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Joseph II.

Longman x + 228 pp. 10.99[pounds] (pb)

* When he was young and light-hearted T.C.W. Blanning wrote a short book, Joseph II and Enlightened Despotism. Only one sentence, he proudly proclaims, is common to that book and to the book published now. Even in 1970 Blanning did not really like Joseph II. With the enthusiasm of youth he gave him credit for his `aversion to etiquette, privilege and snobbery' and conceded that the title of 'revolutionary emperor' was deserved if only because of the emperor's dislike of the nobility and his policies in favour of the peasantry. They were, after all, the most numerous class, and the greatest good of the greatest number was the yardstick by which Joseph II measured merit, and so did Blanning at that time. it was possible to admire Joseph II, Blanning concluded, but not to like him.

Twenty-four years later, Blanning likes Joseph even less and expresses admiration only with great difficulty. Heir to a mosaic of lands, languages, religions, traditions, social and political structures, united only in the person of the ruler -- king here, archduke there -- Joseph saw virtue only in a unified, uniform state. 'Everything exists for the state' he wrote in 1763. `This word contains everything, so all who live in it should come together to promote its interests'. Providence had made all men equal, he argued, and all must contribute to the general good in proportion to their property, ability, and the benefit they derived from the community.

Joseph's assault on Habsburg traditions developed along two lines: the imposition of uniformity, and a strictly utilitarian approach. He rode roughshod over all vested interests, property, rank, human feelings, religious beliefs and practices, thoughts and principles. He was the most dictatorial of absolute rulers in great things and small, banning the wearing of corsets by pregnant women, urging physical exercise in the armed forces to combat `onanism'.

Those policies which might have earned him the approval of posterity, such as the assault on the Catholic church and baroque Catholicism, or religious toleration and education, were limited, and, in the case of education, philistine. Even his peasant policy served to maintain Austrian agriculture in a state of backwardness. The death penalty was abolished and replaced by a most inhumane and deadly form of forced labour. Joseph's foreign policy was a failure too; he allowed himself to be manipulated and overreached by his great rival, Catherine II of Russia.

Insofar as Joseph was an `enlightened' monarch, he belongs more to the species of the terribles simplificateurs like Robespierre or St Just (who prohibited the use of German in Alsace in the interests of the unitary state) than to the school of Montesquieu, though in the double portrait, of 1769, with his brother Leopold L'Esprit des Lois lies on the table. Joseph did not believe in the separation of the executive from the legislative.

His reign was ultimately a failure and his life both a public and a private tragedy. His much-loved wife preferred his sister's company and died of smallpox three years after their marriage. But at least he was spared the disaster which he nearly brought on himself by his insistence on marrying his deceased wife's sister, Maria Luisa of Parma, whose witchlike face can be seen staring out from Goya's portraits of the family of Charles IV of Spain.

Blanning draws on all the work which has been published in the last twenty years, and also on his own researches in Austrian archives. His quotations from the letterbooks of the emperor's correspondence with his servants provide fascinating highlights on Joseph's complex and abrasive personality. As usual with Blanning this book is written with gusto, insight and incisive wit. It is not only scholarly but enjoyable.

Joseph II was not, however, according to Blanning the warmonger he was often taken to be at the time, owing very largely, it must be said, to his own tactlessness. He plays a major role in Jeremy Black's account of British foreign policy over a period of ten years. Black covers in great detail, almost day by day, its twists' turns and meanderings, noting the opinions of individuals and the processes by which decisions were, in the fullness of time, reached, meting out praise or rebuking `foolishness', whether British or foreign, as required, and drawing attention to the extraordinary influence exercised by a small number of quite outstanding ambassadors, such as Harris (Malmesbury), Elliott, Ewart and Eden (Auckland).

The organisation of the book leads to a good deal of repetition, which could have been pruned, thus leaving space for a bibliography, which has been omitted and which in a work of this kind is absolutely essential. The author has drawn very largely on archival evidence, but there is also a solid array of printed sources. The book reads a little like a thesis in which the author does not dare to leave anything out.

Interesting as much of the detail is, it is very difficult to obtain a general view of British foreign policy when one's eyes are glued to the page. Moreover, Dr Black's style is very uneven and sometimes a sentence has to be read several times in order to grasp his meaning. There is a good deal of `on the one hand' and `on the other', without any final conclusion.

The assumptions on which British foreign policy was based in the early part of the period were backward and conservative, and the rhetoric in which they were clothed reads very quaintly to the modern mind. Britain was still fighting the last war. France was the `natural enemy', the `restless' and `ambitious' power whose machinations must be countered at every turn, and whose unnatural' alliance with Austria must be broken if possible. This was not only the view of the Pittites but of many Whigs also. Charles james Fox went further and was prepared to sacrifice England's maritime principles for the sake of an alliance with Russia and, in his case, Prussia. (Black makes no mention of this question so vital to Anglo-Russian relations). Throughout the decade, British ministers longed for the resurrection of the `old alliance' with Austria which had served them so well in the War of the Spanish Succession.

But nowhere does Black, or the statesmen he quotes, ever analyse the motives of the great powers on the mainland in strategic terms. The military considerations which had led to the diplomatic revolution of 1756 still applied. Britain could only be useful to the German powers as an ally against France, because France was vulnerable at sea. in a struggle against each other Austria and Prussia needed the help of armies, not navies.

The period was unmarked by any very great crises in Western Europe, the area of most concern to Great Britain. The French revolution was viewed at first with indifference, indeed almost welcomed since it destroyed French influence in Europe. France was too weak to intervene in Holland in 1787, and to support Spain over Nootka Sound in 1790. She had ceased to be a desirable ally by the end of the decade. Upheavals in eastern Europe seem, on the whole, to have affected Britain less directly, until the quite artificial crisis created partly by Prussia and very largely by Pitt over Ochakov in 1790-1.

Black argues that neither Britain nor France now sought territorial gains in Europe, while clearly the three great eastern powers did, as well as some of the minor ones. Hence Britain's essentially defensive policy and her insistence on the status quo ante bellum in her efforts to end the second Russo-Turkish war -- or, in other words, Pitt's so-called federative system' of collective security for smaller powers. Yet Britain was prepared to accept the cession of Danzig and Thorn to Prussia, to demand more specific legal recognition of the rights she claimed in the Pacific from Spain, and clearly she applied different standards in India and in Europe.

It is in his last two chapters that Black at last integrates British foreign policy into the wider background, both domestic and international, and it is here that Professor Schroeder takes over from him, not chronologically but conceptually. To begin with, he is writing not about foreign policy but about what he calls 'international politics'. Not for him the pointilliste approach, he goes for the wide horizon and the broad brushstroke. Just as Black's book carries on where the recent volume by H.M., Scott, British Foreign Policy in the Age of the American Revolution leaves off, so Schroeder, after a rather larger time gap, carries on where A.J.P. Taylor once left off his masterly yet often perverse The Struggle for Mastery in Europe some forty years ago.

But Schroeder has a theory: he conceives of the subject in terms of the `superiority of system-level explanations and structural analysis over unit-level explanations of international politics'. `It is vital also to show', he adds, 'how systematic rules and structural limits influenced and shaped these outcomes'. Those who are not very well up in the system theories of international relations may have a certain sympathy with Jeremy Black, who, in his last chapter, is critical of any systemic approach on the grounds that it fails to do justice to the chaos which prevailed in the application of balance of theories of power or national interest.

Schroeder's definition of an 'international system' follows the Oakeshottian concept of 'the constituent rules of a practice or a civic association', namely, the assumptions on which people operate within a shared framework. He argues that a sea change came over these assumptions in the years 1813-15, when the competitive and conflicting balance of power policies of the eighteenth century gave way to concepts of concert and political equilibrium. This did not occur as a result of twenty-eight years of war, but as a consequence of a change in mentalities.

Thus Schroeder gives a new and positive interpretation to the concept of the 'concert' of Europe, and rejects the traditional interpretation of the Holy Alliance as merely a Russian attempt at European hegemony. He re-examines many of the minor negotiations on frontiers and annexations, seeing where they in fact served to maintain a harmonious balance rather than to exacerbate tensions in the period he covers.

Though their interests did not always coincide, the military hegemony of Russia and the naval hegemony of Britain combined to maintain not a balance of power, but a new attitude to problem-solving. Indeed, many pages in this book read as though the author had shaken up a kaleidoscope and allowed the pieces to fall in a totally new, at times startling, at times refreshing, at times unconvincing pattern.

There are indeed some generalizations which fail to convince, notably that in the 1780s Europe was heading inevitably towards war, which was 'systemic and structural'. it is difficult, however, to accept the theory that war was inevitable because of the rigidities of the balance of power at the time (1787-91) when so many powers climbed down in order not to push international conflicts to extremes (France in Holland, 1787; Spain in the Pacific, 1790; Leopold at Reichenbach, 1790; Britain at Ochakov, 1791) while revolutionary France precipitated war by systematically disregarding treaties and established conventions (even on the repatriation of prisoners), i.e. all those assumptions which made up the 'civic association' of Europe.

The wars of the French revolution were surely not the outcome of the balance of power system of the eighteenth century, but of its total overthrow, from the moment France proclaimed the freedom of navigation of the Scheldt in the name of natural right and in disregard of treaties.
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Author:De Madariaga, Isabel
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Words:1942
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