Obituary: Otto von Habsburg

When asked about the propriety of a non-reigning royal engaging in partisan politics, Dr. Otto von Habsburg, then head of Austria’s centuries’ old House of Habsburg, reportedly replied: “Members of former dynasties have also their obligation, and if you can’t win a battle on horseback, jump down and continue on foot” (emphasis added). That statement aptly characterizes his life’s work. Arguably, Habsburg achieved more to advance the cause of European unity as its “uncrowned emperor” than he might have had he actually ascended the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to which he had been destined. Yet, “Mr. Europe” did not live to see his beloved continent united on the Roman Catholic foundation for which he had yearned, although certainly not for lack of effort on his part.

Otto von Habsburg died at the age of 98 on Monday, July 4, 2011, at his home in Germany.

The former Crown Prince of Austria was born November 20, 1912, in Reichenau an der Rax in lower Austria as Archduke Franz Josef Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Rene Ludwig Gaetano Pius Ignazius of Austria (the names were drawn from his Habsburg, Bourbon-Parma, Braganza and Saxon ancestry). Within Austria he was, officially, Otto Habsburg-Lothringen, as the use of noble titles and prepositions such as “von” are forbidden by the Austrian constitution.

The eldest son of Karl—last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary—and Empress Zita, of Bourbon-Parma, Otto was head of the nine centuries’ old Habsburg dynasty, which ruled large portions of Europe from the 16th century, most notably under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In November 1916, upon the death of Franz Josef I, Karl ascended the throne and four-year-old Otto became the Crown Prince. The boy was groomed for rulership, being required to complete Austrian and Hungarian school curricula simultaneously. Over the years, he became fluent in seven languages.

At the end of the First World War in 1918, Karl abdicated, both monarchies were abolished, and the Republics of Austria and Hungary were founded. In the April 3, 1919 Habsburgergesetz, the Austrian parliament expelled the dynasty and confiscated Habsburg property. The family was forced into exile—first in Switzerland and then to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where Karl died of pneumonia in 1922, making Otto pretender to the throne at the age of 9.

According to Cathy Pearson’s profile of Habsburg from Inside the Vatican, “to a remarkable extent, the young archduke, on reaching his majority in 1930, simply took up and began exercising that responsibility as if he had the actual office [of Emperor]—without seeking thanks or reward, without benefit of title, power or resources.”

Even as a refugee moving from country to country with his mother and his seven siblings, young Otto maintained a vision of public service and continued his education, which culminated with a doctorate in social and political sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium in 1935.

As a fervent patriot, Habsburg opposed Adolf Hitler’s 1938 “Anschluss” of Austria, for which he was rewarded with a charge of treason and a warrant for his arrest. He escaped to Portugal by means of a visa issued by the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, then spent most of World War II in Washington, D.C. From there he attempted to use his influence to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Austria’s innocence in the Anschluss, and to advocate an independent Austrian state after the war. He was also a staunch opponent of Communism, auguring its eastern European demise in his 1957 book, The Social Order of Tomorrow.

Habsburg was an early and passionate advocate of European unity. In 1936 he joined the Paneuropa movement (since renamed International Pan European Union). Its goal was to persuade influential Europeans to work toward the establishment of a Christian United States of Europe. Habsburg became its president in 1972, and Honorary President beginning in 2004. After WWII he was a prolific public speaker, political writer and journalist, concentrating on the reunification of Europe. He was a member of The Mont Pelerin Society, patron of Three Faiths Forum, and founding president in 1952 of the European Documentation and Information Centre (CEDI), whose purpose was to unite Christian and conservative movements in the furtherance of European integration.

For 20 years (from 1979 to 1999) he was a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) representing the conservative German Christian Social Union (CSU) party. This was made possible by his obtaining dual German/Austrian citizenship, and the fact that since 1954, he and his wife, the former Princess Regina von Sachsen-Meiningen (who preceded him in death on February 3, 2010), had resided at “Villa Austria” on Lake Starnberg in Pöcking, in the southern German state of Bavaria.

In addition to his German and Austrian citizenship, he was also a citizen of Croatia and Hungary. Some Eastern Europeans fondly remember that in 1979, as MEP, Habsburg had an empty chair set up in the Strasbourg Parliament to represent those countries yet on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In addition, he raised eyebrows by giving a speech there in Hungarian, the only MEP able to do so. After the emergence of the Soviet-free Hungarian Republic, he was encouraged to stand for its office of President, for which he might well have been a shoo-in. But after serious consideration he concluded that he could accomplish more on behalf of Central Europe by continuing to work his well-established connections within the European Parliament.

Habsburg is also remembered for his role in organizing the August 19, 1989, Pan-European Picnic in Sopron, Hungary, with then Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn. During this event 661 East Germans fled to the West, effectively punching a gaping hole in the dike of the weakening Soviet Bloc.

Although Habsburg lived to witness incredible strides toward the political unification of East and West Europe to which he had dedicated his life, a vital element of his dream has yet to come to fruition: the Christianization (or more specifically, the Roman Catholicization) of Europe. He revealed what drove him in a 2008 interview related by Robert Rauhut of the National Catholic Register. Asked about his memories of returning home after WWII, he reminisced: “When you arrive in Europe . . . all these monuments of Europe, everything, expresses its spirit, it’s a Christian spirit. I cannot forget the following scene. During the War, I had been in the United States for three years. And one of the most beautiful days of my life was when I was flying back to Europe on an old ‘Clipper,’ and when you are slowly coming in over Europe, along the coast, the first small town was a town in the center of which there is a cathedral, and not a bank, not a huge financial institution and not a bureaucratic center. That’s Europe.”

Or, that was Europe.

Since then, Europe has become much more secular. Habsburg and others failed in their attempts even to get the name of God included in the preamble to the European Constitution, or in the Treaty of Lisbon which was created in its place when the constitution was rejected by France and the Netherlands. Currently there is little outward evidence to bolster his statement that “Europe is a Christian continent, whether certain people like it or not.” But Habsburg was on precisely the same page as Pope John Paul II—with whom he met often—who pleaded with Europeans in 1981: “It can be said that the European identity is not understandable without Christianity and that it is precisely in Christianity that are found those common roots by which the Continent has seen its civilization mature. . . . Find yourself again. Be yourself. Discover your origins, revive your roots. Return to those authentic values which made your history a glorious one and your presence so beneficent in the other continents.”

Though perhaps not stated publicly in so many words, what both of them—and no doubt Pope Benedict XVI as well—had in mind was some form of the Holy Roman Empire. It is noteworthy that not only did Habsburg know Benedict XVI as Josef Ratzinger for many years in Bavaria, but he had relationships with virtually a century of popes. The Habsburg dynasty was a defender of the Roman Catholic Church over eight previous centuries.

In the words of Habsburg biographer Gordon Brook-Shepherd: “His books [of which he penned more than a dozen] repeated, and often reproduced, the themes and texts of the thousands of newspaper articles, lectures, interviews and media appearances he had made over the years. The message was the same, and hammered home time and time again: the importance of a strong, free and self-reliant Europe (he tended to omit the word democratic); the key roles of Christianity and traditional values as the basis for Western society.”

In Habsburg’s own book, The Social Order of Tomorrow (first published in German in 1957), the question was not if, but when, eastern Europe would be liberated. Ultimately the territories lost to the West in the treaties of Teheran and Yalta would have to be reintegrated: “by Europe,” he clarified, “we mean the continent in its entirety.”

That hope has largely been realized in the European Union. But Habsburg’s vision was even more expansive: “Beyond its geographical boundaries, Europe has connections with other parts of the world which it cannot renounce, and which are part of its essential raison d’être.” This was echoed by Brook-Shepherd, who states that Habsburg’s last speech to the European Parliament on May 7, 1999 “ended with a plea for the projection of European culture throughout the world.”

With regard to the thorny problem of establishing a European head of state, Habsburg advocated that “the head of the various national states, presidents as well as monarchs,” in the tradition of “the great Electors of the Holy Roman Empire,” would elect a head of state for life, to an office that “must be essentially ‘monarchical,’ though it need not be so either in form or in name.” This, he said, would result in “a modern version of the ancient and yet always contemporary idea of a great occidental empire.” Furthermore, recognizing the importance of symbolism in political life, he offered that the head of state should be the guardian of an existing “European symbol which belongs to all nations equally. This is the Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which embodies the tradition of Charlemagne, the ruler of a united occident.”

Referring to Christianity as Europe’s “very soul,” Habsburg wrote more than 50 years ago that “to speak of a Christian Europe is an act of faith in our life and future. It is to recognize that, far from being finished, our continent is today at the threshold of new developments that will realise our highest hopes.” He never wavered in that faith.

It is said that Otto’s father, Emperor Karl, had prayerfully offered his last illness and death “‘for the good of the Church,’ and ‘so my people can come together again.’” The second part of that wish has essentially been realized in the European Union. But at the time of Karl’s beatification in Rome by Pope John Paul II in October, 2004, Inside the Vatican (which characterized Otto as a “globally recognized Catholic layman,” naming him as one of their top 10 persons of the year for 2006) asked Habsburg about “the other half, ‛for the good of the Church.’ He answered with great energy and conviction, eyes sparkling, ‘Oh, it will come—it will come!’”

If a new Catholic European super state does indeed materialize, it wouldn’t be surprising if one or more Habsburgs have a role in it. Otto and his wife had seven children, two of them sons. Daughter Walburga Habsburg Douglas and Gabriella, and sons Karl and Georg have been active in European politics. Altogether the Habsburg lineage, scattered widely around the world, numbers over 600. In his book The Habsburgs, Andrew Wheatcroft painstakingly develops his thesis of the Habsburgs’ centuries-long, skillful employment of imagery and symbols in creating and perpetuating a sense of divine destiny, even tying their claim to sovereignty all the way back to Julius Caesar and Nero (recall Habsburg’s reference to the crown of Charlemagne, above). Otto, for practical reasons, renounced all claims to the throne in 1961. Eldest son Karl, however, has hedged when asked about his views on monarchy—at least regarding Austria—saying “It’s an open question.” From which Wheatcroft concludes: “That comes to the heart of the Habsburg philosophy: it is an open question. If not now, later; what has been, may be again. History has been ‘abolished.’ . . . For the Habsburgs, there is only a continual present. The archdukes and archduchesses have no doubts: they embody the essence of empire. The members of the family will work, serve the ideal, lead sober, respectable, boring lives, from generation to generation, sure in the knowledge that destiny will turn again in their direction.”

Is this a pipe dream? Perhaps a harbinger of the future can be seen in a little-noticed event reported by Inside the Vatican: “The head of the House of Habsburg, who for decades was not permitted so much as to set foot in his native land, lived long enough to hear the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna address him as ‘your imperial highness’ at a Mass at the Stefansdom celebrating his 90th birthday. (Yes, without provoking a riot or government crisis!) Perhaps, then, it is not so unreasonable for him to foresee a vibrantly Christian future for a continent whose brave new government is today ashamed even to acknowledge its Christian past.”

Otto von Habsburg’s dream was nothing less than a rebirth of the Holy Roman Empire, which he undoubtedly believed would be the greatest of all possible blessings to the world. He witnessed—indeed had been a formidable moving force behind—what could well be a substantial foundation for such an entity.