On April 1, 2022, Masses and observances shall mark the centennial of the death of Bl. Karl, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Croatia, Dalmatia, Galicia, and lord of many other places. But his tomb does not lie with his fathers and his beloved consort Zita in Vienna’s Kaisergruft, but on the lonely, windswept island of Madeira, deep in the North Atlantic. A century ago he died in exile because he and his wife refused to renounce the obligations to their peoples they firmly believed God had placed upon them. The powers who defeated them – the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and the minor politicians who had divided their realms into petty and unstable states – determined that they should be punished for this refusal by being cut off from the financial support owed them – or even gifts from their still-loyal followers. This led directly to the conditions which culminated in Karl’s death from pneumonia. Had the gallant King Alfonso XIII of Spain not come to the aid of the Emperor’s pregnant widow and seven orphaned children and rescued them, they might well have shared their husband and father’s fate.
In the years following, the Imperial family would find themselves relocating from Spain to Belgium, fleeing the invading Germans in 1940, finding refuge in the United States and Canada, and spending the Postwar Years attempting to apply their dynastic vocation to a severely changed world. The Archduke Otto was able – among other things – to convince Franklin Roosevelt that Austria was as much a victim of the Nazis as any other country; this is why the country exists to-day, rather than being part of Germany. His younger brothers joined the Resistance in Tyrol in 1944, while Karl Renner enjoyed the comforts his collaboration with the occupiers brought. Otto joined his brothers in Innsbruck when the war ended, only to be expelled by Renner, whose new Soviet sponsors had returned him temporarily to the Chancellor’s seat. The new government also kept the family’s real estate seized by the Germans in 1938 – and continues to hold on to this Nazi loot to-day.
Zita returned to Europe in 1954; her family grown, she lived in a Swiss convent and devoted herself primarily to religious and charitable work. In the meantime Otto worked in the shadow of the Soviet Bloc for a the creation of a United Europe that would be at once Christian and free – a vision shared by the founders of the European Union. In 1979, he was elected to the European Parliament. The Soviet Bloc began its collapse the very year of Zita’s death and State Funeral a decade later. Otto and his family worked hard and successfully for the entrance of most of the newly-liberated Central European countries (many of which had been ruled by the Habsburgs for centuries) in the EU and NATO. By the time of the Archduke’s death in 2011, this latter work had been largely accomplished.
Alas, change was also at work in Western Europe, and not for the better. Over the course of the 1960s and 70s, the Christian Democratic parties that dominated Western Europe lost their religious values. The nations over which they presided became ever more dedicated not merely to infanticide, euthanasia, end gender confusion, but hosted elites which quite frankly hated both their national traditions and those of Christian Europe as a whole. Over the past two decades, Vladimir Putin was enabled by their behaviour to cast himself ever more as the protector of Christian morality in public life. The COVID Pandemic showed Western leadership to be the quiet totalitarians their beliefs had made them into, while Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ended his bid to be the leader of European sanity. Nevertheless, even while Poland and Hungary took in more Ukrainian refugees than any other country, the European Parliament took the opportunity to attack them for their “retrograde” views.
In the midst of all of this, Bl. Emperor Karl’s centennial is upon us. It might well be asked what relevance this observance has for the embattled young people of his former realms, trapped as they are between two assertive blocs, both of which have no love of Central Europe’s unique culture and traditions? In a word – plenty.
Religiously speaking, Bl. Karl has a great deal to teach us. The world suffers to-day from a catastrophic failure of leadership across the board. But the Holy Emperor represents a sort of sacrificial leadership that loves its subjects and is willing to die for them. As a soldier, he combined personal bravery and tactical skill with a strong sense of honour, and compassion for the defeated and the captured – in a word, he is a perfect patron for both leaders and soldiers who would perform their roles well. As a husband and father and son he was exemplary, balancing his varied public and private duties with firmness and love. But he is not mere an example; he and his wife are intercessors whose prayers to God can be relied upon for those who would follow in their path.
The Emperor also bears an important political relevance; we should remember his dying words, that he was suffering “that my peoples might come back together.” Now, on the one hand, the past cannot return, and the Austria-Hungary of 1867 is gone beyond recall. But a Monarchical Federation of Central European States – not too far in some ways from what Franz Ferdinand advocated before World War I – is a different story. Imagine that the Head of the House of Habsburg was crowned successively not only with the Crowns of Ss. Wenceslaus and Stephen, but new ones of Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia – and perhaps others, such as Poland. Boasting a united Parliament and Government primarily to oversee foreign affairs and defence, the constituent countries, provinces, and municipalities would exercise the utmost subsidiarity, while the joint Monarch acted as a sort of orchestra leader. Both a focus of loyalty, ombudsman, and Commander-in-Chief of the forces, he would be in a position – legitimised by religion and cultural tradition – to act as a check and watchdog upon the political classes for the sake of his peoples. This arrangement could function either outside or inside the European Union; but if the latter, on its own terms – not Brussels’. Moreover, it could function as both an example and a catalyst for the rest of Europe, for Russia, and even that Europe beyond the Seas of which my own United States are an integral part.
Romantic dreaming? Impractical? Possibly. But something must change, and soon, in this part of the world, if things are to avoid becoming an utter disaster. While cities across the United States went up in flames during the Summer of 2020, the Marian Column was restored in Prague. The Double Eagle was restored to the Castle Fountain, and the Prague City Council gave permission for the rebuilding of the Radetsky monument. There are small but determined groups of young Monarchists in Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and of course, Czechia: history is made by determined minorities, as the events of 1918 showed.
Certainly, this Centennial Year should be an opportunity for concerned young people throughout Central Europe and further afield to consider where they find themselves in the light of the life and witness of Karl and Zita and the centuries of tradition they represent. The Socialism, Communism, Liberalism, and Secularism which succeeded them have brought nothing but bloodshed and misery of many kinds in their wake. But committed to those things as previous generations (including my own) have been, to-day’s young people may feel free to explore better alternatives – the more so, because Karl and Zita during the difficult years of decision when the heavy responsibility of authority was placed upon their shoulders were so often and tragically defeated by older folk who mistakenly considered themselves wiser as well.
In any case, regardless of whatever horrors in Church and State await us in the months and years ahead, the ever-young Imperial and Royal couple await our prayers. Their lives, which seem so tragic on the surface, were not really so: they gained Heaven. In truth, their defeat and their tragedy were ours. Those who follow them politically may win some victory in this world; those who follow them religiously shall surely gain Heaven. That is the real victory.
Charles A. Coulombe