Mixed emotions as Czechs mark centenary of Emperor Franz Joseph’s demise

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This Monday marked an important anniversary in the history of the Czech lands. It was exactly one hundred years to the day since the death of Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, and King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia. The Habsburg monarch ascended the throne in 1848 and ruled the Czech nation for nearly seven decades.

Archduke Franz Joseph
Archduke Franz Joseph, one of the most distinct figures of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, ascended to the throne when he was only 18 years old. His reign, which lasted for nearly 68 years, made him one of the longest ruling monarchs in European history.

Franz Josef was hailed as someone who would lead the country from revolutionary turmoil, but by the end of his reign, he had lost most of his credit. He took over the Habsburg monarchy in 1848, at a time of great revolutionary turmoil, replacing Ferdinand I, who wasn’t up to the task of dealing with the problems. Historian Jiří Pernes outlines the situation:

“When Franz Joseph took over, the state of the empire was very bleak. The government and the court had to flee Vienna, and settle in a fortress in Olomouc. There was a revolution taking place in the Hungarian Kingdom and in Italy, and the whole monarchy was unsettled.

“Also, a pan-German assembly took place in Frankfurt with the aim to create a German nation-state, which would include Austria as well. And that would mean the Habsburgs would lose the throne.”

Young Franz Joseph ascended to the throne without having any significant life or political experiences and his policies and priorities naturally changed over the period of his long rule, as he grew older and gained more experience.

“During the first five years of his rule, his steps were guided by Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg, who was a huge authority for Franz Joseph. This was the first period of his rule known as the era of Bach's absolutism, which got rid of all the achievements reached during the 1848 revolution.

“But then came the war in Italy in 1859 and Austria was defeated and the emperor made a major policy turn. He declared a constitutional monarchy, and since 1860 his people enjoyed basic democratic and civil rights.”

Coat of Arms of the Empire of Austria-Hungary
As all archdukes, Franz Joseph had been brought up as a soldier since early childhood. At the age of five he got his first uniform and a toy gun and trained to become a soldier. For a long time he regarded himself as a great military commander, but reality proved otherwise:

“In 1848, he fought against Italian revolutionaries under the command of field marshal Radetzky and distinguished himself in the battle at Santa Lucia. In 1849, he received the order of Saint George for his part in the fight against Hungarian revolutionaries. All this created an impression that he was a great soldier and commander, but it was an example of personal bravery rather than leadership qualities.”

As a leader, Franz Joseph experienced a series of military debacles, including that in 1859 against Italy and France, when Austrian suffered a defeated in the battle at Magenta and Solferino or the defeat in the Prussia-Austria war in 1866. And it of course culminated with the WWI.

Franz Joseph also suffered a number of tragedies in his personal life and referred to himself as a ‘pechvogel’, a person with bad luck. His eldest daughter Žofie died at the age of two and in 1889 his only son and successor to the throne committed suicide.

His relationship to his wife Elisabeth was tragic as well. He married her against his mother’s will, but his wife was not happy in the marriage. In spite of that, Franz Joseph was very devoted to her and took it very badly when she was assassinated in 1899.

Just as the emperor’s political view evolved with time, the relationship of Czechs towards their ruler also underwent complicated development. For a long time the Czechs remained loyal towards the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty but their initial enthusiasm for the new emperor gradually gave way to disillusionment.

“The biggest disappointment was the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, when the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary divided power between themselves. Czechs expected a reward for their loyalty in the Austro-Prussian war but didn’t get anything.

Jiří Pernes, photo: Šárka Ševčíková
"When they pressured the emperor, he issued a statement in 1870 promising to be crowned as Czech king and ensure a fair position for the Czech crown within the monarchy. But he didn’t fulfil this promise either.”

More disappointments followed and during the First World War, Czechs finally realized that they didn’t need Franz Joseph, the Habsburg dynasty or the Austrian monarchy.

After the collapse of the monarchy, the newly formed Czechoslovak state didn’t want to have anything in common with the past. As Jiří Pernes points out, one of the new president’s priorities was to get rid of everything Austrian. Over the decades, however, the edges have smoothed and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire has even become an object of nostalgia. Historian Jiří Pernes once again:

“During the First Republic, German occupation and communism there was no serious or popular literature related to the issue. After the revolution of 1989 many articles started coming out, including slightly sensationalist ones, which created the impression that during the monarchy everything was great and brought about this sort of nostalgic feeling for the time. But I would say that the informed public regards the monarchy objectively, with all its benefits and setbacks.”

The significance of Franz Joseph and his legacy for future generations has been the topic of a large exhibition, on display in Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace, the residence of Franz Joseph towards the end of his life. The series of four exhibitions, prepared in cooperation with the Vienna Art History Museum, attempts to show the emperor both as a private person and a public figure.

Martin Mutschlechner, historian and co-curator of the exhibition, also agrees that the image of Emperor Franz Joseph has improved with time.

“Nowadays, with hindsight of several decades, I would say the Old Habsburg Empire is regarded more positively. The fact that it comprised so many ethnic groups and language groups and provided a kind of more or less stable framework for all these small nations in central Europe is actually regarded very positively.

Vienna in 1900, photo: Public Domain
“Speaking as an Austrian from Vienna, I also have to say that the Habsburg nostalgia is very important for the tourist industry. Because of his long rule Franz Joseph became a symbol of the monarchy. The image of the old emperor with his white beard and whiskers creates this kind of nostalgia. But of course we wanted to offer a more neutral view and less positive side.”

A number of venues linked to Emperor Franz Joseph, such as the Konopiště or Zákupy chateaux, marked the 100th anniversary of his death over the past weekend.

In Prague, people still have a chance to see the dining carriage of Franz Joseph’s Imperial Train, which was recently restored to its former beauty. The train, which is rarely accessible to the public, can be seen at the Technical Museum at Prague’s district of Letná.