When I saw reports of the death earlier this month at age 98 of Otto von Habsburg - the son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor - I ignored them, assuming he was a bejeweled fossil; a relic from a bygone era of royalty. And after reading his obituary in the Economist magazine I learned that, yes indeed .... I could not have been more wrong. Let's have a look at an interesting life after the jump ....
... but first: well, you know the deal ...
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The Economist magazine has as its last feature each week an obituary - though it has little about the person's death; more of a remembrance if you will. And had they not featured Herr von Habsburg (or if I hadn't time to look at it) I never would have read about him. I'm glad that I did. And when I wrote a mini-bio with the humorous quote that concludes this diary in Cheers & Jeers: annetteboardman suggested I write a diary about him. Well, here 'tis.
Otto von Habsburg was born in Reichenau, Austria (about an hour away from Vienna) in 1912, the eldest son of Charles I - who became head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in December 1916, while World War I was raging. In fact, Otto’s great-uncle was Archduke Franz Ferdinand - whose assassination was the trigger-point for the Great War. At its peak, the Empire included modern-day Austria, Hungary, Bosnia, Croatia, Bohemia (in the Czech Republic), Slovakia, Slovenia, and parts of Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.
But Charles I – although he never formally abdicated – sat on a throne of sawdust: serving as ruler of the Empire for only two years, which was abolished after the end of WW-I, and most prominently in Austria itself. Determined to shed its royal past: the use of the noble title ‘von’ was banned, and Anti-Habsburg Laws were passed against the monarchy, so that Otto’s term as Crown Prince officially came to an end in 1921, thus becoming the 'pretender' to the (no longer existent) throne when his father died in 1922.
Otto and his family went into exile, and he studied in Spain, Belgium and Switzerland, obtaining a PhD (at only age 23) in 1935. When the Nazis came to power, they sought the endorsement of Otto, believing that a conservative monarchist (forced off the throne, not by choice) would be at least somewhat sympathetic to their aims. But Otto (having read "Mein Kampf") detested them and irked Hitler by refusing to meet with him in Berlin. When Germany was poised to annex Austria in 1938: the 26 year-old Otto not only opposed this, he offered to return to Vienna to spearhead a resistance movement. Good thing he didn’t get there: as a shoot-to-kill order was given against him and retaliation (against the family’s property holdings and some of his cousins) was fierce. He did manage to help several thousand Austrians (including many Jews) to flee before the war broke out.
At FDR’s invitation the young Hapsburg spent the war years in the United States. There, he worked to promote the rights of Austrian citizens, to oppose allowing Stalin to rule Eastern Europe and against mass deportations there. It was there that he saw his life’s mission when the war ended: to restore European unity and to ensure that the wars that had devastated the Continent were to end.
He did indeed return to Europe but was once again barred from his native Austria – first by the occupying Soviet forces and later by anti-royalists who had him declared an "enemy of the state". So he settled in Germany for much of the rest of his life, embarking on the cause of pan-Europeanism, becoming a vice-president of the Paneuropean Union in 1957.
He remained a monarchist all along, seeing himself as a rightful heir to the throne – yet all the while understanding that Europe (and himself) had changed. In 1961, he was offered the crown of Spain by our old friend, Generalissimo Francisco Franco – but declined, citing the Habsburg dynasty’s long absence from any interest in Spain since 1806 (the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, whom the Habsburgs were part of as well). And – reluctantly – that same year he formally renounced any interest in the Austro-Hungarian throne, which paved the way for him to finally be granted permission to visit his native Austria (albeit only after a court decision) in 1966, for the first time in forty-eight years.
He spoke on the lecture circuit - described by one professor in a letter to the editor in The Guardian as "an urbane, informed and delightful speaker on matters European. He enthralled the audiences I would bring to Strasbourg as he swept majestically across a century of European history to end up with thoughtful comment on present-day issues, all in the space of 20 minutes" and he spent time with his family of seven children. He wrote 35 books (in nine different languages) on political science and history and since 1953 published a weekly column on the news of the day (also published in numerous languages) that appeared in newspapers across the Continent. Yet it was in 1979 – at the age of 67, when many people retire – when he found his calling: being elected to the European Parliament at its inception and becoming the senior parliamentarian during his twenty-year tenure on that body.
He worked on behalf of the rights of refugees and displaced persons, and for open borders within the EU. Perhaps his greatest cause was the expansion of the EU eastward: championing the independence of the Baltic states from the Soviet Union, as well as the independence of Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia from Serbia (obviously very close to his heart). One of the first initiatives of Otto in 1979 was to set up an Empty Chair - for the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe (then under the Iron Curtain) not able to participate. And near the very end of his life: Croatia was tentatively accepted as a full member.
He also worked for religious tolerance in Europe – and demonstrated this aptly in 1998. Pope John Paul II had just addressed the EU Parliament when the Northern Ireland firebrand Ian Paisley shouted at the Pope, holding up an "Anti-Christ" banner. The 86 year-old Hapsburg (a Catholic himself) snatched the banner from Paisley’s hands and helped eject him from the chamber. And he was the only member of the European Parliament who never used translation earphones .... since he spoke all of the official EU languages, anyway.
He did have his drawbacks, being a conservative at heart (and elected to the EU Parliament from Bavaria's CSU party). He thought that Francisco Franco was a "dictator of the south American type ... not totalitarian like Hitler or Stalin." His love for his native Austria led him to describe it as a victim of the Austrian-born Hitler, rather than accomplices. And though he formally renounced the throne and - as we have seen - any attempt to become a head of state ... I get the feeling that he still deep inside thought of himself as a monarch (albeit one who knew its time had passed). And from afar, I'm sure I've missed something else over the years.
Yet he never allowed his conservatism to affect his principles. Two British members of the EU Parliament (Hugh Kerr and Ken Coates) were expelled from the Labour Party in Britain (after much criticism of Tony Blair) and then from the EU Socialist Party - yet Kerr publicly noted that it was Otto von Habsburg who stood up for them publicly and convinced the EU president to conduct an inquiry.
Perhaps his most memorable act – determined to tweak the Iron Curtain as much as possible – was as chief organizer of a Pan-European Picnic in the summer of 1989. He convinced the governments of Austria and Hungary to permit their common border gates to be opened for three hours on August 19, 1989 for … yes, a picnic (featuring tea and lemonade). More than 600 East Germans took this opportunity to flee, and many historians point to this event as the groundwork for the collapse of the Iron Curtain during the autumn of 1989, just a few months later. Every August 19th there is a ceremony held there and in 2009 the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel – who grew up in East Germany – attended the 20th anniversary services and thanked Hungarians for courage and foresight: "Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement... and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans' desire for freedom".
Many people told Otto von Habsburg to seek the presidency of the newly-liberated Hungary in 1990. And the notion of becoming the head-of-state of a nation he was anointed to lead (by birth) yet might have achieved (via being elected, instead, by the people) .... surely must have been on his mind. But at age 78 he declined, continuing his efforts to expand the EU. After he left Parliament in 1999, he continued his writing, public speaking and advising a number of Eastern European governments.
But when he died - on July 4th, no less - his passing brought together much of Europe to his funeral in Vienna. And while there was (justifiable) opposition to such a public spectacle of royalty and empire: the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso spoke for many by calling him "a great European has left us who gave an important impetus to the European project throughout his rich life."
As is the Hapsburg (and other royal family) tradition: his heart was buried separately from the rest of his body. His body was interred in the imperial crypt in Vienna, but notably his heart was buried in Hungary - which had never expelled him.
Even through the difficulties which he had with Austria's almost neurotic efforts to eradicate the Habsburg dynasty, he did maintain a wry sense of humor about it. As mentioned before, the Scottish European MP Hugh Kerr appreciated Habsburg's defending him in the EU Parliament, and told him so after his delegation visited Vienna and had dinner in the emperor's dining room at the opera house. "Hugh, I do hope they are looking after it. I, of course, am not allowed in Vienna." And finally, when he was once asked if he would be watching an upcoming Austria-Hungary football (soccer) match, he impishly replied: "Perhaps – who are we playing?"
And now, on to Top Comments:
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From bronte17 (and concerning that same diary) ...
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To which Dallasdoc then replies.
And from Ed Tracey, your faithful correspondent this evening .... ....
It didn't take long for the news that Tea Party Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) - who is livid over the national debt yet owes more than $100k in unpaid child support - would get hammered here ... first in an overnight diary from the intrepid Bush Bites ....then soon afterward in the front-page story from Jed Lewison - who discussed his claims that he's 'struggled financially for years'.
Nor did it take long for the jokes to arise over his namesake - the former James Gang/Eagles guitarist - as alert readers fizziks as well as Raboof and also Wynonie Harris started threads which emptied the guitarist's entire back catalog for puns applicable to this deadbeat congressman ... and they sure found 'em.
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