A member of the ancient Habsburg family that had ruled central Europe since the 13th century, Karl (also called Charles) became heir-apparent after the assassination of his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The archduke’s assassination on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, then part of the Austrian empire, sparked World War I exactly one month later.
As Franz Ferdinand’s successor, Karl ruled a large portion of south-central Europe after the death of his great-uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1916.
The Pacifist Emperor
The future emperor and his bride, Zita, an Italian princess, 1911
The new monarch was a reluctant warlord and frustrated peacemaker who explained his pacifism in a letter to his wife Zita shortly after the war began:
“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.”
Upon his accession, the new kaiser immediately put out peace-feelers to France in letters which French premier Georges Clemenceau leaked to the press. The prime minister advocated “total war until the end” and victory
Although Karl’s foreign minister wanted to include Germany in any peace settlement, the Austrian emperor secretly offered to make a separate peace with the Allies, that is, without Germany.
Embarrassed and afraid of his more powerful ally, Kaiser Wilhelm, Karl denied authorship of the letters.
After his overtures were rebuffed by the Allied powers, Karl resumed Austria’s uncomfortable and unequal alliance with Germany.
Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to continue fighting until his generals convinced him that Germany was exhausted and the war was lost in late 1918.
Unlike all of the other belligerents on both sides, the Austrian emperor ordered an end to biological and chemical warfare by his troops while the Allies continued to poison their enemies, including an Austrian corporal.
Some historians speculate that Hitler’s anti-Semitism became lethal during his hospitalization after being gassed in 1918.
After the war, Karl remained an imperialist – literally, seeking to hold together the restive ethnic minorities who had chafed under Austrian domination for centuries. Long-suffering Poland, which had been partitioned out of existence in the 18th century by Prussia, Austria and Russia, would be granted full independence under Karl’s post-war plan.
To the Losers Go No Spoils
However, Czechoslovaks, the Slavs of southern Europe (Yugoslavs), Ukrainians, and Hungarians would gain autonomy but remain in a federation dominated by Karl and the rump state of Austria.
The ethnic minorities rejected autonomy and declared independence from their defeated masters, the Habsburgs.
More importantly, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing agreed with the minorities and backed them up with the prestige and military power of the United States.
Although Imperial Austria’s last prime minister, Heinrich Lammasch, told Karl that retaining his throne was an impossibility, the emperor engaged in face-saving semantics.
He refused to abdicate, but “relinquished [his] participation in the administration of the State.” His abdication in all but name was announced on November 11, 1918, the same day the armistice ending World War I was signed.
Austria and Hungary Reject Their Ousted Emperor-King
The following day, Austria preempted any restoration of the Habsburgs’ imperial rule by declaring itself a republic. A few days later, Hungary did the same.
Despite his pacifism and humanitarian gestures that banned poison gas, Karl remained a reactionary who believed in the Divine Right of Kings (and emperors) to rule unopposed and without consultation.
In a secret letter to the cardinal-archbishop of Vienna, Friedrich Piffl, he felt that his resignation had been extorted:
“I did not abdicate, and never will. I see my manifesto of 11 November as the equivalent to a cheque which a street thug has forced me to issue at gunpoint. I do not feel bound by it in any way whatsoever.”
Avoiding the Fate of the Romanovs in Russia
Protected by an armed British escort to prevent a massacre similar to the one that befell the Romanovs following the Russian Revolution, Karl left Austria for Switzerland on March 24, 1919.
While en route by train, he issued another statement that reiterated his resolve to hold on to power: "Whatever the national assembly of Austria has resolved with respect to these matters since 11 November is null and void for me and my House."
In early April of that year, Austria’s new parliament ended any hope of a Habsburg restoration by declaring the ex-emperor persona non grata in Austria and forbidding his return in perpetuity.
His relatives were allowed to remain in the country if they agreed to reject their claims to the throne and become ordinary citizens of the new Austrian “republic,” which was actually a clerico-fascist dictatorship.
Austria’s Virulently Anti-Semitic Post-war Government
One of the early chancellors (prime ministers) of Austria was a Catholic priest and virulent anti-Semite, Father Ignaz Seipel, known as the “bloody prelate” after he supported right-wing paramilitary groups in street battles against leftist parties.
On the same day that the emperor’s exile was made permanent, the Austrian government abolished aristocratic titles, unlike Germany’s post-war Weimar Republic, which also abolished the privileges of the nobility but made their titles part of their legal name.
Despite centuries of enmity between Austria and Hungary during their unequal partnership, Karl tried to regain the Hungarian throne in 1921 – twice. He was thwarted by Admiral Milós Horthy, Hungary’s post-war dictator.
Although Karl’s supporters considered the admiral a traitor, he had a practical reason for rebuffing the ex-kaiser. The Allies threatened invasion in the event of a Habsburg restoration in Hungary.
Exile and Poverty
The imperial family, including Karl’s seven children, ended up on the Portuguese island of Madeira, the ex-emperor’s Elba. They lived in poverty there in a succession of crumbling villas.
On April 1, 1922, after catching a cold during a walk to buy toys for his ailing son, he died of pneumonia and pulmonary arrest after suffering two heart attacks.
The Austrian government rejected its former sovereign even in death. Attempt to inter him in the family mausoleum in Vienna failed. He was buried in Madeira.
The Mixed Verdict of History
Helmut Rumpler, a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, called Karl “a dilettante, far too weak for the challenges facing him, out of his depth, and not really a politician.”
British scholar Herbert Vivian was kinder in his assessment of the former emperor:
“Karl was a great leader, a prince of peace, who wanted to save the world from a year of war; a statesman with ideas to save his people from the complicated problems of his empire; a king who love his people, a fearless man, a noble soul, distinguished, a saint from whose grave blessing come.”
French novelist Anatole France agreed and called Austria’s last emperor “a saint no one listened to.”
Karl’s Papal Fan
The Vatican literally agreed with those who applauded Karl’s saintly pacifism. After two miracles were attributed to him, Pope John Paul II, a fellow reactionary, beatified the last kaiser in October 2004.
“To his eyes, war appeared as something appalling,” the Pope said during the beatification ceremony, the last step before canonization or sainthood.
Sadly, none of World War I’s other belligerents were not appalled by a war that killed 20 million. If Karl’s attempt to broker a peace settlement in 1917 had succeeded, as many as five million lives might have been spared.
Empress Zita is currently being considered for beatification – in part because of her resistance to Nazi Germany after it annexed Austria in 1938.
Karl’s Heirs: Like Father Unlike Son
Karl's son and heir, Otto, 2004
Otto von Habsburg, Karl’s eldest son and heir, also fought in the resistance against Hitler. He was offered the crown of Spain by dictator Francisco Franco in 1961, but declined. Otto urged Franco to appoint a cousin, Juan Carlos, the current king of Spain.
Also in 1961, Otto reluctantly abandoned his claim to the Habsburgs’ various thrones. His reluctance did not reflect his father’s reactionary philosophy of his divine right to rule. Otto resented Austria’s demand that he also refrain from politics.
Otto ignored that part of the agreement and served as Bavaria’s representative in the European Parliament, a transnational legislative body described as Europe’s most powerful.
Beating Up a Very Vocal Opponent of the Pope
During John Paul II’s address at the European Parliament in 1988, Ian Paisley, a Protestant pastor and a representative for Northern Ireland, heckled the pope: “I denounce you as the Antichrist!”
Otto and other parliamentary members grabbed Paisley’s protest sign and bodily and brutally ejected him from the chamber. Some members assaulted the fundamentalist preacher, who had to be hospitalized. It’s not known if Otto was one of the assailants.
As a life-long advocate for refugees and victims of ethnic cleansing, Otto continued his father’s humanitarian work while avoiding his father’s reactionary politics and futile pursuit of a Habsburg restoration.
And as a literal defender of the papacy, Otto might one day be beatified and canonized.
The son of Austria’s last emperor died in July 2011 at the age of 98.
The Family Saga and Soap Opera Continue
Karl von Habsburg, Otto’s elder son, has had an unusual and checkered career. Before joining his father as a member of the European Parliament, he hosted a game show on Austrian TV.
In 1998, Karl was fined $14,000 for smuggling a diamond broach, a family heirloom, into Austria from Switzerland. In 2005, the Austrian government rejected Karl’s suit which sought restoration of Habsburg family property.
“Karl Jr.’s” eldest son and heir to little more than the family name and leader of the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece is Archduke Ferdinand.
Like the rest of the family, Ferdinand never refers to himself as archduke because of the post-World War I ban on all aristocratic and imperial titles.
There’s no word on any plans by the Vatican to canonize either Karl Jr. (actually, Karl II) or his son.
Supporters of the Habsburg heirs are still awaiting the three miracles required for sainthood – and the future saints’ death.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders