A little over a hundred years ago, Emperor Karl of Austria, his wife Zita and their small children were forced to leave their last refuge in Austria for Swiss exile. Two abortive attempts to regain the Austrian throne led to their exile and his death in Madeira.
Over the following decades the imperial exiles made the best of things, with the heir, Archduke Otto, trying first to catalyse resistance to Hitler on Austria’s part, and then with more success to ensure that the victorious Allies would treat Austria as a victim rather than a perpetrator.
Austria was fortunate: after 1955 and the Soviet withdrawal, she was spared the horrors that the rest of the Old Monarchy had imposed upon them by the Soviets. Gratitude to the Habsburgs for the role they played in this happy event was and is nil. The family properties confiscated by the socialists in 1919 were returned to them in 1935 – and duly re-seized by the German occupiers in 1938. They remain particularly profitable pieces of Nazi loot which no Austrian government thus far seems willing to return to its rightful owners.
Nevertheless, 800 years of Habsburg rule left a strong imprint on Austria – not just in the still very Catholic and conservative countryside, but also in “red Vienna”. Double eagles, signaling a firm’s former status as a purveyor to the imperial court, are everywhere in the capital. Monuments aside, the round of balls, concerts and other such activities seems unchanged from Habsburg times – to say nothing of such things as the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School.
Pleasant, more or less, as Austria’s existence after 1955 was, the former imperial lands east of the Iron Curtain did not fare nearly so well – the difficulties of their being hacked apart in 1919 having been exacerbated by war and communism. But when elected a Member of the European Parliament, Archduke Otto never ceased trying to keep their plight before his colleagues’ eyes. Chief organiser of the so-called “Pan-European Picnic” of 1989 – which helped bring down the Wall – he was foremost in calling for the rapid integration into the European Union of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia and the once partly Habsburg Poland.
But in the aftermath of their liberation and incorporation into the EU, a strange phenomenon emerged: they found they had more in common with each other (and in recent years with Sebastian Kurz’s Austria) than with the Western nations. Not only did they share scepticism toward Western Europe’s embrace of abortion and sexual licence, their national cultures – despite the nationalisms that tore them apart – have much in common.
Sociological studies have found that in Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia – those areas that were once part of Austria-Hungary – have a much higher rate of trust in police and courts and less corruption than those that were not. The test-runners have dubbed this “the Habsburg effect”.
It is not only a question of a power vacuum exploited in turn by Hitler and Stalin, created, as Churchill said, by “driving the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Wittelsbachs and the rest off their thrones”. It was disrupting a system that, as such recent studies as Richard Bassett’s For God and Kaiser and Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire conclusively show, worked very well, despite the oceans of ink spent trying to justify its demise over the last century.
The growth of the common cultus of Emperor Karl since his beatification in 2004 has also played its part. There are – not too surprisingly – 26 shrines to him in Austria. But there are eight in the Czech Republic, 16 in Hungary, three in Slovakia and two in Croatia. The Blessed said repeatedly during his last year of life that he was suffering so that his peoples might come back together. It is quite possible that shared devotion to him might well be contributing to that.
And what of the House of Habsburg itself in all of this? Otto’s elder son, Karl, ably assisted by younger, Hungary-based brother Georg, is certainly keeping the flag flying through the Paneuropa Union, the Knightly Order of St George, and a host of cultural, political and religious activities throughout the former empire chronicled on his informative eponymous website. Their sisters are also plugging away at similar tasks. Cousin Michael, of the Hungarian branch of the family, is head of the group working for the beatification of Cardinal Mindszenty, while his son, Eduard, is Hungary’s envoy to the Holy See. It is now a large clan, scattered across the globe, but by and large an extremely hard-working one.
The website of the Austrian branch of Paneuropa declares: “The soul of this continent is Christianity. Whoever takes it out of political action, makes Europe a soulless body.” The Europe they would like to see is one that even the hardest of Brexiteers might well like.
But if such a vision is ever to come about, reunion of the Danubian countries would create an entity capable of challenging the secularist elements in Brussels and accomplishing it. As in the past nine centuries, the ties binding this region are not national, but religious, cultural and dynastic. It is fitting that the modern bearers of the name are working steadily in these fields. Anyone hoping for the best for Europe can only wish them success.
In any case, considering how many tourists flock to see the mere relics of Habsburg rule in Central Europe’s capitals today, one can only guess at the flood that would pour in to see the revived rituals of an imperial and royal court in such varied settings. They would surely give the horde of royal-watchers in London and Windsor
a run for their money.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna