Giuseppe Benedetto Augusto Giovanni Antonio Michele Adam David of Habsburg-Lorraine was emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1765 and from the same year he was associated to the throne with his mother Maria Teresa on the dominions of the Habsburg family until her death (1780), then only ruler until his death in 1790. During his reign he was considered by his contemporaries as the typical representative of "enlightened despotism" and as Emperor continued the work of the mother according to the principles of jurisdictionalism.
On March 27, 1764, Joseph II, now considered adult enough to share his paternal powers, was chosen in Frankfurt am Main, in front of the reunited imperial diet, as King of Germany (subsidiary title to that of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) and came crowned April 3 of the same year, taking the motto Virtute et exemplo.
In 1765, at the sudden death of his father, Joseph II could rise to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. In the same year he was also officially associated with his mother as co-regent on all states of archducal collation, without however being able to give ample space to his own government initiatives. The position of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, moreover, from the mid-seventeenth century, had mostly become an appellation of honor rather than a real state office, which further diminished its influence on government affairs, while granting it almost control total on the finances of the state.
We know from ancient documents that on many occasions Joseph had completely opposite ideas to those of his mother, especially in domestic politics, but was still subject to the predominant figure of Maria Teresa, who also helped to instil his education towards the ideals of enlightenment that will then establish the basis of Joseph II's politics. On the death of his mother in 1780, Joseph II tried to reconvert his politics, but this proved to be unfair to his conduct and the state that had long been accustomed to a line of Teresian approach.
Joseph II is known above all in the world for having been one of the greatest rulers of history proponents of enlightened absolutism. This can be deduced in the first instance from his writings, from which it is clear that he conceived his role as head of the nation as a sacrosanct duty to be fulfilled to be the link between God and his people, increasingly focusing the role of government on his person, while maintaining a politics and ideals of the Enlightenment: "All for the people, but nothing through the people" is the motto with which the conduct of the reign of Joseph II has often been identified.
Obviously in this, Joseph II recovered not only the influence of the Austrian aristocracy, but also a chivalrous and medieval touch that consecrated him as the king-priest, a fact that made him very much to actively consider ecclesiastical affairs as government affairs. In 1782, moreover, he abolished the personal servants of the peasants and in the real properties they became hereditary tenants.
This was also accompanied by a great tendency towards centralism that led him to design an ambitious internal politics of the empire: he wanted to make Austria a powerful unitary state with Germany, abolishing all the linguistic and cultural differences and privileges that distinguished the nations parts of the Holy Roman Empire and subjected to its guidance. This, of course, triggered almost everywhere in the empire of nationalist tendencies and popular revolts that made him withdraw from this project.
One of his concerns was the well-being of his own people, particularly in terms of health that he particularly cared for with the construction of a hospital in Vienna that he took the name of "Josephinum" that was personally designed by the monarch in smaller details.
His reform of working hours for laborers and laborers, was instead opposed by the old Austrian ruling class who saw in the low-priced work of the less well-to-do classes an easy form of income and exploitation.
The foreign policy of Emperor Joseph II was essentially a policy of expansion, but certainly not favored by luck. Austria's participation in the first partition of Poland brought the Galician government to the Empire, but it soon had to return to Prussia because it had proposed to participate alongside Prussia in the war against the Turks, manifesting at the same time the desire to obtain a territory that would allow the Prussian state to connect with the East Prussia Baltic possessions that were isolated from neighboring Pomerania. Despite Austria's close proximity to the Russian government of Catherine II, the Empire always played a secondary role in the Polish divisions that followed.
In the Bavarian War of Succession, the initial treaties stipulated that Bavaria would have to go directly into the hands of Hapsburg hereditary dominions and that the Wittelsbachs would have to get the Austrian Netherlands government in return, but this project failed leaving the European territorial situation unchanged.
In 1787, Joseph II again put pressure on Catherine II of Russia to engage in a new war against the Turks, from which, however, Austria derived only a slight advantage.
In November 1788, Joseph II returned to Vienna after a trip in which he was seriously ill, so much so that already in 1789 a co-regency of his brother and heir Leopoldo was thought for him, also to face an international situation little pleasant: in fact, the imperial troops had mostly concentrated on the Belgian border after the first French revolutionary hints of the summer of that year. In Hungary, then, the local nobles were in open rebellion and in all the states of the empire you could see almost daily small and medium revolts that brought to the fore the feelings of nationalistic claim.
Joseph, however, was left to himself, to such an extent that the Kaunitz, his minister of trust, refused to visit him when he was in bed suffering and did not see him for the next two years of the Emperor's life. Leopold, the younger brother of the emperor, remained in Florence where he was Grand Duke, regardless of the fate of his brother's empire.
Emperor Joseph II died on 20 February 1790 of tuberculosis. In the absence of heirs, he succeeded as it was easy to foresee, his younger brother Leopoldo. His body was buried in the tomb 42 of the Kapuzinergruft (Cripta dei Cappuccini) of Vienna along with the corpses of his ancestors. He himself dictated his epitaph: "Here lies Joseph II, whoever failed anything that he undertook".