Otto von Habsburg, RIP


Otto von Habsburg died on Monday, aged 98.

Archduke Otto von Habsburg

When he was born in 1912, his father was heir apparent of the more than six-century-old Habsburg monarchy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, comprising 11 nations at his birth, was presided over by his father Karl for only two years before it came to an end. Otto, deprived of his future as Archduke of Austria, King of Hungary and other sundry titles, went on to live a historic and sometimes heroic life, animated by the European ideal.

Here in Krakow one thinks of the Habsburgs in a rather particular way. During the long partition of Poland from 1795-1918, Krakow belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. World War I brought an end to that empire, and Poland celebrates November 11 as its independence day.

Nov. 11, 1918, was not a day of celebration in the Habsburg house. Otto's father, the Emperor Karl, while not formally abdicating, renounced any role in the affairs of state, and that evening the imperial family fled the royal palace in Vienna. Austria declared itself a republic and, no longer welcome in their homeland, the Habsburgs were eventually exiled to Portugal. Karl would die in 1922, leaving his nine-year-old son Otto as heir to a now non-existent empire.

Fewer childhoods could have been stranger than Otto's boyhood – being addressed in his household as "Your Majesty" but remaining unwelcome in the land over which he was supposedly king. Otto matured into a responsible young man, free from the dysfunction that marked so many European royal families. In his twenties, Hitler was on the rise. Hitler pressed the nakedly self-interested argument that the Germanic- speaking peoples ought to form one nation, with Germany absorbing Austria. Otto, whose family knew something about multinational empires, offered to return to Austria in 1938 if it was thought that the prestige and history of the Habsburg crown might prevent Hitler's take over. This did not happen, but the 27- year-old's courage was remarkable – he was already a marked man by the Gestapo, and Hitler would have certainly ordered his assassination had he returned.

Otto's courage and virtue were rooted in the witness of his late father, the Emperor Karl, who was not a highly successful emperor, though, in fairness, assuming the Habsburg throne in the middle of the First World War was not a propitious moment. Karl was a holy man, devoted to service of God and his people. In 2004, the Emperor Karl was beatified by the Catholic Church, a noble example that political power and personal holiness are not only compatible, but that the latter should animate the former.

After the Second World War, Otto supported a federation in central Europe. Perhaps he thought it might provide a seat for a reconstituted Habsburg crown; in the event, by 1962 he renounced all the claims of the family dynasty and entered European politics. Elected to the European parliament from Bavaria in 1979, he served there for 20 years, becoming known as that chamber's "father."

The descent from Imperial Majesty to member of a somewhat fantastic parliament was dramatic, but Otto seemed to think of it in terms of continuities rather than disruptions. The Habsburgs, at their best, aspired to a multinational unification of European peoples, animated by humane values and custodians of Europe's fundamental identity as the meeting place of Roman law, Greek philosophy and the Christian faith.

In 2004, the Emperor Karl was beatified by the Catholic Church, a noble example that political power and personal holiness are not only compatible, but that the latter should animate the former.

The European Union is rather a pale shadow of that aspiration. In terms of faith, Europe is at war with its own heritage, and the noble ideals of law and philosophy come second to the rather grubby matters of agricultural protectionism, indulgent labour markets and profligate public finances. Yet, perhaps because of his searing experiences of war and totalitarianism, Otto von Habsburg was a passionate European, a committed advocate of the European project as a path to peace and prosperity.

The age of empires is over. But given the empires that followed – Soviet communism and the Third Reich – the Habsburg empire appears rather benign. Certainly Cracovians would look upon rule from Vienna as having been far superior to rule from Berlin or Moscow.

Europe is politically in crisis, financially a wreck and spiritually bereft. Otto von Habsburg, and his father Blessed Karl, were considered in the long 20th century as men of the past. In the 21st century, their example has again become relevant.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Otto von Hapsburg, RIP." National Post, (Canada) July 7, 2011.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 National Post

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