Book Review of Joseph II: Volume II, Against the World, 1780-1790

Derek Beales. Joseph II: Volume II, Against the World, 1780-1790. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-521-32488-5. Plates. Maps. Figures. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xix, 733. $157.00 (hardcover).

Joseph II (Volume II)Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor (1765-1790) and co-regent of the Austrian Monarchy (1765-1780) shared the rule of Austria with his mother Empress Maria Theresa of Austria after the demise of his father Emperor Francis I (1745-1765).  After the death of his mother in 1780, Joseph II was the sole ruler of the Austrian Monarchy and Holy Roman Empire.  In 1987, Professor Derek Beales published the first of two full-length volumes Joseph II: Volume I, In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 1741-1780.  Beales, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, finished his work on Joseph II with the publication of Joseph II: Volume II, Against the World, 1780-1790 in 2009.  The author is known for his work in eighteenth and nineteenth century history, including England and Italy, 1859-1860 (1961), From Castlereagh to Gladstone, 1815-1885 (1969), The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy (second edition, 2003), Prosperity and Plunder: European Catholic Monasteries in the Age of Revolution, 1650-1815 (2003), and Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2005).

Beales magisterial biography of Joseph II covers all aspects of his reign over the Austrian Monarchy.  He devotes much attention to the Emperor’s role in the Enlightenment and Austrian cultural achievements.  But, the readers of this review will be most interested in his role in war and diplomacy.  In the first volume Beales described Joseph II’s leadership in the War Council from 1766 to 1774, working with Field-Marshal Count Franz Moritz von Lacy,  to create a larger, more organized Austrian army.  In foreign affairs the Emperor helped in the annexation of Galicia (1772), Bukovina (1775), and the Bavarian Innviertel (1779).  Even so, Joseph II and his army failed to defeat Frederick II of Prussia and achieve the goal of annexing all of Bavaria in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-1779).  In 1780, the Emperor took sole responsibility for foreign policy, working with Wenzel Anton, Prince of Kaunitz-Rietberg, the State Chancellor (chief minister) of the Habsburg Monarchy (1753-1793).  Beales relates Joseph II’s foreign policy initiatives, showing that they sometimes contrasted with the policy preferred by Kaunitz.

Joseph II’s personal rule began with a treasury that was drained by keeping 300,000 troops in the field during the recent war against Prussia (p.104).  Austria’s ally, France, had refused to assist in the conflict, and Austria, fearing the possibility of Catherine II of Russia joining Prussia in the conflict, was forced to accept the Treaty of Teschen (1779) ending the War of the Bavarian Succession.  The Emperor now had to restore Austria’s international position.  In 1780 he was successful in gaining agreement that his younger brother, Archduke Max Franz, would become the next Elector-Archbishop of Cologne.  Next, in 1780, Joseph II traveled to Russia in search of an Austro-Russian alliance.  Kaunitz had created the Austro-French alliance in 1756, and, after the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the French alliance had protected Habsburg interests against the Prussian threat.  But, Austria had to worry about the reliance of the French alliance in light of Louis XVI of France’s financial difficulties in the War of American Independence (1775-1783) and the lack of French support in the War of the Bavarian Succession (p.111).  Now the Habsburg Monarchy sought to reduce the continuing threat of Prussia.  Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia had been allies since 1764.  An Austro-Russian alliance would lessen the Prussian threat.  To gain this alliance the Emperor agreed to terms favorable to Catherine II, leading to an exchange of diplomatic notes that created a secret alliance in May 1781 (p.121).  Beales states that “Joseph’s alliance with Russia certainly ranks as a diplomatic revolution” (p.123).

Joseph II pursued several diplomatic initiatives.  In 1782, the Emperor revived the issue of opening up the Scheldt River in the Austrian Netherlands as an outlet for trade and commerce.  In 1783 he began proposing the exchange of the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria.  This initiative was blocked by Prussia, Hanover, and Saxony when they formed the Deutsche Fürstenbund (German League of Princes) in 1785.

The Russian alliance would present challenges.  In 1782, Catherine II began pushing the Emperor to back her plans for carving up the Ottoman Empire, the so-called “Greek Project.”  Joseph II and Kaunitz sought to avoid war and Russian expansion.  In 1783, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.  Before long Catherine II was attempting to form a Russian protectorate over Georgia.  Consequently, in 1787, the Ottoman Turks, unaware of the secret Austro-Russian alliance, declared war against Russia (Russo-Turkish War of 1787-1792).  The declaration of war surprised Joseph II.  The Habsburg Monarchy reluctantly went to war against the Ottoman Empire in support of Russia (Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791).  “The fact was,” as Beales writes, “that when the alliance had been made no one had dreamed that the Turks would rouse themselves and actually start such a war” (p.556).  Coordination between the Austrian and Russian armies proved extremely difficult.  Russia was sidetracked when Gustavus III of Sweden suddenly attacked Russia starting the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790.  Meanwhile, the Habsburg Monarchy believed that Prussia, a Turkish ally, might intervene in the Austro-Turkish war.  In 1789, an Austro-Russian army defeated the Ottomans at the battle of Focşani in Moldavia, followed by a victory at the battle of Râmnic in Wallachia.  Field-Marshal Ernst Gideon von Loudon then besieged and captured Belgrade in 1789.  The Austrians soon drove the Turks out of Wallachia.  Even so, the Habsburg Monarchy’s military and diplomatic position was ruined by the rebellion of the Austrian Netherlands in 1789-1790.  In early 1790 Joseph II died from an illness that he contracted and never fully recovered from while leading the Habsburg army in the Austro-Turkish war.  His successor, Leopold II (1790-1792), fended off the Prussian threat with the Convention of Reichenbach (1790) and created an Austro-Prussian alliance against Revolutionary France with the Declaration of Pillnitz (1791).  This allowed Austria to reconquer the Belgian provinces.  The Turkish war ended with the Treaty of Sistova (1791).  To sum up Joseph II in the 1780s, Beales states that during “the 1780s, as he struggled to realise it, he often saw himself as battling against the world.  By the end of his reign this perception had become reality, and opposition, foreign and domestic, forced him to abandon much of his great scheme” (p.12).

Beales researched archives in Austria, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, England, Luxembourg, the United States, Russia, Italy, the Vatican City, and the Czech Republic to write this massive study on Joseph II and his reign during the 1780s.  The author puts the many aspects of Joseph II, including his government and the Enlightenment into context.  His sections on war and diplomacy are extremely useful for readers interested in international politics and warfare in the late eighteenth century.  The study can be supplemented by reading Beales’ Joseph II: Volume I, In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 1741-1780 (1987), Franz A.J. Szabo’s Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 1753-1780 (1994), Timothy C.W. Blanning’s Joseph II (1994), Paul Bernard’s Joseph II and Bavaria: Two Eighteenth-Century Attempts at German Unification (1965), Harold Temperley’s Frederick the Great and Kaiser Joseph: An Episode of War and Diplomacy in the Eighteenth Century (second edition, 1968), Michael Hochedlinger’s Austria’s Wars of Emergence, 1683-1797 (2003), and Karl A. Roider’s Austria’s Eastern Question, 1700-1790 (1982).  For further information regarding international affairs, see Hamish M. Scott, The Emergence of the Eastern Powers, 1756-1775 (2001) and Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (1981).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Austrian Foreign Policy, Austrian Military History, Austro-Turkish War (1787-1791), Book Reviews, Europe in the 18th Century (1713-1789), Ottoman Wars, Prussian Foreign Policy, Prussian Military History, Russian Foreign Policy, Russian Military History, Russo-Swedish War (1788-1790), Russo-Turkish War (1787-1972) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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