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The Centennial That Wasn’t—Yet! by Charles A. Coulombe

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The Centennial That Wasn’t—Yet!

April 1st, 2022 marked the passage of a century since the death by pneumonia in utter poverty of Blessed Charles I, Emperor-King of Austria-Hungary and its various constituent realms. Inheriting alongside the throne in 1916 a war which he had opposed and was not responsible for, the hapless-but-holy Monarch desperately sought peace abroad and justice at home. His failure at the hands of enemies, allies, and domestic politicians alike resulted in his exile to Switzerland, along with his redoubtable consort, Zita, and their constantly expanding tribe of children. Bound by coronation oaths they both regarded as being as sacred as the marriage vows that were the foundation of their lives together, they could not renounce the thrones upon which God had placed them, even after two failed attempts at restoration in Hungary landed them in exile in Madeira. Their refusal to do so led the victorious allied powers not only to deprive them of access to their own funds, but to forbid their supporters to send them any funds as well—thus placing them in the position which cost Charles his life. 

This white martyrdom was of course the work of a fairly foul cast of characters: Lloyd George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, and Orlando of Italy to begin with—the first named was Charles’ actual gaoler, and so the most responsible in the immediate. Behind them was our very own Woodrow Wilson, whose insistence on Charles’ deposition opened the way not only for his death, but that of millions more: “If the Allies at the peace table at Versailles had allowed a Hohenzollern, a Wittelsbach and a Habsburg to return to their thrones, there would have been no Hitler,” in the words of Winston Churchill. 

Of course, the German Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, who had quietly taken control of Germany from Wilhelm II during the course of the war, played their part by trampling over Charles’ objection to unrestricted submarine warfare (which brought the United States and ultimate defeat into the war) and shipping Lenin to Russia (thereby unleashing Communism). Nor can we leave out the leaders of the so-called “successor states”—three traitorous figures who also played significant roles in the drama: Austria’s Karl Renner, Hungary’s Admiral Horthy, and Czechoslovakia’s Tamas Masaryk (whose far better son, Jan, retained his loyalty to their Sovereign until he died). There were other players, to be sure, but this crew were the most prominent. 

When Our Lord was crucified, after lancing Him in His side, St. Longinus cried out “Surely, this was the Son of God.” At. St. Joan of Arc’s burning, an anonymous English soldier shouted, “God help us, we have burned a Saint!” None of Bl. Charles’ particular Herods, Pontius Pilates, Caiphases, Annases and so on made any such cry. It was left to Anatole France to write: “Emperor Charles sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world.”

The Gebetsliga (“League of Prayer”) that had been started to pray for the then five-year-old Archduke at the urging of a Stigmatic Ursuline nun had kept up their prayers during the long years of his youth, adulthood, heirship, troubled reign, and exile. After Charles’ death, they shifted their focus to working for his beatification. With a miracle approved, he was duly beatified by Pope St. John Paul II (whose father, a loyal non-commissioned officer in the Imperial army, had named him Karol in Bl. Charles’ honour). Another miracle has since been approved, fulfilling the necessary requirements for Sainthood. In the meantime, his consort Zita’s cause has been introduced, giving her the title of “Servant of God,” until such time as either she is declared Venerable or her case is closed. Reflecting the importance of his married life, his feast does not mark the day of his death but the anniversary his wedding to Zita, October 21—doubtless if she is beatified, it shall become their joint feast-day. The victories denied the Emperor-King in life appear to have come afterwards; his cultus has grown in popularity across the globe, and nowhere more than in the United States, where there are now 19 shrines in his honour.

Thus it was that there were a number of Americans (including this writer) among the pilgrims who gathered at Madeira this past April 1st to venerate Charles’ tomb on that lonely but lovely island. The Habsburgs themselves were out in force, including the Head of the House, Charles’ grandson and namesake, Archduke Karl. Members of the Gebetsliga came also from all over Europe and North America, as well as members of other interested organisations. The heir to the Portuguese Throne, the doughty Dom Duarte de Braganza, was also there. The previous day’s Rosary in the Jesuit Church of Funchal and the concert that followed sponsored by the Hungarian Consulate were lovely; on the day itself there was a Solemn Mass in the Cathedral in Bl. Charles’ honour, a very convivial lunch at the college, and a holy hour and Benediction at the shrine. It was spiritually enriching and mentally uplifting, and truly one of the most memorable occasions of this writer’s life. But a key element was missing…

That lacuna was in no way the fault of either the sponsoring ecclesiastical and secular institutions, or of the members of the dynasty. All hands laid to in a way that I have no doubt shall bring all the organisers as well as the participants innumerable blessings. No, what was missing was entirely beyond the ability of any of those present to provide. In a word, it was reparation.

The death of Bl. Emperor Charles was quite simply a crime, perpetrated on behalf of their governments and peoples by the men earlier referred to. In 1925, the Austrian Dominican and later Curia Cardinal Andreas Frühwirth (1845-1933) expressed his sorrow at the persecution of the imperial family in prophetic words: “Austria will still have a lot to suffer; the oppression of widows and orphans is the sin that cries out to heaven.” The Austrian Government never did hold the referendum on republican status which was the price offered for Charles’ “withdrawal from government” in 1918. And whilst holding on to real estate stolen from the family by the Germans in 1938—“Nazi loot,” as it were—the Austrian Republic continues to take literally millions of foreign and domestic dollars annually through exploiting the Habsburg memory and heritage. In this, of course, they are not alone—Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and the other successor States do so as well. In Austria especially, but to varying degrees in the others, this exploitation of the Habsburg legacy continues alongside an unrelenting and ongoing blackening of the dynasty’s historic record. Even Charles’ beatification was held up for decades by opposition from elements in both the Austrian Church and State—it took the ever-loyal Sergeant Wojtyla’s courageous son to break it down, and give the holy Emperor-King the beatification whose stringent requirements he had long before fulfilled.

One can understand this attitude, of course, which the late Archduke Otto, Charles’ eldest son and heir, once pithily characterised as the equivalent of a “mental complex.” You see, Bl. Charles, having been a Saint, his opponents and persecutors were obviously guilty of a terrible crime. But the current status quo owes its very being to that crime (setting aside the profit Hitler and Stalin derived from it temporarily). In justice, what was lacking from the Centennial ceremonies were acts of reparation on the part of the governments of the former Allies, Germany, and the Successor States. One might go so far as to reflect with Cardinal Frühwirth that what has happened in Central Europe—and, as we see in Ukraine, continues today—is at least partly a punishment for that long ago crime. But before there can be absolution for a sin, there must be repentance; for that, there must be acknowledgement that a sin has been committed. For governments, as much as for individuals, however, it is always easier to continue blackening the name of the object of their sin than to admit what they have done. Yet the longer they deny it, the more they must suppress remorse, and so the more they must calumniate. Hence, as things stand, at this centennial there could be no representatives of the presidents of the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Her Majesty the Queen laying wreathes, bowing heads, and offering condolences.

And yet, things are changing. On the one hand, Habsburg historiography—particularly in English but to some degree in all the languages of the old Empire, save, noticeably, German—is undergoing a revolution. So far from being a doomed, creaking, and inefficient “prison of nations” that had to be destroyed so that mankind in general and Europe in particular could progress to sweetness and light, modern historians increasingly see the Habsburg Monarchy as an entity that worked well—at least, better than anything that has succeeded it—and would have continued to do so had it not been for war, defeat, and Woodrow Wilson’s enmity. Moreover, the continuing bonds of the territories between Tyrol and Transylvania are increasingly noted by sociologists. In countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro, divided between formerly Habsburg and non-Habsburg sections, it is noted that divisions on such things as voting patterns and attitudes toward government run closely along the old-1914 boundaries; this has been dubbed “the Habsburg effect.”

This increasing realisation that with the Habsburgs something deeply important for these peoples was lost, alongside the growth of Bl. Charles’ cultus in his old countries, has led to such things in Prague as the re-erection of the Marian Column (torn down in 1918 as an attack on Catholic Altar and Habsburg throne), the statue of Austrian hero-Field Marshal Radetsky, and the Double Eagle on the Fountain in the Prague Castle Courtyard. The day he died, Bl. Charles asserted that he was suffering “that my peoples might come back together.” It may well be that a century after his death, his prayers are beginning to have that effect. This is particularly poignant when one reflects that today his former subjects are threatened from both sides, by corruption on the part of their Western nominal allies, and by political domination by their Russian neighbour.

Another reflection that came to mind during the events in Madeira was that in a real sense, the crime that resulted in Charles being entombed on that island—rather than with his ancestors, wife, and children in Vienna’s Kaisergruft—has unwittingly universalized him. Far from being a Saint of local interest in the heart of his former territories, Charles’ presence outside the European continent strangely gives a relevance to all of us across the world who long for leaders with the traits he embodied, and which are so completely lacking in the current crop of the world’s overlords: sacrificial leadership, personal bravery, and unstinting loyalty to his subjects, wife, children, and family. In a very real sense, he is the spiritual Emperor of everyone across this planet who desires such leaders—hence the multiplication of his shrines, not only in his old realms and the United States but Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere.

So, while Charles’ Centennial did not feature ritual obeisances by the successors of those who so cruelly wronged him and all whom he loved, one may hope for something different from the quasqui- or sesquicentennials. It may be that young people living today, by taking to heart the lessons he taught by his life and sacrifice, shall live in a world where this injustice is at last put to rest. This is certainly something we can pray for, which Emperor Charles himself—with his deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, and the Holy Rosary—would certainly have recommended. In this, as in so much else, he has given us an excellent example; it is up to us to follow him.

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.