Managed Decline: On Franz Joseph

Managed Decline: On Franz Joseph June 6, 2020

A visit to the tombs of the Hapsburg dynasty is a review of a large part of European history:

There are fresh flowers in front of the tomb of Franz Ferdinand, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The crypt is full of the bodies of his ancestors and the monks still watch over the Hapsburg dynasty, but it is Franz Joseph that draws attention.

Marie Theresa, an earlier Empress with healthy self-esteem, has the grandest tomb, but it is overdone. Her portrait is all over her palace, it is still her palace, and her tomb is definitely hers as well, but it is unclear if one wants a tomb to be all theirs!

Maximilian is buried there with his title Emperor of Mexico, but the Empress Carlota who drove him to his doom is mercifully not there. God rest his soul.

But Franz Joseph is the culmination. A few Hapsburg’s follow him . . . including good European servant Otto, but they are a postlude. Franz Joseph ruled so long and saw so many changes . . . World War I would end his dynasty, but he died before the doom during that unmitigated disaster. He left Karl the job of being the last Emperor and being kept, even dead, in permanent exile.

As I knelt to pray at the tomb, the cool stones comforted my bruised knees and the silence was intense. Such an end for a faithful old public servant who lived far past his time, but he also deserves blame.

Franz Joseph saw the birth of the modern and lived long enough to watch modernity begin to die. He was conservative, but only in the bad sense of changing only when he had to do so. Mostly, he kept things going in a splendid decay, but a decay full of festering resentments that would produce a broad range of ills: Hitler, virulent secularism, and decadence.  

Official Catholicism in an Empire where anything official only sort-of worked inoculated intellectuals against the real thing. Genial hypocrisy about morals left leadership unfit to preach. 

Franz Joseph managed the decline well, but managed decline is still decline and if not checked will end in death for the culture.

If this is conservatism, no Christian should be a conservative. We are not here merely to defend the status quo, especially when it is rotten. Christian are not called to cover up sin with lies. We are a religion that wants nobody in a closet and yet calls Emperor and peasant to virtue. Our job is not to prop things up for our time, but to try to make things better for our children and grandchildren. 

Reject reaction. Instead, we must renew culture by admitting past errors and present difficulties. This starts with self and by finding leaders willing to tell us the truth. A few million Germans could not long rule a polyglot empire without more force than a Christian empire in modern times was willing to use.

Franz Joseph cobbled up compromises and they might have worked, but he also helped slide Austria into a war she was unfit to fight. The reckoning came and the bill was too high. Allied powers drunk with victory and a Wilsonian Utopianism did lasting damage. 

Central Europe still suffers as a result. Imagine more aggressive action by the Emperor, a faster transition to democracy and more autonomy for more people groups. Every reform should have come sooner before it seemed so grudging. 

The simple lesson for conservatives: we cannot compromise on real principles, but we must change as quickly as possible every other place to protect the principles. We cannot compete by opposing another’s agenda, but by developing  a positive plan of our own. 

We must advocate liberty and law, not just oppose the libertine and lawless citizens. 

I rose from my knees and asked God to save me from despair, decay, and reaction. If I fail, however, I hope to fail with the dignity of Franz Joseph. May his soul rest in peace.      


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