The eldest son of Mary Theresa was very ambitious from an early age. During times of war with Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great, Joseph helped his mother coordinate the training of soldiers and built fort Terezin. Frederick himself called him “capable of setting the world on fire”. They shared the same philosophical background, both being interested in Voltaire and ancient thinkers.
Before he became king, he traveled France in disguise, calling himself Count of Falkenstein. He made many acquaintances and was well received by the Encyclopedists, but his impression of France was negative and he predicted its downfall. In the course of French Revolution, he found inspiration in Jacobinism, in spite of what happened to his sister Mary Antoinette, and saw the power of the state as a priority.
Joseph did like the idea of enlightened absolutism, but his reforms were more idealistic than his mother’s. He issued over 6000 of them. This gave him an appearance of a lunatic in the eyes of bureaucrats and nobles, but he was extremely popular among the ordinary people.
In 1781, Joseph issued a Tolerance Patent, which allowed Calvinism and a mixture of protestant courses, the so-called Augsburg faith. In the same year, he cancelled bond-service in Bohemia and Moravia which meant that people could move, study and marry freely. At the time, Bohemia was the richest part of the Austrian Empire.
Tax liability for all, including the nobles, was a very hard thing to swallow, but Joseph’s idealism didn’t stop there. He cancelled many mendicant orders, because he didn’t see their contribution to the society. On the other hand he financially supported those that spread literacy and educated their members, like Franciscans and Dominicans. Dreaming of unity in his Empire, he followed the course of the Habsburg dynasty and finished the germanization of Charles University.
The emperor was a great music lover and 18th century Vienna hosted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The portrayal of the emperor in “Amadeus”, film by Milos Forman, as a comical figure without an ear for music, was rather accurate. Joseph initiated the use of German language in operas and had Mozart compose the scandalous “Escape from Serail” for this purpose.
As a diplomat, Joseph was inexperienced and lost a territory in Netherlands to the French. His religious indifference made the Pope red with anger, but even he couldn’t oppose the powerful Habsburg Emperor. Joseph had two children, both died at an early age. He married twice, but his second marriage to Josephine of Bavaria was unhappy. Joseph died in 1790 and was succeeded by his younger brother Leopold. The new emperor, of course, had to cancel most of his brother’s innovations. Joseph’s reforms were short-lived and far too radical for his time, but the people will always remember good Count Falkenstein and how much he loved his Empire.