In his great 1848 historical drama, Ein Bruderzwist im Hause Habsburg, the Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer has Emperor Matthias utter the words that have often been applied to understanding the whole history of the Habsburg monarchy:
Das ist der Fluch von unserm edeln Haus:
Auf halben Wegen und zu halber Tat
Mit halben Mitteln zauderhaft zu streben.
[That is the curse of our noble house:
Striving hesitatingly on half ways
to half action with half means.]
True as those sentiments may be of many periods in the history of the monarchy, the one period of which it can not
be said is the second half of eighteenth century. The age of Maria Theresa, Joseph II, and Leopold II was perhaps the greatest era of consistent and committed reform in the four-hundred-year history of the monarchy. What I want to address in this article are some aspects of the dynamic of this reform era, and this falls into two categories. On the one hand, there is the broad energizing or motive force behind the larger development, and on the other, there are the ideas or assumptions that lay behind the policies adopted. As might be evident from the subtitle of my article, I propose to look primarily at the second of these categories. I do so because I think while Habsburg historiography has reached considerable consensus on the first, it has not looked enough on the second as an explanatory hermeneutic.