Friday, October 22, 2010

Blessed Kaiser Karl and a Century That Needn't Have Been

Yesterday, October 21, is the date assigned (in certain places) in the Church’s calendar to remember Blessed Kaiser Karl (1887-1922), Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary (1916-1918). The date chosen for his feast is the anniversary of his marriage in 1911 to the Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, to whom he said on the day after their wedding: "Now, we must help each other to get to Heaven." (October 21 also happens to be the anniversary of the beginning of his second failed attempt to regain his Hungarian throne in 1921).

His manifest sanctity aside, the commemoration of the last reigning Hapsburg Emperor is also a sad reminder of Europe’s tragic history throughout the 20th century - dominated by what some have called Europe’s long civil war, which began in 1914 and lingers where and how it began, in the still unresolved conflicts between Serbs and others in the Balkans. (Today’s New York Times contains a timely reminder of Serbia’s continued, conflicted history in an article about how Europe’s most wanted war-crimes suspect, Ratko Mladic, remains at large.

One of my undergraduate college professors, himself a refugee from one of the successor states of the Hapsburg Empire, liked to point out what a natural economic unit the Empire on the Danube had been – and what an unmitigated disaster the history of the region had been since the dissolution of that Empire. What was supposedly said about Poland at the end of World War II – that the Poles had had the bad fortune to lose the war twice (first to the Germans in 1939, then to the Soviets in 1945) – was in effect true of most of the Empire’s successor states, whichever side they were on in World War II, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the formerly Hapsburg lands that were subsequently absorbed into Yugoslavia (Croatia, Slovena, Bosnia).

When I was in Prague several years ago, our tour group attended some outdoor event one evening. Looking around, I asked our guide if the outdoor theater had been built in the Communist time. “Of course,” she responded. “No self-respecting Hapsburg would have allowed anything so ugly to be built!” That sort of summarizes both the tragic destruction of the Hapsburg Empire (for which the US and especially Woodrow Wilson must bear some share of the blame) and the soul-destroying alternatives Central Europe was saddled with in its place. After much of a century spent in unprecedented blood-letting and “cold war” division, Europe is now physically at peace (sort of) but sadly seems increasingly bereft of anything resembling its soul.

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