Archduke Otto von Habsburg: Monarch, Freedom Fighter, Catholic

On American Independence Day, Archduke Otto von Habsburg, head of Europe’s oldest house and former heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, passed from this world at the age of 98. He is being buried today in Austria. With him passed the last living remnant of Old Europe, with its memories of absolute monarchs, landed nobility, and oppressed peasants. But in reality Otto’s vagrant political career had far more in common with American ideals of liberty and Catholic social teaching than with caricatures of the ancien régime.

At age four Otto looked on as his father, Karl, was crowned emperor of Austria and king of Hungary in 1916 in the midst of the Great War. Karl, keenly sensitive to the plight of his people, immediately sought peace, but neither the Allies nor his Axis partners would negotiate short of complete victory. Two years later, the Friedenkaiser, or peace emperor, as Karl was known, was sent into permanent exile with his family, having been outlawed from their native Austria after six centuries as its rulers. The royal family, insecure and penurious, eventually settled into a modest home in Portugal, whence they watched the West’s rejection of monarchy harden in favor of a world safe for democracy.

In exile Emperor Karl maintained his dignity and staunch Catholic faith, refusing to surrender to anger or bitterness. He taught young Otto the virtues and loyalties required of a Catholic monarch who saw himself not as an autocratic despot, but as a father of his people – for  whom he remained solicitous throughout his exile. In 1922, Karl contracted pneumonia and died, leaving nine-year-old Otto the head of a fallen family with no clear political future, but with an abiding sense of faith and purpose. Blessed Karl von Habsburg, beatified in 2000, clung to a crucifix during his final illness, and he had Otto at his bedside throughout so he could learn, as the last emperor told his wife, “how one conducts oneself in such situations – as Catholic and as Emperor.”

Before Otto reached his twenty-first birthday, his political mettle was tested as Hitler rose to power. Opposing Hitler from the beginning, Otto and his family hoped to prevent the Führer’s annexation of Austria through a bid for their restoration, which never materialized. But Otto still labored selflessly for the freedom and safety for his father’s former subjects, particularly the Jews. When France fell to the Blitzkrieg, Otto fled to the United States, where as a personal guest of President Franklin Roosevelt, he continued to work for Austria’s independence.

Otto suffered deeply on account of his enforced exile from Austria, which remained hostile to him and his family. In exchange for permission to return, he was obliged to renounce his claim to the throne, an action that later in his life he called “sheer infamy,” not because he expected to rule as his father once did, but because he was forced “to resign” from his family.

Dr. Otto von Habsburg, 1912-2011

In his long absence he had developed a political philosophy that placed the protection of God-given human rights at the center of the state’s concern, a position forged, he recalled, in “those evil days of March, 1938, when the Nazis occupied Austria and my best and closest friends were sent to concentration camps.”

Writing in Modern Age in 1958, Otto argued that “the existence of inalienable human rights denies unlimited power to the state or to any other collectivity.” These rights are inviolable not because they are determined by a majority, but because of the existence of God, “since any right has to derive from a higher source.” For Otto “the concern of Christian politics is with the human person,” and “the test of a truly Christian freedom-loving state is not the rule of the majority, but the defense that state gives to the rights of minorities.”

After World War II his political experiences on the world stage convinced him of the need for a united Europe, and in 1979 he was elected to the European Parliament, where he served for twenty years representing his new home, Upper Bavaria. In an irony illustrative of the twentieth century’s great political transformations, the one-time heir to a multi-ethnic empire was elected as a foreigner to the only official political post he ever held, and it was a limited legislative body.

According to biographer Gordon Brook-Shepherd, Otto embraced his post not for personal aggrandizement, but as “the forum for promoting those aims and ideals he had cherished long before entering the Parliament.” Among these were the development of a European Union grounded in the moral principles of Christianity, equitable distribution of wealth, staunch opposition to the communist bloc, and rights and protections for minority groups.

Americans have an innate suspicion of monarchs, whom they judge as obstacles to true liberty. Otto von Habsburg was a would-be monarch who spent his political career, in both official and unofficial capacities, advocating for personal liberty grounded in Christian moral principles. The passing of this great and truly epochal figure offers a history lesson for all politicians, especially Catholics who see morality as an obstacle to popularity. As the Archduke wrote over fifty years ago, “only a state based firmly on ethics and morals can advance toward the goals of its people’s true happiness.”

Requiescat in pace.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.