A perfect gentleman

Otto von Habsburg, son of Austria’s last emperor and champion of European unity, has died.
Joanna Bogle | Jul 12 2011 | comment  

Otto von Habsburg

He was a perfect gentleman, a fascinating person to meet, an excellent linguist (fluent in, I think, six or seven languages), a superb public speaker, a skilled politician, a genuine public servant who sought the common good. He was also kindly, self-effacing, and humorous. Meeting Archduke Otto von Habsburg was fascinating and the time he spent with us was given with generosity, humility and charm. Now, at the age of 98, this bearer of what the Guardian has called “the oldest and most eminent dynastic name in European history” has died.

I met him because, with my husband, I was writing a biography of his father, Emperor Karl von Habsburg, the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Emperor Karl inherited the throne in 1916 on the death of Franz Joseph. He hadn’t expected to inherit the throne while still a young man, or to do so in the middle of a hideous war. The throne should have gone to his uncle, Franz Ferdinand – but it didn’t, because FF was shot at Sarajevo in the summer of 1914. And the rest we know: Austria’s increasingly belligerent missives to Serbia, the lining up of European nations on various sides, and the war.

By the time Karl inherited the throne the slaughter in the battlefields was beyond anything that human imaginations two summers previously could have conceived. There could be only one priority for a sincere Christian leader – peace. From the moment of his taking on the responsibility given him by history, the young ruler worked at that priority. He failed. His overtures – of necessity in secret and of necessity dangerous and complicated – to the Western allies were ignored, his attempts to talk sense to the German Kaiser Wilhelm got nowhere. Ill, heartbroken, but continuing with dedication and courage, he struggled to achieve the impossible.

 As we know, the war dragged on with remorseless horror through to the final months of 1918 and by then Austria-Hungary was collapsing, the people were hungry, the government was in chaos, and the monarchy was sidelined. Emperor Karl would die, not many years later, of pneumonia, in exile on the island of Madeira where he had been sent by the victorious allies.

So young Otto – whose early childhood had been spent at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna and at a family hunting-lodge in the country – would grow to manhood in modest poverty in various borrowed homes. As Crown Prince, he had walked with his parents in the funeral procession of Franz Joseph, and then, in ermine-trimmed robes, had been present at his parents’ coronation. But on the brink of adolescence he faced a completely different world.

His mother, the widowed Empress Zita, was determined that he should fulfil his duties as a Habsburg, and so he was educated with a view to his taking a full part in public life. The future of Austria was uncertain. The rather wobbly republic – Hungary was still technically a monarchy although the Regent, Admiral Horthy, had more or less assumed all power for himself – faced an increasingly warlike Germany on its border. Young Archduke Otto became the voice of Austrian resistance to the Nazis – and when the Anschluss happened, a focus for the loyalty and hopes of those who felt humiliated and betrayed. During World War II, there were hopes that with an Allied victory a Habsburg monarchy might be restored in one form or another, and Churchill was keen on the idea, but it didn’t happen.

Instead, Otto von Habsburg became an active campaigner for a free and open Europe, uniting the peoples of East and West – a dream finally realised when Communism was toppled in 1989 by which time he was a distinguished writer, lecturer, campaigner, Member of the European Parliament, and more. He lived to see his father beatified – the first step in the process leading to sainthood – by Pope John Paul II. His own life was one centred on strong Christian principles, both in his public and his family life – he married Princess Regina of Sachsen-Meiningen, whom he met when she was working in a refugee centre, and they had seven children.

Born into an extraordinary heritage, with a family tree that linked him to the great events of European history, Otto von Habsburg was not remotely grand in style and had no trace of self-importance. He was open, friendly, and easy in any company. When he came to Britain to speak at a big conference we organised on marriage and family life, he gave a magnificent speech combining inspiration and humour – but was just as happy to sit down with a group of (mostly elderly) Hungarians who wanted to meet him, and to whom he chatted in Hungarian as he helped to bring their chairs into a comfortable circle. When we met him on a rainy afternoon at his home in Munich, and asked him a great many questions that we needed for the book, he answered with patience and friendliness.

Genuinely devout in his faith, genuinely concerned for the welfare of the peoples of the countries his family had once ruled, Archduke Otto von Habsburg was a man of common sense and without pretensions, who worked hard at worthwhile causes and made his own contribution to European history. He always believed that the Iron Curtain would one day have to fall – and his own work helped to ensure that it did.

His funeral in Vienna will draw vast crowds, as people pay tribute to him: he lived up to a family heritage which had left him duties and responsibilities but little in the way of grandeur. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet him. And I believe his father would have been proud of him.

Joanna Bogle writes from London. With her husband, Jamie, she is the author of Heart for Europe: The Lives of Emperor Charles and Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary (1990)

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