Joseph II’s Reforms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II instituted a series of judicial, ecclesiastical, and social reforms designed to strengthen the Habsburg monarchy and improve the lives of his subjects. Joseph’s actions inspired a liberal tradition that subsequently flowered in the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

The reforms of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II represented a continuation and enlargement of those inaugurated by his mother, Maria Theresa, shortly after the end of the War of the Austrian Succession Austrian Succession, War of the (1740-1748) in 1748. Like other sovereigns of the late eighteenth century, they are referred to as Enlightened despotism “enlightened despots” because they injected rational-scientific principles into the basic concept of authoritarian government, modernizing the government of the Austrian crown lands while strengthening the absolute authority of the dynasty at the expense of the nobility. This struggle between the forces of absolutistic centralism Absolute monarchy and historic federalism had been going on ever since the Habsburg rulers of Alpine Austria extended their hereditary claims over Bohemia and Hungary in 1526. The ruthless suppression of revolt in Bohemia in the 1620’s and the conquest of Hungary by 1699 enabled the Habsburg rulers simultaneously to reduce the power of the estates in both countries. [kw]Joseph II’s Reforms (1775-1790) [kw]Reforms, Joseph II’s (1775-1790) Habsburg Empire Social reform;Habsburg Empire Legal reform;Habsburg Empire [g]Austria;1775-1790: Joseph II’s Reforms[2140] [c]Government and politics;1775-1790: Joseph II’s Reforms[2140] [c]Social issues and reform;1775-1790: Joseph II’s Reforms[2140] [c]Religion and theology;1775-1790: Joseph II’s Reforms[2140] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1775-1790: Joseph II’s Reforms[2140] Joseph II Maria Theresa Kaunitz, Wenzel Anton von Sonnenfels, Joseph von Herder, Johann Gottfried Leopold II

The enlightened despotism of Joseph II, known historically as “Josephinism,” comprised three basic principles: an absolutist, bureaucratic, centralization of government with German as the state language; an emphasis on the importance of the ordinary citizen and the peasantry with a corresponding diminution of the historically privileged position of the nobility and its diets; and the establishment of a greater measure of state control over the Roman Catholic Church, with increased toleration for Protestants and Jews. Jews;Habsburg Empire Only from the time that Joseph began to take over full control of the state from his mother, around 1775, could he begin to carry out his reforms, and most of his major programs had to be postponed until the death of Maria Theresa in 1780. Assisting Joseph in the implementation of his reforms were, among others, Joseph von Sonnenfels, a leading scholar whose ideas inspired the emperor, and Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, state chancellor of Austria, who, like the Habsburgs themselves, considered the increased centralization of authority in the hands of the dynasty of the utmost importance for the preservation of the monarchy.

Administratively, the power of the crown-land aristocracy, already reduced by Maria Theresa, was curtailed further by Joseph early in his reign. To centralize authority in Vienna, the “colleges,” or committees of estates, which previously had attended to local administrative tasks in financial and military matters, were abolished. The entire provincial administration was transferred to the state bureaucracy, and the twelve provincial units composing the Austrian crown lands were organized into six larger groupings, for each of which new governments, the Gubernia, were established in order to reduce the importance of the traditional diets. In 1784 Joseph decreed the use of German as the official language of the central and crown-land administration, an edict designed to facilitate his policies of centralization. In a land of such deep and diverse traditions as the Habsburg monarchy, his act caused great bitterness, especially in Hungary, whose autonomous status was further reduced through the introduction of Austrian laws and the German language.

Additional Josephinist reforms ameliorated the lot of the peasants. Under a decree of 1781, the peasants of alpine Austria and Bohemia were all but freed from the customary feudal Feudalism;Austria and Bohemia obligations to their lords, and they became wards of the state. Four years later, a similar measure was promulgated in Hungary. In 1789, all peasant services and dues were converted into payments of money.

Emperor Joseph II.

(Library of Congress)

Other acts sought to alter the traditional role of Catholicism in Austrian life. Religious reforms included the severing of jurisdictional ties with Rome and a sweeping reorganization of dioceses and parishes with an eye to better pastoral care. The salaries of high churchmen were slightly reduced; those of common clergy were much increased. About a third of the monarchy’s monastic institutions, deemed socially useless, were dissolved and their property devoted to education and pastoral ministry. Joseph established seminaries under government control to train clergy for service to the state. The number of holy days was reduced, and many popular liturgical and devotional practices were suppressed or simplified. Under an Edict of Toleration Edict of Toleration (1781) Toleration, Edict of (1781) issued in 1781, Joseph extended a wide measure of religious liberty to Protestants. Subsequently, he granted a more limited freedom to Jews. The state assumed from the Church responsibility for care of the sick and the poor and declared marriage a civil contract. Joseph brought censorship under state control and granted unprecedented freedom to the press.

Among Joseph’s most significant and lasting achievements was the reform of the law. The judiciary was greatly improved by more extensive legal training and much higher salaries. Vienna received an embryonic modern police force; its streets were lighted, paved, and cleared of prostitutes. In 1787, Joseph issued a new criminal code, the so-called Allgemeines Gesetzbuch. Conforming to the principles of the Enlightenment, it provided for the equality of all persons before the law. Torture was abolished, a measure for which Sonnenfels argued effectively, and traditional barbaric punishments were suppressed. Capital punishment virtually disappeared from the Austrian crown lands, replaced by imprisonment at hard labor.

Joseph’s reforms, expected by their author to lead to the creation of a more unified Austria, encountered opposition from virtually every quarter. A successful revolt of the Austrian Netherlands Austrian Netherlands Netherlands;Austrian (Belgium) in 1789-1790 paralleled widespread unrest in Galicia. Elsewhere, unrest developed in Bohemia and Hungary among the Czech and Magyar elites, who looked to hostile Prussia for assistance. A witness to these events, Johann Gottfried von Herder, the champion of German and Slav literary revivals and national individualism, criticized those reforms of Joseph that ignored the customs and traditions of the various Habsburg peoples. Thus, Joseph and von Herder, each in his own way, contributed to the genesis of cultural Nationalism;Austria nationalism in east central Europe.

A few days before his death in 1790, Joseph revoked the reforms that had caused so much discontent. His feeling of discouragement over the failure of his policies is reflected in the sad epitaph he composed shortly before his death: “Here lies Joseph II who was unfortunate in all his enterprises.”


Ultimately, the emperor achieved more than he had realized. His brother and successor, Leopold II (1790-1792), skillfully restored the state’s authority in the Austrian Netherlands and Hungary to what it had been under Maria Theresa, making concessions where necessary and playing one dissatisfied group off against another. He abandoned the most radical agrarian and tax reforms and closed the state-controlled seminaries.

Yet Leopold saved Joseph’s reforms of the law, education, and censorship and preserved the rights of the Protestant and Jewish minorities. The peasantry in the Austrian crown lands remained personally free. The Catholic Church retained its Josephinian organization and liturgy.

In the long term, Joseph’s reforms exercised significant influence on the future course of Habsburg history. As the memory of his shortcomings diminished, he became known and admired as “The People’s Emperor” (der Volkskaiser), a potent inspiration to the development of Austro-German liberalism of the nineteenth century, based on the Josephinist principle of a centralized government and the corresponding reduction of the influence of the crown-land nobility and ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beales, Derek. In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 1741-1780. Vol. 1 in Joseph II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Authoritative treatment of Joseph’s efforts to accelerate the reform of the Habsburg monarchy during the last five years of his mother’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernard, Paul. Jesuits and Jacobins: Enlightenment and Enlightened Despotism in Austria. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971. Relates the work of Sonnenfels and other enlightened Austrian intellectuals to Joseph II and his reforms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Joseph II. New York: Twayne, 1968. A dependable survey of Joseph’s life and work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blanning, T. C. W. Joseph II. London: Longman, 1994. Focuses on the emperor’s struggles to transform his multinational empire into a unified state. Blanning’s earlier work, Joseph II and Enlightened Despotism(1970), contains an analysis of the monarch’s reign, presenting Joseph as a pragmatic ruler who was both Catholic and enlightened.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ingrao, Charles W. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A concise survey by one of the leading historians of early modern central Europe. It highlights the distinctive elements of the monarchy’s development, including the dynasty that provided continuity and pragmatic reforms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Charles H. Ideas of Religious Toleration at the Time of Joseph II. Philadelphia, Pa.: American Philosophical Society, 1969. A comprehensive study of the genesis and the application of one of Joseph’s most successful reforms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Szabo, Franz A. J. Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 1753-1780. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Biography of Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, state chancellor of the Habsburg monarchy from 1753 to 1972, who helped Joseph II administer and modernize the Habsburg state. The book includes a great deal of information about Joseph II and his reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wangermann, Ernst. The Austrian Achievement, 1700-1800. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. This brief overview is valuable for the social and cultural context of Joseph’s reforms.

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