Joseph I’s reign was dominated by the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), which pitted Bourbon France and Spain against the ‘‘Grand Alliance’’ led by Austria and the Maritime Powers. Born to Emperor Leopold I and Eleonore of the Palatinate-Neuburg, Joseph’s upbringing was notable for the absence of Jesuit influence and the resurgence of German patriotism during lengthy struggles against France and the Ottoman Empire. In 1699 he married Wilhemine Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who his parents hoped would tame his youthful excesses, which included wild parties and a string of indiscriminate sexual escapades. He was soon admitted to the privy council, where he became the center of a ‘‘young court’’ of reform minded ministers eager to resolve the daunting financial and military crises that confronted the monarchy during the opening years of the war, which Leopold had entered to secure the far-flung Spanish inheritance for his second son, Archduke Charles (the future Holy Roman emperor Charles VI). Their first victory came in 1703, with the appointments of Prince Eugene of Savoy and Gundaker Starhemberg to head the war council (Hofkriegsrat) and treasury (Hofkammer). Shortly afterward, John Churchill, the duke of Marlborough, was induced to march a British army into southern Germany, where it combined with imperial troops in destroying a Franco-Bavarian force at Blenheim (August 1704).
Although the great victory saved the monarchy from imminent defeat, Joseph had to overcome a succession of new challenges after succeeding his father (5 May 1705), which included the need to wage war on multiple fronts in Germany, the Spanish Netherlands, Italy, the Low Countries, and Spain, while simultaneously suppressing a massive rebellion in Hungary led by Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi. Joseph’s strong German identity informed vigorous initiatives within the empire, including reform of the Imperial Aulic Council (Reichshofrat) and the banning of several renegade German and Italian princes who had sided with the Bourbons. Yet he gave little assistance to the imperial army fighting along the Rhine frontier or to the Maritime Powers campaigning in the Low Countries. Instead, he focused his resources (together with considerable Anglo-Dutch loans) on Italy, which Prince Eugene delivered in a single stroke at the battle of Turin (1706), after which the French evacuated northern Italy, much as they had abandoned Germany after Blenheim. A small force expelled Spanish forces from Naples the following spring. Joseph’s other principal concern was Hungary, where Rákóczi had aroused widespread support against Leopold’s regime of heavy taxation and religious persecution. Although Joseph dissociated himself from his father’s policies and promised to respect Hungary’s liberties, he refused Rákóczi’s demand that he cede Transylvania as a guarantee against future Habsburg tyranny. As a result, the war dragged on for eight years, as Joseph committed roughly half of all Austrian forces to the difficult process of reconquering the country. Once victory was assured, relatively generous terms were granted the rebels at the peace of Szatmár (April 1711), signed just ten days after Joseph’s death.
With Italy secured and the Hungarian rebellion under control, Joseph shifted his attention to the last and least pressing of his war aims—his brother’s acquisition of the rest of Spain’s European and American empire. Prince Eugene and a small force were sent to join Marlborough’s Anglo-Dutch army in the Spanish Netherlands, most of which fell after their victory at Oudenarde (1708). Joseph also instigated a short war with Pope Clement XI at the end of 1709, forcing him to recognize Charles as king of Spain. By 1710, the first Austrian troops were fighting alongside their British, Dutch, and Portuguese allies in Spain itself. Nonetheless, a combination of logistical difficulties, timely French reinforcements, and the Spanish people’s dogged support for the Bourbon claimant, Philip V, doomed the allied effort. Unsuccessful peace negotiations at The Hague (1709) and Gertruydenberg (1710) failed to deliver what the allies could not win for themselves. Finally, a new British cabinet initiated secret peace talks with Louis XIV at the beginning of 1711, foreshadowing the Peace of Utrecht two years later.
Despite his untimely death from smallpox (17 April 1711), Joseph attained his two main objectives: securing an Italian glacis to the southwest and reconciling Hungary to Austrian domination, albeit with constitutional safeguards. Indeed, both achievements endured until 1866. Much of his success rested with a talent for choosing and managing able ministers to whom he could delegate much of the responsibility for realizing policy objectives. At the same time, Joseph jeopardized these gains through extramarital liaisons, which prevented his wife from bearing children after he gave her a venereal infection in 1704. Although he was survived by two daughters, the absence of a male heir foreshadowed the dynasty’s extinction in 1740.