After the crisis caused by the 1848 revolution that almost overthrew the Habsburg dynasty, Francis Joseph assumed the imperial crown thanks to a palace coup by his mother Sophie of Bavaria. She persuaded Ferdinand I to abdicate and then by-passed his father’s claim on the throne.
Aged 18, Franz Josef had been brought up a soldier by his tutors Count Heinrich Bombelles and Count Johann Coronini. He had been destined for a career in the army and served under Field Marshall Radetzky in Habsburg Italy during the 1848 uprisings.
After the failed uprisings many of the Hungarian revolutionaries were executed. As the young Emperor had agreed to the executions, he was deeply unpopular with many of his subjects. But despite an attempt on his life in 1853 by Hungarian nationalist Janos Libenyi, repression was gradually lifted in the 1850s and Franz Josef increased in popularity after marrying Sisi in 1854.
Franz Josef’s mother remained the power behind the throne and it was her influence that led to the Concordat which Franz Josef signed with the Roman Catholic Church. This surrendered control over the church and its relations with Rome, marriage and the punishment of priests. The Catholic Church could also ban books and supervise education.
The Emperor’s popularity suffered in 1859 when he personally led the Austrian army to defeat by the French and Sardinians at Solferino and had to cede Lombardy to Sardinia-Piedmont. Then seven years later Austria and her southern German allies were defeated by the increasingly – aggressive Prussians at Koniggratz.
By the mid 1860s Franz Josef was no longer under his mother’s political influence. He had begun the rebuilding of Vienna and began to relax repression by reinstating a two chamber parliament, re-writing the press censorship laws, modifying the Concordat and liberating his Jewish subjects from discriminatory legislation.
The reign was increasingly dominated by the strains and stresses caused by the competing demands of the minorities. The Czechs, for example, resented the creation of the dual monarchy after Franz Josef was crowned King of Hungary. In foreign affairs the Emperor spent much of his time dealing with the consequences of the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Russia and Prussia.
As Sisi increasingly left Vienna, the Emperor returned to mistresses. In 1875 he met Anna Nahowski, the 16-year-old wife of a railwayman, who profited enormously from her relationship with Franz Josef. When he grew tired of Anna 10 years later Empress Elisabeth ensured that he had a new companion, the actress Katharina Schratt.
It is amazing he found any time for mistresses given his gruelling regime. At his desk by five a.m. he had ministerial meetings at eight followed by a constant stream of officials seeking approval for every minor decision. Each week Franz Josef held two general audiences at which around 100 people could petition his support.
Court protocol and routine dominated his life but in private Franz Joseph chose to live a simple life. He always slept on an army-style camp bed and his office was furnished in a basic manner.
Franz Josef had to overcome the double tragedies of Crown Prince Rudolf’s suicide and then Sisi’s murder. Although they had spent much time apart, Sisi’s death was a heavy blow to the Emperor. On receiving the news he famously said “You do not know how much I loved that woman”.
By 1901 when he made his will Francis Joseph knew that the Habsburgs could lose their throne and wrote:
“If as a consequence of events and of historical developments, the form of government of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy should suffer change – which God forbid – and the Crown should not remain with our House …”
Relations with Serbia deteriorated and sanctions were applied against the country. Two years later Austria – Hungary annexed Bosnia – Herzogovina and in doing so continued the push that divided Europe into two opposing camps.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by a Serb terrorist Gavrilo Princip in 1914 was seen as an opportunity by Austria’s chief of staff and the Kaiser Wilhelm II to punish Serbia and crush the southern Slavs. A month after the assassination Europe went to war.
Since Sisi’s death Archduchess Marie Valerie had spent much time at her father’s side. In 1915 she wrote, “We are all well thank God. Papa too, wonderfully amidst all his troubles and cares”. But a year later he was dead. Two years later, as he feared, the Habsburg dynasty too was gone.
Atributation to Photographer to the court of His Imperial Majesty, L. Schumann (1843-1912). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons