Thursday, October 21, 2021

Blessed Kaiser Karl - 100 Years Later

Almost 100 years ago, on April 1, 1922, Austrian Kaiser Karl I (Emperor Charles I, who was also King Charles IV of Hungary) died - largely unappreciated and unlamented in his post-war exile in Madeira. His body still rests there, in exile, even though both his wife, Empress Zita, and his son, Archduke Otto, have since been interred, with the traditional Hapsburg ceremonial, in Vienna's Kapuzinergruft. His commemoration in the liturgical calendar occurs today, the 110th anniversary of his wedding to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma in 2011, prior to which the then Archduke Karl said to Zita, "Now we must help each other to get to heaven."

In his homily at Blessed Kaiser Karl's beatification on October 3, 2004, Pope Saint John Paul II, who had himself been named after the last Hapsburg Emperor by his father, who had served in the imperial army in World War I, said: 

The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God's will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as "something appalling". Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV. 

From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Descendants of the Swiss Count Rudolf of Habsburg, Karl's family famously acquired many lands in middle and eastern Europe by marriage. The dynasty eventually assumed, among their many titles, that of Archduke of Austria and was often referred to as the House of Austria (as in Charles V's famous son, the victor at Lepanto, Don John of Austria). Importantly, the Hapsburgs also held the elected office of Holy Roman Emperor most of the time from 1440 until the Empire's abolition by Napoleon in 1806. (After the marriage of Maria Theresa to the Duke of Lorraine, the family's official name became "Hapsburg-Lorraine," von Habsburg-Lothringen.) The highpoint of the family's power was, of course, the reign of Emperor Charles V, after whom the dynasty divided into two branches - the Spanish branch, supplanted by the Bourbons in the 18th century, and the Austrian branch, which ruled in Vienna until 1918.

When I was a college undegrad in the late 1960s, my International Relations professor (who was an exiled Czech, and so knew something of which he spoke) speculated whether his part of Europe might have fared better had the Hapsburg Empire not been destroyed in 1918. Nor was this the idle speculation of one isolated academic. No less an author than Tony Judt wrote in The New Republic in 1998: "I would go so far as to say that the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to almost all of its lands and citizens."

It is a sad historical fact that the post World War I destruction of the old polyglot, multi-ethnic (what we would now call "multicultural") empire into small, nation-states, all containing discontented minorities, proved unsurprisingly unstable and was tragically followed, first by German conquest before and during World War II, and then by Soviet conquest and domination during the decades that followed that war. Then, after the collapse of communism, came the break-up of Yugoslavia, one of the old empire's "successor states" and a brutal war, the likes of which Europe had not seen since 1945. The "successor states" are now at peace, but imperilled in so many ways - not least by the perennial prospects of neo-fascist dictatorship within and Russian meddling without.

Born August 17, 1887, Blessed Kaiser Karl succeeded his ancient great-uncle Franz Josef I in November 1916, by which time, more than midway through World War I, the Hapsburg empire appeared increasingly weak, on the way to losing the war it had foolishly started. Stepping into the shoes of his legendary predecessor probably would have been difficult at any time, but that was probably the worst time for the pious young Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary to ascend the throne. Nonetheless, he did attempt to repair the damage which that pointlessly destructive conflict had already caused and would continue to cause. His well intentioned but poorly executed peace initiative - the so-called "Sixtus Affair" (named after his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus on Bourbon Parma, who served as intermediary) - ignominiously failed, further limiting Karl's freedom of action and discrediting both him and any remaining efforts to negotiate an end the war which Pope Benedict XV correctly called the "suicide of civilized Europe." 

Both in his peace initiatives and in his efforts in April and October 1921 (100 years ago today) to regain his Hungarian crown, Karl was a complete failure in worldly terms. Exiled with his wife and children to the Portuguese island of Madeira, Karl lived out the remaining few months of his mortal life. As he sickened, he invited his 9-year old heir, Archduke Otto, to witness his final anointing, in order for him "to know how one conducts oneself at times like this - as a Catholic and as an Emperor."

No comments:

Post a Comment