Maria Theresa: The Habsburg Empress in her time
Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, translated by Robert Savage
Princeton University Press, £35, 1104 pages
Mine was probably the last generation of Protestant schoolchildren to be taught that the Seven Years’ War was the beginning of modern British national glory. Classrooms at my school in the early Sixties still had prints hung on the walls showing Clive’s victories in India, and General Wolfe ensuring British dominion in Canada by storming the Plains of Abraham.
Meanwhile, on the continent, Good Old Frederick the Great had seen off the perfidious Catholic alliance of Maria Theresa, the Austrian Empress, and the French Bourbons.
We were so interested in the British Imperial consequences of the war that we did not pay too much attention to the European dimension. Thanks to Thomas Carlyle’s enormous eight-volume biography of Frederick the Great, the English-speaking world, for generations, has viewed Maria Theresa’s reactionary Catholicism as the Holy Roman Empire’s last gasp.
The British and American historians could at least glorify Maria Theresa as a “great woman”. This truly momentous new biography by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, a German scholar based in Berlin and the University of Münster, explains why for many years German-speaking historians found it difficult to get a realistic perspective on Maria Theresa. Nazi historians were all-too keen to emphasise the advantages of Prussian dominion – seeing Frederick’s military annexation of Silesia as a foretaste of their own approach to diplomacy. “The great cultural epoch of the Germans had begun,” as one historian described Fritz’s bellicose triumphs.
Austrian Catholics throughout the 19th century canonised Maria Theresa, almost literally. Fabricated tales, such as Maria Theresa offering to breast-feed a poor woman’s baby in a Viennese park, became the subject of sentimental paintings. She was seen as the victim of male brutality, and Prussian militarism, while saluted for her intense piety, her cultivation of private virtue, her political wisdom and common sense.
Yet, as Stollberg-Rillinger reminds us, Maria Theresa could be as bloodthirsty as her arch-enemy “Fritz”. The Seven Years’ War left half a million Europeans dead and many homeless and destitute. Addressing the Hungarian Diet in Latin, she had appealed to their warlike virtue and valour – “virtutem et belligeram fidelitatem”. Maria Theresa’s tantrums with her “wet” generals when they attempted to limit war casualties make for chilling reading. And when, as a crop-haired, sad, fat old widow, she had to share the government of the Empire with her hated son Joseph , her constant “briefing” against him, although funny to read about in retrospect, was not really very saintly.
Stollberg-Rilinger, incidentally, is superb at describing Maria Theresa’s relations with the military, above all Field Marshal Daun, and the administrators and Imperial civil servants Khevenhüller, Kaunitz and Colloredo. Never before will you have read such meticulous, fascinating and often comical accounts of all the minutiae of court rituals.
Yet our author never loses sight of the bigger picture, beginning her two whopping door-stop volumes with a reminder that pre-French-Revolutionary Europe was concerned less with national than with dynastic rivalries. History was carved up by families, of which Maria Theresa’s – the Habsburgs – was for many years the most powerful. Because they were also Catholics, she saw it as a sacred duty to maintain a Habsburg Imperium. Pope Benedict XIV shared her view that the Seven Years’ War was the chance to save Europe “from the abomination of non-Catholic belief”. “I would give my life for peace in Europe,” Maria Theresa wrote, “but God preserve us from it at the present time, for the remedy would be worse than the disease itself.”
Stollberg-Rillinger gives a better account than any I have read of the multi-faceted complexities of the Holy Roman Empire as a political entity. A major factor in her ultimate defeat in the Seven Years’ War was Maria Theresa’s failure to get to grips with the antiquated administrative system of the Empire, despite the best efforts of faithful advisers to introduce reform. Maria Theresa inherited from her father Charles VI a nearly bankrupt state, and the reason the loss of Silesia was so disastrous was that this was the territory (mines, weaving) which provided at least 10 per cent of the wealth – her only hope of financing a large standing army.
This history constantly surprises us with notions which we might never before have considered. For example, who controlled the Imperial Postal Service? The answer is the great family of Thurn and Taxis from Regensburg. Maria Theresa hated them for supporting the election of a Wittelsbach as the Emperor Charles VII – the first non-Habsburg for generations to hold the office. But she realised she had to keep them on her side, so she continued to allow them to be the Imperial Postmasters.
The mail was so tightly controlled that it was all censored and read by Imperial agents. Indeed, at a moment of the Seven Years’ War when it looked as if they were winning, the Austrians exulted in the interception of a despairing letter from Frederick the Great to his sister Wilhelmine, the Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, saying he wished he was among the war-dead.
Maria Theresa, as a woman, could not be elected Empress. Her claim to the territories which went with the Habsburg inheritance, however, was fiercely defended – literally so, in the War of Austrian Succession. She wore the crowns and regalia of Bohemia and of Hungary, not as a woman but as a Rex, a male King. (It was of her grabbing Bohemia that Frederick remarked that she wept but she took.) She rode to her coronations astride the horse, like a man. Her rather feeble husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, was shoved – by her machinations with the Electors of the Empire – onto the Imperial throne, but she exercised the power. This was why, in her widowhood, she found it so hard to share power with her son, when he became Emperor.
The exercise of political power on this scale, while conducting major wars (albeit at a distance – she never saw a battlefield), would have been a full-time occupation for a childless person, but this was Maria Theresa, the mother, not only of the Empire, but of no less than 16 children.
Stollberg-Rilinger’s accounts of the children’s upbringing are among the most entertaining passages of the book. They were never left alone for a second. Dressers and valets reported every pimple and bowel movement to the terrifying Imperial physicians. Faddiness about eating was mercilessly punished. The days of austere meals and rigorous learning were topped and tailed with double doses of Catholic piety.
Even during her lifetime, Maria Theresa’s life was seen as a mythological struggle between masculine and feminine. When trying to persuade the Hungarians to accept her as their monarch, Maria Theresa had her latest baby brought in on a cushion. Voltaire, in his history, invented the story of her actually holding up the bawling child to emphasise her feminine vulnerability. Contemporary prints and paintings depicted her as a woman being raped by male European statesmen. One, from the time of the War of Austrian Succession, showed her being ravished by Frederick the Great, while Cardinal Fleury fingers her naked form.
Frederick the Great never felt tempted by any female flesh, but the mythology told its own powerful tale. Nearly all opinion, both at the time, and in history books until modern times was against “petticoat government”. This is paradoxical, given the fact that Britain’s glory days were, unquestionably, during the reigns of Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria; Catherine the Great was arguably the most successful ruler Russia ever had post-Peter the Great. And, as this book shows, for all her flaws Maria Theresa was for 40 turbulent years a very competent Imperial head of a creaking regime.
The complexity of her character, as of the regime itself, has never been more fully or more sympathetically explored than in this great masterpiece.
AN Wilson is a writer and historian. His most recent biography Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy is published by Atlantic Books.
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