Meaning Well

December 1, 2001 Topics: Society Regions: Central EuropeEurope Tags: EmpireHabsburgMonarchyKosovoSpiesFree Trade

Meaning Well

Mini Teaser: Maximilian II managed to be both ahead of his time and behind it simultaneously. His life warns us against allowing ourselves to fall into a similar predicament.

by Author(s): Larry Wolff

Paula Sutter Fichtner, Emperor Maximilian II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 368 pp., $35.

"In other countries dynasties are episodes in the history of the people; in the Habsburg Empire peoples are complications in the history of the dynasty", epigrammatically wrote A.J.P. Taylor in 1948 in The Habsburg Monarchy. It is notable that in 2001, at a time when the royal biography is not an especially favored genre of professional historians, the Habsburgs can still be approached through that old-fashioned form of historical narrative, which is what Paula Sutter Fichtner has done in writing Emperor Maximilian II. Her portrait of Maximilian offers important insights into pressing 16th century problems that are full of modern relevance, especially the frustrating enterprise of consolidating and sustaining an ethnically and religiously pluralist state.

Fichtner surveys the reign of a single Habsburg ruler, who reigned for a dozen years (from 1564 to 1576), and one whom she herself regards as a "failure" in most of his political enterprises. He is, in some sense, a slender dynastic reed for supporting a comprehensive historical analysis. As it happens, the Yale University Press jacket illustration shows Maximilian standing slenderly in a Renaissance doublet of black and gold, gazing perhaps myopically out at us, the academic public of five centuries later, whose critical evaluation he must now endure. But Fichtner makes good use of her biographical subject to focus on the problems that the dynasty, and all of Europe, faced in the 16th century: the formation of the institutions of the modern administrative state, the military defense of Christian lands against the Ottoman Turks, and, above all, the tense religious circumstances in a continent divided between Roman Catholicism, seeking to consolidate its authority in the age of the Counter-Reformation, and the multifarious and theologically volatile forms of Protestantism. Though Fichtner's Emperor Maximilian II is unlikely to rival in public success the other, more glamorous Habsburg biography of 2001-Antonia Fraser's book about Maximilian's collateral descendant, the Habsburg Archduchess Marie Antoinette-each book takes its subject's political mistakes and misfortunes as an opportunity to diagnose some of the crucial systemic tensions in the ancien regime of early modern Europe.

Though Taylor noted that the Habsburg "peoples"-that is, the multinational populations of the monarchy with their virtually irreconcilable nationalisms-were the great "complication" in the history of the dynasty in the 19th century, in the 16th century "peoples" and popular aspirations were not prominent on a monarch's political agenda. National identities in the modern sense were still largely unformed.

Indeed, one might conclude from Fichtner's work that the major "complication" in the history of the Habsburg dynasty in the 16th century was the dynasty itself. She provides fascinating detail on Maximilian's complicated relations with his uncle, Emperor Charles V, whom he accompanied on military campaigns against the German Protestants in the 1540s; with his father, Emperor Ferdinand I, who censured Maximilian's religious equivocations, and even hesitated to include Maximilian in the succession; with his cousin, King Philip II of Spain, whose coercive Catholic commitment stood in stark contrast to Maximilian's pursuit of compromise; with his wife, the Empress Maria, Philip's pious sister and intimate ambassador in Maximilian's imperial bed; and with his brothers, the Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles, who divided the Austrian inheritance with Maximilian and maintained courts and administrations of their own in Innsbruck and Graz, sometimes cooperating and sometimes competing with the emperor, who, while based in Vienna, was often out on the road. The Habsburg dynasty was a worldwide enterprise in the 16th century, stretching from Bohemia to Bolivia, and trying to govern it no small challenge. Under the more unified leadership of Charles V, a universal imperial ideal was cultivated, but after his abdication in 1556 the dynasty could not be considered an unequivocal vehicle of streamlined imperial power. Rather, as Fichtner carefully demonstrates, the Habsburg political project was both nourished and occasionally confounded by ongoing family frictions, tensions, and negotiations.

That project was further complicated by the fact that the early modern state was a work in progress. The Habsburgs worked with a rudimentary bureaucracy and the generally haphazard financing of government operations. Maximilian recognized and sought to address such problems in his Hofkammerordnung, the exchequer reform of 1568, but it would be the work of centuries for the Habsburgs to devise and establish the institutions of government that would correlate the diverse parts of such far-flung dominions. Maximilian, as Holy Roman Emperor, faced the particular challenge that followed from the crucial distinction between the Habsburg dynastic lands, which he inherited, and the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, which he ruled under very different terms by election as emperor. It was not obvious to Maximilian, or to anyone in the 16th century, that the Holy Roman Empire would never function as a modern state in Germany; not until 1806 would Napoleon consign its fragile imperial framework to the rubbish bin of history.

It was within that fragile imperial framework that Maximilian had to consider the central question of his life and reign; that is, the religious balance between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, equilibrated within the soul of the emperor as well as within the political structure of the empire. Fichtner follows in a long historiographical tradition that has focused on Maximilian's religious identity and policy as the most puzzling and important aspect of his reign.

Maximilian envisioned the possibility of religious reconciliation between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th-century context of intense, violent and sometimes murderous religious conflict. After the wars of Charles V against the German Protestants, a religious compromise was reached in 1555 at the Diet of Augsburg, the convening of the German princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles abdicated the following year and retired to a monastery in Spain, partly from frustration after Augsburg; his brother Ferdinand, Maximilian's father, succeeded as emperor. The Augsburg settlement, which dominated Maximilian's political coming of age, recognized the coexistence of Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism in the empire under the famous Latin formula, cuius regio, eius religio, "whose region, his religion." Each of the three hundred German princes of the empire would theoretically choose the religion for his principality, either Roman Catholicism or the particular form of Protestantism specified in the Augsburg Confession. For Lutherans this compromise seemed to offer official acceptance in Europe; for the fiercely inquisitional Vatican of Pope Paul IV it was a dirty deal with heretics and merely postponed the final Catholic reckoning with Protestantism.

For some conciliatory spirits, however, Augsburg was a statement of two differing religious positions for the purpose of eventually reconciling them in the recovery of European confessional unity. That this ideal was ultimately a "failure" is perfectly evident from the fact that there are Catholic and Protestants in Europe to this day, but Maximilian's refusal to rule out theological reconciliation reflected Renaissance irenical concern in the 16th century, a spirit that would barely recur within Roman Catholicism until the emergence of modern ecumenicism in the 20th century. Maximilian was ahead of his time.

For this conciliatory spirit Maximilian was suspected by some Catholics, including the saintly Pius V in Rome and the crusading Philip II in Madrid, of being himself a heretic, of practicing some sort of crypto-Protestantism. In a 1994 essay Fichtner left open the possibility that Maximilian was indeed a heretic: "The Habsburgs themselves, with the possible exception of Maximilian II, kept true to the faith of Rome." In this new biography she seems more inclined to accept his Catholicism. Fichtner notes that throughout his adult life he insisted on taking communion in both kinds, the bread and the wine (sub utraque), though such practice was then considered suspiciously Protestant. Yet, dating back to a special Vatican concession of 1561, mediated by Emperor Ferdinand, Maximilian was formally permitted communion in both kinds, and in 1562 he took a vow before his father to remain within the Roman Catholic Church.

Later as emperor, Maximilian permitted the practice of Protestantism to the nobles of Lower Austria, partly out of sympathy for the Augsburg Confession no doubt, but also because he needed to press them for fiscal and military contributions to the state, such as it was. In the 16th century, the "complication" of the people in Austria was that so many were Protestant, and the Counter-Reformation project of reconversion, under the aegis of the Jesuits, did not even really begin until the very end of the century (finally producing the Catholic character of Austria in modern times). Maximilian himself did not encourage Jesuit missionary activity in Austria, and was unenthusiastic about the religious enterprises of contemporary popes, remarking about Pius V in the 1560s that "the pope would be well suited as an inquisitor or to direct a monastery . . . but ruling the world is quite another calling." Indeed, that was often considered a Habsburg calling, especially in the view of the Habsburgs themselves. (The great intellectual historian Frances Yates lectured in London in 1952 on the ideal of universal empire in the age of Charles V, and, more recently Yale University Press published Marie Tanner's The Last Descendant of Aeneas, on the "mythic image" of the Habsburg emperors and the Trojan pedigree that was devised in accordance with their ambitious imperial ideology.)

Maximilian's universalism was certainly premised on the possibility of a unitary and reconciled Christian faith in Europe, but he did not accept that it was the absolute prerogative of the pope to determine the contours of that faith. What is perhaps most striking about Maximilian as a Catholic is that he regarded the content of Catholicism as open to discussion and compromise. After all, he had grown up in precisely the age when Catholicism met the Protestant challenge by some measure of internal reform and even critical self-reflection; the Council of Trent was finally concluded in 1563, only a year before Maximilian became emperor. After that, the question of reforming the Church was more or less closed as far as Rome was concerned, but Maximilian clearly cherished the possibility of redefining Catholicism in such a way as to reconcile with Protestantism. His own personal insistence on communion in both kinds was an affirmation of the possibility of compromise. After the 1560s, the content and nature of Catholicism would not again be so open for discussion until perhaps the 1960s.

Fichtner does not think that Maximilian's commitment to religious unity served him well: "If Maximilian saw any alternative to confessional reconciliation through compromise and accommodation, he never disclosed it. His consistency of purpose may argue for his unwavering belief in his policy, or it may be evidence of weak imagination, overall exhaustion, or both. In any case, his commitment to religious tolerance was at odds with the political realities." Alas, he was behind his times, too.
In other words, Maximilian meant well, but meaning well was not enough to make his personal vision into effective policy.

To the historian thinking retrospectively, it may be clear that the moment for reconciliation had passed by the time Maximilian became emperor; this was probably less clear to Maximilian in the 16th century. One may wonder whether his religious imagination was too strong rather than too weak, in the face of what Fichtner properly identifies as changing political realities in Europe as a whole. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth, who ruled in England while Maximilian ruled in Austria, offered some glimpse of the kind of religious compromise and peace (within a broad-based Anglican Church) that he hopefully envisioned. In fact, Maximilian's brother Charles was one of the unsuccessful candidates for Elizabeth's hand in marriage. The emperor was certainly not edified by the state of religious affairs in France, and was horrified by the St. Bartholomew's massacre of French Protestants in 1572. "The affairs of religion cannot be adjudicated and dealt with by the sword", wrote Maximilian in 1574, notably out of tune with political realities. "Furthermore, Christ and his apostles taught this over and over." He seems really to have meant it. Interestingly, too, the historian R. Po-chia Hsia has found that Maximilian intervened on several occasions against the persecution of Jews in the Holy Roman Empire.

One of the most religiously delicate domains of Maximilian's empire was the Czech province of Bohemia, where Jan Hus had sounded the call to heresy in the early 15th century, and where Utraquists still prevailed in the 16th century, favoring precisely the suspect communion in both kinds that Maximilian privately preferred for himself. He eventually, though reluctantly, had to promise some measure of religious toleration in Bohemia. Indeed, Maximilian was only the second Habsburg, after his father Ferdinand, to rule over Bohemia and Hungary, lands that became fundamental for the future of the dynasty. Maximilian had to learn Czech for administrative purposes as he negotiated with Bohemian nobles over their historic rights and prerogatives. He ruled over only a part of Hungary, where the nobles were no less sensitive, and, because the greater part had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire, Maximilian had to defend the frontier of Christianity. His one major effort to challenge the Turks in Hungary ended ignominiously in 1566. Five years later he held himself aloof from the most triumphant contemporary crusade, the naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571; while Maximilian could not regret a Christian victory, he could not have been altogether pleased to see the glory go to Philip II and Pius V. At Maximilian's court, the crusading spirit was also tempered by humanist curiosity. The emperor's patronage extended to Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, imperial diplomat and fascinated observer of the Ottoman Empire.

Maximilian's religious ideas make most sense in the context of the waning of Renaissance Christian humanism in the late 16th century. Exceptionally important for appreciating this historical context is the work of R.J.W. Evans; his book on Rudolf II and His World (1973) explored the significance of Renaissance humanism at the Habsburg court, and in The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy (1979) he considered the correlation of humanist Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Baroque forces in the formation of an early modern Habsburg state ideology. Evans emphasized the humanist continuities between the courts of Maximilian and Rudolf, both major Habsburg patrons of arts and letters, and observed that the reign of the former "witnessed the climax of orthodox Humanism in Austria." This was inevitably related to less orthodox perspectives on Catholicism, harbored by frankly Protestant or suspiciously heretical humanists in Maximilian's service. Evans noted that there were even Renaissance Hermetic magical currents at Maximilian's court in Vienna, anticipating their importance later at Rudolf's court in Prague. Fichtner mentions but does not emphasize issues of artistic and intellectual patronage, and she does not really explore their relation to political and religious concerns. In matters of patronage, she points out Maximilian's "failure" to obtain for his court the greatest artists of the time, such as Palestrina in music and Palladio in architecture.

Because his reign was so brief, ending in his death before the age of fifty in 1576, it is hard to know how highly to rate the "success" of the measure of religious peace that he pursued within the Holy Roman Empire. Certainly it can not compare in duration with Elizabeth's half century in England, the relative peace that permitted the English Renaissance to flourish insularly in the age of Shakespeare. Yet Maximilian's policy of peace, compromise, and reconciliation in an age of religious violence, persecution, and massacre deserves consideration within the broader context of Habsburg history. In 1957, a decade after Taylor's The Habsburg Monarchy, Henry Kissinger published his postwar contribution to Austrian history, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace. Kissinger, writing about the early 19th century, emphasized the common Austrian and English interest in preserving a conservative peace after the fall of Napoleon, but noted the crucial difference between England's insular and Austria's continental perspectives. Metternich, argued Kissinger, seemed to recognize that Austria's geographical position in the middle of Europe, and its "anachronistic" political condition as a dynastically-linked polyglot agglomeration of lands and peoples, made the conservative preservation of the international status quo seem absolutely essential to imperial survival. Metternich therefore identified the particular political needs of the Habsburg dynasty with the principles of general European conservatism. In a striking passage, Kissinger wrote:

Metternich's thus became a never-ending quest for a moment of tranquillity, for a suspension, if only for an instant, of the flux of life, so that what happened, perhaps inevitably, could be represented as a universal principle instead of an assertion of will and of indeterminacy. It was as if a physicist, unable to measure both position and velocity of the electron accurately, bent all his energies to making the electron hold still, if only for a fraction of a second, because this would enable him to chart its course for eternity.

This analysis of Metternich's perspective on the modern Habsburg monarchy-a sort of striving to achieve "the end of history"-offers an interesting analogy to Maximilian's perspective on the early modern Habsburg monarchy. Working from a similar geopolitical position, confronting explosive religious tensions rather than a modern nationalities conflict, looking to universal Christian principles rather than universal conservative ideology, Maximilian also aspired toward an ideal peace. He sought a formula for harmony and stability at a time when tensions could be temporarily balanced, neutralized, or assuaged, but could no longer be resolved in the fundamental fashion that he envisioned. Kissinger's imagery from modern particle physics could have been analogously anticipated by the language of Hermetic magic that was current among the irenic humanists of Maximilian's court. The fantasy of religious reconciliation in the 16th century was universal in its spiritual assumptions and presumptions, but also particularly adapted to the perceived concerns of the Habsburg dynasty in a century of cultural and political crisis. Metternich would have understood.

Of what relevance is Maximilian's life and era to our own? Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, issued this insufficiently heeded warning: "To ignore the impact of the Islamic Resurgence on Eastern Hemisphere politics in the late twentieth century is equivalent to ignoring the impact of the Protestant Reformation on European politics in the late sixteenth century." In this regard, Maximilian certainly had his eye on the ball, reflecting deeply and creatively about the impact of the great religious upheaval of his own century. In Huntington's vision, however, the religious fault line between Catholicism and Protestantism seems of limited contemporary relevance, since he regards them both in combination as the Christian religious foundation of the West: "Western Christianity, first Catholicism, and then Catholicism and Protestantism, is historically the single most important characteristic of Western civilization." Maximilian certainly believed in the fundamental unity of Western Christianity and his quest for reconciliation, his efforts to bridge religious difference, may be seen as a visionary determination to evade a definitive "clash" by refusing to recognize it as definitive. Though Maximilian mobilized for hostilities with the Ottoman Empire on the tense Hungarian border, an empire reaching from Buda to Baghdad, he was also capable of maintaining tactical neighboring relations when he knew he lacked the military means to go on the offensive. Facing an adjacent and extremely powerful Islamic enemy, while seeking to address the religious tensions within Europe, Maximilian stood at the early modern threshold of that religious nexus which eventually crystallized as "Western civilization" in the modern age. Even in his hesitations and half measures he seems to have had some significant sense of what was at stake.

As for us, the Habsburg dilemma of the 16th century is perhaps easier to grasp today than it was a few years ago. Maximilian faced a complicated mix of strategic and religious division-a militant Islamic force at the gate, and sharp differences of creed within the broad confines of empire. It made sense to Maximilian, for practical as well as moral reasons, to seek unity within so that he could stave off assault from without. In his own way, he knew very well the importance and frustrations of coalition maintenance.

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