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9: Maria with a Crown, Joseph with a Hat

<< 8: Hey, Thököly and Rákóczi || 10: Hang the Kings! >>

"Let others make war; you, happy Austria, make marriages! To others Mars gives countries, to you Venus" -whoever may have carved the Latin original of this epigram, keen and not devoid of envy, this much is certain: the House of Habsburg, interested in and around many European thrones, could be most thankful for its dynastic ties, its adroit marriages.

In the early 1700s, Charles Habsburg was sitting on the wobbly Spanish throne, and when his elder brother died in 1711, he was urgently summoned to Vienna. This haste also had a role in the lenient provisions of the peace treaty concluded with the kuruc. With this Charles, who was III in Hungary and VI as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the male line of the once prolific branch of the House of Habsburg died out. In the twilight of his life, Charles was greatly troubled by this prospect. He urged rival, throne-hungry dynasties and all other interested parties to accept the line of succession through the female line of his family. Apparently, success crowned his efforts. Charles balanced with agreements and legal formulas whatever the Habsburgs did not bring off through matrimony. At least he closed his eyes in 1740 with an awareness of his achievement.

At the time, his daughter, Maria Theresa, was twenty-three, a blossoming young woman, awaiting the birth of her child. After Charles's death, contrary to every agreement and promise, almost everyone rejected succession through the female line; indeed, immediate attacks began to dismember the Habsburg Empire. It finally became clear that the peaceful deals were null and void, though by this time Maria Theresa had given birth to her first male child. In 1741, this barely six-month-old child was present in the parliament in Pozsony (Bratislava) when his mother asked the Hungarian Estates of the Realm to protect the throne. Many of the members had waged battle with Thököly and Rákóczi when young.

In times past, mention was often made of the generosity and chivalrous virtues of the gallant Hungarians on the basis of Maria's and the infant Joseph's dramatic act in Pozsony. And indeed, the events in Pozsony may have contained some subjective elements. Still, that was not the essential point. When at this parliamentary session the Estates pledged "our lives and our blood" in acclamation to rescue the Habsburg royalty that was looked upon with hostility not so very long ago, and they voted to supply military and financial assistance, the Hungarian nobility was acknowledging the consummation of the 1711 peace agreement. On the basis of this treaty, the landowners' benefits were not curtailed, as a matter of fact they were strengthened. By then, the Vienna court was attempting to govern with them, not against them.

Simultaneously, because of the security based on law, the beginning of a relatively peaceful period, the momentum of reconstruction and its need for manpower, and commercial and economic developments (although restrictions of the classes without rights, particularly the serfs, remained, even increased somewhat; after all, Hungarian law proclaimed a permanent serfdom) -the period after the age of the kuruc brought a greater or lesser relief to the majority of the population and prosperity to the entire country. It was worth being grateful for this. And Maria Theresa not only made requests, she provided an antithesis: a wider international field of play within Hungarian independence. Her gestures to win over the Hungarians had, in part, a real value and in part, a prestigious character. It was of unquestionable practical significance that from this time on, Vienna did not directly control Transylvania and other border regions; instead, by placing them under the authority of the Hungarian crown, the court controlled them indirectly.

In the War of Austrian Succession, which lasted for years, during which the Habsburg Empire did undergo some realignment but ultimately, its aggregate value was hardly impaired- Hungarian (and Croatian) hussar and infantry regiments decided the outcome of a whole series of battles. (Meanwhile, sometimes they had to fight against their own kind; after the kuruc period many became mercenaries seeking renown in the most diverse armies of Europe.)

And so Maria Theresa retained the Hungarian and Bohemian crowns and many of her titles and estates. At home, in Vienna, on the other hand, she could function only as the Archduchess of Austria. The prince-electors and Estates did not confer the crown of the Holy Roman Empire on women; and Charles VI never tried to accomplish this either. The situation was extraordinary. Maria Theresa elevated her husband to the rank of honorary joint regent, the father of her increasing number of children, Francis of Lorraine, who was only Grand Duke of Tuscany, a title which he had to renounce upon his marriage. In 1745, he became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In the Burg, however, for all practical purposes, it was his wife, increasingly strong-willed but otherwise good-natured, family-loving, and warmhearted, who issued the commands: absolutistic but also listening to a few outstanding liberal advisers, she made the decisions and governed; in short, she ruled.

With two faces. In principle, she was opposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment gaining ground at the time, but still, in practice, she implemented them in some matters. Previous dynasties and especially the ever stubborn Habsburgs, who believed they were anointed by God, viewed their subjects as mere living objects whose only legitimate destiny was to serve their rulers, but her father, Charles VI, manifested certain feelings of responsibility, while Maria Theresa accepted a dual relationship and commitment. She believed she was responsible for the peoples whom God placed under her crown for their own good, for their physical and spiritual well-being.

She seemed to treat the Hungarians favorably, from gratitude and by design. She founded schools and provided laws of education for them. She ordered Hungarian guardsmen to Vienna, whose members, from noble families, not only served in the Burg in a colorful uniform and a cape of leopard skin, but also had the opportunity to improve their minds. It was an irony of fate that, on completion of their service, many officers of her guard returned to Hungary armed with the ideals of the Enlightenment, which the queen opposed in principle. The guardsmen writers of the eighteenth century represented a small chapter in the history of Hungarian literature.

In time, Maria Theresa secured the rights of the nobility without leaving the serfs completely defenseless; the fact that serfs could seek legal redress was a novelty. However, defining the norms of feudal services had on occasion an opposite effect; after all, there were landowners who previously had not demanded as much as the new law permitted; yet this, too, constituted a step toward restricting the autocracy of the nobles. Undoubtedly, industrial development enjoyed a great advantage in Bohemian and Austrian areas, while Hungary was forced to participate only as the supplier of raw materials in what was by now the "common market" of the Habsburg holdings lying mostly in Central Europe.

In the meantime, in addition to the traditional export of livestock, animal products, especially wool and wine, the shipment of grain, almost entirely on waterways, slowly moved to the forefront. Its driving force was the fact that a more intensive agricultural economy had gained ground to the west of Hungary and that the Carpathian Basin supplied a grain of outstanding quality for bread -it was called "steely", or durum- and of great value in baking. Bread took on a better quality when this Hungarian durum wheat -the "corrective wheat"- was simply mixed with the soft wheat raised elsewhere. (The cultivation of "steely" wheat is a question of type, but its quality also depends on the time and conditions of the harvest: harvest time in the Alföld is generally drought-stricken, when the wheat continues to ripen to perfection uncut and then -until the age of the combine, which harvests and threshes simultaneously -to dry stacked crosswise in ricks for weeks before threshing.)

Maria Theresa was the least clear-sighted in religious matters. But practicality did not allow her to fall into extremes here either. She partially withdrew her decrees restricting the Jews (it was in this period, however, that the characteristic German family names of Hungarian Jews originated; they were compelled to assume them at her orders). As for the Protestants, if she could not convert them, she tried to drive them from her realm toward Transylvania. Thus the traditional freedom of religious practices survived in Transylvania with such "extremes" as the Unitarians' success in almost eliminating God from their faith locally and as many of the Hungarian "Sabbatarians", followers of Jewish religious precepts for centuries, later becoming victims of Nazi persecution of the Jews.

After she stabilized her throne, the pressure of circumstances compelled Maria Theresa to found a Danubian Empire, where, after all, most of the dynasty's holdings were grouped. In this, her natural allies were the Hungarian aristocrats, who, through the storms of the preceding centuries, had been able to preserve much of their occasionally exorbitant wealth, and had, actually, been able to increase it. Now that commitments to the war against the Turks no longer burdened them, their mounting wealth manifested itself in the construction of country seats rivaling Versailles and the queen's Schönbrunn and in the amassing of riches among circles who steadily immersed themselves in a European aristocracy that hardly recognized national borders, intermarried indiscriminately, and assumed cosmopolitan traits. We should be pleased to find one aristocrat who spent at least a part of his domestic income at home or who eventually bequeathed his acquisitions to his homeland.

An example of the latter case was the Esterházy collection of paintings and art treasures, which was to form a basis for the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts and which was already substantial by this time. It was also to the Esterházy family's credit that Joseph Haydn served on their Hungarian estates for more than three decades; it was in Hungary that he composed and presented most of his works. Less praiseworthy was that Hungarian aristocrat who, when a prize for the person appearing in the most expensive costume at a Vienna ball was announced, attired himself in a painting of Correggio he had removed from its frame and cut into a dress. Legend also has it that when one of the Esterházys invited Maria Theresa for a sleigh ride and the weather unexpectedly turned mild, he had the road from Schönbrunn to Kismarton (Eisenstadt), a distance of a good forty kilometers, strewn with salt.

These two episodes are, perhaps, especially appropriate at this point: before the one that followed the death of Maria Theresa. The infant who, in 1741, had appeared with his mother in Pozsony ascended the throne as Joseph II (1780-1790). But did he actually ascend the throne of Hungary as well? He had been Holy Roman Emperor since his father's death in 1765. But by that time this title had lost so much of its importance that his powerful mother left it up to him to do whatever he chose with this rank. Still, Joseph's influence was slowly felt throughout the realm. This strange Habsburg was Hungary's king in a strange way. His ideas, which are called Josephinism after his name, represented an enlightened, yet extreme version of absolutism. Joseph II introduced a powerful centralism and governed by decree; he shattered every regional aspiration and feudal privilege in the name of his concept of a unified and effective empire. He dissolved the religious orders and appropriated their property.

Recognizing the strength of the Hungarian nobility's conservatism, he flauntingly refused to be crowned in Hungary; he had the crown carried off to Vienna and locked up. For this reason, he is called the king with a hat in Hungary. Passing judgment on this headstrong, yet Hamlet-like monarch has roused the emotions ever since his time. It is impossible to deny the boldness of his efforts at modernization, his values outstripping those of his day. But he executed everything with grating callousness. He always considered himself so much wiser than anyone else that he could not brook interference or even listen to advice. And the forced Germanization of regions outside Austria deeply damaged whatever beneficial intention he had in mind.

Unsuccessful in his foreign policy and war against the Turks, Joseph II withdrew all his reforms on his deathbed, with the exception of his decree for religious tolerance and the one that alleviated the life of the serfs. Was he compelled to see the failures of his lifework? Did a Hamlet-like struggle with his own self overcome him? Or was he afraid that his successor would quash everything he had instituted? And therefore, he tried to save the savable?

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