It is impossible to describe European history without mentioning the Habsburgs. From this family there came German, Spanish, Bohemian, and Hungarian Kings, as well as Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and Austria-Hungary. Many of the qualities and virtues of the great Habsburg personalities of old were recognisable in Otto von Habsburg: the piety of Emperor Karl V, the enthusiasm for work and sense of duty of Emperor Franz Joseph, the love of different European peoples and ethnic groups of his father, Emperor Karl (beatified in 2004). But another blessing was given to him by God: longevity. Like his ancestor Emperor Friedrich III, Otto von Habsburg defeated his enemies by outliving them.
Archduke Otto also had the ability to rise above defeat, to continue working diligently regardless of obstacles, and to follow his ideals to the end. He may have been born with these qualities, but they were certainly strengthened during the trials of his adventurous and eventful life. Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker, Edvard Benés and Willy Brandt, Slobodan Milošević and Bruno Pittermann all hated Otto von Habsburg. Persecuted and defamed by “red” and “brown” ideologues alike, the Archduke’s life was shaped by a common theme: duty. He had inherited neither Empire nor crown, neither kingdom nor throne; however, he was painfully aware that he bore a responsibility that could not be delegated.
Originally born to be the Emperor of many peoples, he instead became a selfless defender of human rights, an incorruptible lawyer arguing on behalf of oppressed people everywhere, and an advocate for a free, peaceful and united Europe.
The Austrian writer William S. Schlamm, who was a passionate Communist as a young man and later became a great conservative writer, had already written in 1977 to Otto von Habsburg: “If you had become what you were destined for, the West would have had the most important Emperor since Charlemagne. But since the West came apart in 1918, Europe today has in you the only private statesman whom it can trust.”
When Archduchess Zita bore her first-born child on November 20, 1912, in Villa Wartholz in Reichenau, Austria, the European continent was coming to the end of a long era of peace. The Habsburg Empire, which had 52 million inhabitants and was multinational as well as multilingual, seemed indestructible. But death was already passing “its bony hands over the goblets from which we drank cheerfully and childishly,” as the writer Joseph Roth later wrote.
The Galician Roth—who went from being a sceptical Socialist to a mourning Monarchist after the fall of the monarchy—saw that national-ism was becoming the religion of that epoch. And the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire at the heart of Europe, personally held together by the aging patriarch Franz-Joseph, soon became its victim. The shots of the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, in Sara-jevo not only killed the heir to the throne; they also mortally wounded the Habsburg Empire, which then staggered into the First World War.
Archduke Otto was just four years old when Franz Joseph died and his father became Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Otto was six when his family was dispossessed of its lands and banned from Austria. He had not yet reached the age of ten when his father died in exile on the Atlantic island of Madeira. Empress Zita, left destitute and without influence, but blessed with great discipline and a sense of responsibility toward the people of the Danube, educated young Otto and his seven brothers and sisters. He learned quickly and acquired a knowledge of languages, history, geography, and literature; he also learned about the duties, responsibilities—and, to a lesser extent, the rights—of an Emperor.
From Madeira, the Archduke’s family moved to Madrid, later to the Spanish Basque region, then to Luxembourg, Belgium, and Paris. While he was still working on his doctoral thesis at the University of Leuven, Otto entered politics. He was living in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. In fact, Hitler twice tried to meet the young man in order to use him and the Habsburg family name for his own purposes. This was probably the only interesting conversation he ever refused, the Archduke later recalled. But Otto had read Hitler’s writings and had no illusions whatsoever about the Nazi leader’s aims and objectives.
Otto tried everything to prevent the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria. But when he realised that Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg would not offer any resistance to Hitler, he asked him to cede the chancellorship to him—“because if Austria is in danger, then the heritage of the House of Austria has to stand or fall with the country.” Otto was convinced that the country needed to defend itself militarily, and he was prepared to risk his life in its defence.
Hitler promptly had the sons of Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrested and taken to Dachau concentration camp. He also persecuted Archduke Otto by posting “wanted” posters. The Gestapo tried to kidnap Otto and Rudolf Hess even gave the command to assassinate him. Incredibly, although he lived in constant mortal danger himself, Otto saved the lives of thousands of people, mostly Jews from Austria and neighbouring countries, by obtaining visas for them so they could flee to Spain, Portugal, or South America. When he himself was forced to leave Eu-rope for Washington, DC, he continued to fight for the recognition of Austria as a victim of Hitler.
Later, Otto von Habsburg’s influence on US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill helped to prevent Austria from disappearing completely behind the Iron Curtain. The Austrian Republic, however, was not grateful at all. Returning to the Tyrol in 1945, Otto had to leave Austria again at the urging of Soviet occupying forces and their Austrian marionette, President Karl Renner. In 1961, Otto fought for five long years for his right to re-enter his native Austria as an Austrian citizen, an effort resisted by the panicked left-wing parties who thought he might endanger the republic.
These were unjustified concerns. During his American exile, Otto von Habsburg had matured from being a European by origin and experience to a European driven by conviction. His objectives were not the crowns of his ancestors but the liberation of Europe from Communism, and the unification of the continent under the banner of peace and freedom.
As a statesman without a state, the spoken and written word be-came his weapons—sharp weapons, apparently, as illustrated by the number of his opponents and the vehemence of their attacks. In 1978, Otto obtained German citizenship in order to run for the first-ever elections of the first European Parliament. After a life filled with trials and tribulations, and a career as a columnist and writer of non-fiction, he began parliamentary work at the age of 66. He was a Bavarian Member of Parliament in both Strasbourg and Brussels. But he was also the first representative of people unable to participate in the European Project—those living under the Iron Fist of Communism.
Statesmen like Charles de Gaulle, Robert Schumann, and Konrad Adenauer had often taken his political advice. But Otto also rapidly be-came an authority beyond national borders and beyond parliamentary groups. For two decades, he worked as a lawyer for victims of Communism; he was also a champion of a Christian Europe. His diligence, intelligence and his many skills commanded the respect even of his ideological opponents.
With his increasing age, the ex-tent of his appreciation grew. In the 1970s, even though he was criticized as a “cold warrior,” his vision of a more united Europe began to come true—especially when, in 1989, the “prison societies” of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc collapsed, just as Otto von Habsburg had predicted. Then, with the great eastward enlargement of the European Union, the dream for which the Archduke had long been ridiculed finally began to come true.
Otto von Habsburg did not in-tend to restore the shattered and broken shapes of the old Empire; he intended to preserve its most precious and valuable contents within a more modern form. Just as the Holy Roman Empire and, later on, Austria-Hungary had been organised, supra-national communities characterized by diversity and tolerance, so the Archduke wished for an organised, supra-national European Union that also respected diversity and tolerance. “Europe has to grow like a tree; it does not have to be put up like skyscraper,” he often said.
A united Europe was not a new invention or construction for him but simply a rediscovery of some-thing long-forgotten. The multi-lingual and well-travelled Otto, whose family roots could be traced in so many European countries, knew from experience that it had been the poison of nationalism which had destroyed the Empire of his Fathers and shattered the continent. He thus regarded the European Union as a sanctuary, as a peaceful power, as a roof under which people of all ethnic groups could develop freely.
As International President of the Pan-Europa Union, Otto von Habsburg had intended to garner the commitment of his admirers and supporters to this grand European vision. It is a vision that is definitely not congruent with the ideas of cur-rent high-ranking EU politicians. At the same time, Archduke Otto’s true heirs are not the nostalgic types who, to the annoyance of the Imperial family, continue to promote bizarre candidatures in front of Vienna’s Capuchin Church (Kapuzinerkirche), but rather the visionaries of the Pan-European movement.