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'Most of us don't live in castles': What became of Austria's Habsburg dynasty?

Michael Stuchbery
Michael Stuchbery - [email protected]
'Most of us don't live in castles': What became of Austria's Habsburg dynasty?
When Otto von Habsburg died in 2011, he was buried with imperial pomp and splendour, despite changing times. Photo: Samuel Kubani / AFP

For over 600 years, they were Europe’s most powerful dynasty - ruling from their seat in Vienna - but whatever happened to the Habsburgs? The Local spoke with one of them to find out more.

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From inauspicious beginnings in a small Swiss castle - Schloss Habsburg - half an hour outside Zurich, they came to rule an empire that once spanned half the globe. After the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, they continued to rule the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

While some of this was achieved through military conquest, much of it was also due to good luck and advantageous matches. The saying ‘Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube’ - ‘Let others wage war, you, oh happy Austria, marry’ is often invoked when speaking of their rise to power. 

So, we might ask, what did happen to the Habsburgs in the turbulent twentieth century? Did their luck hold? Were they able to retain some degree of power through their connections? We spoke with a Habsburg to find out more.

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Fall and exile

By the time the last emperor, Karl I, ascended to the throne in 1916, years of total war and the nascent political movements sweeping Europe meant that the days of Habsburg rule were numbered. 

Following several parts of the empire declaring their independence in October 1918, Karl issued a declaration on November 11th, recognising the Austrian people’s right to choose their form of state and stepping out of any position of power. He would later do the same for Hungary. Crucially, this wasn’t an abdication - outraging some. Following these announcements, he, his wife Zita, and their son Otto would go into exile. 

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Karl did try to regain the throne of Hungary, which had decided to retain a monarchy, three years later, but following the failure of this attempt, he and his family were taken to Portugal. There, he died of pneumonia on April 1st, 1922. 

A new generation

Karl’s son, Crown Prince Otto, grew up having been barred from ever returning to Austria unless he renounced all his claims and titles - as was the case with male Habsburgs under the law of the new First Austrian Republic. 

Despite this, he continued to retain popular support, used it to denounce the Nazis during the 1930s, and assisted many Jews to escape persecution. This made him a sworn enemy of the Third Reich following their takeover, and orders were given for his immediate execution if captured. He would spend much of World War Two in the United States after neutral Portugal was pressured to give him up. 

Vienna's Schönbrunn palace under blue skies - the palace used to be the summer retreat for the Habsburgs (Photo by Johannes Mändle on Unsplash)

Following World War Two, Otto found himself involved in politics - albeit indirectly at first. After the new Federal Republic of Austria took shape, Dr Otto Habsburg-Lothringen returned to Austria in 1956, making the necessary declarations to become a citizen. 

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This wasn’t enough for some, and for ten years, political tensions between conservative and socialist parties remained high. After the ÖVP’s significant electoral win in 1966, he was finally granted his passport. 

Over the next two decades, Otto would play a significant role in the formation of the European Union and then served in the European Parliament, representing the Bavarian CSU for two decades until 1999. He died in 2011 and was interred in the Habsburg burial vault under the Kapuzinerkirche in Vienna amidst pomp and ceremony. 

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'We're everywhere': The dynasty enters the 21st century

While the Habsburgs no longer hold any officially recognized titles across their former domains, as dictated by law, that doesn’t mean that they stay out of civic life altogether. 

Eduard Habsburg-Lorraine is the great-great-great-grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who died in 1916. Today, he’s the Hungarian Ambassador to the Holy See, or Vatican. 

An author of several books, including ‘The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times’, he’s often seen as a public representative of the modern dynasty. 

Therefore, when pondering the Habsburg legacy in the 21st century, The Local reached out to him - and he gave us his thoughts on where they see themselves today. 

First, they’re very much still around. 

He tells us: “We’re everywhere. There are several hundred of us. We're mostly in Europe, some of us Central Europe, others across the world.”

"Many of us work everyday jobs, from doctors and nurses to bankers and priests - some even work in forestry.”

Furthermore, the days of imperial splendour are (mostly) behind the Habsburgs. 

READ ALSO: The history behind Austria's neutrality

Eduard explains: “Most of us don't live in castles. I think very few members of our family still live in any sort of royal surroundings. We live in the normal world nowadays.”

However, when asked about the values that drive the family, it’s clear that some things remain constant. 

As the former rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, faith is still an essential driving force.

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“We believe that we have to live as Catholics and stand for the Catholic faith. We stand for peace between countries and nations.

“Blessed Karl I was an example to us both in his private family life and his Catholic life, as well as his engagement for peace. 

“Some of us do that as diplomats, some of these do this as parents, and we all try to pass those values onto our children.” 

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Comments (1)

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M 2024/02/06 21:21
I never knew. Thanks for the article!

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