Franz Joseph and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

In last article we discussed some of the political changes that went on in Europe at the times when Chassidus was spreading. See here.

After the demise of Napoleon, Europe reconfigured itself with what was left after Napoleon’s wars. The Holy Roman Empire became the Austrian Empire and ruled over what is today Austria and Italy. The rulers of Austria were from the Habsburg House, which was a well-entrenched royal family in Europe over many centuries and had extended family members in various monarchies in Europe, including the Holy Roman Empire and Hungary. 

The Austrian Empire was involved in several wars to gain and regain land. Hungary tried to gain independence but the Austrian empire- with the help of the Russian empire- won them over. Franz Josef I, the emperor of Austria brokered peace in 1867 and combined Austria and Hungary into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Hungarians maintained autonomy on local affairs and had their own passports but in federal and foreign affairs they were part of Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

The Austro-Hungarian Empire had a booming economy, the best of all in Eastern and Central Europe. They were strong in the electric industries and built infrastructure and industries. They laid an extensive railway system connecting the empire’s towns to the big cities, and the big cities to each other.

The Austro-Hungarian empire was also the most progressive in central and eastern Europe to give equal rights to all its citizens including the Jews. Compared to the Russian Empire and even the French Empire, Franz Joseph treated the Jews exemplary. He also had a fondness to Religious Jews. 

At one of the major battles between the Maskilim and the Religious Jews he remarked, “I as a Christian am siding with the Religious Jews”. It is remarkable how the first time a very large number of Chasidim and Religious Jews found themselves in Liberal states. Hashem sent a leader to give them the space and power to fortify themselves for the new era in Jewish History.

Franz Joseph lived till the age of 86 and died in the year 1916 – תרפ”ו. He ruled for almost 68 years, the fifth longest ruler of a Monarchy in all of history (!). Jews regularly recited prayers in his honor. Every year at his birthday, Jews in every Kehillah made big prayer events for his health and prosperity. They used to call him, “Unzer Franz Yozef” (our Franz Joseph).

The Chasidim found themselves in this situation. On the one hand, they had much freedom and were part of a prosperous empire. On the other hand, the Haskalah and secular movements tried hard to gain influence with the new freedoms. As explained last week, the old dynamics of the Jewish community didn’t work anymore. With the winds of the modern world and its education blowing in the Chasidim’s faces, new leadership and techniques were in great need. As we will see, this is the role the Mitele Ruv z”l filled with great impact for many generations.