Joseph II.emperor of Germany, elder son of Francis I. and Maria Theresa, born March 13, 1741, died Feb. 20, 1790. When Joseph was born, his mother confided him and her rights under the pragmatic sanction to the protection of the Hungarian nation, which gallantly responded to her confidence, and Prince Batthyanyi afterward took the principal charge of his education. Ambitious, but obstinate, Joseph gave proofs of considerable capacity. Languages, mathematics, war, and music were the studies to which he devoted most of his zeal. He participated in none of the campaigns of the seven years' war, though this was waged in the years of his advanced youth, and though he admired no less the military glory of its hero, Frederick, than he did after its close his peaceful career. He successively married and lost within seven years a princess of Parma and a princess of Bavaria. His only daughter died in 1770 in her eighth year. Made titular king of Rome in 1764, he became emperor of Germany on the death of his father in the following year; but this was then little more than an empty title, and in the hereditary possessions of his mother he received only the dignity of assistant without any real influence, though placed at the head of military affairs.
He returned to the state 22,000,000 florins of bonds and all the estates which his father had purchased during his reign. He travelled extensively incognito, traversing not only the countries which were to be ruled by his sceptre, but also non-Austrian Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, and France. He had an interview with Frederick in his camp at Neisse in Silesia (1769), a province which that king had wrested from the empire of Maria Theresa. Frederick in the following year repaid the visit at Neustadt in Moravia, where Joseph not only strove to display the perfections of his army, upon which he bestowed his principal cares, and into which he had introduced various liberal reforms, but also concerted with his guest the scheme of dismembering Poland jointly with Catharine II. of Russia. This extraordinary act was executed in 1772, and added Gali-cia and the Zips to the empire of Austria. A few years later Bukowina was taken from Turkey. Bavaria, the elector of which died in 1777, was also to be annexed, but Frederick suddenly marched into Bohemia; and Joseph, who eagerly grasped the opportunity of measuring his strength with that of the renowned conqueror, was compelled by the order of the old empress peaceably to terminate the short struggle of succession.
In 1780 he went to Mohilev to see Catharine, with whom schemes of Russian and Austrian aggression in Turkey and Italy respectively were agreed upon. Soon after his return his mother died, and the reign of the imperial philanthropist, so long impatiently looked for by liberal Europe, began. The long suppressed desire of totally transforming his empire and its nations, nourished by a love of the people, and a certainly not less ardent ambition, now found full satisfaction. Equality, centralization, and uniformity were the leading principles. Serfdom was abolished, German was made the official language everywhere, new codes were introduced, the press was almost entirely made free; about 700 convents, containing 36,000 of the younger monks, were dissolved, and all others placed under the bishops; the bulls of the pope were made dependent upon the placet regium; the bulls Unigenitus and In Ccena Domini were expunged from the Austrian rituals; and by the celebrated edict of toleration, which, however, excluded deists, the Protestants were set on a perfectly equal footing with the Catholics. All this was executed without consulting any legislative or deliberative body, and the private rights of individuals were as little considered as the privileges of classes, or the prejudices and ignorance of the masses.
The people were to be enlightened and made happy by decrees, all obstacles violently removed, and the refractory punished. Pius VI. personally visited Vienna, and strove in vain to check or moderate the reformatory movement. But in the mean time the interests which had been so violently assailed by these changes, having their defenders in the most powerful and most influential classes of society, were active in preparing the overthrow of the new system. Nobles, priests, and patriots were united in secret opposition. The dissatisfaction was most intense in Hungary, Brabant, Tyrol, and Bohemia. In Transylvania a bloody rising of the Wallach peasantry against the nobles, under Hora and Kloska, was slowly suppressed and most cruelly punished. Joseph's attempt to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria was prevented by Frederick's last great act of external policy, the formation of the Fursten-bund (confederation of princes) in 1785. Unflinching amid all these difficulties, Joseph proceeded in his course of reform, and, eager to add military glory to the fame of his internal achievements, visited Catharine at Kherson during her triumphal progress through the southern regions of her empire (1787), and finally concerted with her the long meditated war against Turkey. It was soon begun.
Joseph opened it by a sudden attack on Belgrade, but suffered a repulse, which was followed by the defeat at Lugos (1788), and other disasters. A part of the army was lost, when Joseph returned to his capital, with a fatal malady, while victory followed the banners of the Russian generals. Brabant, which had long been in open rebellion, declared its independence, Hungary was violently agitated, and it availed Joseph little' that Laudon partially restored the fortunes of the war in 1789. The revolution in France brought new dangers. Broken in spirit, Joseph, shortly before hie death, which was attributed by some to poison, abrogated all his innovations (January, 1790), except toleration and the abolition of serfdom.