Today, 21st October, is the Feast Day of the Blessed Charles (or Karl) of Austria, beatified in 2004 by the pope Saint John Paul the Great. Revealing, startling and moving in equal measure, this is the best book on this inspiring couple, on the heroic youth’s tragic end and the demise of the West’s last Christian empire less than a century ago. A year ago I recounted the tale here.
James Bogle is a distinguished London barrister, author and broadcaster; also Vice-Chairman of The Catholic Union of Great Britain. His wife Joanna is a prolific journalist, author, blogger, and broadcaster for EWTN and others. Hence the writing is compelling and the research impressive, beginning with a brief but useful recapitulation from early Christianity into proper Christendom, through the Holy Roman Empire to the turbulent second half of the 19th Century.
While devout to be sure, the young Archduke Karl von Habsburg (1887-1922) was also endearingly earnest as he studied his every sequentially-bestowed dynastic honour as though he was a medieval knight-errant preparing to seek the Sacred Grail. Meanwhile, the Protestant, industrialist and militarist Hohenzollern Germany eclipsed the multi-ethnic quilt of Catholic Habsburg Austria-Hungary. The authors contrast the pious versus bombastic borrowings of Haydn’s melody into Austria’s lyric “God defend and God protect our Emperor and our land” versus “Germany, Germany over everything.”
The book moves thoroughly but rapidly through Karl’s courtship and marriage to the winsome and equally devout Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, Russian covert support for the break-away Serbs, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand making Karl the immediate heir to empire. Only 75 pages in, Franz Josef dies, and the young and inexperienced Emperor Karl strikes out bravely and in secret to end the First World War in league with Pope Benedict XV and Prince Sixtus, a French officer and Zita’s brother. Truculent Germany had so corrupted Austro-Hungary’s generals and diplomats that the Peace Emperor, as people later called him, had to mostly bypass his own government in his virtuous plot. German-led militancy, and Allied lust for enemy land, defeated Karl and kept the war going for almost two more horrendously bloody years.
Karl’s innovations are just as dramatic. Over fewer than two years in power, he outlawed brutal army punishments and stopped submarines from attacking civilian shipping. Inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, he established sweeping domestic reforms including the world’s first governmental department of social welfare, ordered royal carriages to deliver food and coal to the poor, and fed himself, his family, and guests on sparse wartime rations. On the bottom-up principle of subsidiarity, he began to federalise government, empower his empire’s many nationalities, and counteract more than seventy years of divisive nationalism and extremist right-wing and left-wing ideologies. It would not last.
Alas, the writing may have been on the wall long before. Almost twenty years earlier, Mark Twain visited Vienna and described the mounting chaos in an 1898 article for Harper’s Magazine. The elegant capital was in political turmoil, and in the parliament the welter of warring ideologies and nationalist movements, the beard-pulling, cursing and fisticuffs, resembled a Marx Brothers comedy gone wrong:
“Nearly every day someone explains to me that a revolution would not succeed here. ‘It couldn’t, you know. Broadly speaking, all the nations in the empire hate the government—but they all hate each other, too…in Austria-Hungary there are nineteen public opinions—one for each state. No—two or three for each state, since there are two or three nationalities in each. A government cannot satisfy all these public opinions; it can only go through the motions of trying. This government does that. It goes through the motions, and they do not succeed; but that does not worry the government much…(meanwhile government) furnishes them an abundance of Catholic priests to teach them to be docile and obedient, and to be diligent in acquiring ignorance about things here below…’”
In fact it did worry the government intensely, ever since Franz Josef became emperor and king during the rebellions of 1848. Now, fifty years at the helm, the ascetic and devoutly religious monarch slept on a simple iron bedstead and arose before dawn to start his daily work. Twain, ever more clever than wise—and having wholly swallowed 19th-Century America’s often-condescending Protestant Positivism—failed to see that the Catholic Church may have been the thread that stitched the patchwork empire together. A veteran of America’s bloodthirsty civil war to preserve union, Twain astonishingly failed to foresee that innumerable squabbling ideologues and fractious nationalists—rather than delay a single faction from taking over the unified whole—instead smashed the empire into smithereens like the Prague defenestration of a Bohemian crystal goblet.
The biography provides its greatest detail, and most useful research, as the war ends and Karl attempts to preserve the last official remnant of Christendom but fails—chiefly because of the treachery of France’s Clemenceau and the ideology of former New England schoolmaster Woodrow Wilson. The Frenchman seemingly longed for every nation to be broken up and kept poor and powerless, except for France of course, while the former pedagogue believed in Progress and Democracy. The Bogles write that Wilson;
…who purported to be such a great believer of self-determination for all nations, was in reality an eminent practitioner of the less morally sound business of imposing one’s prejudices on others.
In Europe, World War One’s victors paved the way for Hitler and National Socialism, Stalin’s henchmen and East European Communism, Auschwitz and the gulag. Similarly Progressive modern logic put the flawed states of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and soon Yemen and Afghanistan, into the far bloodier Islamist hands of Al Qaeda, ISIL and the Taliban. Plus ça change…
The book movingly tells the heart-breaking tale of a sickly and exhausted Karl, and his pregnant wife, invited by loyalists back to Hungary before they were betrayed by the ideological and opportunistic, supposedly temporary, custodians of power. From there they were hustled into exile on the remote island of Madeira, where Karl died of pneumonia age thirty-four.
Karl’s son and heir, the Archduke Otto (who provided a foreword before his death in 2011), spent a long life opposing fascism and communism, and helped to bring down the Berlin Wall with his daughter Walburga. Meanwhile, through grinding poverty and refugeeship, Karl’s wife championed her husband’s beatification, retired to a convent and died in 1989. In 2009 another process of beatification began, and the last empress of Christendom was named The Servant of God Zita.
It is a helpful book for anyone, and a Christian in particular—Protestant or Catholic—to understand how the West lost its last properly Christian empire: a place where at its strongest, rather than an informal and nominal Christendom containing merely a majority of Christians, the faith comprised the warp or weft of culture, law, tradition, ceremony, scholarship and in many senses cognition, uniting groups different geographically, culturally and economically, ethnically, socially, linguistically, etc.
Christendom fell to three allied factors: First, nationalism, an ideology even when it is championed by purported conservatives. The desire for separateness, for banning others from the community, intensified as populations expanded and divisional opportunities arose starting in the Reformation. Subdivision and separatism offer promotion to those who cannot succeed within a larger unit. By 1848 the European cauldron boiled over but was postponed by wars of German and Italian unification, etc. It resurged after the Great War, again after World War 2, and thrives today in separatist movements in Spain, Belgium and Quebec, Italy, and perhaps among cranks in some U.S. states. Narrowly defeated in Scotland, Germany has escaped because, as Germans tell me: “It’s too soon after reunification to think about splitting up again.”
Second was republicanism, an ideology accompanied by anti-authoritarianism and anti-monarchism. Disguised as principle it was often only a coup, a lust for power. In many cases the reformists simply substituted themselves for the kings and aristocrats, and had no wish to ever again be polluted by contact with ordinary people. We see this in most modern elected governments with an established occupational political caste, starkly at the European Union headquarters in Brussels but on both sides of the Atlantic. (Note that the intensely secular European Union, with its utterly remote and intentionally impenetrable bureaucracy, was supposedly founded on subsidiarity. Perhaps it needs a religious monarch.) A century ago many of these radical republicans were members of European Masonic lodges (more politicised than American fraternal ones), but the same ideologies and hypocrisies are now the zeitgeist among all Western political elites.
Third and possibly the most lethal of Christendom’s wounds came from intentionally anti-religious secularism. The 20th Century’s greatest meta-historian, Christopher Dawson, argued that a culture is born in a cult, and civilisations spring from religions rather than the other way around. Contrary to nationalism, religion—and the culture it begets—is a unifier, and Christianity was one from Roman times until it partially succumbed to Protestant fragmentation and related city-state nationalisms in the 16th Century. Europe’s slow loss of faith, far advanced among early 20th Century elites, deprived unity of its oxygen and watched it asphyxiate like Christ on the cross. In about 1960 Dawson predicted the failure of the European Union because it lacked what medieval Europe enjoyed—a strong and healthy universal faith, and among elites the common language of Latin, shared books, and intermarriage. But just as Western children are too spoilt to watch TV with parents and siblings so they demand televisions and computers in their private bedrooms, thus many immature nationalists long to just break away.
So far and for three major reasons, the West’s desire to separate has triumphed over what held us together. It recalls The Great Divorce, a moral fantasy by C.S. Lewis, in which somewhere in the suburbs of Hell the souls of the very worst move further and further away from their hated neighbours, until their homes are but tiny dots of artificial light, far away and alone in the cold and darkling distance.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.