Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary caught a cold a few days ago while out walking with the King of Bavaria. Today he succumbs to pneumonia. The emperor was 86 years old and has reigned since 1848. Few of his subjects can remember a time when he was not their ruler.
Franz Josef’s reign was not a happy one, with the Habsburg Empire experiencing a long drawn-out decline. First the Empire lost its territories in northern Italy, then its hegemonic role in Germany was supplanted by Prussia. Internally the Empire has been troubled by increasing nationalism among its peoples. In 1866 Franz Josef was forced to effectively divide his empire in two, creating a self-governing Hungary; this has had the effect of starving central institutions (notably the army) of funds.
The emperor’s personal life has also had its travails. His marriage to Elizabeth of Bavaria was a difficult one. Their only son, Rudolph, died with his mistress in a suicide pact (or an instance of murder-suicide). Elizabeth herself was subsequently murdered by an Italian anarchist. Maximilian one of the emperor’s brothers, was executed by Mexican rebels after he unwisely accepted the imperial throne of Mexico as part of a bizarre French scheme. The one real solace to Franz Josef has been his friendship with the actress, Katharina Schratt.
The death of Rudolph had left Franz Josef’s nephew Franz Ferdinand as his heir. His assassination in 1914 set in motion the events that led to the current war. Having seen Italy and Germany removed from the orbit of his rule, Franz Josef was determined to maintain his control over his Slavic subjects and so supported using the murder of Franz Ferdinand as a pretext to crush Serbia. Sadly for him the war has not gone well for Austria-Hungary, with his empire now little more than a satellite of Germany.
Franz Josef, c. 1905 (Wikipedia)
Franz Josef on his death bed (The World of the Habsburgs)