Joseph belonged to the so-called Hungarian branch of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. Upon entry into the First Infantry Regiment ("Kaiser") in 1890, he became the third archduke bearing the name Joseph to have done so.
In May 1902, he was assigned to the Hungarian First Regiment, where he rose to the grade of colonel before being given the Seventy-ninth Honvédség Infantry Brigade as major general in 1908.
At the outbreak of the war, Joseph commanded the Thirty-first Infantry Division and was initially ordered to the Serbian front; however, the unex-pected rapid Russian advance brought him to Galicia. In November 1914, General of Cavalry Joseph was entrusted with the VII (Temesvâr) Corps during the tenacious defense of the Carpathian passes. On July 8, 1915, after Italy entered the war against Austria-Hungary, Joseph's VII Corps was assigned to army command Boroevic at Laibach and ordered to hold the southern Isonzo front near Doberdö "at all costs." In what became known as the Second, Third, and Fourth Isonzo battles, the VII Corps held off the Italians under the Duke of Aosta in costly hand-to-hand fighting. Joseph remained at the Italian front through the Ninth Isonzo battle during October and November 1916, and then in the grade of colonel general was appointed commander of the eastern front against Russian and Rumanian units.
The archduke was credited by army headquarters with the successful repulse of a major Russian-Rumanian attack in the winter of 1916, with the advance of mixed allied units under the Württemberg General von Gerok into Rumania early in 1917, with the offensive of the Seventh Army under General Hermann Kövess from the Carpathian passes into the Bukovina in July 1917, and finally with the triumphant German-Austro-Hungarian ad-vance from Transylvania over the Ojtoz Pass into Rumania under Field Marshal August von Mackensen. Joseph displayed personal bravery on several occasions and was able to relate to his men in a remarkable degree.
Unfortunately, the archduke's career then took a turn for the worse. Early in January 1918, as head of the Sixth Army in Venetia, he took part in a council of marshals convened at army headquarters in Baden and voted as the only one of twelve military commanders for the division of the common army into separate Austrian and Hungarian armies. In July Joseph was entrusted with his last field command: he succeeded General Conrad von Hötzendorf as army group commander of the Tyrolean front in Bozen. Late in October the archduke's headquarters informed Vienna that “only an unconditional cessation of hostilities . . . can avoid a catastrophe."
After the war Joseph assumed the leadership of the counterrevolution in Budapest and conducted negotiations as homo regius between Emperor Charles and Prime Minister Mihäly Kärolyi. Immediately after the fall of Bela Kun's Soviet Republic, the archduke was made Regent of Hungary (August/September 1919), but was forced to retire by the Entente powers, which would not tolerate a Habsburg as head of state in Hungary; they accepted instead the dictatorship of Admiral Miklos Horthy. Joseph died in Regensburg, Federal Republic of Germany, on July 7, 1962.
On 15 November 1893, in Munich, he married Princess Augusta Maria Louise of Bavaria (1875–1964), daughter of Prince Leopold of Bavaria (1846–1930) and his wife Archduchess Gisela of Austria (1856–1932).