1741–90, Holy Roman emperor (1765–90), king of Bohemia and Hungary (1780–90), son of Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, whom he succeeded. He was the first emperor of the house of Hapsburg-Lorraine (see Hapsburg).
From the death of his father (1765) to the death of his mother (1780) Joseph ruled the Hapsburg lands jointly with his mother but had little authority. As a young man he had been profoundly impressed by the subhuman conditions of the peasantry that he saw while touring the provinces. Joseph was impatient with the slowness of Maria Theresa's reforms and on her death he was ready with a full revolutionary program.
After his mother's death Joseph instituted far-reaching reforms that were more the result of his personal philosophy and principles than of the philosophy of Enlightenment. He contemplated nothing less than the abolition of hereditary and ecclesiastic privileges and the creation of a centralized and unified state administered by a civil service based on merit and loyalty rather than birth. He planned a series of fiscal, penal, civil, and social laws that would have established some measure of social equality and security for the masses. A strong exponent of absolutism, he used despotic means to push through his reforms over all opposition in order to consolidate them during his lifetime.
Although Joseph was a faithful Roman Catholic, he also instituted a series of religious reforms aimed at making German Catholicism independent of Rome. He forbade religious orders to obey foreign superiors, suppressed all contemplative orders, and even sought to interfere with the training of priests. A personal visit (1782) of Pope Pius VI to Vienna did not halt these measures. The Patent of Tolerance (1781) provided for extensive, although not absolute, freedom of worship.
Joseph's main piece of legislation was the abolition (1781) of serfdom and feudal dues; he also enabled tenants to acquire their own lands from the nobles for moderate fees and allowed peasants to marry whom they wished and to change their domicile. Joseph founded numerous hospitals, insane asylums, poorhouses, and orphanages; he opened parks and gardens to the public; and he legislated to provide free food and medicine for the indigent. In judicial affairs Joseph liberalized the civil and criminal law codes, abolishing torture altogether and removing the death penalty.
In fiscal matters Joseph was influenced by the physiocrats. He ordered a general reassessment of land preparatory to the imposition of a single land tax. This reform met with widespread opposition. Still more unpopular, however, was his attempt to abrogate local governments, customs, and privileges in his far-flung and multilingual dominions, which he divided into 13 circles centrally administered from Vienna. He even sought to impose German as the sole official language; a multilingual administration seemed irrational to him.
Revolts broke out in Hungary and in the Austrian Netherlands (see Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish); these were subsequently halted during the reign of Leopold II, Joseph's brother and successor, who rescinded Joseph's reforms in these lands. Most of Joseph's reforms did not outlive him. His failure to make them permanent was largely caused by his lack of diplomacy, by his untimely death, by the reaction produced by the French Revolution, and by his unsuccessful foreign policy. Moreover, his scattered and varied lands offered poor conditions for reform.
Joseph's plan to annex Bavaria to Austria and thus to consolidate his state was frustrated in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–79); his project to exchange the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria was thwarted (1785) by King Frederick II of Prussia, who formed the Fürstenbund [princes' league] for that purpose. Joseph allied himself with Czarina Catherine II of Russia (whom he accompanied incognito on her Crimean journey), hoping to share in the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. Austria joined Russia in the war of 1787–92 against the Ottoman Empire, but was unsuccessful.
Obsessed with his social responsibility, Joseph found only occasional time to interest himself in any but the utilitarian arts. With the exception of the pliable Kaunitz, Joseph's ministers found it difficult to collaborate with him. Joseph was hated and ridiculed by the clergy and nobles, but he was the idol of the common people. Judgments on Joseph II vary widely, but it is certain that he left a socially freer state on his death than he had found on his accession.