“Blessed be the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt. 5:9)
Karl I (1887-1922), Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, said goodbye to his wife, Empress Zita. “I’ll love you forever”, he declared, just as he had eleven years earlier when they were married. Then he called his first born son Otto, to “witness how a Catholic and an Emperor conducts himself when dying.” The Emperor received the Sacrament of the Sick and spoke his last words: “Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes—yes. My Jesus, Thy will be done—Jesus.”
Karl died in exile. In 1919 the new Republic of Austria had banished the Emperor from his homeland by decree of the notorious Habsburg Laws. Following two failed attempts to regain the throne of Hungary, he was exiled to Portugal by the Entente powers. There the family resided in a mountain villa on the island of Madeira. In March of 1922, the Emperor caught a severe cold that soon developed into pneumonia thanks to their drafty and humid house. His mind ever directed toward the good of his people, Karl offered his illness and suffering as a sacrifice for the peace and unity of his lands: “I must suffer like this so my people will come together again.” Karl I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary died on April 1, 1922, at the age of thirty-five.
Six years earlier Karl’s reign had commenced with the funeral of his great uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916). At Karl’s birth, few thought he would one day inherit the throne; a grand nephew was simply too far removed from the line of succession.
Thus the young prince received little public attention, and he grew up to be a charming young man, devoted to his tasks whatever they were, charitable always, reverent and pious. He loved playing soldier, his future vocation. “His greatest joy,” however, “was in being allowed to be an altar boy,” his tutor recalled. From a young age Karl had a special, life-long devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Sacred Heart.
In 1900, Karl suddenly found himself second in line to the throne. He was only thirteen. His uncle Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the direct heir to the throne, had chosen to marry beneath his station—his wife was a mere Countess—and his children were accordingly excluded from imperial succession. Great scrutiny was therefore given to Karl’s marriage to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, who shared his love of the Faith as well as of family life and the outdoors. After their wedding Karl turned to her and said, “Now we must help each other to go to heaven.” The couple was blessed with eight children during the ten years of their happy and exemplary married life.
Five years later Karl led the massive funeral procession from St. Stephen’s Cathedral to the Capuchin or Imperial Crypt where the members of the House of Habsburg are put to their rest. The Archbishop of Vienna together with four other cardinals, twenty bishops and forty-eight priests celebrated the funeral mass for Franz Joseph. Thousands lined the streets of Vienna watching the procession pass by, paying their respects, and showing their affection for the old Emperor. Franz Joseph’s reign of sixty-eight years had made him a symbol of stability and continuity. With his passing, a new period of the history of Austria-Hungary began and its future now rested with the untried twenty-six year old grand-nephew.
The hour of Karl’s ascension to the throne was not a fortunate one. The terrible Great War had raged across Europe for two years. Domestically he inherited a multi-ethnic empire torn apart by nationalist zealotry and in desperate need of political and social reform, suffering from widespread misery and poverty only made worse by the war.
From the very beginning, Karl conceived of his office “as a holy service to his people” and his chief concern was “to follow the Christian vocation to holiness.” The archbishop of Budapest who crowned Karl King of Hungry recalled that “it was neither the ornamentation nor the pomp that interested him, it was only the duty that he was undertaking before God, before the nation and before the Church. He wished to be worthy of this, for which he had been chosen.” Before the high altar in the magnificent Matthias Corvinus church in Budapest, Karl pledged himself to work tirelessly for peace and justice in his realm.
In his first declaration he underlined his commitment to this sacred duty, declaring that he would “do everything to banish in the shortest possible time the horrors and sacrifices of war and to win back for my peoples the sorely-missed blessing of peace.”
In his commitment to peace he followed the efforts of Pope Benedict XV. The Holy Father had called for a peace-without-victors. But the Holy See’s proposal fell on deaf ears everywhere else but in Vienna. Amongst European statesmen, Karl stood alone.
The war started with the cheery departure of troops certain of a speedy victory. By 1916, countless numbers of Europe’s sons had fallen to the merciless trench warfare. The tragedy that triggered the chain of events leading to the outbreak of the disastrous war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo by a Serbian terrorist. Ironically, Franz Ferdinand was particularly sympathetic toward the southern Slavs and their pursuit of a united Yugoslavia. Moreover, his innovative plans for imperial reform promised the smaller nations within the empire an unprecedented degree of independence and self-determination.
Karl also recognized the need for internal reorganization and wisely envisioned the future of the monarchy along federalist principles. After his ascension he initiated a number of critically-needed social reforms and prepared the way for a federation of nations joined together by their loyalty to the House of Habsburg and based on the recognition of mutual benefit and interest. This traditional constitution would serve both the smaller nations as well as the empire and thus procure the European balance of power. Each nation’s identity and culture would be duly recognized and respected in a true unity of diversity.
But the genuinely European policy of the House of Habsburg conflicted with less judicious, rival visions for a new European order. The young and ambitious German Empire and its Emperor William II marched for a place in the sun at the head of a Germanic Mitteleuropa. Though the Western democracies favored the idea of the nation-state organized according to the republican form of government, they did not seek to break-up the Austro-Hungarian Empire—at least initially. When the United States entered the war on the side of the Entente and following Woodrow Wilson’s powerful rhetoric the Western powers rigorously pursued the vision of a post-war Europe without monarchies, without empires. The war to end all wars was to climax in a permanent peace by realizing a Europe of democratic republics based on the progressive principle of national self-determination.
Beginning in the early months of 1917 Karl took the first concrete steps to bring about a peace-without-victors. He offered far-reaching concessions. Unfortunately for Europe, for the world, the Entente powers could not be swayed. In the end the ill-conceived idea of national self-determination together with the disregard for age-old polities advanced at the Versailles peace conference only prepared the soil for the next catastrophe.
Karl’s peace policy would have been the more prudent choice. At the time, however, his desire for peace was not returned. Germany blunted his efforts. The Entente declined his offers. Peace, that “beautiful gift of God, the name of which … is the sweetest word to our hearing and the best and most desirable possession” (Benedict XV, 1920), Karl did not attain.
And yet, even his republican enemies at home remember him as the Friedenskaiser, the peace Emperor. When meditating on the life of Blessed Emperor Karl we see an encouraging example of faith. We are reminded that just rule is deeply anchored in faith. We are reminded that we can only order ourselves and the world around us well when we join our will to the will of the Father in heaven and so lay to rest all enmity between God and us. Only when we are reconciled with God and struggle to abide in peace with Him can we genuinely struggle for peace on earth. As Emperor and King, Karl sought always to imitate Jesus, the true Solomon, the true bringer of peace, and so can be called a son of God.