Maria Theresa was a “dreadful person” who secured her image using propaganda and set the conditions for her dynasty’s downfall, according to a British historian.
Professor Martyn Rady said the empress, who ruled the vast Habsburg dominions in Central Europe and Italy from 1740 to 1780, portrayed herself as a kindly, maternal woman devoted to her subjects’ wellbeing.
He said she had also been remembered as someone who used her female charms to win allies and defend her territories against Prussian aggression. “She is one of the most remarkable women to have emerged in the 18th century, in fact ever, because she produces propaganda everybody believed and everybody still believes,” he said.
His corrective view? “She’s an absolutely dreadful person. She continues to persecute Protestants despite the fact that religion has been parked, it’s off the agenda elsewhere in Europe. She rounds up Protestants and sends them to Transylvania in the far east. She expels the Jews from Prague in 1742 and then from Vienna in 1762 on the grounds that they make the place look messy.”
He said she believed in the principles of “natural law” and a “double contract”. This meant the people had agreed to a ruler being in charge of them, and the ruler had a responsibility to keep the people safe. “She understands this in terms of ‘People should be happy and I am the arbiter of happiness. That people should be virtuous and lead virtuous leaves and I am the arbiter of what is virtuous’.”
Ultimately that meddling will be taken to its logical conclusion by her son Joseph.Martyn Rady
“[The adventurer Giacomo] Casanova was in Vienna in the 1760s,” he added. “He says the place is absolutely ludicrous. He says any woman walking down the street alone is likely to be apprehended by police as a street-walker, meanwhile the street-walkers have cottoned on to this and so they’re all carrying rosaries, making out they’re going to the priest for confession. If prostitutes, real or not, were caught, they were sent to Transylvania or what is now on the Romanian-Serbian border.”
According to Rady, Maria Theresa introduced thousands of restrictive measures, including a requirement that pipes should have lids because she was frightened that people were smoking too much and disliked the sight of their burning tobacco. She also banned people from gathering in barns and imposed bureaucratic hurdles on library access because she feared libraries were being misused.
“Ultimately that meddling will be taken to its logical conclusion by her son Joseph [II]. Joseph will regulate everything. He will regulate coffins, [requiring] that they should have trapdoors so they can be reused to save on wood. He will say there should be no kissing of corpses because that might spread contagion [and] that we need to make sure that sermons in churches don’t go on too long because otherwise they waste beeswax.
“This is the type of meddling bureaucratic state that the Habsburgs will embrace and it will be ultimately one of the causes, by its inflexibility, of their downfall.”
The Habsburg monarchy finally came to an end in November 1918, following the defeat of the Central Powers in the First World War.
Rady was speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, near Salisbury, about his book The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power. He outlined the dynasty’s history from around 1000AD when its progenitors held a castle near what he called the “unpleasant Swiss town” of Brugg.
He said the family enriched itself through tolls on regional trade and acquired neighbouring territories through inheritance and threat of arms. Ultimately, they gained control of Austria and bribed and intimidated their way to making the elective title of Holy Roman Emperor their own.
He described Emperor Maximilian (died 1519) as a fantasist and gambler whose arranged marriages of his descendants into the royal houses of Spain and Bohemia and Hungary paid off brilliantly in bringing those territories into Habsburg hands.
Having portrayed some of the Habsburgs in an unflattering light, Rady conceded that he had a “soft spot” for Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi, the wife of Franz Joseph I.
“She was wilful [and] particularly difficult at times, often throwing fits. But as somebody who is a reformed smoker, who used to smoke 60 a day, I’m sympathetic to Sisi because she smoked just as much. She also — which I should hasten to say I don’t — used to take copious quantities of cocaine. So she has quite a side to her.
“And beyond that she writes some startlingly good poetry. She was remarkably talented in a number of different ways. So I think she probably is underestimated, particularly by people who see her as some sort of Princess Diana. She was cleverer than that.”
Rady is not the only academic to have challenged the “myth” of Maria Theresa as benevolent protector. Professor Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, author of a recent biography of the empress, said in 2017 that many of the “stereotypes” of the sovereign of people’s hearts could not be supported.
Beyond her controlling regime and persecution of Catholics and Jews, she said that Maria Theresa’s self-belief led her to hold her ground in hopeless situations, such as in her attempts to recover Silesia after it was taken by Prussia.