If you loved The Crown, you’ll equally binge watch The Empress, another Netflix royal drama, but focused on the Hapsburgs in the mid-19th century. It’s more lavish and far more dramatic. Elizabeth II was a twentieth century ceremonial monarch. She was a global celebrity who was watched closely across her 70 year reign. But she had virtually no political power, signing pro forma documents, appearing on postage stamps and regally performing at state functions. She fulfilled her duties with dignity, amid soap opera spectacles by much of her family.
The Hapsburgs had real political authority in the tinderbox of Europe across explosive decades. Jarringly, the opening scene of The Empress is the Emperor with his imperious mother attending the public execution of seditionists against their power. His mother admonishes her young queasy son not to tremble before his people. Treason must be suppressed with steely resolve. The rebels are hanged without mercy.
Franz Joseph I reigned nearly as long as Elizabeth but with more geopolitical consequences. He replaced his abdicating uncle after the 1848 liberal revolutions against autocratic monarchies shook much of Europe. His feckless father was bypassed in favor of the son, under the stern tutelage of his savvy and ruthless mother. In the 1850s, after the revolutions are defeated, and before later constitutions with parliaments and stipulated rights, the Hapsburg monarch had vast power. He ruled the Austrian Empire, created after Napoleon’s defeat, and later to become a duel monarchy called Austria-Hungary.
The Hapsburgs were an ancient dynasty, dating back nearly a thousand years, ruling the Holy Roman Empire, sometimes Spain, and other parcels of Europe determined by the latest war. From the storied palace in Vienna, Franz Joseph I governed much of Central Europe and the Balkans, contending against Russia, the Ottomons, Prussia and France. The relative order and peace established by the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe was giving way to revolutions, nationalisms, and imperial wars.
Franz Joseph I, like Elizabeth II, was very young when he became monarch amid post-war chaos. Britain during her early reign decolonized its global empire while adapting to a more limited great power role subordinate to America. She represented her nation, but elected governments with prime ministers actually governed. He, at least in his early years, led the government by appointing his own imperial council.
Like Elizabeth II, Franz Joseph I married a spouse he loved who was also his cousin. She was a Bavarian free spirit also named Elizabeth but known as “Sisi,” who is the focus of the Netflix series. The Empress must adapt to the rarefied universe of the palace, where a team of ladies in waiting help her dress and bathe, and where she may not wear any pair of shoes twice. Her heaviest cross is abiding her powerful mother-in-law, who disdained her daughter-in-law’s folksy yearning to connect with average people, whom she is neither to touch or look in the eye.
Meanwhile, the Emperor while still young and green must decide on war or peace with Russia, manage economic development, forestall incipient new revolutions and avoid assassination attempts, block an attempted coup that, at least in the Netflix drama, was plotted by his serpentine brother Maximilian, and establish independence from his mother, who attends imperial councils.
The Emperor’s decisions reverberated throughout his empire and Europe. In contrast, Elizabeth II’s decisions generated positive or negative media, which may have, at most, affected the monarchy’s popularity and longterm durability. She was supreme governor of her nation’s established church, a mostly symbolic role with no theocratic power. He partnered with the powerful Catholic Church, and the archbishop of Vienna was a powerbroker in his regime.
Crowds of torch bearing potential revolutionaries gather at the palace gates at the conclusion of The Empress’s first season, with the Emperor uncertain and his iron willed mother demanding military action. The Empress has a defter touch. Maybe popular Princess Diana, who features in The Crown’s second season, would have been equally savvy had she confronted potential revolution in an earlier era. The Crown is mostly fun soap opera, with no lives at stake. The Empress in contrast portrays a constant balance between repressive stability and explosive revolution, with aspiring assassins operating even within the palace.
Britain by the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation had already been a parliamentary constitutional monarchy for over 260 years. Her personal struggles and family melodrama were closely watched but had little national impact. Franz Joseph I’s domestic kerfuffles affected the whole empire, as future seasons of The Empress will presumably demonstrate, including Sisi’s assassination by an anarchist. His son’s eventual murder suicide with his mistress will make his nephew Franz Ferdinand heir to the crown. That prince’s assassination in 1914 by Serbian nationalists ignited a world war killing twenty million and overthrowing four imperial dynasties, including the Hapsburgs.
Franz Joseph I by that point was very old and no longer had great power. But his by then decrepit monarchy facilitated the tragedy of Austria-Hungary’s declaring a war of annihilation against Serbia, plunging Europe into murderous upheaval. Britain’s monarchy outlasted the Hapsburgs because it had modernized into political irrelevance, not responsible for its government’s failures, but instead a ceremonial balm for national continuity.
Some post-liberals, especially integralists, romanticize the Hapsburgs and other hereditary ancien regimes that autocratically unified throne and altar. They forget how the Hapsburgs concluded, with a cataclysm destroying not only their own dynasty but nearly all of the old Christendom. Maybe future seasons of The Empress will be instructive. The far more benign drama of The Crown and its ceremonial monarchy with a liberal democracy is vastly preferable. Autocracies like the Hapsburgs might be great for fictionalized entertainment but not for real life.