There is an especially poignant one among the many stories of Otto von Habsburg’s illustrious life. It describes a very left-wing Austrian journalist who came to interview him and inquired sarcastically: “How do I address you? Dr Habsburg? Herr von Habsburg? Your Highness?”
The heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary replied with his inimitable smile, clever and humble at the same time: “Whichever you feel most comfortable with. If your family name is Habsburg, the exact form of address doesn’t really matter”.
His Imperial and Royal Highness (HIRH) the Archduke Otto of Austria – for the last time I shall call him with his full title - has passed away this week at the age of 98. He was a unique man – the last Crown Prince of a pre-World War I European empire, who lived to see the post-Cold War Europe take shape. Moreover, who as a founder of Pan-European Union and member of European parliament was active in helping this new Europe come to life.
The son of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary Karl I, he witnessed his father’s humiliating abdication in November 1918 in the Blue salon of the palace of Schoenbrunn, watched his two attempts to regain the throne of Hungary, which he never renounced, experienced exile and poverty. Emperor Karl died in exile in 1922 on the Portuguese island of Madeira, abandoned by everyone. His son saw him beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 2004 as a peacemaker. The mass in Rome for the “Blessed Karl of Austria” gathered, besides thousands of believers, more than seven hundred Habsburgs, including Otto’s own seven children and quite some grandchildren. It was a brilliant display for the staying power of a dynasty that was and still is a European phenomenon.
I first met the archduke in 2004, when I interviewed him for the BBC. He had this distinct royal quality of putting people at ease. He was proud of the Habsburgs’ history and conscious of nearly a thousand years of history that he inherited. But he also was a devoted Christian who never let his fabulous lineage get in the way of normal socialising. I remember my recorder’s battery going down 40 minutes into the conversation. The archduke took it in his stride and suggested in a friendly tone: “So shall we go through this again?” And we did. Since then there were several meetings, both on and off the record, which left me under the spell of Otto von Habsburg’s singular personality. The range of his interests was breathtaking, but politics and political philosophy were his real forte. He could always back up a point by saying something like: “Charles De Gaulle once told me…” or “I disagreed with Franklin Roosevelt about this…” He met pretty much everyone who was anyone in the last hundred years – from his father’s uncle Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria to Boris Yeltsin, from Solzhenitsyn to all the popes starting from Pius XI. But he always insisted that de Gaulle and FDR were the two politicians he admired most – apart from his father, who was his hero.
“The only person I ever specifically refused to meet in 1933 was Hitler, HIRH told me. Goering called me, when I was on a visit to Berlin, and asked if I want to meet the Fuehrer. But it never entered my mind to accord him this honour”. In five years Otto was prepared to fly to Austria as it was collapsing under Nazi pressure and face Hitler with the only weapon he possessed – his family name. But the government of Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg preferred to bow to the Nazis rather than let a Habsburg back into the country. The Austrian republic was very vindictive and only started to lift the ban on the members of the Imperial family entering Austria in 1960s.
Archduke Otto remained an Austrian patriot, as well as Hungarian, Czech, Croatian and Slovenian one – he felt a special responsibility for all the former Crown Lands. But first and foremost he was a committed European. Not in a cold and functionalist way the bureaucrats in Brussels would describe it. HIRH believed that Europe was bound together by bonds of history, religious heritage and cultural affinity. He always felt that moral and spiritual foundations provide for a better unity than contrived political schemes. The Pan-European Union he founded after World War II was visionary in its anticipation of the European integration. It suffices to say that the archduke suggested the creation of a pan-European Presidency in 1956, more than half a century before Herman van Rompey was appointed to the position.
Having never had a throne, this prince adopted all Europe as his kingdom, much the way his forbear the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V did in 16th century.
Archduke Otto was a passionate believer in the free will of the people and their right to a form of government they deem worthy of trust. “You are a Crown Prince of Austria, I once asked him, you must be a monarchist?!” “I am a legitimist, HIRH replied. I do not care what the form of government is as long as it has democratic legitimacy and upholds freedom for its people”.
The archduke’s twenty years in the European parliament were dedicated to two causes – European unity and freedom for Central and Eastern Europe, when it was under the Communist yoke. He turned down an offer of Hungarian presidency in the late 1980’s-early 1990s in order to remain an MEP and help these nations integrate into the EU. HIRH never expected anything in exchange – he just saw it as his moral and political duty. In fact duty and faith in God were the two ideas that guided him in life.
This is not to say I always agreed with him. I thought Archduke Otto was sometime naïve when it came to the role in Islam in modern world and today’s Europe. His support for self-determination of the peoples also sometimes blinded him to unpleasant political realities that politicians have to face in practice.
For some reason he has a reputation of having been anti-Russian. He was no doubt anti-authoritarian and anti-Communist, but not anti-Russian. In fact I remember the archduke telling me in 2007, during his 95th birthday celebrations in Munich: “I am proud to have been the one who introduced Boris Yeltsin to the European Parliament in 1990. I know he had his share of mistakes, but I also think that in the final count Yeltsin had a vision for a free Russia that will eventually be its salvation”. In a way his vision for Russia wasn’t in some ways that different from his view of, say, Luxemburg. The archduke thought that it is the acceptance of European values that makes a country truly European. Even his misplaced romantic view of the Chechens, especially during the 1990s war, turned out to be strangely prophetic, as more and more Russians increasingly ask themselves whether the sacrifices in the North Caucasus were worth the cost.
His views, his good deeds and his faults belong to history now. It is the history that this unique Habsburg helped make for better rather than for worse by his unwavering devotion to the twin Christian values of freedom and moral responsibility.
For me Archduke Otto was and will remain an uncrowned emperor of Europe, Europe that Russia, I hope, will eventually be proud to be part of.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.