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The Last Days of Emperor Charles by Hélène de Lauzun

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Essay

The Last Days of Emperor Charles

Just 100 years ago, Charles of Habsburg, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary, gave his soul up to God in his thirty-fifth year. He had taken refuge on the island of Madeira, where he lived his last moments and where his body still rests today—though his heart was collected by the Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary.

On November 11th, 1918, in the turmoil at the end of the war, Charles signed the deed by which he renounced the throne—without formally abdicating. A few months later, on March 23rd, 1919, Charles, Zita, and their children left Austrian soil for good and went into exile in Switzerland. Their meeting with Stefan Zweig inspired the writer to write one of the most poignant pages of his Welt von Gestern, when his gaze met that of the deposed emperor:

Then I recognized behind the glass of the carriage the tall, erect stature of Emperor Charles, the last emperor of Austria, and his black-clad wife, Empress Zita. I shuddered: the last emperor of Austria, the heir of the Habsburg dynasty that had ruled the country for seven hundred years, was leaving his empire! Now this tall, grave man stood at the window and saw for the last time the mountains, the houses, the people of his country. 

The locomotive started to pull with a strong jolt, as if it too had to do violence to itself; the train slowly moved away. The employees followed it with respectful eyes. Then they went back to their offices with that kind of embarrassment that one observes at funerals. Only at that moment had the almost thousand-year-old monarchy really come to an end. I knew I was entering another Austria, another world.

A fall without a revolution: that is the tragedy of the end of the Habsburg monarchy. 

Even before the signing of the Treaty of St. Germain, which presided over the destiny of the new Austria, a law of exclusion known as the Habsburg Law (Habsburgergesetz) was voted on April 3rd, 1919, a few days after the departure of the imperial family into exile. The law stipulated that “all sovereign rights and other privileges of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, as well as all its members, were abolished in German Austria for all time.” The law also provided for the seizure of the Habsburgs’ property and the expulsion of the family members, which had taken place only days earlier. They had nothing left to live on, or very little. 

The imperial family had fled their country, but had nowhere to lay their heads. The British granted the emperor protection, but not asylum. Switzerland was the first stop on their long peregrination; they settled at Wartegg Castle on Lake Constance—a former possession of the Bourbon-Parme family. But this was only a temporary stopover. From Wartegg, the Habsburgs moved to the villa Prangins, on the shores of Lake Geneva. Charles made his first attempt at restoration in Hungary from Switzerland in March 1921—via Strasburg, Paris, and Vienna. But after the failure of this first return, the doors in Switzerland closed one after the other. The Swiss government placed him under close surveillance and the cities of Zurich, Basel, and Bern were forbidden to him. 

The exile gradually turned into a prison. The family moved to Hertenstein Castle near Lucerne. From there, Charles and Zita flew back in October, this time by plane, for a second attempt to regain the Hungarian throne, which also ended in bitter failure. Regent Horthy had no intention of returning power to his king, and Charles had no intention of shedding blood. The king was now a prisoner in his former kingdom, and the allied governments were considering his fate: where to take in this cumbersome fallen monarch? The British thought first of Malta. 

Under guard, the couple were moved from place to place, across the territories of the former empire and beyond, to Constantinople. The British ship that carried them did not know its final destination. They learned it during the voyage: it would be Madeira, where Portugal was willing to welcome them. Charles and Zita landed there ten days later. Ironically, Charles arrived in Madeira almost exactly five years after succeeding his great-uncle Franz Joseph, who died on November 21st, 1916. 

Poverty became the lot of the exiled family. The Conference of Ambassadors, meeting in Paris, discussed endlessly the financial allowance needed for Charles and Zita. They agreed on the sum of 500,000 gold francs, to be paid annually by four of the successor states—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania—with the responsibility of handing them over to Portugal, the administrator government. The idea was not bad, but the successor states of the dual monarchy stubbornly refused to pay a single cent. Meanwhile, the Entente powers refused to make any advances until an agreement was reached. As the British consul in Funchal, Madeira, revealed to Zita, not only did the Allies not send money, they ensured that private donations did not reach the exiles. The Allies were terrified that Charles would undertake another expedition, like Napoleon on Elba. Charles and Zita were watched with anxiety. 

Their fears turned out to be futile: Charles’ struggle was now one of survival. The couple could no longer count on anything or anyone, as Zita discovered that the family jewels, their last resort, supposedly safe in a Swiss bank, had been stolen. 

Zita managed to get to Switzerland to retrieve the children and bring them back to Funchal. They arrived on February 2nd, 1922. Little did these poor little ones know that they only had two more months of time with their father. Charles had to beg the Conference of Ambassadors to grant them vital resources, but his pleas were in vain. They had to live on the generosity of a few individual donors, such as a landowner who agreed to put the villa Quinta do Monte at their disposal, free of charge. Located on the heights of Funchal, it is a summer residence. It was cold and damp in the winter, and proved to be totally unhealthy, especially for a tired and exhausted body like the emperor’s. No hot water, hardly any wood for heating. There remains something of a curse about this final refuge: the sun shines down on the city of Funchal, but never reaches the villa. 

Everything is counted for Charles, Zita, and the children: wood, meat, soap. But no one thinks of complaining in this close-knit family, which endures all the hardships with exceptional endurance, nourished by a spirit of constant sacrifice.

On March 9th, 1922, Charles takes a walk from the villa to Funchal. His son, little Charles-Louis, is about to turn four and he wants to get him a toy for his birthday. The city is sunny, but the air is still damp and cold on the hillside and Charles gets a chill on the way home. He despises what he thinks is just a temporary ailment and refuses to spend money on treatment. He only decides to call a doctor on March 21st, when it was already too late and the pneumonia had set in. No antibiotics. The treatments are insufficient; they even aggravate his condition. He suffers a terrible agony that nothing can relieve, except the offering of his sufferings to God for the happiness of his people. He died on the 1st of April, 1922, at 12:23 p.m., saying the name “Jesus” one last time. 

One hundred years later, his family gathers in Madeira to remember the blessed soul of the last emperor. Now, it is more urgent than ever to say: “Blessed Charles of Austria, pray for Europe and pray for peace!”

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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