Archduke John of Austria

Archduke John of Austria (German: Erzherzog Johann Baptist Joseph Fabian Sebastian von Österreich; 20 January 1782 – 11 May 1859), a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, was an Austrian field marshal and imperial regent (Reichsverweser) of the short-lived German Empire during the Revolutions of 1848.

Archduke John
Portrait by Leopold Kupelwieser, 1828
Imperial regent of German Empire (1848-49)
In office12 July 1848 – 20 December 1849
PredecessorFerdinand I of Austria (President of the German Confederation)
SuccessorFrancis Joseph I of Austria (President of the German Confederation)
Born(1782-01-20)20 January 1782
Florence, Grand Duchy of Tuscany
Died11 May 1859(1859-05-11) (aged 77)
Graz, Styria, Austrian Empire
Schenna Castle, Tyrol
SpouseAnna Maria Josephine Plochl
IssueFranz, Count of Meran
FatherLeopold II, Holy Roman Emperor
MotherMaria Luisa of Spain
ReligionRoman Catholic


John was born in Florence, the thirteenth child of the Habsburg grand duke Leopold of Tuscany and Maria Louisa of Spain. He was baptized with the name of John Baptist Joseph Fabian Sebastian,[1] after the patron saint of the Tuscan capital. In 1790, Leopold succeeded his brother Joseph II as Holy Roman Emperor and his family moved from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany to the Imperial court in Vienna. Only two years later, John's elder brother Francis II ascended the Imperial throne.

John's native language was Italian, he learned to speak French and German fluently. Educated by the Swiss historian Johannes von Müller, he developed wide-ranging skills and interests, especially in the history and geography of the Alpine countries.

Military service

During the Napoleonic Wars, John was given command of the Austrian army in September 1800, despite his personal reluctance to assume the position. He showed personal bravery in the War of the Second Coalition, but his troops were crushed at the Battle of Hohenlinden on 3 December. Demoralized by defeat, the army nearly disintegrated in the subsequent retreat, which was only stopped by an armistice arranged on 22 December. After the Peace of Lunéville in 1801, Archduke John was made General Director of the Engineering and Fortification Service, and later commander of the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt.

In the War of the Third Coalition, John again fought the French and Bavarian forces. From 1805 he directed an able defence of several Tyrolean passes against the French and was awarded the Commander Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa. However, according to the Peace of Pressburg, Austria had to cede Tyrol and Vorarlberg to Bavaria. John remained obliged to Tyrol and maintained friendly contact with Baron Joseph Hormayr who forged a resistance movement against the Bavarian occupation. In 1808, John pressed for the creation of Tyrolean Landwehr forces based on the success of the Prussian Landwehr, which played a vital role in the Tyrolean Rebellion led by Andreas Hofer.

At the commencement of the War of the Fifth Coalition in 1809 he became commander of the Army of Inner Austria, fighting against the French forces of Eugène de Beauharnais in Italy. Under his command were the VIII Armeekorps led by Albert Gyulai and the IX Armeekorps headed by Albert's brother Ignaz Gyulai. After winning a significant victory at the Battle of Sacile on 16 April 1809, his army advanced almost to Verona. Having detached forces to besiege Venice and other fortresses, John's army was soon outnumbered by Eugène's heavily reinforced host. Worse, news of the Austrian defeat at the Battle of Eckmühl reached him and compelled him to order a retreat. Before withdrawing, he fought off Franco-Italian attacks at the Battle of Caldiero between 27 and 30 April. Attempting to blunt the Franco-Italian pursuit, he stood to fight on 8 May and was beaten at the Battle of Piave River. Trying to defend the entire border, he sent Ignaz Gyulai to defend Ljubljana (Laibach) in Carniola, while holding Villach in Carinthia with his own forces. Eugène's pursuit overran the frontier defenses at the Battle of Tarvis and wrecked a column of hoped-for reinforcements at the Battle of Sankt Michael. Forced to flee northeast into Hungary, John offered battle again but was defeated at Raab on 14 June 1809. Ordered to join his brother Archduke Charles at the Battle of Wagram on 5 and 6 July, John's small army arrived too late to avert an Austrian defeat. His brother criticized him for tardiness.

After the conclusion of the campaign, John again evolved plans for a widespread rebellion. However, upon the Treaty of Schönbrunn Austrian policies under Minister Klemens von Metternich sought a rapprochement to France. John's friend Baron Hormayr and other conspirators were arrested, the archduke himself effectively was sidelined and retired to his estates in Thernberg.

Post military

John, tired of warfare, turned away from the military and developed a great interest for nature, technology and agriculture. He collected minerals and was active as an alpinist and hunter in the Duchy of Styria. In his early days Archduke Johann and his brother Louis had the habit of travelling to France, where the latter married Madame de Gueroust. In 1815, on his visit to the United Kingdom, John received a Doctor honoris causa degree from the University of Edinburgh.[1]

In the history of Styria, he is remembered as a great modernizer and became an important figure of identification for Styrians. His proximity to the people is given evidence to by his many contacts with the common man, by wearing the local Tracht, the Steireranzug, and by collecting and promoting the material and spiritual culture of the country.

In 1811, he founded the Joanneum Museum in Graz and the predecessor of Graz University of Technology. Some other foundations were initiated by him, such as the Styrian State Archive 1817, the Steiermärkisch-Ständische Montanlehranstalt, which was founded in 1840 in Vordernberg and later became the University of Leoben, the Styrian Society for Agriculture 1819, the Mutual Fire Insurance, the Styrian Building Society, the Landesoberrealschule in 1845 and the Society for Styrian History in 1850. His routing of the Austrian Southern Railway from Vienna to Triest over the Semmering Pass and through the Mura and Mürz valleys to Graz is particularly notable. The inheritance of his maternal uncle Duke Albert Casimir of Teschen enabled him to acquire a tin factory in Krems near Voitsberg and coal mines near Köflach, thereby he also became an industrialist. In 1840, he bought the Stainz dominion. He was already the lord of the Brandhof manor in Mariazell.

In 1829, he married Anna Plochl (1804-1885), the daughter of Jakob Plochl, postmaster of Aussee, and his wife Maria Anna Pilz, during a nocturnal ceremony in Brandhof. By this morganatic marriage, John was excluded from succession to the throne. Emperor Francis elevated Anna to a "Baroness of Brandhofen" in 1834 and in 1839 she gave birth to a son, Franz, the only child from the marriage. His descendants were styled "Counts of Meran" and "Barons of Brandhofen", Proprietors of Stainz and Brandhofen.

John was also a passionate mountaineer in the Eastern Alps and attempted to be the first to climb the Großvenediger. For that reason, the Erzherzog-Johann-Hütte (Adlersruhe) at the Grossglockner, and the Archduke John's Vanilla Orchid (Nigritella rubra subsp. archiducis-joannis), an orchid growing on mountain meadows, are named after him.

The Events of 1848

Even though Johann did not consider himself a liberal, he promoted some liberal ideas. He was often in conflict with the rigid Habsburg court, especially because of his morganatic marriage, though he would never espouse rebellion. He had earned great recognition in the Styrian lands and, moreover, he gained general acceptance by his jovial manners and his marriage with a middle-class woman. Certain remarks he had made in favor of German unification, including a toast at a banquet in the 1830s, added to circulating rumors that the Archduke was a man of political liberalism, even though he was kept very far from politics by the Court.[2]

Head of the Austrian Government

Rioting in the streets of Vienna caused the Imperial household to flee to Innsbruck on 17 May 1848. Based on his reputation among the masses as a liberal and his personal character as a loyal prince of the reigning House, Archduke John was appointed on 16 June to be an effective viceroy in the absence of the Emperor. He was to both open the Constituent Diet and conduct the normal business of the government.[3] By a proclamation dated 25 June and written entirely by himself, the Archduke assumed his responsibilities and set the date to open the Diet for 22 July 1848.

After he accepted the office of Regent of Germany on 5 July 1848 (see below), John maintained that he could not undertake his responsibilities in Frankfurt until he had fulfilled his responsibilities in Vienna. Therefore, he set out for Frankfurt on 8 July, the same day that the Austrian Ministry led by Count Pillersdorf fell. After being appointed Regent in Frankfurt, he returned to Vienna on 17 July, and solemnly opened the Diet on 22 July as the Emperor's representative. Shortly thereafter, the Archduke resigned his official duties and departed for Frankfurt. This caused the Diet to petition for the Emperor's return to Vienna, and he did so on 12 August.

Regent of Germany

Upon the March Revolution of 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament discussed the appointment of an all-German government replacing the Federal Convention. On a proposal by the liberal politician Heinrich von Gagern, the assembly on 28 June 1848 voted for the establishment of a central authority (Provisorische Zentralgewalt) and on the next day a broad majority elected Archduke John regent of the realm (Reichsverweser).

Archduke John accepted the nomination as head of the short-lived German Empire on 5 July 1848, and on 12 July the delegates of the Federal Convention, in response to public pressure, ceded their powers to him. On July 15, the day he left for Vienna, the Regent appointed the ministers Anton von Schmerling, Johann Gustav Heckscher and Eduard von Peucker to office, completed by Prince Carl of Leiningen as minister president and head of government. Nevertheless, his political office did not offer many opportunities, though all laws had to be signed by him.

On 16 July 1848, War Minister von Peucker issued an order to all German Federal Army soldiers that, on 6 August 1848, they were to parade in honor of the Regent as the supreme commander of the Army in Germany. Upon his arrival in Vienna, the Archduke was greeted by Austrian War Minister Latour, who was quite upset with the interference of the provisional government in Austrian Army affairs. The whole Austrian Ministerial Council demanded action, and, as a result, the Archduke was forced to dispatch a formal complaint as Viceroy of Austria to himself as Regent of Germany.[4]

First attempts by the government to obtain supreme command of the German Federal Army faced entrenched resistance from the member states. To strengthen support, the left-wing politician Robert von Mohl joined the Leiningen Cabinet on 9 August. Leiningen himself resigned on 6 September, after the Frankfurt assembly rejected to ratify the armistice of Malmö, signed by Prussia during the First Schleswig War. Minister Anton von Schmerling acted as head of government, until from November 1848 the cabinet gradually lost the support of the centrist Casino faction and finally its majority in parliament. Schmerling was forced to resign and on 17 December, Archduke John had to appoint Heinrich von Gagern new minister president, though he opposed his 'Lesser German' ideas.

Archduke John did not take part in the draft of the Frankfurt Constitution, which was adopted on 28 March 1849 after lengthy negotiations led by Gagern, and he pronounced against the strong position of Prussia. Determined to resign, he was once more turned over by appeals from National Assembly President Eduard Simpson. When, in April 1849, King Frederick William IV of Prussia disappointed Gagern's hopes and openly rejected the Constitution, Archduke John remained passive because the terms of his service as Regent forbade him to interfere in the Constitutional process. Prime Minister Gagern handed in his resignation on 10 May. Prussia exerted pressure on the Regent to vacate the office that he had resigned, but the Archduke insisted that he would remain out of a sense of obligation, and had powerful backing from Austria's Prime Minister, Prince Schwarzenberg, who was eager to stifle Prussian ambitions in Germany. Nevertheless, he departed for a prolonged stay at the health resort of Bad Gastein. At this point, the National Assembly was reduced to a rump parliament led by radicals and in opposition to the Regent. The Regency existed in name only, though the Archduke continued formal correspondence with Vienna and Berlin as such. He finally was allowed to resign from his office on 20 December 1849. When Archduke Johann came back to Frankfurt on a visit in 1858, he openly regretted the failure of the German unification.

Mayor of Stainz

After nearly two years absence, the Archduke returned to Stainz, where he was elected the town's first mayor on 23 July 1850. This was the first and only case in Austria where a member of the Imperial family was elected mayor of a small market town. He exercised this office until 1858, represented in his occasional absence by market judge Georg Ensbrunner.[5]


Archduke John died in 1859 in Graz, where a fountain erected in his honor dominates the central square. He is buried in Schenna near Meran. He was the great-grandfather of noted conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929–2016).




  1. Schlossar 1878, p. 319.
  2. Heinrich von Sybel, The Founding of the German Empire by William I., 1896. Volume I, page 163.
  3. William Cox, History of the House of Austria, 1905. Page 253.
  4. Heinrich von Sybel, The Founding of the German Empire by William I., 1891. Volume I, page 228.
  5. Hans Wilfinger, Erzherzog Johann und Stainz. Verlag der Marktgemeinde Stainz, Stainz 1959 (2nd ed. 2001), pages 13 and 50.
  6. Le livre d'or de l'ordre de Léopold et de la croix de fer, Volume 1 /Ferdinand Veldekens
  7. Genealogie ascendante jusqu'au quatrieme degre inclusivement de tous les Rois et Princes de maisons souveraines de l'Europe actuellement vivans [Genealogy up to the fourth degree inclusive of all the Kings and Princes of sovereign houses of Europe currently living] (in French). Bourdeaux: Frederic Guillaume Birnstiel. 1768. p. 109.


  • Schlossar, Anton (1878), Erzherzog Johann von Österreich und sein Einfluß auf das Culturleben der Steiermark (in German), Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller
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