He was a real prince but the fairy-tale elements are just as true. The five surprises unfolded as this exceptional man was swept from relative obscurity to legendary romance and glamour, from terrorist murder to military valour, from unrivalled power to daunting challenge, to heart-rending defeat and then glory beyond our dreams. You couldn’t make it up.
Our handsome fairy-tale prince was born in 1887; three years after U.S. President Harry Truman and five before J.R.R. Tolkien. So Archduke Karl von Habsburg comes neither from chivalry’s High Middle Ages nor a closer distant past. He lived within the lifetimes of people you met; in historical terms he is one of us.
While his great-uncle was the Emperor Franz Josef I of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karl wasn’t next in line to the throne and Habsburg princelings were hardly scarce: some of Karl’s aristocratic elders merely ran cultural festivals between attending Vienna’s many elegant balls. Karl was a keen science student but chose an army career. He served well in peacetime, studying law and political science in his off-hours, often in nondescript garrison-towns. In 1911 he married the winsome Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma and the first secret emerged: beside the usual longings of newlyweds and both being royalty, they shared another taste in private, something uncommon and intense.
They were childhood friends and ten years later they met again. Zita’s father lost their ancient kingdom to Italian nationalism, but his family was long allied to the mighty Habsburgs, Holy Roman Emperors until a century before. Moreover the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the current empire, had married morganatically (beneath his royal station) and so his own children were ineligible to succeed him; increasing Karl’s dynastic importance. But it was neither marriage by arrangement nor love at first sight, and Zita recalled what happened next:
We were of course glad to meet again and became close friends. On my side feelings developed gradually over the next two years. He seemed to have made his mind up much more quickly, however, and became even more keen when, in the autumn of 1910, rumours spread about that I had got engaged to a distant Spanish relative… On hearing this, the Archduke came down post haste…and sought out his grandmother, Archduchess Maria Theresa, who was also my aunt and the natural confidante in such matters. He asked if the rumor was true and when told it was not, he replied, “Well, I had better hurry in any case or she will get engaged to someone else.”
The threat of competition did the job, and a firm friendship based on mutual respect blossomed into storybook romance. From false rumors to the altar took only a year (you can see three minutes of rare wedding footage here). Public enthusiasm couldn’t be restrained: private medals were struck, shop windows dripped with wedding decorations, and the handsome pair featured worldwide on newsreels, newspapers and magazines. The modest Karl and Zita could escape neither glamour nor attention.
Here comes the first surprise: on the morning after the wedding, the groom turned to his bride and declared; “Now we must help each other to get to Heaven.” Not to win military battles or accede to thrones, or revel in luxury or bask in the world’s most elegant High Society with their movie-star good looks; for even coming from religious families, Karl and Zita were uncommonly committed Christians.
Karl’s dedication to prayer and Christian virtue began early. Even as a young child, he performed odd jobs earning pennies which he gave to the poor. Boy and man, the young archduke, “attended Mass and received Communion every day whenever possible,” plus morning prayers, evening prayers and the rosary in between. “He used to set up a chapel in which to expose the Sacrament in every place he dwelt… Before making important decisions, he used…to ask Our Lord’s assistance.”
Princess Zita, who spoke six languages fluently, studied in a religious boarding school in Bavaria and a convent on England’s Isle of Wight. She and her royal family routinely stitched spare fabric into clothes for the needy, Zita and one of her sisters personally distributed food, medicines and garments to the poor, three of her sisters became nuns, and she considered the same vocation. Her activist Christianity would have international repercussions.
Less than three years after the wedding and their first two children, Archduke Karl received a startling telegram; the second surprise. His wife recalled: “Though it was a beautiful day, I saw his face go white in the sun.” It was 1914; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia were gunned down in cold blood by Balkan terrorists secretly funded by Russia. Mortally wounded, Franz Ferdinand begged his dying wife to live for the sake of their children, but his last wish went unfulfilled.
It was not the first time they suffered at the hands of bloodthirsty ideologues. When Karl was eleven his great-aunt Sisi, the emperor’s beloved wife, had been cruelly knifed to death by a self-admitted anarchist. Nor would Franz Ferdinand’s murder be the family’s last mortal sacrifice. But another reason for the young Archduke’s shock was that the assassination put him next in line to the throne, and just as his country plunged into the First World War.
Pushed by truculent Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, the elderly Austro-Hungarian Emperor imprudently sent his armies to ward off Russian-funded revolution in his empire’s Balkan territories, and soon world war was inevitable. The octogenarian longed to educate his new heir in statecraft but war-time responsibilities prevailed. As Karl bade farewell to Zita, he declared, “I am an officer with all my body and soul, but I do not see how anyone who sees his dearest relations leaving for the front can love war.” He soon headed the valiant 20th Corps in Italy where his bravery, warmth and openness won the hearts of his men, and then moved east leading an entire an army against Russian and Romanian troops. But in November 1916 Franz Josef died; weeks later Karl was crowned Emperor.
Comes the third surprise. Not yet thirty years old, with no experience of civilian leadership especially in war-time, the young emperor may have been excused for prudently leaving practical duties to the experienced men who served his predecessor. He did the opposite; launching what may be the world’s most dramatically wide-ranging, and rapid, Christian-inspired reforms since the convert Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
Moving swiftly and dynamically, Karl ordered his imperial fleet of glamorous fairytale carriages to be filled with coal and food, distributed daily to the poor. He put himself, his family and retainers on the same strict regimen that his people suffered under war-time rationing: aristocrats and top civil servants complained of missing the elegant Viennese breads served in elite restaurants while, dining at the palace, they got the same coarse brown peasant loaves eaten by the Emperor and his poorest subjects. He started firing top generals and revered statesmen for corruption, and undertook even more sweeping reforms of government. He began wide-ranging talks to empower and federalize his empire’s many kingdoms, regions and ethnicities. As imperial coffers shrank, he spent his own family funds to run the soup-kitchens and shelters and to build even more.
Putting his own life in danger, frequent and unexpected visits to the front-lines led delighted soldiers to nickname him Karl the Sudden. He reformed military discipline by banning flogging, other cruel punishments, and duels. Independent of Austria-Hungary’s allies and opponents, he unilaterally forbade his submarines from targeting enemy civilian shipping (as Germany did not), and stopped his forces from bombing or shelling civilian targets even if they were strategically important. He struggled to abolish gas warfare and managed to curtail its use, while granting amnesty to every soldier or civilian jailed for “high treason, insults to the Royal Family, disturbance of the public peace, rebellion or agitation.”
Meanwhile he established a wholly new branch of government, the world’s first Ministry of Social Welfare, “based on Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and other papal social encyclicals.” At least a whole generation ahead of its time, it struggled for “youth welfare, war disabled, widows and orphans, social insurance, labour rights and job protection, job placement, unemployment relief, and emigration protection and housing.” Unlike communist-inspired experiments in ruthlessly centralized social-planning, Karl’s reforms were based on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, giving the lowest levels the maximum power and flexibility. One suspects the Empress Zita’s hand in this, for their marriage was a full Christian partnership, but her diplomatic involvement grew undeniable.
Within months of becoming emperor, Karl formed a bold conspiracy to end the war, with Pope Benedict XV in Rome and Zita’s brother, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma across enemy lines in Brussels. A French army officer whose royal French family had recently ruled a major kingdom in Allied Italy, Sixtus commanded diplomatic access and respect. Unable to trust even his own diplomats who were beholden to Germany, Karl personally arranged passage through neutral Switzerland, Zita wrote inviting her brother to Vienna and their mother delivered the letter herself. Sixtus arrived in secret and Karl offered massive concessions for peace to France, which held the wartime Alliance together. France would regain Alsace-Lorraine (lost after the 1880 Franco-Prussian War), Belgium and Serbia would become independent while Istanbul (Turks were junior partners with Germany and Austria-Hungary) would be given to strengthen Russia: both Karl and Pope Benedict feared that Bolshevik communism could topple Moscow’s unstable but moderate post-Czarist government. If France agreed, but Germany refused to cooperate, Karl’s vast empire would still stop fighting.
But even by 1917, too many powers still thirsted for slaughter: Italy and France lusted after more of their opponents’ land, Britain shared their hope that President Woodrow Wilson would break his campaign promise and bring America into the war, while after a few temporary victories the bellicose German Kaiser wanted an even bigger fight with Russia. The young Emperor and the old Pope were outnumbered; their peaceful hopes destroyed. As the Austrian Armistice began in late 1918, nearly 1.5 million Austro-Hungarian soldiers lay dead. Not even two years after the dynamic youth was thrust into power, his dreams were ashes.
War had strengthened the forces of European ideology and fragmentation, both communist and nationalist. President Wilson’s non-negotiable Fourteen Points demanded autonomy for (chiefly Austria-Hungary’s) many small constituent states, although there were no opinion polls to measure support and the only parties consulted were agitators wanting power for themselves.
Karl cooperated: his earlier plans for federalism and subsidiarity could be hastened. Instantly, the Allies declared it insufficient so he obliged, granting full autonomy to Poland and creating a four-part federal union of the rest. But the victors kept moving the goal-posts day by day; demanding ever smaller independent units. Wilson’s objective was to smash every last vestige of continental Christian Europe’s thousand-year order. America’s allies were already gutted by long years of trench-warfare. Now, Austria-Hungary’s leftist, nationalist, and anti-royalist groups could squabble over small territories while America would overshadow them all. Moreover, many of the empire’s elites were probably at less risk from fragmentation than from Karl’s reforms, especially if spread and strengthened in peacetime. No doubt but he had alienated the powerful and corrupt.
The young man, whom ordinary people began to call “The Peace Emperor,” refused to abdicate, believing that God had given him a task to fulfill and fearing the ideologies that led to Hitler and communism. It all moved quickly. Virtually a week after the November Austrian Armistice, he signed a limited manifesto relinquishing control of government, which he called “the equivalent to a cheque which a street thug has forced me to issue at gunpoint.” His loyal supporters twice tried to restore his Hungarian throne, but the “temporary” rulers had swiftly acquired a taste for power. In 1921, separated cruelly from their children, Karl and his pregnant empress were forced aboard a British naval vessel, taken into remote exile and deposited, virtually penniless and alone.
Here’s our fourth surprise; how Karl responded to defeat. Without anger or violence he remained bright-minded and calm, indefatigable but ever prepared to compromise. First and foremost, The Peace Emperor retained the divinely-inspired peace within himself; even exiled to the remote Portuguese island of Madeira, even when they could no longer afford their simple hotel and moved into an unheated mountain lodge with mildew growing up the walls, even when they lacked enough to eat. Months later, denied even an allowance for firewood, their seven shivering children arrived. Despite his increasingly parlous health, Karl insisted on hiking far down into the village to buy them a few small toys. It was cold and wet. He sickened, his bronchitis became pneumonia and he took to his bed for the last time. He was only 34.
His primitive local doctors injected him with turpentine and bled him as if in the 18th Century. His wife and children gathered at his bedside for daily Mass, where he explained, “I must suffer like this so my people will come together again.” Calling for Last Rites he insisted that his eldest son watch, saying “I would have liked to have spared him… But I had to…show him…how one conducts oneself at times like this–as a Catholic and as an Emperor.” At the end he laid his hand on the stomach of Zita, pregnant with their eighth, as together they prayed for their unborn child. His last words to her were “I love you so much.” Then, too weak to even kiss the crucifix she held out to him, he slipped into a dialogue with the invisible, pausing between replies: “I can’t go on much longer. Thy will be done… Yes… Yes… As you will it… Jesus!” Then he died, with the Holy Name on his lips, leaving the fifth surprise to come.
As news spread, the novelist Anatole France said, “No one will ever persuade me that the war could not have been ended long ago. The Emperor Charles offered peace. There is the only honest man who occupied an important position during the war, but he was not listened to… The Emperor Charles had a sincere desire for peace, so everyone hates him.” Just the powerful; not everyone, as we’ll see.
The widowed empress donned black and never wore colour again; praying for her husband’s soul with her rosary, daily hearing multiple Masses and reciting part of the Divine Office in what became her lifelong regimen. Any traditionalist threat to Europe’s lethal New Order dissolved with Karl’s death, so she was allowed to move her family to Spain. As war inevitably loomed again Zita fled Europe for Quebec, still so poor that she was seen in the parks picking dandelions to feed her children salads and watery soups.
Her barely grown-up eldest son, the Archduke Otto, began his seventy-year-long statesman’s career by vigorously opposing first the Nazis (who feared and despised him), then ideology of all varieties, pressing for European reunification and, in the 1990s, helping his daughter Walburga to organise the cross-border picnics-cum-protests that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. The Empress Zita returned to Europe in 1952, making annual visits to the French abbey of Solesmes, where her sisters had been nuns and she became an oblate soon after widowhood. She spoke often and simply; of her husband and their past, of their faith and their dreams. Zita died peacefully in 1989, age 96, surrounded by her adoring children and large extended family.
Zita’s funeral maintained an ancient Habsburg tradition born of pious humility. Mourners bearing her coffin twice demanded entrance to the royal crypt, first reciting dozens of Zita’s royal titles and then only “Zita, Her Majesty the Empress and Queen.” Twice the monks claimed not to know her. Only when described as a mere “sinful, mortal human being,” did the holy men step aside. Meanwhile ordinary people, inspired around the world, contributed to the next surprise using methods long deployed by Karl and Zita: they prayed.
Pope John Paul the Great beatified The Blessed Karl in 2004. The global campaign had begun in 1949 Vienna, Karl was declared a Servant of God in 1954 and one of the two officially-identified miracles needed for canonization has been recognized so far (several more claims are under investigation). His late widow, now The Servant of God Zita, received Vatican assent in 2008 through her abbey. Their power to inspire grows larger every year.
The Blessed Karl’s feast is celebrated neither on the day of his birth, nor his imperial accession, nor his death, but on his wedding day – October 21st – the happiest in his brief life. Reunited already, Karl and Zita may yet share the same Feast Day as saints. So a sixth and seventh surprise may lie ahead.
Were there ever a pair of saints needed now, it is surely they. Sharing the holiness, simplicity and zeal of Pope Francis, standing for European unity through subsidiarity (not centralization and remote bureaucracy), fearless against injustice and corruption, stalwart for children born or unborn, unshakably and traditionally moral yet compassionate and unafraid of change, they represent the best ideals of Christian leadership across our imperiled Western Civilization. Their canonizations would invigorate the good, point the way forward to the lost and embolden the disheartened.
Let us pray for them, and they for us.
Note: the website for the canonization of The Blessed Karl is here; for the beatification of The Servant of God Zita here. Both feature a wealth of biographical material, news, prayers, and more. The volunteers’ research, paperwork and small organizational expenses cannot be sustained without donations.
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