.