Blessed Karl von Habsburg

“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.

Denis Kitzinger


Denis Kitzinger is a Fellow and Dean of Students at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is a student of the history of Christian Europe with a particular interest in the Catholic intellectual tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

  • poetcomic1

      That arrogant prig Woodrow Wilson, the first of our Ivory Tower Pol Pot Putterers, refused to even meet with this sainted man who desperately wanted to end the bloodbath,  because he wasn’t “Democratically Elected”

    • Bmarrs

       Wilson was a fan of Karl Marx.

    • Porphyry

      WW’s campaign slogan in 1916: “He kept us out of war!” That went up in smoke about a month into his second term.

      Woody Wilson–the man Glenn Beck loves to hate. Even back then, it seems, the academics were wrong.

  • pamelanak

    I have a devotion to Blessed Emperor Karl and holy Empress Zita who also lived a long exemplary Catholic life and daily ask their prayers for the upcoming US  presidential election, among other intentions.

    • Porphyry

      We could use such help–as much as we can get.

  • S. M. de Gyurky

    As little Hungary struggles against the European Union and the International Banking Cartel which controls it: It is hard to think back on the history of the past. It is complicated. It is little known or remembered that St. Stephen offered up the Kingdom of the Hungarians (The Magyars and all other tribes which make up the Hungarians) to the Blessed Mother of Jesus after his coronation. This “offering up” was as formal a dedication as any offering given by prayer and sacrifice, and it made Hungary, the “Regnum Marianum”, which means officially to those who believe in Jesus Christ, The Kingdom of Mary the Mother of Jesus. Okay, so what? Is the response this petty statement makes today. 
    However consider this: In the terms of the dynastic traditions of David the King of Israel, the mother of the king is always the queen and not the wife as it is in the rest of the world. Read the defining moment of Basheebah as she entered the throne room of Solomon the King in the middle of a conference. Solomon got up, bowed and had a throne brought in for her to sit on his right. So what? you ask?
    Then let us consider that if Mary the Mother of Jesus is the Queen of Hungary in perpetuity, then who is the King of Hungary? Look at the Crown of St. Stephen: The two icons in the front are those of Jesus Pantocrator (the judge of the living and of the dead) one from the Pope and one from the Roman Emperor of the East Michael Dukas. Well, sadly for those who aspire to the throne of the Hungarians, Jesus of Nazareth is the King of Hungary in perpetuity. On the Crown, flanking Jesus are the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, then the great patron saints of the Roman armies, St. Demetrius and St. George, flanked by the great physicians St. Cossimo and St. Damian. The Twelve Apostles surround Jesus. To the back of the Holy Crown are the icons of the Roman Emperor, and the Founding Chieftain of the Magyar/Hungarian Federation (which in political organization is similar to those of the Cherokee, Algonquin, and Sioux here in our country). By the way, term “Hungarian” comes historically from the Latin “HUNGAVARIA” in medieval documents. This word means “The land where the Huns and Avars dwell”. It is all inclusive, because the Magyars arrived in the Danubian basin on the cries for assistance by the Avar Khans who were being exterminated by Charlemagne at the time between 760-840AD. 
    All this is inconsequential and really means nothing in the world of modern politics. If on the other hand, there is a God, named Hasheem who created the World and he has a Son named Jesus of Nazareth who really is the “Son of David” as referred to in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin); then any one seeking that crown had better understand that it is by the invitation of the Parliament of the Hungarian People alone that he is selected. It is not by birthright one becomes a king in Hungary.
    One is selected if one is worthy of the Crown of St. Stephen. The title of the King of Hungary, since the time of St. Stephen is “Apostolic Majesty” and with this title comes the right to veto the election of the Pope in Rome! When a King of the Hungarians is unworthy, or becomes sinful or ignores the implied laws combined in the Holy Crown as defined by the teachings of Jesus in the Bible, including the Sermon on the Mound: this king is committing an act of terrible sin against his people and against the Throne of Mary and Jesus. The Emperor Francis Joseph, who was also the King of Hungary, after he beat down the attempt of the Hungarians for freedom with the help of Russia, committed a sacrilege.
    He forgot what Jesus taught his followers “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy”. He had the military commanders of the Hungarians executed at Arad (now a city in Rumania). These generals are know to the Hungarians as the “Martyrs of Blood”  or in Hungarian Az Aradi Vértanúk.
    The King, had he been a good Christian and a worthy servant of Jesus, would have been merciful, but he was not. He lost the right of any Hapsburg ever to wear the Crown of St. Stephen. As an anecdote to those who are interested, this last;  of many historically abominable  acts also served to the dissolving of the Hapsburg Empire. This is regardless how as individuals they may be good roman Catholics or Christians. France and England who in 1921 at the treaty of Trianon; without any justification (Hungary had not declared war on either of them), decided to partition the Kingdom of Mary and take away her people and land will be partitioned themselves soon. Not a tear will be shed for the demise of these two countries, although on an individual basis I happen to love Shakespeare and had many dear friends living in both countries. 
    It’s sad, but Joseph of Hapsburg should not have tried to become a king of Hungary after his Austrians him out. Only at the invitation of the entire Hungarian Parliament is a person honored to be the king of the Kingdom of Mary the Mother of Jesus.

  • pjm

    Would you recommend a good historical book on this period, preferably from a Catholic prospective? Thanks.

    • pjm

      I meant Catholic “perspective”.

      • “1917, Red Banners, White Mantle” by Warren Carroll. Fantastic look at all of this.

  • Robert A Rowland

    I was born in1927, and as a child I was told by an uncle  involved in genealogy that we were distant relatives of Otto von Habsburg of Austria.  I never gave it any credibility, but every time I see an article about Karl or Otto, I feel compelled to read it. Thank you Denis for adding to my knowledge.  I would surely like to think my uncle was right.

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