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The Seven Provinces of the Austrian Netherlands Declare Independence: January 11, 1790

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.


Josef II was ambitious to extend his rule over more lands and to make his state more compact. He wanted to extend his domains eastward, taking territory from the Ottoman Empire, all the way to the Black Sea. He also wanted to bring the electorate of Bavaria under his control, and to do so he was willing to trade for it the Austrian Netherlands, which was separated from Austria by hundreds of miles.


Friedrich the Great, by Michael C. Arthur from “A History of Germany” by H. E. Marshall, 1913
Friedrich the Great, by Michael C. Arthur from “A History of Germany” by H. E. Marshall, 1913

Josef thought he would receive little opposition in his attempt to take over Bavaria. Friedrich the Great had been opposed to it in the past; but the Prussian king was now in his seventies, and Josef thought he would do nothing to hinder him. He was wrong. The old Friedrich was sickly but not dead. In 1785, Friedrich formed an alliance with other German states, which opposed the emperor and forced him to abandon his plans for Bavaria. This was one of Friedrich’s last acts (he died in August 1786), but it was very significant. In forming the league of German states against Josef II, Friedrich was able to bring more German states under the influence of Prussia and thus make Prussia Austria’s chief rival for power in Germany.


Foiled in Germany, Josef turned to the Turks. He formed an alliance with Russia and, in 1787, joined Katerina the Great in a war against the Ottomans. At first, the Austrian army was successful; but the new king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, feared the expansion of Russia into Europe and joined Great Britain, Holland, and Sweden in an alliance with the Turks. To weaken Austria, Friedrich Wilhelm encouraged a rebellion against Josef II in the Austrian Netherlands.


Josef had made many enemies in the Austrian Netherlands. As in Austria and Hungary, he had tried to abolish the traditional forms of local government and had refused to back down when the Belgians demanded that he restore their local governments. The Catholic Church in Belgium, moreover, opposed attempts to extend Josephism there. Cardinal Johann Heinrich von Frankenberg, the archbishop of Mechlin and the primate of Belgium, protested vigorously against Josef’s church reforms; in 1788, in Brussels, Henri van den Noot called for a rebellion against the Austrians. Supported by the Belgian clergy, a Belgian “Patriot” army formed and fought for the independence of Belgium. On October 26, 1789, the Patriot army defeated the Austrian army in battle. On January 11, 1790, the seven provinces of the Austrian Netherlands declared their independence from the emperor. This “Belgian United States,” however, ended in December when the emperor’s government was restored.


Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, by Pompeo Batoni
Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, by Pompeo Batoni

Hungary also rebelled against the Habsburg king, though Josef in the end was victorious against the Magyars. In Austria itself, the nobility, the middle classes, and the peasants were angry over Josef’s reforms. Faced with all this opposition, and suffering from sickness, Josef finally had to admit defeat. On January 11, 1790, he issued a decree in which he abolished all the reforms (except freedom for the serfs and religious toleration) he had instituted since the death of Maria Theresia. In February, Josef returned the crown of St. Stephen to Buda.


Josef II had not long to live after he issued the 1790 decree. Suffering from various ailments, he received last rites; and on February 20, 1790, he passed from this life. Having no children of his own, he was succeeded by his brother, Leopold II. As Pope Pius VI had predicted, Josef II saw everything he had tried to accomplish come to nothing. “After all my trouble, I have made but few happy, and many ungrateful,” he said before he died.


The dying emperor had even composed his own mournful epitaph, which expressed his sadness. “Here lies the man who, with the best of intentions, never succeeded in anything,” it said.



Great King and Minor Composer


Friedrich the Great of Prussia was not only a powerful king but a flautist and minor composer. Here is a recording of his Flute Concerto in D Major.



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