The New Europe/Volume 1/Francis Joseph: An Elusive Personality
Francis Joseph: An Elusive Personality
Those whose business it has been to watch close at hand, year in year out, the doings of the late Emperor Francis Joseph must have read with lively interest the obituary notices and "appreciations" published at his death. Conceived, for the most part, as panegyrics and prepared long in advance, these "memoirs" retained, despite the war, obvious traces of their origin, notwithstanding the efforts of authors and editors to adjust old material to a changed perspective. The memory of my own adventures in search of a reliable estimate of Francis Joseph's character is, however, too keen to inspire in me aught but sympathy with writers striving to do justice to his memory.
Some fourteen years ago my residence was changed from Rome to Vienna. My view of Francis Joseph was then probably the view held by the great majority of ordinary Europeans—that he was a wise and venerable ruler much tried by unmerited misfortune, a pillar of European peace, and the only remaining influence that could restrain his "mosaic of peoples" from resolving itself into its component parts and bringing on a European conflagration in the process.
That winter (1902–03) Francis Joseph caught one of his many colds. Sinister rumours spread. The great catastrophe seemed to be at hand. What estimate of the Emperor's character could I fairly form? The dilemma was all the greater in that I had hardly heard a good word said of him, either in Austria or in Hungary, since entering his dominions. Austrian Germans, Czechs, Poles and Italians all criticised him bitterly from their own points of view. The Magyars of all parties were even less favourable. Things seemed to be going badly. "It is all the Emperor's fault," said the Austrians. "He lacks energy, he lets the Magyars have everything their own way; he cares nothing for anything; he is too old—in fact he has been Emperor far too long." "The King is not only badly advised, but he is German at heart," said the Magyars. "He is old, and though we may put up with him while he lives, we will not stand his successor. After all, we have nothing to expect from the Habsburgs, who have always betrayed us, and always will. Francis Joseph is no exception to the rule."
Amid these various but uniformly unfavourable opinions of Francis Joseph's personality I thought I saw—as an impartial outsider responsible for the representation of Austro-Hungarian affairs to an important section of the British public—a way to make known the truth without appearing to judge too harshly, at the moment of his demise, the venerable sovereign who, wrongly as it appeared, enjoyed the respect and esteem of the civilised world. I would ask each of the leading Austrian and Hungarian writers and public men who had spoken to me thus frankly of their ruler to write, under the seal of secrecy and in return for generous remuneration, a reasoned account of the Emperor Francis Joseph's personality and political record from the point of view of their own nationality or party. The understanding would be that these statements should only be published anonymously after the Emperor's death. Thus The Times would be able to supplement its usual "memoir" with a series of reasoned judgments carefully passed upon the late monarch by representative men among his own subjects. If the effect of these judgments were to destroy his reputation for exalted wisdom and mature statemanship, so much the worse for the reputation and so much the better for the truth!
Filled with this idea, I applied to leading politicians and writers of all the principal races of Austria and all the chief parties of Hungary. Not one refused my offer. Each was asked to complete his contribution within six months. When at the end of nine months no single contribution had come in, I reminded the prospective authors of their promise and visited some of them personally. They explained that the work was much harder than they had imagined it would be; that it was almost impossible to find facts in support of convictions which they knew to be well founded, but that, if I would bear with them yet awhile, they would assuredly not disappoint me.
I extended the time limit. When another year had passed my chief contributor-elect, an historian of European reputation, frankly begged to be excused. He could not do the work, he said, and alleged in support of his incapacity various sentimental reasons that had not occurred to him before.
One by one the other contributors also pleaded inability. The burden of their complaint was that they could find no facts to substantiate their opinions. In short, not a single reasoned article on Francis Joseph could I obtain throughout the length and breadth of his realms, though verbal criticisms of him and his works continued to be thick as wheat stalks on the Hungarian plain.
The strangeness of this phenomenon whetted my curiosity and led me to study Francis Joseph for myself. Could it be that in Austria-Hungary, as in Ireland, there are "no facts"? The Emperor had surely lived long enough for some of the events of his life and reign to belong to the domain of history. With the help of these and other ascertainable facts it ought surely to be possible to build up something like an accurate opinion of the man. By the time I had read some 17,000 pages of histories, official documents, records, and biographies. I had come to the conclusion that there are, indeed, some facts in Austria, but that to express them in any approximately intelligible form is akin to high treason. In proof whereof I may cite the passage which caused the seizure of my own book, "The Habsburg Monarchy," in Austria-Hungary for "insult to Majesty":—
"The attitude frequently taken up by Francis Joseph towards the administrative oppression of various sections of his subjects constitutes a hard psychological problem. While personally unselﬁsh, generous and just, ever ready to redress a private injury or to alleviate private distress, Francis Joseph as a ruler has often seemed callous to the point of cynicism and 'constitutional' to the point of injustice. Provided that a minister obtained for him the 'necessities of the State' in the form of money and recruits he appeared to care little how heavily the policy of the minister might press in other respects upon whole sections of loyal subjects. Indeed, the bearing of Francis Joseph has sometimes resembled that of the landlord who ignores the petty tyranny exercised by his estate agent and dismisses the agent only when revenue falls off or disturbances occur. Francis Joseph has rarely borrowed trouble or insisted that the political action of his ministers must conform to private ethical standards."
These are "facts" which no fair-minded student of Habsburg affairs will gainsay. But they are facts which no Austrian or Hungarian with any public position or political ambition would have cared openly to express during Francis Joseph's lifetime. All, or almost all, public references to the monarch while he lived were perforce eulogistic. People abroad seem to have taken these eulogies at their face value, and to have had no thought for the conditions from which they arose. It was not until Francis Joseph committed the irreparable act which plunged Europe into war that the men and women of our generation remembered the estimate their fathers and grandfathers had formed of him, and began to wonder whether he had changed much after all.
He had not changed. Long experience had taught him that some things were difﬁcult, some impossible, and some feasible if sufficient administrative pressure were applied or sufficient corruption employed. He remained throughout life the supreme opportunist, as regards method, in the service of an unchanging dynastic idea. He knew that to oppose Germany would be to court destruction; and though he sometimes restrained, he never opposed her or gave the Hohenzollerns a chance of tearing from him his German possessions. Deep in his heart lay a semi-fatalistic, semi-religious belief that the hour of the Habsburgs would strike once again and that they would once more hold sway in the lands of the German tongue. In order that the opportunity when it came might not be missed, he sold to the Magyars the non-Magyar half of Hungary, handed over to their tender mercies his loyal Croats, and refused justice to Bohemia. The support of the Poles he purchased by giving the Szlachta, or gentry, a free hand in Galicia, and resorted to a thousand expedients in order to maintain substantially intact the army, which be regarded always as the main prop of the dynasty and the chief school of dynastic sentiment. The secret of whatever success he attained in his long reign lay in his own devotion to the idea to which he pitilessly sacrificed others—the idea of the divine nature of the Habsburg dynasty and of the divine mission of its head. Around this idea the whole Habsburg Monarchy is built up. Will Francis Joseph have been its last servant?