- The Tercentenary of Maria Theresa (1717–1780)The Year in Austria and Germany
Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire from 1740 until her death in 1780, was a remarkable historical character in many respects. She was the first female sovereign of a multicultural and multilingual dominion that stretched from Belgium all the way to Transylvania and Galicia in modern-day Romania and Ukraine. Her life saw the beginning transition of a deeply heterogeneous assemblage of individual states, largely based on feudal traditions, into a political entity in its own right. At the same time, she was married to Francis Stephen, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1745, the elected ruler—albeit with limited political powers—over a territory that roughly encompassed the then German-speaking part of Europe. Since 1440 this office had been held, almost uninterruptedly, by a member of the Habsburg family, and Maria Theresa's father, Emperor Charles VI, went to great lengths to secure that in the absence of a male hair, the Habsburg's hereditary possessions, among them the Archduchy of Austria as well as the Crowns of Bohemia and Hungary, could be inherited by his daughter, while her husband, descendent of the House of Lorraine, was to be elected German Emperor. The struggles to assert these claims after Charles's death in 1740 led to a number of armed conflicts, leading up to the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the world's first truly global conflict. Concurrently, Maria Theresa embodied the fundamental social and philosophical contradictions of the eighteenth century. While she was a deeply religious person and a devout Catholic, Maria Theresa appointed ministers and advisers who pushed drastic political and cultural reforms that still define the character of Central and Eastern Europe today, a century after the demise of the Empire.
Given her position in European history, it is no wonder that Maria Theresa's tercentenary in 2017 saw a number of new biographical approaches to reconstructing her life. In this review, I will survey the most significant examples with an [End Page 9] emphasis on the latest and most comprehensive biography by the German historian Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger. The first of the books to be discussed, Werner Telesko's Maria Theresia: Ein europäischer Mythos, appeared in 2012 and is concerned with Maria Theresa's life, but even more so with her afterlife. Telesko, a Viennese art historian, examines the monarch as a European myth and its representation in political and literary discourse, but also in popular culture. Informed by critics like Roland Barthes and Jan Assmann, Telesko asserts that the female body becomes central for the public imagination of the ruler during her lifetime. The ways in which she is depicted and presented to her subjects take various, often contradictory, forms and can range from nurturing mother to warfaring queen, with Mary, mother of Jesus, or the goddess Athena as iconographic and narrative models. After Maria Theresa's death her myth is gradually translated to a bourgeois setting, creating the notion of a sociable and approachable monarch, in stark contrast to the reality of her court, which was shaped by traditional hierarchies and the strict baroque protocol. The author's main achievement is convincingly asserting how the power of Maria Theresa served as a political representation for Austrian national identity in the twentieth century, when the contrast between her and her Prussian archrival Frederick II was employed to represent the supposed difference between Austria and Germany as a whole. In the light of the tercentenary in 2017, five years after Telesko's book came out, the European dimension of the monarch's eclectic myth seems to become ever more prevalent. An example that the author has addressed in recent papers on the topic is the biopic Maria Theresia (2017), co-produced by Austrian, Czech, Hungarian, and Slovakian television broadcasters and thus creating a multilingual and multicultural representation of the monarch.
A more conventional approach to Maria Theresa's life was chosen by Thomas Lau, a historian at the Swiss University of Fribourg, in his 2016 book Maria Theresia: Die Kaiserin. Following his subject from birth to death, Lau presents Maria Theresa as...