Friday, 8 July 2011

At the road’s end: Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011), former Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, MEP and champion of united Europe

As previously mentioned Otto von Habsburg died in his home in Pöcking in Bavaria, Germany on 4 July, aged 98. Several commentators have already doled out the tired cliché that this is “the end of an era”, which is obviously nonsense. Rather, Otto von Habsburg was the last survivor of an era which ended a very long time ago.
Born on 20 November 1912, he was the eldest of the eight children born to the then Archduke Karl of Austria and his wife Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, who had married the previous year. This was in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in old age Otto would have vague memories of his great-great-uncle Emperor Franz Joseph, who had acceded to the Habsburg thrones as far back as the tumultuous year 1848, when Metternich fled and Emperor Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his young nephew.
The suicide of Franz Joseph’s only son, Crown Prince Rudolph, in 1889, had made his nephew and Otto’s great-uncle Franz Ferdinand heir presumptive to the throne. One could perhaps say that Otto was the last person alive whose life had been personally influenced by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, a crime which unleashed World War One and made Otto’s father first in line to the throne.
Karl succeeded to the thrones when Emperor Franz Joseph died in November 1916 and many will have seen the photos showing the four-year-old Crown Prince Otto, dressed in white, walking behind the hearse of the old Emperor through the streets of Vienna. At least with hindsight the images speak of a doomed empire.
A month later the little Crown Prince also attended his parents’ coronation as King and Queen of Hungary. The above painting, by Guyla Éder, shows him emerging from the coronation carriage.
Centuries of Habsburg rule over Central Europe came to an end two years later. On 11 November 1918 Karl I, the nineteenth Habsburg Emperor, renounced his participation in state affairs (but did not actually abdicate) and subsequently went into exile in Switzerland. Having failed in two attempts to regain the Hungarian crown, the ex-Emperor was exiled to Madeira, where he died in 1922, aged only 35. His widow survived him for 67 years, dying at the age of almost 97 in the momentous year of 1989.
His father’s death made Otto pretender to the thrones and, in the eyes of those with a penchant for denying realities, “Emperor”. If the monarchy had indeed endured to this day, Otto would have had what might well have been the longest reign in history – 89 years. Instead he would spend his life redefining the role of the multinational House of Habsburg.
At least he got a good education, studying in Louvain and Berlin, and would eventually become a prolific writer, whose oeuvre included biographies of some of his ancestors. While in Berlin in 1931-1932 he was twice invited to meet Adolf Hitler, not yet Chancellor of Germany, giving as his reason that he had already read Mein Kampf and thus knew what Hitler was about.
Archduke Otto was a staunch opponent of Hitler’s plans to annex Austria to Germany and in the lead-up to the Anschluss he would even suggest to the pro-monarchist Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg that he should take over as leader of the Austrian government, an offer which was eventually declined.
In 1940 the Habsburgs fled from their home in Belgium as Germany invaded the country and eventually made their way to the USA on the invitation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While in the USA Otto dedicated himself to advocating the cause of Austria, which, despite the huge enthusiasm with which its people had greeted the annexation into Germany, ought to be considered the first victim of Nazi aggression, Otto argued.
Crown Princess Märtha of Norway was among the other exiled royals who had found shelter in the USA, and Otto von Habsburg would later tell me how he appreciated and respected her for the work she put in not only for her own country, but for the case of Europe in general.
Otto returned to Europe in 1944, but the end of World War II did not pave the way for him to play any role in either of the former Habsburg nations. In order to pay off the huge debts he had incurred through his wartime work, Otto von Habsburg spent the following years lecturing and writing.
He married Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen, with whom he had seven children, in 1951 and three years later the family settled in Pöcking, which became their permanent home. His children would eventually reflect the multinational heritage of the Habsburgs; among them Karl has been an MEP for Austria, while Georg is a Hungarian ambassador-at-large, Walburga a member of the Swedish Parliament and Gabriela Georgia’s ambassador to Germany.
European unity and reconciliation was the cause closest to Otto von Habsburg’s heart and in 1972 he became President of the Pan-European Union. From 1979 to 1999 he represented the German Christian Democrats in the European Parliament. Thus he succeeded in finding a new way for the voice of the Habsburgs to continue to be heard on the European stage.
The man who had once been Crown Prince of much of Central Europe lived to see what must be considered the two major steps in the process of reunifying Europe: the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989-1991 and several Eastern European countries joining the EU in 2004.
In 1989 he and Hungarian reformed Communist Imre Pozsgay co-hosted a so-called Pan-European Picnic at Sopron on the border between Hungary and Austria. On the request of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay themselves stayed away from their event, but Otto’s daughter Walburga represented him and cut a symbolic hole in the fence on the border, thus allowing 660 GDR citizens to make their way from Hungary to Austria. Within a month, Hungary opened its border permamently.
Otto himself was banned from Austria until 1961 and was only allowed to enter the country after he had renounced his dynastic claims. His first visit to the country was greeted with protests, but in a gesture of reconciliation he shook the hand of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky in 1972. His 90th birthday in 2002 and his 95th birthday in 2007 were both celebrated at the Hofburg in Vienna, something which for a long time would have been impossible.
Having left the European Parliament in 1999, Otto von Habsburg remained active and enjoyed excellent health well into his tenth decade. He suffered a bad fall two years ago and was naturally also much affected by the death of his wife of nearly sixty years in February 2010. In 2007 he renounced his position as head of the House of Habsburg in favour of his eldest son Karl.
His funeral will be almost pan-European like himself. Since Tuesday he is lying in state in the Church of St Ulrich in Pöcking. Tomorrow afternoon the coffin will be taken to the Church of St Pius, also in Pöcking, for the first requiem mass and thereafter to Munich, where another requiem mass will be celebrated in the Court Church of the Theatines on Monday. On Tuesday the coffins of Otto von Habsburg and his late wife will be reunited for yet another requiem mass in Mariazell in Austria before they will lie in state in the Capuchin Church in Vienna on Thursday and Friday.
Next Saturday Cardinal Christoph Schönborn will celebrate the funeral mass in the Cathedral of St Stefan in Vienna. The coffins of Otto on Habsburg and his wife will thereafter be taken to the Capuchin Church, where only the family (some 100 people all in all) will attend the interment in the Imperial Vault, where generations of Habsburgs have been buried throughout the centuries. Otto von Habsburg will rest between the coffins of his wife and his mother. On the day after the funeral his heart will be laid to rest in a monastery in Pannonhalma and a requiem mass celebrated in Budapest.


  1. Thank you for this obituary, sir.

    I know Archduke Felix was only barely two and a half years old at the time of the end of the monarchy and, as opposed to Crown Prince Otto, probably cannot remember a thing of it.

    But Archduke Felix was born in the reign of Franz Josef. So could we not say that he is the last survivor?

  2. Such things are of course often a matter of definitions. Although Archduke Felix was two years old when the empire fell, he played no public role during its existence - unlike Crown Prince Otto, who attended the funeral and coronation of 1916, appeared on stamps etc. I would therefore consider Otto the last survivor.


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