Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Saint from the Great War: Blessed Kaiser Karl I

Today the Church calendar commemorates Blessed Kaiser Karl I (1887-1922), who reigned as Emperor Charles I of Austria and King Charles IV of Hungary from 1916 to 1918. (The photo at left shows him at his Hungarian coronation on December 30, 1916). As the last Hapsburg emperor, he saw the catastrophic end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a consequence of World War I and with it the end of his dynasty's historic role in Central Europe. 

He was beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II whose father had served in Karl's army, and his feast was assigned to today's anniversary of his 1911 wedding to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma (1892-1989), Austria's last Empress.

Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of "The Great War" - a war triggered by a Serbian terrorist assassination of Karl's uncle - it seems only fitting to recall today not only Karl's personal sanctity but his unsuccessful efforts to end the impasse of a war which need never have happened and needed even less to continue so long. Deeply devout from childhood, his sanctity supported and reinforced by his similarly devout wife, Zita, he also exhibited a strong religious sense of the source of his duty as a political sovereign and what his duty was. And, as befits a statesman, his policies were based on an acute understanding of the political factors and social forces that had been unleashed by the war and would determine the fate of the post-war world - leading inevitably, as we now see so clearly, to yet another and even worse world war and to decades of Communist control of Eastern Europe (During that Second World War, Winston Churchill would write: "One of the greatest mistakes made after the last war was the destruction by ignorant hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire." 

His heroic effort to achieve a negotiated peace in 1917 failed abysmally, as did his two efforts to regain his Hungarian throne in 1921. The last of those defeats led to his forced exile by the Allied Powers to Madeira, where he died in 1922. Yet, as he wrote to Pope Benedict XV in 1919, "In all my troubles, I have never lost my faith, I have never despaired." His death left Zita - at 29, a widow and mother of 9 underage archdukes and archduchesses - to carry on his legacy and hand it on to their son, Crown Prince Otto (1912-2011), who admirably adapted his family's mission to continue to play a productive role in Central European society in the post-war world.

When, as an undergraduate studying German in the summer of 1970, I first visited Vienna's Kapuzinergruft (the Capuchin crypt where most of the Hapsburgs lie buried), there were still daily fresh flowers at the tomb of Karl's predecessor, Kaiser Franz Josef I. Since then, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto have been entombed there with all the traditional Hapsburg burial rites. But Blessed Kaiser Karl remains buried alone - still in in exile - in Madeira, a lonely symbol still of the tragic turn the 20th century took 100 years ago, the catastrophic consequences of which the world remains still very much imprisoned in.

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