Magazine article The Spectator

Britain's Unwilling Enemy

Magazine article The Spectator

Britain's Unwilling Enemy

Article excerpt

WHEN the young Victoria was informed by Lord Melbourne of her coming elevation to the throne of Great Britain, she is reputed to have said, 'I will be good.' She then ruled us very firmly for 64 years, trying to make the British good too.

Just over a decade after her succession, another 18-year-old inherited an imperial crown, that of Austria, as Franz Josef I. It is not recorded that he made any public avowal of intended virtue, but throughout his long reign he was certainly imbued with that hard-sounding German ideal of Pflichtbewusstsein, best translated as `sense of duty'. By maternal descent, he was half a Wittelsbach and Victoria was a SaxeCoburg, and the two houses had in fact been linked by marriage since the previous century.

Franz Josef ruled the Habsburg empire for 68 years, again very firmly, and demonstrated, as Victoria did, that even when young he had a mind of his own. It was no easy reign - even his own coronation had to be carried out at Olmutz in Moravia, since Vienna was in the hands of a revolutionary mob. It was 1848, when the whole of continental Europe was in turmoil, seething with rebellious ideas of self-determination and democracy.

In Hungary, the second state of the empire, Lajos Kossuth, a real rabble-rouser, was demanding an independent government, declaring that the Habsburgs were no longer competent to rule and were preparing for war. In a surprise move, however, Kossuth was seen off by a Russian army at Temesvar in August 1849, since Tsar Nicholas saw him as a threat to his own hold over Polish lands. Poland, since 1795, had been partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia; the Tsar disliked the fact that Kossuth employed Polish-born generals, and believed that monarchs should co-operate to put down revolutionaries.

Franz Josef was not so lucky in Italy: in 1859 he had to reconcile himself to the loss of Lombardy at the hands of the French and Piedmontese, after the bloody battle of Solferino. The essential issue, however, the question of Hungary, was eventually resolved by brilliant statecraft, both on Franz Josef's part and that of Ferenc Deak, a Hungarian but a realist and one of the wisest politicians of the epoch. To negotiate on behalf of Austria, Franz Josef made an extraordinary move - he hired himself a new foreign minister, Count von Beust, who was not from his own lands, but the ex-prime minister of Saxony who happened to be out of a job. Within a few weeks of his appointment, Beust was in Budapest and at work with Deak. The great compromise, the Ausgleich, was hammered out, whereby Franz Josef assumed St Stephen's crown as King of Hungary in 1867, while remaining Emperor of Austria. The Dual Monarchy, which in theory gave the two core nations equal status, was to last 50 years, although the Magyars were to prove as quiescent under what they perceived as a foreign yoke as the Irish.

The remaining problem was Prussia, but after the battle of Koniggratz, where the Prussians, highly organised and with modern weapons, trounced the Austrian armies on 3 July 1866, Frank Josef was no longer in a position to challenge Bismarck and the latter's determination to unify Germany under the Hohenzollerns. When Bismarck was dropped in 1890, the new Emperor, Wilhelm II, indeed pursued a policy of friendship with Vienna. But Kaiser Bill, that bottom-slapping and dangerous humorist, the product of a liberal German father and an overbearing English mother and subject to mercurial swings of mood, was anything but an easy friend.

Franz Josef was by now a lonely man and less self-confident. He had been badly hammered by family loss: one of his brothers, Maximilian, died (bravely) in front of a firing squad in Mexico; his only son, Rudolph, committed suicide (after his rather nasty murder of Baroness Vetsera, a 17-year-old mistress), and finally his beautiful, beloved and wayward Empress, Sisi, was assassinated by a mad Italian anarchist on the quayside at Geneva. …

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