Franz Josef Ghost Rules Vienna

VIENNA.- Even a century after his death, Austria's mutton-chop whiskered emperor Franz Joseph still looms large in the national consciousness -- both as the custodian of imperial glory and the tragic figure responsible for its decline.

For 68 years, the head of the powerful Habsburg dynasty reigned over a multi-ethnic realm with more than 50 million people, making him one of the world's longest-serving leaders.

To commemorate the centenary of his death in November, the City of Vienna is currently showcasing six exhibitions at landmark locations, including the world-famous Schoenbrunn Palace where Franz Joseph was born in 1830.

The aim is to shed light on the personality cult surrounding the emperor, whose image used to feature on every school, train station and army barracks.

"For Austrians, he's a depoliticised figure which doesn't elicit a longing for the monarchy but rather cultivates a nostalgia of the 'good old days', kept alive by skilful marketing," said one of the exhibitions' curators, historian Karl Vocelka who recently published a biography of Franz Joseph.

To this day, the stern-looking patriarch -- who proudly referred to himself as "the last monarch of the old school" -- has left a lasting imprint on Vienna.

The capital is strewn with the vestiges of his reign, from a solemn statue in the gardens of the Hofburg palace -- now home to the presidential offices -- to the initials "F.J." engraved on many public buildings constructed under his orders.

He still towers over daily politics in the shape of a marble relief showing him as a roman emperor above the main entrance of the parliament. Alongside his beautiful wife Elisabeth, affectionately known as "Sisi", the strapping emperor also appears on postcards, fridge magnets and countless other tourist trinkets.

Reluctant Media Star

In the course of his lifetime, the emperor witnessed no less than 150 international rulers come and go. When he was crowned in 1848 aged barely 18, the era belonged to horse carriages and ballroom dances.

By the time he died on November 21, 1916, "there were planes, the cinema, the telephone", wrote current affairs magazine Profil in a recent special edition.

A pragmatic leader with a penchant for military uniforms, Franz Joseph crushed nationalist revolts, survived an assassination attempt, and unified Austria and Hungary in 1867.

Franz Joseph also tore down Vienna's claustrophobic fortification walls, paving the way for the splendid Ringstrasse boulevard which transformed the city into a glittering chocolate box metropolis.

At the start of the 20th century, Vienna rivaled Paris, London and Berlin as a hub of cultural refinement. The emergence of photography and moving images turned Franz Joseph -- a very private person -- into a reluctant media star.

"Franz Joseph is the first monarch whose voice and face are known beyond oil paintings," noted Vocelka, in reference to the huge trove of pictures available to the public today.

But the conservative ruler was not comfortable with the new technologies, preferring to seek the peace and quiet of his summer retreat in Bad Ischl.

Here too, his legend lives on. Every August, the spa town in Upper Austria re-enacts the imperial visits with a faux royal couple arriving by steam train amid much pomp and military fanfare.

Charming to Taciturn

The myth surrounding Franz Joseph was further fuelled by the tragedies overshadowing his personal life: the early death of his daughter Sophie, the murder of Sisi, the suicide of his son Rudolf, and the execution of his brother.

In light of so much grief, Franz Joseph grew from a charming young man to an increasingly isolated and taciturn leader over the years. The biggest blow, however, came at the end of his life.

It is one of history's great ironies that Franz Joseph himself would sound the death knell for his beloved empire when he declared war on Serbia in July 1914 after the assassinations of the imperial heir presumptive Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

The move would not only trigger World War I but also lead to the collapse of both the monarchy and the empire. It prompted modern commentators to call him a "moderately talented" and even "powerless" leader who was defied by the extraordinary challenges of his time.

"Towards the end of his life Franz Joseph became a relic of a time long past, increasingly isolated from the developments taking place in contemporary society," observed historian Martin Mutschlechner, another curator of the current exhibitions. "With his rigid traditionalism, (he) thus contributed to the decline of the monarchy against his own best intentions."