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From Bloody Tyrant to ‘Uncle Joe’: Memories of Francis Joseph on the 100th Anniversary of his Death

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A century ago today, Emperor-King Francis Joseph, the longest reigning ruler of Hungary and the third-longest reigning monarch in European history, died. He died in the place he was born, in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. And while in Austria’s capital his face and name are practically omnipresent, in Budapest he is nowhere to be seen. For Francis Joseph has always held a very ambiguous position in Hungarian collective memory, one that persists to the present day.

The young Francis Joseph had a great degree of popularity and respect among the Hungarian public in the years leading up to the Hungarian revolution; he seemed like a much-needed dose of fresh blood in the stale and stodgy House of Habsburg. That goodwill disappeared completely, however, due to his role in the crushing of the 1848 Revolution. Following the defeat of this revolt, the young ruler charged Austrian general Julius Haynau with the task of pacifying the rebellious Magyars, a task the latter accomplished with executions, imprisonment, and severe curtailment of civil liberties. For years, then, Francis Joseph was seen as an oppressor, as the man responsible for the crushing of Hungarian freedom, the tyrannical King Edward of János Arany’s famous allegorical poem “The Bards of Wales.”

But Francis Joseph had time on his side, as he would rule his empire for a total of sixty-seven years, four years longer than his contemporary Queen Victoria. When he took the throne, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Conference of Europe were still fresh memories, Metternich himself had but recently fallen from grace, and Budapest was only just beginning to grow into the great city it would soon become; by the time of his death in 1916, the First World War was being waged with tanks and planes and machine-guns, as the continent’s first subway rolled along below the widened, beautiful boulevards of Hungary’s capital.

With such a lengthy rule, it was only natural that as the decades went by, and as the young freedom fighters of March 1848 grew old and died, a new generation would come to view Francis Joseph in a different light. He was, for many of his subjects, the only King they had ever known, which went a long way toward reducing perceptions of Francis Joseph as ‘foreign.’ While he would never be fully “Hungarian,” he had certainly come a long way from 1853, when Hungarian tailor János Libényi attempted to assassinate the Emperor in Buda; during his confession, Libényi declared that he felt killing Francis Joseph “would deliver my country from its present enslavement, and added that his attack “was prompted by my love of my country.”

These feelings never truly went away, not even after the 1867 Compromise granted Hungary equal status with Austria, transforming the empire into Austria-Hungary, and Francis Joseph into the curiously titled ‘Emperor-King’: Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (read our article on the formation of Austria-Hungary here). Although he may not have been exceedingly popular, it is worth remembering that it was during Francis Joseph’s reign that Budapest became a modern city, became the metropolis that we see today. The majority of the buildings, monuments, and edifices that dominate the cityscape of Budapest today were built in the days when Francis Joseph ruled: The Liberty Bridge, the Elizabeth Bridge, Heroes’ Square, the Vajdahunyad Castle, Parliament, the list goes on and on.

 

Budapest's Liberty Bridge, which was named after Francis Joseph until the Communist Era. (Photo-Riley Dunbar)
Budapest’s Liberty Bridge, which bore Francis Joseph’s name until the Communist Era. (Photo-Riley Dunbar)

It is said that Caesar Augustus found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Francis Joseph, the faults and crimes of his early reign notwithstanding, found Buda and Pest as cities of horses and provincial squalor, and left them as one unified city of automobiles, electricity, and imperial grandeur. After the official creation of Austria-Hungary Budapest was raised to the status of capital of the eastern half of the monarchy, equal in status and standing to Vienna. And although he may not have had any particular sympathy for Hungarian nationalism, it cannot be denied that Hungary as a whole experienced modernization and growth. Less than two decades after losing their fight for self-determination, Hungarians gained a measure of independence through diplomacy, and in fact had an important say in the administration and direction of a world power.

And so, while in the first decades of his reign Francis Joseph was seen as Arany’s bloody King Edward, by the last years of his extraordinarily long rule he had found a measure of acceptance among his Hungarian subjects. In fact, to a certain extent the emperor-king gained a measure of deep, genuine popularity with people. Over time, he gained the informal moniker ‘Ferenc Joska,’ or ‘Francis Joe,’ the wise, hard-working, diligent grandfather figure to his tens of millions of subjects.

This poster for the WWI propaganda film 'Imádkozik a Király (The King is Praying)' shows Francis Joseph's popular image as an old, dilligent ruler who works for the well-being of his subjects.
This poster for the WWI propaganda film ‘Imádkozik a Király (The King is Praying)’ shows Francis Joseph’s popular image as an old, diligent ruler who works for the well-being of his subjects.

But while Francis Joseph’s name once adorned squares, streets, and bridges, today Hungary’s longest reigning monarch is virtually nowhere to be found in public spaces: the numerous edifices that bore his name were almost all re-christened during the ‘egalitarian’ rule of Communism. While Francis Joseph presided over an era of unprecedented growth and modernization, the achievements of his reign have largely been forgotten, as the laurels of history have gone to others, particularly to his great rival Lajos Kossuth, leader of the 1848 revolutionary government.

Francis Joseph’s reign was one that began, and ended, in the fires of war. And as war and bloodshed returned to Hungary even after the empire’s dissolution, Francis Joseph’s complicated, intriguing legacy lost out in favor of heroes perceived to be more ‘truly’ Hungarian, or who could be better utilized by the political powers of the day. While people certainly still remember Francis Joseph today, he has become a second-tier historical figure, one who is more often than not the German villain to Kossuth the revolutionary hero or Széchényi the brilliant reformer. In a city whose greatest monuments are largely the fruits of Francis Joseph’s reign, the name of the man himself is absent.

By Tom Szigeti

Images via the Belvedere,

digitalpostercollection.com,

Riley Dunbar (http://www.rileydunbarphotography.tumblr.com/, instagram: @rileydunbarphoto)