Last European Kaiser

Otto von Habsburg and his spouse, Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen
Otto von Habsburg and his spouse, Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen

Otto von Habsburg, the son of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl I, died in his estate in the Bavarian town of Pöcking on 4th July. Undeniably, whom Europe lost is a man noble not only by lineage, but foremost by deeds and spirit. Politically active from the 1930s, he became one of the early proponents of European integration in the tradition of Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Paneuropean Union, which he first came to chair as Vice President (1957-73) and as President later on (1973-2004).

Being raised by his mother, Empress Zita, on the way to becoming a Catholic monarch and having later obtained education in political and social sciences at the Catholic University of Leuven, it was Christian faith that proved to have lasting influence on his public engagement. It was not surprising then that he felt politically closest to the Bavarian CSU. While its legendary leader Franz Jozef Strauss became his mentor, he started serving under its colours as a Member of the European Parliament for 20 years (1979-1999).

For the duration of his long life, and much beyond the floor of the European Parliament, Otto von Habsburg followed in the best footsteps of his family’s tradition in upholding the ‘imperial’ idea of Europe, a form of the political unity that is based not on membership ties to one nation or another, but on the allegiance to a principle. He was convinced that for Europe this central principle was Catholicism – it both inspired his vigorous political activism and fuelled his personal qualities, which included, among great resolve and bright intelligence (he fluently spoke 7 languages), also a deep sense of moral duty towards “the Habsburg family’s” peoples of central Europe. Notwithstanding the fact that he had to spend years in exile and obtained Austrian citizenship only after making a declaration that he would abstain from politics and renounce all personal claims to the Austrian throne, he ever remained a keen Austrian patriot.

His most notable act in the effort to reconcile European peoples separated by the world domination attempts of two superpowers was the organisation of the Pan-European Picnic in August 1989 on the Austro-Hungarian border: a symbolic event perhaps, but a one that gave many a hopeful signal that a better future might have been coming. In about 3 hours, 600 East Germans got the chance to cross the border to Austria, which was followed on 11 September by a complete opening of the border for the citizens of all Eastern European countries; the first time that a Warsaw pact member country ever did so. One can therefore only wonder what Otto von Habsburg thought of the events of the last few weeks, when France and Italy decided to put ‘temporary and targeted’ restrictions on the free movement in the Schengen zone, while Denmark restarted border spot checks on people travelling from Germany and Sweden just today, supposedly in order to ‘keep out criminals from Eastern Europe and illegal economic migrants’.

A European union he favoured was the one based on Christianity as Europe’s “soul”, although he and Paneuropean movement always accepted what they called the shaping role of other two monotheist religions. One could expect nothing else from a heir to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy coming from the Europe’s most renown Catholic dynasty. One can hardly doubt the earnestness of his belief, although, with some critical spirit, we should note that the origin of Europe, in the sense of its historical and cultural background, is not Christian but rather ‘pagan’:[ref]I put ‘pagan’ in inverted commas because the derogatory term paganus (“country dweller”) represents a Christian view on the ancient Mediterranean polytheist religions, not the one, quite obviously, held by their adherents.[/ref] fundamentally connected with Ancient Greece and Rome, which gradually adopted the creed of once-a-minor, monotheist sect and meld it with ‘paganism’ in such a way, that Catholic Christianity retained its notable elements; not least the worship of saints, these ancient heroes in a new mould. Similarly, it cannot be hoped that Catholicism will play much of a political role in uniting the world’s most atheist continent that is becoming even more so with every year. Any appeals for a return to the principles of the Church will have little effect in a culture of post-modernity, which already pursues a different god – that of the ever-present more, appearing as the trinity of greater profit – greater technological advancement – greater spread of (neo)liberal democracy worldwide, notwithstanding occassional disagreements of cultures-so-to-be-endowed. But this trinity that Heidegger called Gestell, a ‘frame’ through which we people of our time perceive the world, has escaped the notice of many other people than he – perhaps, of all of us. It nevertheless made the Otto’s wish that, one day, the EU’s future constitutional treaty might refer to the one God as a high authority, illusory. At the same time, one can well agree with Otto von Habsburg’s sighs that politicians do not speak much about religion anymore. Since spirituality and the holy belongs to the public space of any culture – no matter whether it is in the form of pondering about our ‘absent gods’, or about the issues related to religious plurality.

To end our brief homage to Otto von Habsburg’s life, which was that of a convinced European, who not only believed but also acted so that the continent’s peoples might once find reconciliation in their common European home, there are probably few more fitting words than those of Robert, chevalier d’Estouteville: “There where is honour and there where is faithfulness, there and there alone rests my homeland.” Without hesitation, we might take this creed as if it were the last European emperor’s own.