Yesterday saw the death of Archduke Otto von Hapsburg (November 12, 1912 – July 4, 2011), who by right ought to have been Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary. Those were the roles he was born for, as the eldest son of the Archduke Karl (who reigned as Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary from the death of Franz Josef I in November 1916 to the collapse of the multi-national Empire in the political and cultural shipwreck of Central Europe that was the result of World War I). Otto’s father, Kaiser Karl I, died tragically in exile in 1922, but in 2004 was beatified by Pope John Paul II and is now venerated as Blessed Karl I – his feast day October 21, the anniversary of his happy and loving marriage to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma in 1911. Related by royal blood to virtually every Catholic royal family, he was the heir of the pre-eminent Catholic family of Europe, the dynasty that remains a living link to the whole heritage of Christendom that had been embodied for almost 1000 years in the Holy Roman Empire (the 1st German Reich).
Otto himself, in his almost a century of life, linked our anxiety-ridden 21st century with an earlier, pre-world War I world, his life-span largely corresponding to the tragic wars and destructive ideological movements which dominated that intervening century and turned the ancestral lands of the Hapsburg Empire into bloody killing fields, and centers for political tyranny, destructive social engineering, and monumental economic mismanagement.
The first half of Oto's life was defined dynastically by the tragic outcome of World War I, a series of unsuccessful efforts at restoration, and growing up in exile in Spain and Belgium (where he studied at Louvain) and, during World War II, in the U.S. Prior to the War he had unsuccessfully sought to fulfill his dynasty's historic mandate by trying to prevent the 1938 Anschluss. In the post-World War II era, Otto worked to fulfill his dynasty’s historic mandate as a Christian-Democrat member of the European Parliament, a role in which he distinguished himself.
When I first visited Vienna in 1970, as a college student studying German over the summer, Austria was still recovering from World War II and still trapped in the vise created by the Cold War’s division of Europe. It seemed to this tourist that Vienna’s history had sort of stopped on November 11, 1918. Not much that had happened in that part of Europe since then had been very nice. Much of it had been pretty awful. Nostalgia for a glorious, imperial past, now virtually out of reach, made a certain sort of sense. So I visited the Stefansdom and the Hofburg. I saw the Holy Roman Crown and regalia. I visited the crypt in the Kapuzinerkirche where the Hapsburgs lie buried (and where, presumably, Otto himself may be interred, as was his mother, Empress Zita in 1989). More than three decades later, after attending a concert in Prague, I asked our guide if the shabby ampitheater we’d been in had been built in the Communist era. She replied, “Of course. No self-respecting Hapsburg would have built anything so ugly!” Nostalgia aside, that comment powerfully summarizes both the Hapsburg legacy and the tragic mess that replaced it.