The Studentenverbindung in Heiligenkreuz recently organized a guided tour of the exhibition marking the 300 birthday of the Empress Maria Theresia in the State Hall of the Austrian National Library. Photos of the tour by our Consenior can be found on the Facebook page of the Verbindung. The tour guide was the delightfully amusing and informative Albert Pethö, editor of the Viennese monarchist newspaper Die Weiße Rose.
Maria Theresia succeeded her father, the Emperor Charles VI, at a young age, and at a difficult time. The War of Austrian Succession began immediately, and she could easily have been swept aside by the Prussians and Bavarians, and other powers. It was largely due to her personal courage and intelligence that she was not.
Critics have noted that a recent TV series on Queen Elizabeth II learning to be queen has “low stakes“, on account of the nature of British Constitutional Monarchy in the 20th century. If they made a series about Maria Theresia’s early days as Archduchess of Austria and “King” of Hungary, the stakes would not be low. And she would make a wonderful heroin for the screen.
A turning point in those early days was her coronation as Apostolic King (not Queen) of Hungary in the Cathedral of St. Martin in what is now Bratislava. There is a famous story of a meeting of the Hungarian Estates shortly after the Coronation. The young “king” came before the Estates, holding the future Emperor Joseph II, then a little baby, in her arms, and gave an impassioned plea for help in Latin. “Abandoned by all” (ab omnibus derelicti) she implored the help of the “arms and ancient virtues of the Hungarians” (arma et Hungarorum priscam virtutem). The Hungarian magnates drew their swords and shouted: Moriamur pro rege nostro Maria Theresia! (Let us die for our King Maria Theresia!).
Our guide tried to defend Maria Theresia from the charge of having imposed the ideas of the Enlightenment on the Crown Lands. And certainly, her deep and unfeigned Catholic piety was worlds away from the arid rationalism of her son, Joseph II. But the fact remains, that to keep up with the her rivals, especially the King of Prussia, she did carry out a number of reforms that anticipated Josephine enlightened absolutism. She curtailed many of the ancients rights of the Estates. Depriving the nobility of the right of taxation, she introduced direct taxation by the sovereign. She built up a central bureaucracy, imposed (at least in theory) universal education on the Prussian model. And moved to a military model of direct conscription. All of these reforms helped to raise and maintain the sort of military power that was necessary for defense of her lands in the age of Frederick II of Prussia. But they were all destructive of the subsidiary structure of the old empire, and the opportunities for true political life that it offered. It was replaced by centralized absolutism, which was in the next century to lead to lead to liberal individualism.
This raises one of the great problems of any anti-modern politics: how can one renounce modernization if one’s adversaries are pursuing it? Modern rationalism is aimed at power over nature, but as C.S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man, ultimately this means that it is aimed at the power of some human beings over others. And in the modern world this has meant that if a ruler wants to save her realm from the domination of foreign powers, she must herself make use of the methods. Fas est et ab hoste doceri. That is the tragedy of the age of Maria Theresia.