the imaginative conservative logo

Blessed Karl of AustriaToday, 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

end of christendomThe 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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
10 replies to this post
  1. Habsburgs in Space

    For Blessed Karl I

    Time is a trap for those who will not hear
    The silver hymns soft-sighed among the stars,
    Or invisible winds whispering truth
    Among the conspiratorial pines.1

    The moon prays perfectly her ancient dance
    Between our planet’s orbit and the sun’s,
    Stern2 orbit over orbit, neatly planned,
    Layered within each other flawlessly.

    And all of these speak of eternity,
    And freedom in humility, the truth;
    To violate this Order of the Star Is to enslave the selfish self in irons.


    The universe is not an accident,
    Or fantasy of fact-filled-fevered brains;
    It flows beyond all sunsets and all dawns,
    Beyond the constructs of constructedness.

    To grasp the Golden Chain3 is then to lose
    One’s chains, to sail beyond pale time and find,
    Transcending all dimensionality,
    The Crown4, the Cup5, the Altar6, and the

    1 Pine trees always seem to be up to something
    2 In the sense of precise
    3 An allusion to Aquinas’ Catena Aurea
    4 The Hapsburg crown, symbolizing earthly hierarchy, and God, symbolizing eternal hierarchy
    5. Holy Communion
    6. Where time and eternity meet in the actions of the priest
    7 The Star of Bethlehem, and beyond

  2. Sir,

    Just as your first article in honor of this day was excellent, so too is this one. It is no coincidence that the next subject of my own work is a recipient of the Iron Crown and that a secondary role is play by a fellow recalling his humane treatment by Austro-Hungary.

    That said, I think conservative thought does not appreciate the national phenomenon – something I am also guilty of having brushed off too easily for far too long. Roman Dmowski’s excellent book, carrying the title The Conservative Route in Europe (or “the fall of European conservatism”) does a magnificent job making clear that which was invisible to the conservative eye precisely because it was masked by the German eye you critique here. There are also other writers.

    Nevertheless, a worthwhile read and many wise points.

  3. Nationalism, republicanism, and secularism, the finest fruit of the Enlightenment, and ideologies which have murdered more people than Attila.

    Fortunately, the Enlightenment seems to be waning, at last. Regrettably, its replacement is an individualist nihilism which may bring the final collapse of what remains.

    Civilization is only as deep as the last educated generation, barbarism is ever ready to rise from within, and it may be the last, best hope of the world are isolated Arks built to weather the storm and provide the seeds for a Phoenix to rise from the ashes of the old. And we will do the same thing all over again.

    But, perhaps I am too optimistic.

  4. Had Austria-Hungary stayed together, Hitler would have been a forgotten third-rate German politician and the Iron Curtain never would have dropped. Mussolini’s actions would have likely been far different if he had a powerful Austria on his border.

    IIRC, in World War I, the Poles were largely willing to fight with the Central Powers against Russia for greater Polish autonomy. The Austrians supported this, but the Germans weren’t interested.

    I doubt that the American government was unaware that Catholicism was keeping the Empire together. Wilson was highly anti-Catholic and thought that overthrowing Catholicism was necessary for progress.

  5. Isn’t this beautiful.

    Bravo, Sir, once again–and to echo my colleague Mr. Strzelecki-Rieth just above, this is as moving as its predecessor of a year ago. Now saved on the hard-drive.

    Kaiser Karl I was offered millions by the then-new Austrian Republic to renounce his Title and any claims to the Throne of Austria-Hungary–thereby also allowing him the Socialist-bestowed privilege of staying in the country. He refused.

    All Habsburg properties were (and remain) confiscated. Today, when one visits the Hunting Lodge in Burgenland where Karl Kaiser I was arrested, one is first struck, and repulsed, by the sick-yellow with which modern Austria decided to repaint the elegant villa. This includes a thick coating sloshed across the stag’s head that crowns the imperial lodge’s entry–that particular mythic-symbol possessing such profound meaning in Catholic German-speaking Europe.

    Republics, as the Frenchman famously said, are ugliness set free.

  6. When I saw the following line:

    “Third and possibly the most lethal of Christendom’s wounds came from intentionally anti-religious secularism. ”

    I accidentally mistook the word “Secularism” for “Socialism”. Because the latter actually makes more sense. Indeed, not just socialism, but more specifically Marxism, a truly alien ideology that hated religion and human freedom equally. And it was an ideology that appealed especially to the vanity of both intellectuals and politicians at a time when both were becoming increasingly powerful and influential, especially in Europe.

  7. A thought-provoking article, for which many thanks. I am struck by the following sentence: “Karl’s son and heir, the Archduke Otto . . . spent a long life opposing fascism and communism, and helped to bring down the Berlin Wall with his daughter Walburga.” There is a valuable article-in-the-making in this sentence. Perhaps Mr. Masty will consider writing such a followup piece sometime soon?

  8. I think you were overbroad in your paragraph on nationalism as a factor, maybe even to the point of setting up a ‘straw man.’ Can you expand upon it in such a way that your critique of separateness and banning squares with your praise, earlier, for subsidiarity?

  9. Mr. Collins,

    I had the same feeling – but (not to put words in Mr. Matsy’s mouth) – I think you have to distinguish between two things:

    A) the question of a people’s right to constitute a nation and to seperate themselves from existing political bodies

    B) the question of whether or not you agree with a PARTICULAR seperation.

    One wise Political Economist, upon hearing how much I loved Abraham Lincoln, asked me:

    “So you don’t believe that people have the right to seceed? To freely seperate themselves from a political union?”

    I said: “I believe they do have this right. I believe in the right to secession or seperation or revolution in principle – I just don’t believe that the South had this right in 1861.”

    And that is a VERY important distinction:

    We can all agree in general that people in general have the right to seperate – but does that mean that every time there is a seperatist movement – we must support it? Not necessarily.

    To give another example: I support and applaud Great Britain for allowing a referendum on Scottish independence – but was I FOR Scottish Independence?

    I had no opinion one way or the other – because I am not Scottish, not British, don’t know enough, haven’t studied it – and believed that so long as there was no shooting – it was really up to them to decide peacefully.

    Likewise: nowadays – I think Texas or other states have more of a right to seceed from the USA than the Confederates did back in 1860 – for one reason: a political reason – Back then I agreed with Lincoln that a Slave Confederacy with Slavery as its’ bedrock would be bad for the world, for the continent, could not be allowed to stand. Slavery within the Union made by the Fathers was preferable because the Constitution and Declaration created strong mechanisms to extinguish slavery in the course of time. Thus – I supported Lincoln.

    The petty little quarrel about “right to revolution vs. right to secession” is interesting – but I doubt it had any practical bearing on the passions and politics of the civil war. The Slave issue was the driving issue, as well as the issue of interpreting the Declaration – what was more important “all men are created equal” or the right to undo former political bonds (and where – if not from the equality of men – did this right come from?)

    But nowadays – there is no slavery in the South – in fact, there is more freedom in the South than in the North in many ways.

    I don’t want to see American split – I am an American nationalist – but I understand that unless the nation takes care of its’ self – if the demographic and political trends continue – the American nation could die and split. C’est la vie.

    We can’t possibly know everything about the history and circumstances of every single nation, people or would-be-nation on Earth.

    Russell Kirk’s warning against ideoloy is a good rule of thumb here.

    In Poland – just as an aside – there are two words:

    “Nacjonalista” (which means “nationalist” and is imported from the West)

    but there is also:

    “Narodowiec” (which technically means “nationalist” if you translate it – but is actually specifically POLISH – and Polish nationalist and conservatives actually hate calling themselves “nationalists” or “conservatives” – because those are English words, foreign concepts.

    In Polish, the word “Zachowawczy” means “conservative” (as in “he is a conservative sort of fellow”) – we actually don’t have an “-ism” word for “conservatism” as a political ideology – and when we do use the word “konserwatysta” – it is merely the Polish version of the English word.

    So in Poland you can say “Czy człowiek zachowaczy musi koniecznie być konserwatystą?”

    “Does a person of conservative mannerisms necessarily have to be a political conservative in the meaning of conservatism?”

    I am sure other cultures and nations and peoples have their own little particularities as well – which remains forever invisible to us.

  10. Ordinary people have very little influence on the course of political events, with one exception. That exception is to prayer the Rosary daily for world peace and for the preservation of Christendom. Although born to great wealth and power, Blessed Karl of Austria’s vision and purpose was not obscured by the ways of the world, but set upon Heaven. Let us prayer for the intervention of Blessed Karl of Austria, along with that of Our Lady of America, for the people of America and their government and its officials, that they are all guided by the light of the Trinity.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: