The Austrian Imperial family in Gödöllő (
The Austrian Imperial family in Gödöllő (

The man who was conserved by Metternich and sour milk– Portrait of Franz Joseph

Franz Joseph died 100 years ago on November 21, 1916. In memory of his death we started a 4 part article series, in which we look at the life and ruling of the Emperor and King from different perspectives. This third part talks mainly about the personality of the Emperor. 

In 1905, on a military exercise of the Monarchy, the army presented a primitive armoured car to the 75-year-old Franz Joseph. He wasn’t convinced hence he stopped the development of the car because “it scares the horses”. The armoured vehicles broke through the Western Front Lines, determining the winners of the First World War. The question remained whether his decision or his authority kept the empire together and contributed its fall two years after his death.

Franz Joseph (1830–1916) who became the emperor at the age of 18, in 1848, lived a surprisingly long life, 86 years, in an era when the world was constantly changing. When he was born the first locomotive started on the Stockton–Darlington line and when he died airplanes were flying over the English Channel. He was raised in the myth of “reigning by the grace of God” and by the last decade of his life workers wanted general, equal and secret voting rights. One had to be a flexible leader so these stormy times wouldn’t tank him. Although according to Andras Gero who wrote a book on the “marriage” of the Hungarians and Franz Joseph, the emperor’s upbringing not only failed to prepare him for these changes, but also suggested that “the order of the World is eternal and the best attitude is to not change this.”

The political tutor of the young Franz Joseph was not other than Metternich, who he talked with every Sunday about the art and knowledge of governing. He gained “intellectual baggage” from Metternich that the axiom of empire management that non-movere is the right politics because change threatens the world order. For this reason the duty of the emperor is to defend his people against the ideas of the French revolution, freedom, equality and fraternity because these ideas awake certain wishes in people that are impossible to perform. Thus this can cause chaos.

Besides Metternich’s Sunday tutoring Franz Joseph had an upbringing as a Habsburg-archduke: they didn’t study in school but privately from the age of 6-7 until 20-22. Maria Theresa established their tutoring system. Primarily the candidates for the throne had to be trained in fighting and hunting: they started their training as privates in the army and by the age of 20-22 they would move onto learning military strategies. However, in the case of Franz Joseph this didn’t happen because he stepped to the throne previous to this and emperors are not to be educated further. As a result Franz Joseph was stuck at a certain level and could only lead smaller units. While he was very attached to the military outfits, he didn’t actually know how to lead an army.

In the House of Habsburg, language education was always very important, an archduke had to be able to speak the empire’s main languages: Hungarian, Czech, Italian, French, the language of diplomacy and high society, Latin and Hebrew as the classic literacy’s sine qua non, plus old Greek. From the age of seven Franz Joseph studied Hungarian two hours per week and he spoke it fairly well. On his private audiences he even suggested to Dezső Bánffy Hungarian prime minister to discuss the country’s matters in Hungarian as the prime minister’s German wasn’t satisfying enough.

Besides the languages of his nations, an archduke had to know the geography of its empire and public law to know what an emperor can or cannot do in certain countries. However Franz Joseph stepped to the throne without learning about the Hungarian public law.

A lot says about a man how he entertains himself, thus it is worth taking a look at Franz Joseph’s “games”. His favourite activity was horse riding until the age of 84. Besides this he loved drawing. Through this it’s easy to see some important things about him. In his drawings there are no abstraction, but sensitivity towards small details. He can draw “a” horse, but not “the” horse. His third hobby was theatre. (Even one of his lovers was an actress). But he also had a limited taste in this. He liked plays in which characters were simple and were easy to digest, so he didn’t have to figure out the message, he just knew.

To sum up the emperor’s “intellectual baggage” we can say that the two pillars of his domination were “bureau” and “bayonet”. The army of clerks and officials and the army of soldiers committed to the emperor. The emperor who was “only liable to God” did not care about popularity. Bearing this in mind, this is how he treated one of the most influential and traumatic events of his life, the retaliation following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Both the 19 year-old Franz Joseph and Haynau believed that they had done right by the Hungarians by exterminating the “idea of rebellion”: Although, the main leader of the retaliation, the prime minister, Schwarzenberg, had sadistic tendencies and performed autopsies on dead bodies as a hobby.

Even today, the Retaliation after 1848 still causes problems in the judgement of Franz Joseph. Many called him an “anointed killer” for a long time. Franz Joseph himself did not regret what he did after the revolution. He remembered everyone who fell fighting for the Habsburg House. His bedroom was not decorated with the paintings of Gustav Klimt – Klimt himself was against the emperor- but with the portraits of Alnoch (who wanted to blow up the Chain Bridge) and Henzi (defender of Buda against the Hungarian rebels).

After the Hungarian revolution Franz Joseph introduced the authoritarian system in Hungary not from revenge but from conviction. Significant change in his life happened when he married Sissi. He needed a separate church’s permission to marry the girl because the Bavarian Elisabeth Wittelsbach (1837–1898) was his cousin. He was supposed to marry Elisabeth’s older sister, but against his mother’s will, he married Elisabeth in 1854. Elisabeth was barely 17 at the time and in the next four years she gave birth to four children, putting enormous burden on her body and soul. Furthermore the free-spirited Sissi struggled with the Spanish etiquette used in the Viennese court. István Ráth-Végh collected strange incidents that happened under the Spanish etiquette, such as one of the European princesses who caught on fire because the one that had permission to move her sofa from the fireplace wasn’t in the room. In the case of Elisabeth, only her leg suffered, wearing a pair of new shoes every single day, which of course hurt her feet.

Elisabeth ran away to Gödöllő from the Spanish etiquette and her strict mother-in-law, Sophie archduchess. Whenever she could she was away from Vienna. Thanks to this the emperor had to live without the intimate family life, not that he really longed for it: According to András Gerő, Franz Joseph believed that domination is paired with loneliness, because he gave his time to his people he didn’t actually know for sure. Due to this belief he barely saw his own kids and if he did, it usually was a disaster. The only person he really let in was his youngest daughter Maria Valeria. She was the one to tell Franz Joseph about her mother’s assassination once she got permission to speak. According to Maria Valeria’s diary her father stood up from his desk, walked over to Maria Valeria, hugged her and said: “faith does not spare me with anything”, then he continued working.

Work was Franz Joseph’s life. He was the ideal clerking-emperor, disciplined and hard working, military style. Depending on summer or winter, he got up at four or five and started his day by finishing of any leftover work from the day before. He had a small breakfast, usually sour milk, because his father told him that if he had sour milk often, he would live long. After breakfast he went through the daily civil and military reports, which took up his whole morning. After a light lunch he dealt with actions, arrangements, enactments and accepted official visitors. At 6 pm he had his main meal. This did not give much pleasure to his guests since Franz Joseph ate fast and soldier-like and according to the Spanish etiquette when the emperor finished eating everyone else had to be done as well. He went to bed early and he was only to be woken up if a plea of mercy was in question. Only two things could break his routine: military exercises and hunting.

His personality and life style didn’t change when his authoritarian leading style changed to constitutional monarch. He believed that his power came from God’s mercy rather than the will of his people until the very end. He also believed that he could only trust his clerks and army men. For a long time the “rebellious” Hungarians didn’t want to accept him as their emperor. They only started to like him when he grew old and his family tragedies – the loss of his son Rudolph and his wife, Sissi – weighed on his shoulders besides governing. When in 1914 the World War broke out the Hungarians began to chant a song, “Franz Joseph sent a message, his regiment had run out”. An emperor could not wish for more from a nation whose “God” was Lajos Kossuth. (The original song was sung with the name of Kossuth instead of Franz Joseph).



Gerő András: Ferenc József, a magyarok királya. Budapest, 1988.

Gerő András: Képzelt történelem. Fejezetek a magyar szimbolikus politika XIX–XX. századi történelméből. Budapest, 2004.

Hanák Péter: Ferenc József hálószobája = Budapesti Negyed 22. (1998/4.) 177–183.


Written by: Péter Csunderlik