When on 29 November 1780 the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia died, her eldest son Joseph, co-regent since 1765, became the sole sovereign of the vast Habsburg empire. That empire consisted of a mishmash of countries and peoples, gathered together through the ages: from Ukrainians to Italians, from Romanians to Flemings and everything in between. Emperor Joseph II was a child of the Enlightenment, who meant well by his subjects. He was convinced that the well-being of the state and its citizens was served by a powerful central administration, able to advance commerce and agriculture, and with it the prosperity and happiness of the people. What he had in mind was a unitary state with German as main language. For that, the age-old rights of the separate crown lands, the church and the nobility had to go. This brought him into conflict with just about everyone who had a finger in the imperial pie, not in the least with the Hungarian nobles, who were not at all pleased with this newfangled nonsense. Neither were the commoners, for Joseph’s unbridled control mania went way beyond the big lines. No less than 6000 edicts and 11,000 new laws were enacted by the imperial busybody, in which every detail of public life was regulated, from the number of candles that was allowed to be burnt during Mass to a ban on wearing corsets and eating ginger snaps. The observance of all these rules was monitored by an extensive police force, called into being by the emperor to insure that none of his subjects would escape his beneficial cares.
While some of those measures, such as the abolition of serfdom and the reform of criminal law, were welcomed by the majority of his subjects, outrage at two grievances was universal. The first was that the Emperor refused to be crowned King of Hungary, thus avoiding having to take the oath that would compel him to defend the old Hungarian rights and privileges. Not only did he refuse to have the Crown of Saint Stephen put on his head; the man didn’t even shrink from bringing the jewel “without the knowledge and against the will of the realm” to Vienna, where he kept it under lock and key “as if it were his property”. That in itself was bad enough, but the powder keg was something that, until then, hadn’t posed the slightest of problems: the German language.
© 2016, Marcel Wick