August 22, 1999
In my paper I will examine the absolute monarchy of Austria during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I shall focus on the on the power of Austria, its foundation, preservation, and expansion. Lastly I will take into consideration the relationship between the classes, the growth of the power of state institutions, and some of the consequential figures in the evolution of absolute monarchy in Austria.
The foundation of absolutism was the theory of the divine right of kings. This theory maintained that the monarch was God’s representative on earth. In reality absolutism was a closer working relationship with the nobles in order to maintain control. Ensuring the power of the nobles meant solidifying his authority. The bureaucracy began to reorganize, making it more effective on the local level. Local and national government began to meet on a regular basis. This was done by dividing the monarchy into ten units, then dividing it further into ten subdistricts. Kreishauptmann were the administrative heads of each district, appointed by the King to work at the local level. All this helped to extend the monarch’s power to the far reaches of the domain.
To the people this basically meant that not only was the king a supreme ruler but he could emphasize his will with armies of unmatched size giving the idea of absolutism an illustration and an authenticity never seen before. With this need for a standing army came the need for new funds. These new funds gave way to a new system of tax collection. Throughout history the war and taxes have gone hand in hand. The goal of every monarch was to have independent power and only economic independence could make that possible. Maria Teresa (r. 1740-1780) won approval of the realm to administer property tax on all subjects. These new funds were used to reform and build up Austria’s depleted military. She expanded military academies, increased the size of her standing army, and even created a Hungarian army.
The very nature of absolute monarchies created the need for state religion. If the people were to believe God had appointed the king, they better all believe in the same god. One of the few successes of the Counter Reformation was that all of Austria’s nobility was converted back to Catholicism. Finally religious predominance could be used for the creation of an Austrian state. Then later on in Austrian history you’ll see that the state even goes as far as to begin taxing the church. During Maria Theresa’s reign the church was no longer exempt from taxation. The government then began to issue regulations to the amount men and women to enter in monastic institutes. This was a ploy by the government to tap into the wealth of the nobility. No longer could the nobles hide their money under the shroud of the church. Then under Joseph the II (r. 1780-1790) all non-productive religious institutions were closed. All together there were 700 monastic orders closed, leaving only the charitable, nursing, and educational institutions continuing to function. This freed up church funds for philanthropic endeavors. Priests then became state employees. While across the Atlantic they were trying to separate church and state, Austria was making the bond even stronger.
Another way that the absolutist monarchs of Austria maintained their power was the creation of a court at Vienna. Beginning with Leopold I (r. 1658-1705), there was a promotion of the court as the center of political and social life. This turned Vienna into a city not only for the nobles but for businessmen as well. Leopold, unlike the Hapsburg rulers before him, was not a great ruler. He was a deeply religious man with no interest in the grandiosity of the great European Kings before him. He himself was a composer and his benefaction was a main reason for Vienna becoming the great musical center that it was renowned for. Leopold had plans for a grand palace, Schonbrunn, which was to surpass Versailles. These all contributed to the centralization of the government. The King finally could seek counsel of entrusted nobles and yet keep a watchful eye on those that would do him harm.
Early on during Leopold’s rule the class system was like the systems of old, nobility controlled the peasants. The landowners were exempt from taxes, while the poor carried the burden of the stat. Then under the reign of Maria Theresa the burden on the peasantry was lightened. Government then tried to limit the degree of labor service to the lord to three days per week, but this initiative was never strictly enforced. Nobility began to regularly pay tax on land, making the tax burden somewhat more equal. Joseph II continued his mother’s reform. He required compulsory primary education for all people. Again a lack of enforcement led to the failure of this decree. Joseph lifted the restrictions on the surfs. Giving them freedom to move about, marry, and trade. He also stated that peasants could pay no more than thirty percent of their gross income for the year in tax. He then restricted the nobles, granting them only eighteen percent of the peasants income. A middle class was born. A bridge would start to be formed between the wealthy and the poor.
In conclusion Austria saw great changes between the time of Leopold and Joseph II. They saw the rebirth of national Catholicism, a magnificent military build up, political expansion, and many economic strides. The greatest accomplishment I could see during this period was the elimination of serfdom. This led to a rise in economic independence necessary for the economic stability of a future strengthened Austria.