Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blessed Emperor Charles I

Blessed Charles I (Kaiser Karl) was the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary and in many ways a symbol of the last remnants of traditional Europe that were swept away by the First World War. He was born His Imperial Royal Highness Karl Franz Joseph Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Marie von Habsburg-Lothringen on August 17, 1887 to Archduke Otto Franz of Austria and Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony. From his earliest days his character was evident; serious, kind, dutiful and devoutly religious. Quite a way down on the list of succession he never had any thought of succeeding to the throne one day and, as was expected, entered into a military career as a young man. In 1911 he married HRH Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma. The two were extremely devoted to each other and had much in common, most importantly their sincere Catholicism. Monarchists and royal watchers noted that by their marriage there had once again been a union of the two most prominent Catholic royal families of Europe; the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons.


Archduke Charles and Archduchess Zita settled down to a quiet family life, completely content, when their lives changed forever in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Not only did this event precipitate World War I, it also made Charles heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary at a time of crisis and at a time when everyone knew the venerable Emperor Francis Joseph would not be around for much longer. Nonetheless, Charles did not have too much time to prepare himself as he was forced to divide his time between his duties as an army commander and his obligations as heir to the throne in preparing himself for becoming monarch and dealing with political issues. On the battlefield his service was solid and although the fortunes of war did not often favor Austria-Hungary the Italian front, on which Archduke Charles served, was one area in which the Imperial-Royal forces were the most consistently successful. The hardest part for Charles was certainly being away from his family so much but everyone did their part to be strong and supportive. In 1916, when the mood across Austria-Hungary was already fairly gloomy, Emperor Francis Joseph passed away. Most people could not remember a time when Francis Joseph was not their monarch and there were worries when the Crown passed to their new sovereign who became Emperor Charles I of Austria and King Charles IV of Hungary.

Because of wartime conditions there was no coronation in Vienna but a coronation in Hungary was required as Charles took very seriously his oath to God as Apostolic King of Hungary when the Crown of St Stephen was placed on his head. He very much viewed monarchy as a sacred trust, a duty to God to care for his people, protect them and champion their cause. By this time, however, the war was going very badly for Austria-Hungary and ethnic nationalists were threatening to tear the Hapsburg empire apart. Emperor Charles reshuffled the military high command and began drawing up plans for greater autonomy for the ethnic regions of the empire. This had been talked about before under such names as the ‘United States of Greater Austria’ or a conversion from the “dualism” of Austria-Hungary to a system of “trialism” in which the Slavic peoples would be given co-equal status with the German-Austrians and Magyar-Hungarians. However, nothing much could be accomplished so long as the war was raging and in which Austria-Hungary was rapidly becoming completely exhausted and ever more dependent on German assistance for their survival.

Emperor Charles had always been rather wary of the Germans and though he realized Austria-Hungary would be crushed without them he also saw them as dragging his empire down to ruin in a war that no one, winners or losers, would emerge from intact. Pope Benedict XV had called for a peaceful end to the war with no winners or losers but a return to the status quo, for which he was either ignored or ridiculed. The deeply Catholic Charles, now Emperor, was willing to give the papal idea a chance. However, he had to proceed very carefully as any talk of peace on his part would immediately arouse the suspicion and possible retaliation of the Germans. Emperor Charles used the family connections of his wife, Empress Zita, who had been a Bourbon princess and whose brothers, Prince Sixtus and Prince Xavier, were serving in the Belgian army on the western front. This seemed a possible way forward as the Belgian King Albert I was also favorable toward a peaceful end to the war. Using Prince Sixtus and Prince Xavier as their go-between Emperor Charles sent a proposal of peace to the Allies.

Unfortunately, things did not go well. The Allies demanded concessions from Germany and Turkey that the Emperor of Austria-Hungary certainly had no power to deliver. Furthermore, the French and British had made any peace with the Hapsburgs rather impossible through the secret treaties they had already made with the Italians, Serbs and others wherein they had promised vast tracts of Hapsburg territory to these various peoples in return for supporting the Allied side. The effort at peace came to nothing and to make matters worse news of the peace proposal leaked out. Naturally the Germans were furious and when Emperor Charles denied the Allied claims French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau made the Sixtus letters public. This doomed any effort by the Austro-Hungarians to achieve a separate peace and effectively made them hostages of Germany for the duration of the conflict, the Germans even drawing up a contingency plan for the invasion of Austria. As the war drew to a close the ethnic nationalists, who had long been supported by the Allies, took a greater hold, encouraged by the call for ethnic self-determination on the part of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Emperor Charles tried to save his crumbling empire by agreeing to a confederation of autonomous states under the Hapsburg crown but this was no longer sufficient to calm the ethnic tensions nor would it have passed muster with the Allies who had already promised most of the Hapsburg lands to Romania, Serbia or emerging state of Czechoslovakia. Emperor Charles worked feverishly until the last possible moment. The Polish lands were given independence and plans were drawn up for an Austrian federal state of German, Czech, Slav and Ukrainian members but the Allies opposed such a move and it all came too late as the French, British and Americans had already recognized the creation of Czechoslovakia and the cession of all Slavic land to Serbia (what would eventually become Yugoslavia). These areas declared their independence and on October 31, 1918 the Hungarians dissolved the personal union with Austria. With the German-Austrians rising in opposition as well the government advised Charles to abdicate and leave the country.

As a man who saw kingship as a sacred duty, Charles refused to abdicate and instead relinquished “participation” in the Austrian government in recognition of the fact that the country was no longer under his control in any event. He felt he had no right to give away a duty God had imposed on him alone. In 1919 the Emperor and his family went into exile in Switzerland with Charles still asserting his sovereignty and stressing that the actions of the government in power had no validity in the eyes of the House of Hapsburg. The goal of restoration was never far from his thoughts and although the prospects in Austria were slim at that time, conditions in Hungary seemed more favorable, factions were struggling for power and royalists were a force to be reckoned with. In name at least the monarchy was maintained with the former admiral Miklos Horthy assuming the position of regent and suppressing a communist revolution. Admiral Horthy claimed to be holding power in the absence of the King (Charles) only until the time was right for their monarch to return to them. However, twice in 1921 Emperor Charles attempted to restore himself in Hungary, with considerable support, and yet on each occasion Horthy refused to step down and took measures to defend his position. Not wanting to be the cause of a civil war Charles returned to his exile.

However, after these political moves the Swiss did not want the Emperor and his family back and the Allies were adamant that measures be taken to prevent a Hapsburg restoration. As a result, Charles was sent to the Portuguese island of Madeira where he could be easily watched. The living conditions for the exiled Imperial Royal Family were very poor and the long suffering monarch did not last long there. He caught a cold while out for a walk which developed into bronchitis which developed into pneumonia. After suffering two heart attacks in his sick bed the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary died on April 1, 1922 in the presence of his wife and 8 children (the last yet unborn at the time). Many unkind things were said about Charles during his lifetime and even after his death, yet many more and from a variety of backgrounds, described him as a great and even saintly man who was despised because of his very goodness. That goodness was at last recognized on October 3, 2004 His Holiness Pope John Paul II formally beatified Emperor Charles I with October 21 (his wedding anniversary) declared his feast day. His canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church is not considered to be too far distant.

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