Otto Von Habsburg

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Otto Von Habsburg

Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review

THIS summer - July the Fourth to be exact - one of the most honourable as well as one of the most distinguished lives of the last century came to an end. Archduke Otto von Habsburg was 98 when he died and his life had spanned most of the twentieth century. At his birth in 1912, he was third in line to the thrones of the Habsburg dynasty which had ruled Austria and much of Europe since the thirteenth century. The birth of this 'male child', commented The Times, 'may prove to be of high importance for the Hapsburg dynasty' [The Times, 21 November 1912]. The Emperor was the aged Franz Joseph, who had succeeded in 1848, and his heir was his nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose morganatic marriage barred his own sons from succeeding. The next heir was therefore the Emperor's great-nephew Archduke Karl. (It is a curious fact that only twice since 1705 had the throne passed from father to son.) The Habsburgs regarded themselves and were generally accepted as the oldest of Europe's great royal houses and the prestige of the Holy Roman Empire which they had generally ruled for many centuries still clung to them.

The young Archduke was given a resounding array of names at his baptism: Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius. He was the child of a marriage between the two greatest dynasties for his mother was Zita of Bourbon-Parma, one of 24 children of Duke Robert of Parma, who had ruled his small Italian duchy until deposed by the forces of Italian unification. The marriage between Karl and Zita was based on a genuine love fortified by deep religious faith. The couple looked forward to several peaceful decades before acceding to the throne of Austria-Hungary and throughout her lengthy life Zita never forgot the way her husband's face turned white after opening a telegram at lunch on 28 June 1914. His uncle Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie had been murdered by a gang of Serbian terrorists in Sarajevo, an act which led to the First World War in the midst of which Karl became Emperor after Franz Joseph's death in November 1916.

For many decades the general view of these events was distorted by continuing propaganda about 'noble little Serbia' spread by the likes of Rebecca West. It was only after the break-up of that un-natural slate Yugoslavia and the activities of Serb fanatics such as Milosevic that people began to have a clearer understanding about Serbian terrorism in 1914. There has also been a growing understanding of the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as seen in recent works by historians, such as Alan Sked in his life of Field Marshall Radetzky.

In 1916 the four-year-old Archduke Otto, now Crown Prince or Thronfblger of Austria-Hungary, made his first public appearance at Franz Joseph's funeral when he walked between his parents behind the massive 'Habsburg Death Carriage'. Clad almost totally in white from his fur hat down to his white shoes, the golden-haired little boy stood out among all the figures swathed in deepest mourning. A month later he was in yet another splendid costume when he attended his father's coronation as Apostolic King of Hungary. (Ironically, emperors of Austria were never crowned.)

Emperor Karl was the only ruler who made a genuine attempt to stop the slaughter of the First World War through secret peace negotiations with the French usine his Bourbon-Parma brothers-in-law as intermediaries. The revelation of these negotiations left the 'Peace Emperor' in a weak position with his domineering German ally and German nationalists in Austria itself. By the autumn of 1918, food shortages were ravaging the cities of the Empire, especially Vienna. The various nationalities, or rather the intriguing politicians and coffee house babblers joined with fanatical and power-hungry nationalists such as Masaryk and Benes, plotted to secede from the endangered Empire. They were encouraged by the American President Woodrow Wilson armed with an infallible belief in his own messianic rectitude and confined to an equal degree by his deep ignorance about the complicated nature of Central Europe. …

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