War and a New Austrian State

Johann Peter Krafft: Die Sieger von Aspern, painted 1820.
Battle of Aspern-Essling, 23 October 2014.

Starting in 1789 a revolution in France that became increasingly radical in tenor began to cause concern among the other rulers of Europe, especially Leopold II, Queen Marie Antoinette’s brother. The revolutionary regime declared war on Austria and Prussia in the spring of 1792, and its army unexpectedly defeated the Austrians and Prussians at the Battle of Valmy in September 1792. Revolutionary France now plunged Europe into a quarter of a century of ongoing warfare. Earlier in that same year in March, Leopold himself had died unexpectedly, well before he had fully resolved the dangerous situation bequeathed to him by his brother, Joseph. Leopold’s eldest son, Francis (1768–1830), who began his reign as Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire and ended it as Francis I of the Austrian Empire, was no scion of the Enlightenment like his father and uncle. Moreover, the first two decades of his long reign (1792–1835) were overshadowed by the need to stave off recurring military challenges from France that threatened the very survival of his dynasty’s patrimony. This left few options for creative initiatives in state building. When combined with Francis’s particularly cautious personality traits, all of these unexpected demands produced a conservative and defensive approach to maintaining the existing state. Like both his uncle, Joseph, and father, Leopold, however, Francis did see himself as a devoted servant both of the state and of the law. Like both of them, he also pursued a fundamentally centralizing agenda. Unlike his father, however, Francis was unsympathetic to even limited ideas of constitutional reform. Unlike his uncle, Francis had a very limited imagination. His bureaucracy was not there to reform society. Rather, the bureaucracy served to maintain order and legality in society.

Francis’s image of the ideals that his bureaucrats should embody also differed from Joseph’s. Not only did they have to live up to the exacting standards of work laid forth for them by Joseph II, and for less pay in a time of terrible wartime inflation, but increasingly their private lives also became objects of state interest. A bureaucrat’s private life had not particularly interested Joseph; he had cared only about how well a man did his job. Contemporaries, however, often interpreted the social upheavals caused by the French Revolution as products of private moral decay. Thus under Francis, an Austrian bureaucrat’s private life came to outweigh his particular knowledge or accomplishments when he applied for a post. Now a bureaucrat’s (and his family’s) morals and religiosity counted more than his education and experience. This had implications well beyond death or gender, since a bureaucrat’s widow had to remain morally “above reproach” if she hoped to receive a pension and his daughter likewise had to be considered virtuous if she hoped to qualify for a scholarship to a young lady’s academy.

Francis’s attitude toward the very purpose of his state service created considerable problems once the long wartime emergency had ended. Unlike both his father and uncle, he also believed that the interests of the crown and the crownland aristocracies were essentially one. Thus, despite the fact that many Josephenists remained in their positions, one historian has called Francis’s system “absolutist and centralist in its institutions, but usually aristocratic and ultra conservative in the conduct of them.”

After the first few years of war, when surprisingly good harvests had kept food prices low, war began to cause inflation and food shortages in many parts of the monarchy, especially in the cities and towns. By 1795 the government was printing paper money to cover the added costs of war, and by 1797—as a result of a panic caused by fears that Napoleon would take Vienna—silver was completely withdrawn from circulation, and state employees and state creditors had to accept paper bills as their payment.

Conditions for urban working people deteriorated drastically during the war for a variety of reasons, while the city and town populations nevertheless continued to grow. In the first years of the war Viennese journeymen in the textile industry protested openly against their employers’ increasing use of unskilled female and child labor. The protestors, however, tended to blame their employers and not local women. Almost twenty years later, crowds attacked bakeries, took paper money from the till, and tore it up to general jubilation. Meanwhile, the gentlemen of the textile industry throughout the monarchy often profited handsomely from the war, thanks to military contracts for uniforms and other supplies, and later thanks to Napoleon’s blockade of British goods from the European continent.

War also produced mounting fears of subversion on the part of the regime. Starting in 1800, the state for the first time required bureaucrats to swear an annual oath of loyalty. The regime also acted to limit those spaces in society where it believed that subversion might develop. It closed down Freemason associations and cracked down harshly on the alleged “Jacobin conspiracies” it unearthed in Vienna, Tyrol, Hungary, Carinthia, and Carniola. These so-called “Jacobin conspiracies,” named after the radical French political party of the mid 1790s, tended to involve civil servants, educated men who had served Joseph II and Leopold II and who hoped to inject more of a reform orientation into the reign of Francis II. Many of them generally supported programs that were hardly radical by the standards of the 1790s. Indeed, among the plans developed by the most radical of the conspirators was one to convoke an empire-wide people’s parliament (Volksrat), suggesting that even they did not question the existence of the empire; they questioned merely its particular style of rule. Nonetheless, those conspiracies that the police managed to uncover were treated with incredible severity, and several ended in executions. Still, the war saw no diminution of the popular eighteenth-century coffee houses and other social meeting places in towns and cities throughout the monarchy. If anything, in the towns at least, coffee houses took on new roles as sites where the latest news about the war could be exchanged and debated.

On the other hand, Emperor Francis opposed mobilizing popular patriotism for his empire during most of the two decades of war. While a few other central European monarchs—especially the King of Prussia—embarked on significant experiments with reform programs to rebuild their military and create popular support for war, Francis did so only with the greatest reluctance. Anything that promoted social reform or worse still, popular enthusiasm, once unleashed, might not be so easily contained. So it fell to others to advance the wartime popularity of the emerging Habsburg state and of the new Austrian Empire that Francis eventually proclaimed in 1804. Already in 1796, for example, as French armies in northern Italy neared the Austrian border, the governor of Lower Austria, Count Francis Joseph von Saurau, commissioned poet Leopold Haschka to write a text to encourage patriotic enthusiasm for Austria’s cause. Saura then persuaded composer Joseph Haydn to set the text to music. Haydn referred to his composition specifically as the “peoples’ song” (Volkslied). On February 12, 1797, on the occasion of the emperor’s birthday, this now famous “Emperor’s Song,” or “God Save Our Emperor,” was first performed in theaters across the empire (the emperor himself heard it in the Court Theater). The song, translated into all the vernacular languages of the monarchy, would become Imperial Austria’s official anthem later in the nineteenth century.

Finally, after losing three consecutive wars against France (in 1793, 1799, and 1805), and with several Austrian territories under foreign occupation (the Bavarians occupied Tyrol, while the French took parts of the empire’s new Adriatic holdings), Emperor Francis reluctantly approved some cautious efforts to reform Austrian society to build wartime patriotism. This brief reform period was nothing like that engaged in by Prussia during this time, and we should keep a clear sense of proportion in mind when examining the changes themselves. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the few reforms the government did propose helped to build a greater sense of common purpose and identification among the emperor’s subjects. The emperor’s brother Field Marshal Archduke Charles (1772–1847) carried out the most far reaching of these administrative reforms: he dismissed twenty-five generals, worked to humanize military discipline, implemented the new idea of reserve battalions, and promoted plans to create a popular “people’s militia.” For his part, the emperor proclaimed his intention to allow society a freer intellectual life (including support for literature) and to establish more schools, but expectations that he would abolish censorship were disappointed, as were expectations that he would reform the scope of the secret police (whom Francis had spy on his popular brothers as well as on ordinary Austrians).

As Austria prepared for the War of the Fifth Coalition against Napoleon in 1809, the emperor’s popular—and some have argued more capable—brother Archduke Johann (1782–1859), organized Austrian men into a home militia (Landwehr). The militia was compulsory for all men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five who were not already serving in the military and was instituted in the hereditary provinces and the Bohemian lands. At the same time, the government also created a comparable institution in Hungary called the insurrectio. In Galicia, however, where the regime rightly suspected the Polish nationalist elite of harboring sympathy for Napoleon’s promise to reconstitute an independent Poland, the regime created a reserve instead.

The home militia, or Landwehr, attained considerable emblematic significance as an interregional all-Austrian patriotic institution. Symbolizing the universal mobilization of all Austrians and their commitment to an interregional defense, the militia demonstrated that the war was not waged on behalf of far-away rulers and that it instead involved the “Austrian people”—all classes, all generations, sometimes even both genders—sacrificing to defend their common interest. In 1813, only four years after the creation of the militia, during the War of the Sixth Coalition, also referred to as the War of Liberation, painter Johann Peter Krafft portrayed a determined young man dressed as a militiaman, with rifle in hand, leaving his family for the war in The Departure of the Militiaman, a popular painting that represented the militiaman in general as the embodiment of the Austrian people’s sacrifice and of their enthusiasm for the common cause.

The setting of the painting is domestic, depicting the interior of a modest rural hut that nevertheless contains several articles of furniture and décor that indicate the solid prosperity enjoyed by the family. The scene is also intergenerational, showing the parents of the militiaman weeping and praying, while his wife and three children are saying goodbye. Another militiaman accompanies the subject of this painting, and through a small window we see many others departing in a hilly landscape. There is nothing forced about the militiaman’s attitude. His determined expression captures his alleged willingness to defend the fatherland, while his family voluntarily makes their sacrifice, even as they understand the terrible consequences war might bring. Although the militiaman’s mother hides her face in tears, his wife clasps his hand and does not cry or look away (nor do the children). The centrality of the wife in the picture suggests to me the degree to which Krafft wished to depict the universality of a cause that demanded sacrifice of Austria’s women as well as of its men.

From Peter M Judson The Habsburg Empire A New History.


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