Historians’ judgement about Emperor Franz Joseph I and his rule differs according to the viewpoint of their dealing with the 68-year reign of – apart from Empress Maria Theresa – certainly the most popular member of the Habsburg House. Supported by his reputation, he, like a patriarch, coordinated the imperial-royal state with the population of fifty million and the mixture of eleven ethnicities. He represented the majesty who personified the idea of an eternal monarchy in which he ruled as Supreme Official and scrupulously managed the vast empire. Franz Joseph was a monarch who was not Emperor only by name but who truly ruled.
Although he was surrounded by a luxurious court and had to follow an elaborate ceremonial, the Emperor remained ascetic until the end of his life, proverbially known to have died in a military iron bed. During his long rule, the third longest among the European sovereigns, he enjoyed unshakeable glory, but fate was also extremely unkind to him, giving rise to tragic events in the closer circles of his relatives as well as to military and political defeats.
Franz Joseph was born on August 18, 1830, and succeeded to the throne as early as the age of eighteen, replacing his sick uncle Ferdinand I. In 1854 he married a Bavarian duchess, Elisabeth (Sissi). The marriage was far from being romantically ideal as it seemed to be. The imperial couple had three daughters, one of whom died at the age of two, and a son – Crown Prince Rudolf, who tragically died in his thirty-first year of age. Nine years later Empress Sissi was assassinated by a mentally deranged anarchist. In 1914 the Emperor’s nephew Franz Ferdinand, now Crown Prince, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Franz Joseph himself died during World War I, on November 21, 1916.
Learning from his life experience, the Emperor increasingly favoured the policy of keeping to the current state of affairs and to peace, but the militarism of his self-seeking generals generated political crises; in such a situation, with a multitude of political intricacies, the aged sovereign could do nothing better than act in such a way that it is possible to blame him for being a co-creator of World War I. Probably one of the most regrettable features of his character was the fact that as a pedantic official, sticking to conservative principles, he had no vision for the development of his state, which resulted in constant changes of the relations in European politics.
The era of Franz Joseph’s rule was marked by technical and cultural progress of the vast empire. Significant seems to be the spreading of the rail network which represented a prerequisite for economic growth in the 19th century. During the reign of the “Supreme Official” the network in the Danubian monarchy developed from the modest kilometres in 1848 to the total length of 40,000 km by the time of the Emperor’s death. Extensive building works stamped a seal of homogeneity on individual town quarters. Constructed were standardized buildings of administrative premises, army barracks, school premises, museums, hospitals, railway stations, and even churches. This unified historicist “Franz Joseph” style emphasized the belonging to a common space. This was further enhanced by public monuments to members of the dynasty and estimable military commanders, through which individual places and institutions expressed their loyalty to the crown. In the Slovene lands, the era of the “Most Illustrious Emperor” saw the culture of the late Biedermeier, national revival of reading-room activities, romantic landscapes and realism in painting, and particularly the period of Slovene “Moderna” which at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century found expression in a happy unity of the “four elements”: architecture, sculpture, painting, and literature.
But within this Danubian monarchy, the largest one on the Old Continent, a cultural-political image of individual nations was taking shape ever more definitely. When Austria-Hungary disintegrated at the end of World War I, this process resulted in the formation of new states. Among the Slavic nations, the Slovenes, too, “trained to build up statehood” both in political and cultural aspects, and with great expectations they transferred their sovereignty in 1918 to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, ruled by the Karađorđević House.