For centuries the Habsburgs cast a gigantic shadow over a large part of Europe. Their empire ended cataclysmically in 1918. The shadow lingered for some decades after that, slowly fading under the blows of later cataclysms. Perhaps the time has now arrived when the shadow will disappear completely. Otto von Habsburg was the eldest son of Charles I, the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Otto died on July 4, 2011, aged 98, in Poecking, Bavaria. If the monarchy had survived, he would have succeeded to the throne after his father. I read about his death in both The New York Times and The Boston Globe. The latter paper had picked up the news from the Associated Press, and I assume that other American newspaper carried it. I doubt whether many readers in this country, or for that matter in Europe, were moved by it. I was. It seemed to me like the silence that follows the very last note of a powerful piece of music which probably will never be played again. It is a silence that invites reflection.
Otto was only six years old when he accompanied his family into exile. He was not allowed to return to Austria, even for a visit, until he formally renounced all claims to the throne. He lived in different countries, including the United States during World War II, finally settling in Bavaria, whose conservative Christian Social Union he represented in the European Parliament. He was an educated man, with a doctoral degree from the University of Louvain, and by all accounts characterized by personal warmth. During the years that Austria was part of the Third Reich he was immersed in anti-Nazi activities, including efforts to save Jewish refugees from the Gestapo. The dwindling community of Habsburg loyalists looked on him as their legitimate emperor, but of course the prospect for a restoration of the monarchy became more and more remote. It flared up one final time in the early 1990s, as the Soviet empire collapsed across Central Europe. I happened to be in Budapest as the last Soviet troops were leaving Hungary, and I was struck by postcards showing entwined Austrian and Hungarian flags, flanking the portrait of the Empress Elizabeth, wife of Francis Joseph (the penultimate emperor)—she had loved the Hungarians and was much loved by them in return.
I have had an amateur interest in the history of the last fifty years or so of the Habsburg monarchy. No doubt there are biographical reasons for this. Not only was Vienna the city of my childhood, but my father, who had been a reserve officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, was one of those dwindling Habsburg loyalists (they called themselves “legitimists”). He was an intelligent man and had no illusions about the future chances of his riding in a parade on the Ringstrasse, once again wearing the splendid uniform of a first lieutenant in the 15th Imperial and Royal Hussar Regiment. But he often spoke to me about the monarchy having been an anchor of stability in Europe, and about its dissolution as a catastrophe that led to various tyrannies and to a war even more terrible than the one that ended with the dissolution. One can agree with him on this, without necessarily sharing his nostalgia or glossing over the very real failings of this regime.
There are two reasons why this period has fascinated me. First, it was the scene of an incredible explosion of cultural and intellectual creativity, in just about every field of human endeavor. I think that one explanation of this was the enormously stimulating tension between a modernizing urban society and a sclerotic ancien regime. The tension is perfectly symbolized by Vienna’s Michaelerplatz, across which one of the monumental baroque entrances to the Imperial Palace confronts the Loos House, a local embodiment of the Bauhaus school of modernist architecture. The second reason for my fascination is that this state, at least in its Austrian half, was haltingly advancing toward a truly multinational political entity. The emperor intended to be the fatherly protector of “all my peoples”, as he put it in his proclamations—not least of the Jews, who were among the most loyal of his subjects. There is a conventional view that this state was doomed by the conflicts between its various nationalities. I am skeptical about this. The conflicts were real enough. But one can easily imagine counterfactual scenarios in which the conflicts are resolved—for instance, if the Slavophile Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated in 1914 (ironically by a pan-Slav nationalist), had succeeded to the throne. The Habsburg state was destroyed by the folly of its starting what became World War I, and by the folly of Wilsonian idealism which encouraged every separatist nationalism in the region.
For several years my friend and colleague Thomas Luckmann, another ex-Austrian, played a game. We imagined that, say in 1910, the government had asked us to design a plan to save the monarchy, especially to solve what was called the “nationalities problem”. We came up with some pretty good ideas. (We agreed of course that the monarchy was worth saving.) Too bad that we were not asked.
Of course I never experienced the Habsburg empire. (I am old, but not that old.) But I could recount a number of episodes when its shadow fell across my path. I will recount only one. It eloquently supports my father’s view of the catastrophe of 1918, and it explains why I am saddened by Otto’s death.
Early in 1989, just months before the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Empress Zita died in her nineties in a Catholic nursing home in Switzerland. She was the widow of Charles I and Otto’s mother. The Austrian republic could not hold a state funeral, but what occurred had all the trappings of one. A solemn funeral mass took place in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, celebrated by the Archbishop of Vienna. The prayers were read in all the languages of the monarchy—German, Hungarian, Czech, Croatian, and so on. Then the funeral procession made its way from the Stefansplatz to the nearby Capuchin monastery, in whose underground crypt, for many centuries, all Habsburg rulers had been deposited in sarcophagi—some ornate, some quite simple—and some lesser ones stacked away as in a warehouse. When the procession reached the monastery, it stopped before the gate, which was locked. Then took place an ancient ritual, which among other things proclaims a theological critique of the pretentions of power.
The marshal of the procession knocked on the door. The abbot, who waited behind it with all his monks, asked, “Who seeks entry?” The marshal responded by reciting the so-called long title. Traditionally there were three titles—after the long one a somewhat shorter one, then a very short one. The recitation of the long title took about ten minutes, naming every territory ever acquired by the Habsburgs (some by conquest, most by marriage, the Habsburgs’ favorite method of imperial expansion). It drew drew attention once again to this vast empire that reached from the eastern border of Switzerland to the western border of Russia, and which when it ended had fifty million subjects. When the recitation was over, the abbot said: “We do not know her. Who seeks entry?” In the 1989 enactment, the middle title was omitted. The marshal went on to the shortest title: “Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia.” Again the abbot said: “We do not know her. Who seeks entry?”. Then the marshal said: “Zita, your sister, a poor sinner.” And the gate was opened.
I was not there. But I had obtained a video cassette from the ORF, the Austrian broadcasting corporation. As the long title was being recited, I waited for one particular title which I knew to be on the list. I wanted to see whether it would be named, or whether the ORF had decided to omit it. It was not omitted. With all her other titles, the last Habsburg empress was buried as “Duchess of Auschwitz”.
I have not done any research on this. At some time this duchy in what was to become Austrian Poland must have been acquired by the Habsburgs, most likely by way of a dynastic marriage. One might expect that some comment would be made. The ORF commentator was constantly saying things about each step of the ritual. He said nothing about this particular title. I could not have been the only viewer who was jarred by it. Had he not noticed? Or did he not know what to say? Or had he been instructed to say nothing? I never found out.
Afterward I asked myself: If I had been in charge of the event, would I have left out this particular title? I decided that I would not have left it out, if for a very simple reason: If the Habsburgs had still ruled in the 1940s, “Auschwitz” would not have happened.