Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy

by Charles Coulombe

Gastonia, N.C.: TAN Books, 2020

So, let’s say you are an (English-speaking) Catholic and you know it’s a wonderful thing to have a devotion to Blessed Emperor Karl, the last Habsburg emperor — but you don’t really know him.

Or perhaps you realize that you never quite noticed that this young family man took the reins of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1916 from the legendary Kaiser Franz Joseph (who had reigned for nearly 68 years) for only two years — only to see the Empire crumble in 1918.

Or maybe you recently discovered that, somehow, this mild-mannered man with a tiny moustache had been beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II — which means he was a saint — and you wonder: why on earth would he be venerated as a man of great holiness?

In all three cases, Charles Coulombe’s latest book is THE book to read about Blessed Karl. For several reasons.

The late head of my family, Otto von Habsburg (the son of Blessed Emperor Karl), had a saying he often repeated: “Wer nicht weiß, woher er kommt, weiß nicht, wohin er geht, weil er nicht weiß, wo er steht.” That is: “If you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you are going — because you don’t know where you stand.”

This is especially true for Blessed Emperor Karl. In order to understand why, in a totally hopeless situation of exile, the father of a young family tried twice to reclaim the Hungarian throne, you need to know what shaped his ideas of reign, duty, and faith. And this is what Charles Coulombe does in spades.

Before you even get to witness the birth of the future Emperor, Coulombe has taken you, for 70 pages, through veritable primers on the Imperial Idea and the Sacred Monarchy, and through the history of the Habsburg dynasty, in what I would call “universal history according to Coulombe.” It’s not only necessary to understand the life of Blessed Karl: it is also highly readable and enjoyable — so take your time with it.

The real eye-opener for me was Coulombe’s chapter on the Pietas Austriaca, in which he gives you a tour of the public (and personal) piety of Habsburg rulers through the centuries. This section will resonate strongly with you if you are at all familiar with frequent (daily) Mass, the use of the Brown Scapular, making pilgrimages to shrines of Our Lady, Eucharistic processions, and other Catholic devotional traditions.

But finally, once we read about the birth of the Emperor, we are treated to his life story through 200 pages that — honestly — breeze by. Coulombe weaves an engaging narrative that allows us to get closer to this gentle, deeply pious, loving man, and his beautiful, strong-willed wife and eight children. Coulombe also manages to easily dispel many of the myths surrounding Blessed Karl (for instance, that he was not prepared for ruling or that he was an incompetent soldier).

The author tells the story of how Karl gets closer and closer to the throne, and finally ascends it during the worst possible moment; how he then fights for peace in the middle of a raging World War; and how he loses his Empire and, finally, dies in exile, “as an emperor does.” We then understand how his entire life had been a preparation for this moment of death. (Never forget that he and his wife went to Holy Mass every day.)

This is where Karl’s story seemingly ends. But it is not the end of the book. In the final chapters, Coulombe builds a bridge from 1922 to our own times by narrating the lives of Empress Zita and her children, then focusing on Archduke Otto and his legacy, and, finally, describing the Beatification of Karl. As Otto von Habsburg might say, the book has taught its readers where Blessed Karl came from, where he stood, and where he went.

An image from the wedding of Charles I and Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma in 1911. They were married in the chapel of the bride’s ancestral Schloss Schwarzau am Steinfeld in Austria. Image courtesy of the Kaiser Karl Gebetsliga (Prayer League).

A few additional thoughts: It might help to be Catholic — or, at least, a Christian believer — when reading this book. This is because the faith is the central concept in this book about the Habsburgs (unlike Martyn Rady’s tome on the Habsburg family, which I previously reviewed for the Catholic Herald ). So, furious atheists or die-hard agnostics might not get as much out of Coulombe’s book as a more religiously inclined reader.

Also, don’t expect radical new ideas or shocking new revelations. This is not the focus of Coulombe’s book. Rather, he has sought to gather all the known material, throw in his great historical erudition, and help the reader understand where Karl came from — and how and why his roots, his faith, and his moral convictions shaped his decisions as a Christian, as a father, and as an Emperor. He doesn’t uncover new or unknown sources but provides an immensely readable primer on a man that a majority of the now living Habsburgs consider as their role model.

Coulombe knows the many locations of the story of Blessed Karl’s life and has personally visited many of them — all of this in a truly beautiful and witty English, I may add. You may not know it, but the author is not only a Catholic historian but was also a comedian in his past. Although this nearly never breaks through or intrudes on the narrative of Blessed Karl in this book, Coulombe’s charm sparkles just under the surface the entire time.

Does anyone need more reasons to order this book now? I don’t think so.