- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

By Paula Sutter Fichtner
Yale University Press, $30, 344 pages, illus.

"By virtually all standards, including his own, Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576) was a failure." So begins Paula Sutter Fichtner's account of the life and times of one of 16th-century Europe's least effective rulers.
As a Hapsburg, Maximilian was a member of one of Europe's leading dynasties. His uncle, Charles V, had built up a massive empire, uniting the Netherlands, Spain, the New World, Naples, Sicily and Germany under his leadership. Charles' son, Philip, inherited the Spanish part of this empire and the Netherlands, while Germany passed to Charles' brother, Ferdinand, and thence, in 1562, to Ferdinand's son, Maximilian.
Charles V and Philip II are two of the great figures of European history and have been the subjects of numerous studies, but "Emperor Maximillian II" is the first full biography of Maximilian II in English. Perhaps not surprisingly, previous scholars have been deterred by Maximilian's inadequacies his inability to achieve any of his stated aims and his failure to make any lasting impression on Europe's political and religious landscape. As the author points out, however, history is not just about great achievements. It is about the totality of past experience, in which failure and defeat have inevitably played a central role.
The biography begins with an account of Maximilian's education and upbringing. He was groomed for kingship by his father and uncle but was, in the author's words, an "angry apprentice." There were reports of him drinking and whoring while in his uncle's service. He deferred to his father, whom he suspected of favoring his younger brother above him, only selectively. He criticized Charles V and his son, the future Philip II of Spain, publicly. Maximilian caused his elders considerable concern, though his behaviour was not entirely unprovoked: With his inheritance not yet assured, he was compelled to be constantly at the beck and call of his family. In 1548, for example, he was sent against his will to act as Charles' regent in Spain.
When Maximilian finally became Emperor in 1562 he was determined to outdo his father's achievements. He set out to reform the administration of his realms, to subdue the Turks who constantly threatened his easternmost borders and, most importantly, to restore Germany to a single faith. As the author examines his endeavors in each of these areas it becomes clear that Maximilian achieved none of his objectives. His attempts at administrative reform were halfhearted.
Like his cousin, Philip II, who purportedly often fell asleep over his papers at midnight, Maximilian was deeply concerned with day-to-day minutiae of government. With regard to his administrative system, however, he lacked the vision and resources, both financial and human, to replace what was essentially a system of private interest, where patronage and informal reward reigned supreme, with something approximating a functioning bureaucracy.
Maximilian's achievements in the military sphere were no greater. He described the Turks as his "hereditary foe": The struggle between the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, over which Maximilian presided, had preoccupied his father, his uncle and his great grandfather, Emperor Maximilian I. In 1529, at the height of their military power, the Turks had reached the gates of Vienna, the very heart of the Hapsburgs' patrimonial lands. They had been beaten back, but under the leadership of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent they remained a formidable enemy.
Between 1564 and 1566 open warfare broke out once more, this time in Hungary, where the ruler of Transylvania, an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire, threatened Hapsburg lands. Determined to counter this challenge, Maximilian led his Christian troops into battle himself, unfortunately staking his reputation as a military leader on a campaign that turned into a disaster. Ill informed about his enemy's movements, given contradictory advice by his commanders and incapable of making incisive decisions himself, Maximilian failed to capitalize on temporary advantages and was eventually forced to withdraw ignominiously. Having had his fingers burned once, Maximilian refused to renew the offensive against the Turks for the rest of his reign.
It was in matters of religion that Maximilian perhaps felt his own failings most acutely. His personal religious convictions were complex. His upbringing and his family, in particular his Spanish wife, Maria, tied him to Catholicism. Although Maximilian never formally renounced this tie, he flirted with Protestantism throughout his life. He was interested in Protestant ideas, welcomed Lutherans and even Calvinists at his court and was unfailingly critical of the papacy's inflexible attitude toward calls for religious reform. Maximilian hoped, at first, that it would be possible to restore Germany to a single faith, to reach some kind of compromise acceptable to both Catholics and Lutherans, the two confessions given official recognition by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.
He argued, in a letter to his general Lazarus von Schwendi, that "affairs of religion cannot be adjudicated and dealt with by the sword." Unfortunately, few of his contemporaries agreed; the German princes were seldom prepared to put aside confessional partisanship, and many were more than willing to fight to defend their beliefs.
By the 1560s there were no longer just two confessions Catholicism and Lutheranism to be reconciled. There were different types of Lutherans, and Calvinists too. Maximilian complained in exasperation that there were as many opinions as there were heads. Within the Empire a delicate confessional balancing act might just have been possible, but international events, in particular the Revolt of the Netherlands, destroyed any possibility of religious peace. In 1568 an alliance of Calvinists and disaffected grandees rebelled against the rule of their Catholic king, Philip II of Spain.
When Philip's Catholic troops arrived in the Netherlands to crush the rebellion, Germany's Protestant princes feared that the campaign against Protestantism would expand to include them. Maximilian could not avoid involvement: As Emperor, he had notional sovereignty over much of the Netherlands. Caught between the demands of his Protestant subjects in Germany and his loyalty to his Catholic cousin in Spain, he tried, unsuccessfully, to mediate the dispute. The affair dominated the last years of his reign, and was far from resolved at his death. The de facto independence of the northern Netherlands was not acknowledged by Spain until 1609, and Europe continued to be wracked by religious warfare until 1648.
Paula Sutter Fichtner's detailed and judicious account of the high politics of Maximilian's reign is enlivened throughout by insights into the Emperor's personal preoccupations and private life. We learn not only about Maximilian's administrative, military and diplomatic struggles, but also about his interest in horticulture and in exotica of all kinds.
In 1552, for example, he brought an elephant to Vienna, a creature so novel that its arrival attracted far more attention from locals than that of the future emperor and his wife. We also learn about Maximilian's patronage of art, music and science an essential for any early modern prince and the author rightly devotes considerable attention to the emperor's troubled relationship with his family and to the ill health that plagued him throughout his career.
The biography is based on extensive archival research, and is presented in a highly readable form (though a family tree would have been handy, especially given intricacies of Hapsburg marriage diplomacy).
Maximilian's catalogue of defeats may make for depressing reading, but as the author points out, his failings tell us much about the institutional, political and religious problems of his day. He operated under numerous constraints:
He ruled a fragmented empire that had no central state structure; his subjects' entrenched interests militated against administrative and military reform; his government was chronically under funded; he was constantly under threat from the Turks; and he was torn between his duties as Holy Roman Emperor and his loyalties to the house of Hapsburg. Religion was undoubtedly Maximilian's biggest problem, and has played a key role in determining his posthumous reputation. He has been labeled a hypocrite and dissembler because of his vacillation, but the author's sympathetic verdict is ultimately more compelling: "He was a man of peace and conciliation whose moment to rule coincided with one of the most factious epochs in all of European history."

Bridget Heal is Dorothy Ray Cohen Research Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge University.

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