Especially under Joseph II, Austrian “enlightened absolutism” acquired a state-centered radicalism that alarmed and alienated the powerful high aristocracy and church authorities. In both noble-dominated Hungarian political life and in the more bourgeois southern Netherlands, it ignited nationally-hued opposition to what seemed a ruthless, Germanizing bureaucratic juggernaut. With the French Revolution’s outbreak in 1789, the absolutist reform program in Vienna became unsustainable, and after 1792 a regime commenced (lasting to 1835 and beyond) that embraced a conservative program of “throne, aristocracy, and altar.”
Absolutism, it turned out, was a suit of armor into which the far-flung Austrian lands and the noble and churchly elites dominating them could not be tolerably fitted. It was only in the narrow Austrian-German and neighboring Bohemian heartland that the Habsburgs achieved a centralized and fiscally remunerative military-bureaucratic transformation. This was not enough to balance Prussia’s gains or to offset the cost of ruling in Austria’s many other provinces, where there was growing danger that power-aggrandizing state innovation might trigger nationalist resistance. The lesson soon drawn by Austria’s long-standing principal executive official, Clemens von Metternich (in office 1809-48), was that Austrian security lay in elite cohesion on conservative principles and in unremitting opposition, spearheaded by police repression, to potentially revolutionary liberalism, democracy, and nationalism. The era of absolutism passed without benefiting Austria as it had Prussia.