Charles of Hapsburg (1887-1922)

The Man of Peace
The Last Emperor

The fascinating and intense figure of a man who wanted neither the throne nor war, but who was forced to live through both. Himself a soldier on the front, Charles worked with alacrity to reach a compromise, but for this reason was betrayed and exiled. The story of the last Catholic emperor, beatified last October 3rd by John Paul II

by Alessandro Banfi

“A friend of peace” is how he was identified by the Pope on the day of his beatification. Charles of Hapsburg, the last Catholic emperor of modern history, was officially beatified exactly when the world is still lost in wars, terrorist attacks, and destruction. His beatification, the Vatican specified, does not sanctify a certain kind of political system, albeit of the past, but the man, the person. And he certainly was a fascinating and intense person, this emperor who did not seek the throne, who did not want war (he was the only one to follow Benedict XV, who asked for a halt to “this useless slaughter”), the first Great War that involved the whole world. A radical man of peace, an unceasing follower of Jesus Christ, who refused the privileges of the Court and who did not stand on ceremony and cared little for the world’s approval. A historical figure who was also tragic, who sustained the last months of a great multi-ethnic and federalist Empire that extended from the Adriatic to central Europe. A personality who it is uncomfortable and difficult to tell about, though he was the protagonist of a fascinating and terrible period for historians and others. Just read one of Ungaretti’s poems about trench life, or the splendid A Year on Plateau by Emilio Lussu, or the letters from the front, by Winston Churchill, who in those months invented the tank, the formidable machine of modern war to destroy the enemy. Charles found himself, at the age of twenty-nine, on the throne when the conflict had already started, when that terrible First Great War, a massacre without precedent, “the useless slaughter,” had begun, unstoppable. He sought to oppose it with all his power and all his acts, to the point of paying in person, with exile and death. Thus, the first paradox of this beatification: the last Catholic emperor was proclaimed blessed, not because he won–in the history we have just related, he was a loser–but because he remained a witness to the end. Giuseppe Dalla Torre, who in the 1970s wrote a recently reprinted “spiritual portrait” of Charles (Charles of Hapsburg, Ancora), relates an illuminating episode. To those who called his attention to the fact that his distribution of Court food and supplies to citizens in wartime did not make him popular, he responded, “I’d truly be a wretch if I’d done all this just to obtain gratitude and approval. The Good Lord, for whom I do it, will reward me later, very abundantly, for all this. What would it serve me to already have their approval now?”

Almost forgotten scion

His life till then was that of an almost forgotten scion of a great European royal family, who had the fortune to have Catholic teachers and a wife of great faithfulness and concreteness. He was born on the Danube in 1887, and studied languages, military arts, and law in Prague. In 1911, he married Zita, of the Parma Bourbons, who bore him eight children, the last of whom was born after Charles’ death. Zita, Italian by birth and French by culture, survived until the 1980s, cherishing the memory of a husband who was holy and, in some ways, a martyr of the very power he exercised.
The murder of his uncle, Franz Ferdinand, in 1914 in Sarajevo, opened the war, and the death of his great uncle, Franz Josef, marked his unexpected rise to the throne as Charles I of Hapsburg. The young, devoutly Catholic king inherited a broad empire in great decline. Providence had prepared very hard months ahead. As a soldier, he went often to the front, helped the wounded, did everything in his power for the troops, and had Mass celebrated for them, to the general disapproval of his entourage and the Court. He wanted peace, and moved politically and diplomatically in this direction, persistently. He also worked on a separate treaty with France. He even worked on a secret attempt initiated by his brother-in-law, Prince Sisto of the Parma Bourbons. But the machine of history had set rolling something monstrous.

Victory at any cost

François Fejtö wrote in his fundamental Requiem for a Defunct Empire, “In the course of the war–which bogged down more than once on dead points, from which traditionally one emerged through negotiation or compromise–an unheard-of idea emerged: that of total victory at any cost. Its goal was no longer to force the enemy to cede, to step back, but to inflict incurable wounds; no longer to humiliate, but to destroy. This concept of total victory condemned a priori to failure any reasonable attempt to put an end, through compromise, to a useless massacre. War changed not only ‘quantitatively,’ but also, to use the Hegelian concept, qualitatively (…) It had an almost mystic accent. It was ideological. It consisted in demonizing the enemy, making the war of power into a metaphysical war, a battle between Good and Evil, a crusade.” This perfect description illuminates a diary note from that period that Augusto Del Noce left unfinished among his papers: “The rejection of complicity with evil coincided for me with the “endless flight” from what appeared to me evil, the progressive destruction of what remained of the Sacrum Imperium, the fidelity to the commitment of August 1916 that for me began before school.”

Rejection of compromise

The diabolical idea of the rejection of compromise, of the victory of Good over Evil, found its objective in the Hapsburg Empire. Charles was the victim of an ideological and even mystical crusade. And here lies the second paradox of his holy and terrible story: the Catholic emperor was defeated and killed, not for his steadfastness in “Catholic values,” but because he wanted compromise. And yet, history and the vicissitudes of Charles’ personal life testify to how true it was that progress, reform, and democratic principles were present in Vienna more than anywhere else. It’s enough to say that in that period, Austrian women voted, while Italian women did not. History remembers Charles I for his great amnesty of 1917, to foster social pacification, and his creation of a Health Ministry (the first in Europe) and one for Social Affairs. And yet, as Alain Besançon wrote, it is a fact that “democracies, once made to enter into war, are ferocious, because they think they are absolutely right, and that their adversaries are absolutely wrong.” The trap laid for Charles was sprung by his Foreign Affairs Minister, Ottokar Czernin, nominated in 1916. This was in 1918, a positive moment for Vienna in the highs and lows of the war effort. The Emperor was carrying forward his plan for an accord with the French, according to the Pope’s wishes. But Czernin revealed to the world, in the moment in which the peace so longed for by Charles seemed finally possible, that Clemenceau’s France had requested an armistice. This was not the case, and was enough to irritate Paris and wreck everything: it ruined the Emperor in the eyes of the powers, first among them Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm had not yet rejected the dream of Prussian expansion (Hitler would pick up this inheritance) and would expect the humiliation of Austria-Hungary. The Russian Revolution would do the rest, giving the Czech and Hungarian citizens the flag of national liberation against the monarchy. John W. Mason, in his The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wrote “If the absolutist government of the czars could be destroyed so easily, what guarantee had the absolutist system in Austria?”
The end of the war would arrive suddenly, but the energy of the adversaries and allies would all be unleashed against Vienna. At the end of 1918, Charles signed a peace treaty, that of November 4th, that forced upon him a heavy de-legitimization. His personal life would be entwined with an illness (the famous Spanish flu epidemic that killed almost as many men as the war) that would strike his heart and a progressive exile that would coincide with the end of the Hapsburg monarchy. He ended his days on the Portuguese island of Madeira, in 1922, pronouncing the name of Jesus.
Reflecting years later on the role of this emperor, the radical French socialist Anatole France would say of Charles, “He was the only decent man, during the war, who emerged in a leadership position; but he wasn’t heeded. He sincerely desired peace, and thus was despised by the entire world. A great occasion was lost.”
Holy Service to His Peoples
The Christian’s decisive task is to seek in everything the will of God, to recognize it, and follow it. The man of State and Christian, Charles of Austria, set this challenge for himself daily. To his eyes, war appeared as “something horrible.” In the tumult of the First World War he sought to promote the peace initiative of my predecessor, Benedict XV.
From the beginning, Emperor Charles conceived of his charge as a holy service to his peoples. His main preoccupation was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness, even in his political action. For this reason, his thought turned to social welfare. May he be an example for all of us, above all for those who today in Europe bear political responsibility!
(From John Paul II’s homily for the beatification of Charles of Austria.
Sunday, October 3, 2004)

The life
1887 August 17. Born in Persenbeug in lower Austria, son of Franz Josef “Otto” of Hapsburg, brother of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria.
1903 Enters the army.
1911 Marries Zita of Parma Bourbons.
1914 Following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (Sarajevo, June 28th), he became heir to the throne of the Hapsburg Empire.
1916 Upon the death of the Emperor of Austria, Franz Josef I, he ascends the throne of Austria-Hungary with the name Charles I of Austria and Károly IV of Hungary. Thus he takes command of the troops on the various fronts of the First World War, achieving significant victories on the Romanian and Italian fronts.
1917 The first attempts at peace with the powers of the Triple Entente. On July 2nd he grants amnesty to political prisoners.
1918 October 15. He issues the “Manifesto of the Peoples.”
1918 October 26. He breaks the alliance with the Reich of Wilhelm.
1918 November 3. He concludes the armistice.
1918 November 11. He abdicates.
1919 Deposed by the Austrian parliament, he begins exile in Switzerland with his family.
1921 March. He attempts to regain the Austrian throne, unsuccessfully, and is expelled. He tries again in October, but is arrested. Through England’s mediation, he departs for another exile, in Madeira.
1922 April 1. Dies in Madeira.
1972 April 1. Fiftieth anniversary of his death. His tomb is opened and his body found intact.
2004 October 3. Beatified by John Paul II.