History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Joseph II

About two years after the Peace of Hubertsburg Francis I died. His son Joseph was chosen to succeed him as Emperor, but so long as his mother, Maria Theresa, lived, Joseph II had little power. Maria Theresa and Frederick II were still the great rulers, the two great rivals of the Empire.

The first half of Frederick's reign had been spent in almost constant war. In the second half the peace was almost unbroken, but all the same he added in this time of peace a great province to his kingdom.

Part of Poland was called West Prussia, and this part cut Frederick's kingdom right in two. For years the Poles had been an unruly nation, proving over and over again that they were quite unfit to govern themselves.

Seeing this, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, who were all rather afraid of each other, and all rather afraid that one or other would seize upon the whole of Poland, agreed together to divide a great part of it amongst them. This they did, and Poland was in such a state of confusion and revolt that it could make no resistance.

Frederick, indeed, said he only took his part because if he had not Russia would have taken it all. Maria Theresa grieved over the wickedness of it, and tried her best to stop it.

"When my own possessions were attacked," she said, "and I knew not where to lay my head, I trusted to the righteousness of my cause, and to the help of God. But in this business we have not only no right, but neither honesty nor fairness, and I must own, that all my life through I have never felt so shamed and grieved. But I know I am alone. I know I have power no longer. I must, therefore, let things take their course. But it is pain and sorrow to me."

Maria Theresa was growing old, her son was greedy of more land, so no one paid heed to her, and Poland was divided. This is called the First Partition of Poland. Frederick had the smallest share, but it strengthened and united his kingdom, so that from the Oder to the Nieman Prussia extended in unbroken line along the shores of the Baltic. He, however, pretended to think little of his new province. "It is nothing but sand, moorland, and Jews," he said. But that he only said so that people might not be jealous of his good fortune. In reality he was very pleased with it. After this he called himself King of Prussia, instead of King in Prussia.

A few years after this the long peace was broken, and Prussia was once more at war with Austria. Joseph II, as has been said, was greedy of land, and when the Elector of Bavaria died in 1777, he calmly took possession of a large part of his land.

This made Frederick very angry. He had no wish to see Austria grow more powerful, and he gathered his army and marched into Bohemia to fight the Emperor. But no battle was fought. The Emperor gave way, yielding all the land he had seized, except a small part on the Austrian frontier.

This was nicknamed the Potato War, because it was said the soldiers had nothing to do but forage for food, and roast potatoes by their camp fires. But although no battle was fought, many men died from sickness, and the war added nothing to Frederick's fame as a soldier.

Little more than a year after the Potato War had come to an end Maria Theresa died. Joseph now, at the age of forty, really began to rule. He greatly admired the way in which Frederick governed Prussia. He was full of ideas of reform, and although Maria Theresa had done much for her country, her reforms were too slow for Joseph. He was impatient to see all the old wrongs swept away, and now that he had the power he began his reforms with feverish haste.

Austria had always been Catholic, and Protestants had been hardly treated. Now Joseph decreed that every one should be free to worship God as he chose, and he closed more than half the monasteries, and took their land and money to found schools. He also allowed German hymn-books and Bibles to be sold throughout the land.

At first the people were afraid that this Edict of Toleration, as it was called, was a mere trick to entrap them, but when they became sure that the Emperor meant them no evil, whole villages at once confessed themselves Protestant. For years they had been Protestant in secret, but had been afraid to own it.

All these things frightened the Pope very much, and at length he came himself to try to persuade Joseph to stop these reforms. Thousands of people received him with joy, and as he passed through the streets they knelt to receive his blessing. The Emperor, however, treated him very coldly. He refused to discuss matters of state with him, and no one was allowed to visit him without leave; and to prevent any secret visits every door into the Pope's house was walled up except one, which was closely watched.

For a month the Pope stayed in Vienna, but he could do nothing; he received only insults and coldness, so at length he returned home.

Besides reforms in religion Joseph also tried to introduce reforms in the state. Many of the peasants were serfs or slaves. To these he gave freedom. This made the nobles angry. But Joseph did not stop there, he tried in many other ways to curb the pride and power of the nobles, he made them pay taxes, and when they broke the laws he punished them like common men. That a noble should be made to stand in the pillory, or sweep the streets like a common criminal, was a deadly insult, and by such deeds Joseph made for himself many bitter enemies.

Joseph wanted also to bridge over the terrible gulf which separated the rich and the poor, the nobles and the peasants. Among other things which he did he threw open to every one the great park at Vienna called the Prater. Till then this park had been kept for the nobles and court alone, and now they were very indignant at being asked to mix with common people. But Joseph would not listen to their complaints. "Were I to mix only with my equals," he said, "I should be obliged to go down into my family vault and spend my days beside the bones of my forefathers."

Joseph was in too great a hurry. He tried to do in a few years what would have taken a generation to do well. So he failed. He made enemies of the clergy and the nobles, and the poor for whose happiness he laboured did not understand him, and were not grateful.

Meanwhile the old King of Prussia watched the go-ahead Emperor with a jealous eye. Joseph openly admired Frederick, and even before his mother's death he had gone to visit the Prussian King. Frederick returned the visit, and afterwards a portrait of Joseph hung in his room. Some one noticed this and made a remark about it. "Yes," said Frederick grimly, "I am forced to keep that young gentleman under my eye." And to the day of his death he was suspicious of the Emperor's schemes, and fearful lest Austria should rival Prussia in power.

But the great Frederick was now an old man, and at length in 1786 he died. He was seventy-four, and had reigned for forty-six years. He was buried in the garrison church at Potsdam, beside his stern old father. With tears rolling down their weather-beaten faces, the soldiers who had so often followed him to battle now followed his simple coffin. The people thronged the streets to watch it pass in mute reverence, and as it was carried slowly to its last resting-place the silence was only broken by the heavy tramp of the soldiers' feet and the sobs of the sorrowing people. "Alas! the good King," they cried. Never more would they see the little bent figure in its shabby blue uniform, with red facings and waistcoat, all covered with snuff. Never more would they see the stern brown face with the wonderful grey eyes, which seemed to pierce one through and through. "Old Fritz," as they loved to call him, was gone for ever.

But Germany has not forgotten his name and his work. In his lifetime Frederick laboured to make Prussia great, caring little for the Empire; but although he did not know it, he was helping to found modern Germany, and it is as a great German, and not merely as a Prussian, that the Germans remember him.

Yet, strange to say, Frederick in his own day loved things French rather than things German. He spoke and wrote in French. He built for himself a beautiful palace to which he gave a French name, calling it Sans Souci, which means Without Care. One of his great friends was the French writer Voltaire, and he thought nothing at all of the great German poets, chief among them Goethe, who were growing up around him.

Frederick the Great had no son, so he was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick William II. He proved to be weak and easily led by favourites, and under him Prussia seemed little likely to prove dangerous to Austria.

Meanwhile the Emperor went on with his schemes, but in the midst of all his reforms he was persuaded by the Czarina to join in a war against the Turks. She persuaded him that they would be able to divide Turkey as they had divided Poland, and Joseph, with his greed of land, was willing to listen to her. But the campaign was a failure. Turkey was neither conquered nor divided, and the Emperor returned home sick in mind and body.

He returned home to find his own kingdom in a state of ferment and confusion. The Austrian Netherlands revolted, and in 1789, under the name of United Belgium, they declared themselves free. Then the peasants of Hungary, for whom Joseph had tried to do so much, urged on by the nobles, also revolted.

This seemed more than the Emperor could bear. "I must be made of wood," he groaned, "if this does not kill me." Three weeks later, on February 20, 1790 he died, worn out with illness, broken-hearted at the failure of his plans. "Write on my tomb," he said, "here lies a King who meant well, but never carried out a single plan."