Franz Joseph’s Empire, Sisi, and Hungary II

Kaiser Franz Josef I und Kaiserin Elisabeth

In April 1859, the Austrian National Bank collapsed, refusing to honour its own currency. Franz Joseph had treated the bank as a ‘grand state treasury’, taking what he needed, and he simply did not understand what it meant when earlier that year his agents had been refused a loan on the London market. The bankers would not lend to an unaccountable monarch. Anselm Rothschild put it bluntly: ‘No constitution, no money.’ Franz Joseph’s own finance minister, Karl Ludwig von Bruck, went further. The absolutist experiment had not lived up to expectations and had failed to harness the energies of the Austrian Empire, he wrote. Centralization should be ‘cooled down’ and a ‘sound, enduring constitution’ imposed, but not one that revived the antique arrangements of the past.

Typically, Franz Joseph did exactly what Bruck advised him not to do. Casually commenting to his mother that ‘we will now have a little parliamentarism’, he resuscitated an older institution, the imperial council or Reichsrat, packing it with his aristocratic chums in the hope that it would be mistaken for a parliament. To further the deception, he also recalled the diets so that they might send representatives to join the imperial council, but only ones whom he approved. In the October Diploma of 1860 (a diploma is a solemn decree, stronger than a patent), Franz Joseph declared this Pinocchio’s nose of a constitution to be ‘permanent and irrevocable’, but the bankers still refused to lend. Ignaz von Plener, who had replaced Bruck as finance minister, was adamant in his advice to Franz Joseph. Financial stability could only be assured, he explained, when the National Bank was freed from governmental interference and when borrowing was subject to oversight by genuinely representative institutions.

Franz Joseph gave way. Setting aside the ‘permanent and irrevocable’ October Diploma, he issued the so-called February Patent of 1861. Technically explanatory of the October Diploma, the patent gave the Austrian Empire a real parliament, even though it retained the old name of the imperial council. It was made up of two houses—an Upper House of high aristocrats and churchmen and a Lower House comprising deputies sent by the diets—whose consent was needed for all legislation. New regulations published at the same time laid down qualifications for voting to the diets, extending the franchise to about a quarter of the adult male population and introducing a complicated procedure for casting ballots that advantaged the German-speaking population.

The February Patent kept many of the emperor’s powers, including over the army and foreign policy. Most importantly, the emperor chose the government, and ministers were responsible to him. Invariably, Franz Joseph appointed bureaucrats and not politicians to the ministries. Having served in the administration, they were more likely to be loyal to him, and in any case he valued expertise more than political posturing. A bureaucratic elite, therefore, still made most of the important political decisions. On top of this, legislation was frequently enacted in the form of administrative decrees that bypassed the parliamentary process entirely. Bureaucratic absolutism thus gave way not to government by democratic institutions but instead to bureaucratic constitutionalism.

At the head of the apparatus remained the man who described himself as his empire’s ‘first civil servant.’ At work by five in the morning, Franz Joseph busied himself with paperwork, often correcting ministerial drafts or rewriting them entirely. His office routine was broken by meetings with his ministers and, twice a week, with general audiences at which any of his subjects might petition to see him. Here his bureaucratic routines proved their worth, for a filing system meant that he could keep up with every petitioner—whether he had visited before and, if so, what his concerns had been, and the remedies given. Franz Joseph kept going throughout the day on Virginia cigarettes and coffee, which he replaced in old age with mild cigars and tea. The knowledge he acquired of matters of state was formidable, but it lay unsorted in his mind, with trivial matters of protocol often uppermost.

Franz Joseph treasured the Austrian presidency of the German Confederation, for it provided a vehicle for projecting power as far afield as the Baltic and North Sea, as well as suggesting dynastic continuity with the old Holy Roman Empire. As late as 1863, Franz Joseph was still hoping to be offered the German imperial crown. But Prussia also had ambitions to leadership in Germany, which the Prussian ambassador to the Confederation, Otto von Bismarck, expressed with typical forcefulness. In 1862, on the eve of his appointment as the prime minister of Prussia, Bismarck explained to the Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli in London how he planned to reorganize the Prussian army. Then, he went on, ‘I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Confederation, subjugate the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the Queen’s ministers.’ But Bismarck did not just say it to the British government—the Austrian ambassador was also in the room with Disraeli.

In Franz Joseph’s case, forewarned was not forearmed. On the flimsiest of pretexts, Prussia declared war on the Austrian Empire, defeating the Habsburg army in a lightning campaign waged over seven weeks in 1866. The kingdom of Italy, Prussia’s ally, counted on the winning side, even though defeated at sea at Lissa (Vis) in the Adriatic in the first fleet battle to involve ironclad warships. Italy was now rewarded with Venice, while Bismarck rolled up all the states north of the River Main into a new North German Confederation under Prussian presidency. Less than five years later, the South German states gave way, joining Bismarck’s newly proclaimed German Empire. The Habsburg link to the German lands, which had persevered throughout the history of the dynasty and had survived both Napoleon and 1848, was now finally severed.

In less than twenty years, Franz Joseph had lost Lombardy, Venice, and the German Confederation. The Austrian Empire had shrunk back into Central Europe. On top of this, it stood to lose even more, for Hungary was far from pacified. Rumours of insurrection circulated there, fanned from abroad by Kossuth. The roughness of Austrian rule was summed up in 1858 by the governor of Hungary, Archduke Albrecht. When asked by a Hungarian delegation to restore the kingdom’s ancient constitution, Albrecht grabbed his sword, exclaiming, ‘This is my constitution.’ Unsurprisingly, the diet summoned in 1861 to select deputies for the parliament in Vienna refused point-blank to cooperate and even questioned whether Franz Joseph was Hungary’s lawful king. The imperial parliament that met in Vienna, in a temporary wooden structure on the new Ring, was accordingly eighty-five deputies short. Hoping to break Hungary’s will, Franz Joseph ramped up the politics of coercion, only to be faced by a tax strike.

Hungary was saved for the Habsburgs by the intervention of two people. The first was the lawyer and politician Ferenc Deák. Deák argued that the public law of Hungary rested on two instruments—the April Laws of 1848 that had granted Hungary independence and Charles VI’s Pragmatic Sanction that had declared Hungary an ‘inseparable and indivisible’ part of the Habsburg lands. The trick was to arrive at a compromise that bridged the two documents, and Deák saw how this could be done. The second to intercede on Hungary’s behalf was more unexpected—Franz Joseph’s wife, Empress Elizabeth, whom he had married in 1854, when she was just sixteen.

Elizabeth or ‘Sisi’ was, in the words of Franz Joseph’s valet, ‘a world away from being the ideal wife.’ Wilful and self-obsessed, she luxuriated in her own beauty. Having done her duty by providing a male heir, she travelled, flitting between health spas, Corfu, and England. There were visits in between to Monte Carlo, where she played the tables, and long cruises in the Mediterranean, in token of which she sported an anchor tattoo on her shoulder. Much has been said of her that is not true. For most of her life, she kept her waist at 16.5 inches in diameter (42 centimetres), but she was neither too thin for the corsets of the time nor anorexic. Although she periodically dieted, she normally ate a healthy breakfast with wine, a meat dish for lunch, but little for supper, since coffee and cigarettes had by the evening robbed her of her appetite (she chain-smoked, including in the state carriage). Even so, she exercised vigorously, having her own gymnasium in the Hofburg, where her high bar and balancing rings survive, and she was a distinguished equestrian. In England, she rode to hounds with the Northamptonshire Hunt, but it is unlikely that she had an affair with the Scottish huntsman Bay Middleton, despite a tantalizing aside in one of her daughters’ diaries. Franz Joseph’s valet hinted at liaisons, and she did sometimes behave peculiarly with men, but beyond that we know nothing.

Sisi’s education in Bavaria had been erratic, since her father had eccentrically imagined that she would in time join a circus troupe, so she was largely self-taught. She spoke fluent English, Hungarian, and demotic Greek, and composed some exquisite romantic poetry in the manner of Heinrich Heine, on whose works she was an acknowledged expert. Her husband by contrast was a bore. It is not true that he only read the Army List—he also read the newspapers’ military supplements. Franz Joseph was a stickler for etiquette, mainly because in its absence he did not know what was appropriate. Although he may not have presented himself to his bride on their wedding night in full regimental uniform (as has been alleged), he did attend one of his wife’s hunts dressed in Lederhosen. Franz Joseph had affairs, but probably not with the burly actress Frau Schratt, with whom he is usually associated. His preference was for married middle-class women with a home to go to, the husbands having been bought off.

Franz Joseph’s letters to Sisi (his survive, but not hers to him) are extraordinary in their affection and intimacy. She is ‘my heavenly angel’, ‘my darling’, ‘sweet soul’, and he signs off ‘your little one’ or ‘the manikin’ (Männeken)—he was shorter than she. They share family news, gossip, and private jokes, so Schratt is either ‘the girlfriend’ or on account of her tantrums ‘the minister of war.’ In his study, Franz Joseph hung a portrait of Sisi in a loose robe, with her hair cascading to her waist and giving only the faintest smile. (In fact, her hair reached to her ankles, and she never opened her mouth to smile for fear of showing her irregular teeth.) Yet their meetings were often tempestuous and even violent, with furniture thrown. Clearly, the relationship succeeded best at a distance.

Sisi first visited Hungary in 1857 and was charmed by the lack of stiff ceremony there. Free from oversight, she was able to disport with Gypsies and jugglers, and to enjoy the effusive attentions of the Hungarian aristocracy. She also came to know the leading Hungarian nobleman, Count Andrássy, and the lawyer Ferenc Deák, both of whom were willing to negotiate with Franz Joseph. Sisi recommended them to Franz Joseph. Although Andrássy had only recently been amnestied for his part in the Hungarian War of Independence, Sisi succeeded in having Franz Joseph meet him. To his surprise, the emperor found the count to be ‘brave, honourable, and highly gifted.’ At Sisi’s insistence too, he met secretly with Deák, reporting their conversation back to her in cipher. For more than a year, the empress acted as an intermediary, relaying messages between her husband and the Hungarian political leaders, and stiffened the resolve of the two sides to make a deal. Behind the scenes, she pressed the emperor to show flexibility, in letters that told him explicitly what to do.

Sisi’s intervention was not decisive, for Franz Joseph would eventually have had to come to terms with Hungary, but she facilitated the meetings that led to a solution and worked on her husband to be better disposed to the Hungarian leaders. The result was the Compromise or Settlement of 1867. Devised by Deák, it gave Hungary independence while keeping it in the Habsburg Empire, thus squaring the April Laws with the Pragmatic Sanction. The Compromise gave the kingdom its own government and parliament, with an Upper House of dignitaries and an elected Lower House, but the emperor as king of Hungary appointed the government. To satisfy Hungarian demands, Transylvania was also fully absorbed into Hungary, and Hungarian law replaced the Austrian civil code. In June 1867, Franz Joseph and Elizabeth were crowned king and queen of Hungary, with the Holy Crown being placed on their heads consecutively, and she, too, was invested with the royal sceptre and orb. It was an honour never given before to a queen of Hungary.

In 1867, Franz Joseph published constitutions for both halves of the empire. From this point onwards, the Habsburg Empire comprised two equal parts—a Hungarian part and a part for all the rest, which included the Austrian lands, Bohemia, Polish Galicia, the Adriatic coastline, and so on. The second had no obvious name and was officially known as the Lands and Kingdoms Represented in the Imperial Council, and unofficially as ‘this side of the Leitha’ (Cisleithania: the River Leitha marked Hungary’s western border). The two halves remained, however, ‘inseparable and indivisible’, in the understanding of the Pragmatic Sanction. Foreign policy and the army were regarded as ‘common matters’ and were overseen by ‘common ministries’ of foreign affairs and war, to which was added a third ministry of finance, with responsibility for funding the other two. In all other respects, the two governments were separate, with the prime minister of Hungary regarding his counterpart in Vienna as only a ‘distinguished foreigner.’ Since Hungary now had its own government, the name of the empire changed from the Austrian Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (or Austria-Hungary for short). The adjective ‘imperial-royal’ (kaiserlich-königlich, or k.k.) was also replaced with ‘imperial and royal’ (kaiserlich und königlich, or k.u.k.), signalling Hungary’s new status.

Above the ministries sat the Crown Council, made up of the three common ministers, the prime ministers of Hungary and Cisleithania, and whomever else Franz Joseph chose to invite. The Crown Council was the emperor’s instrument and how he kept control of foreign policy and the army. The new Austro-Hungarian Empire or ‘dual monarchy’ had parliaments, and ‘this side of the Leitha’ also had elected diets, but its government was not parliamentary. The emperor conducted his own foreign policy and military deployments, with minimal parliamentary oversight. Franz Joseph also kept the right to legislate by decree, again with few constraints, which meant that he could bypass or substitute for the parliamentary process. When the going was tough, he even had the power to close the parliament in Vienna (but not the one in Hungary) and to impose ministries without parliamentary approval. To that extent at least, absolutism survived.

More importantly, the empire survived, but it was not just a matter of finding a constitutional formula to satisfy Hungarian aspirations. Franz Joseph was unloved in Hungary, not least for killing the kingdom’s generals, but Sisi had the glamour and passion for Hungary that reconciled Hungarians to Habsburg rule. She was their queen, who spoke their language, wore their national dress, and went to hunt in their fields. Back in 1866, Sisi had asked Franz Joseph to buy her Gödöllő Palace, just outside Pest. He had grumpily refused, explaining that ‘in these hard times, we must save mightily.’ The next year, the newly installed Hungarian government led by Count Andrássy bought it for her, as the gift of the nation on her coronation.

Andrássy had no doubt of Sisi’s contribution to the 1867 settlement between the monarch and Hungary. But for the other nations of the new Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sisi showed little interest, being particularly disdainful of Czechs and Italians. Her inconsistency and eccentricities should not, however, conceal the way her intervention in Hungarian affairs fitted into a larger pattern of queenly conduct. Because of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), Maria Theresa, and Catherine the Great of Russia (1762–1796), we tend to think of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a period when female rulers prospered. In fact, there were fewer regnant queens then than in preceding centuries, and females were expressly barred from the succession in Bourbon France and Spain, Sweden (after 1720), and Prussia.

It was, instead, as consorts that queens became influential, directing matters of state behind the scenes and rebuilding the image of monarchy. Leopoldine of Brazil set the pace, for, besides designing the Brazilian flag, she pushed her cautious husband into declaring independence in the first place. But in some ways the closest parallel to Sisi was Queen Alexandra, the consort of Britain’s Edward VII (1901–1910). Elegant, striking in appearance, and a meddler in politics, Alexandra too had a husband whose reign as King Edward the Caresser had commenced amongst the lowest of expectations but whose eventual acceptance and rehabilitation owed much to her own reputation.