Pope to beatify 'buffoon' who was Austria's last emperor
Critics suspect political agenda behind campaign
Ian Traynor in Vienna
Monday January 19, 2004
In the ranks of his admirers nostalgic for the old empire, he was a pacifist cast among warmongers, a gentle soul out of his depth among backstabbing diplomats, ministers, and generals.
To his critics, Charles I, the last Habsburg ruler, was a dissembling buffoon who presided over the inglorious defeat and dissolution of his empire.
And to the Catholic church, the kaiser was a devout miracle-worker who has just been launched on his way to sainthood.
Charles I of Austria and Charles IV of Hungary, the last emperor who ascended to the Habsburg throne in the middle of the first world war in 1916 and died in exile on Madeira six years later at the age of 35, is to be beatified by the Vatican this year.
Historians argue the emperor's claims to Christian grace are undermined by the perceptions that he was a consummate liar, that he presided over the use of poison gas by his troops and that his chaotic leadership contributed to a fiasco when hundreds of thousands of his soldiers were taken prisoner in the war's last days.
But Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna who has been influential in the effort to beatify the monarch, insisted the last emperor was "a man of peace" and that the imminent beatification showed that political leaders could also be good Christians.
"The figure of Kaiser Karl is viewed differently," admitted Erich Leitenberger, the church's spokesman in Vienna. "But he led a very religious life, especially in his latter stages."
Last month the Vatican commission responsible for examining claims to sainthood - the Congregation for the Causes of Saints - certified, on the basis of three expert medical opinions, that Charles is to be credited with a miracle that occurred in 1960.
A nun in a Brazilian convent prayed for the late emperor's beatification and woke up the next morning able to walk for the first time in years.
Beatification, the intermediate stage to canonisation, is expected to follow by September. So the last emperor will become the Blessed Charles, although to become Saint Charles another miracle has to be attributed to him.
Some historians smell a political agenda behind the campaign to make a hero of one of the least impressive Habsburgs. They note that the Pope has beatified no less than 1,315 contenders for sainthood, vastly more than any of his predecessors, and that the Polish pontiff, with his intense interest in central Europe, is seeking to revive an Austrian church with a history of combative political activism, which in the 1930s degenerated into "clerico-fascism".
If the church is now celebrating Charles's religious record, the last emperor's political career was singularly undistinguished.
"He was a dilettante, far too weak for the challenges facing him. Out of his depth, not really a politician. I don't know why he is being beatified," said Helmut Rumpler, a history professor who heads the Habsburg commission of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.
When Charles came to the throne in 1916 on the death of Emperor Franz Josef, amid war and with the Austro-Hungarian empire in its death throes, he was greeted with contempt.
His chief of staff complained: "He can't even write properly." One of his prime ministers quipped: "He is 30 years old, looks 20, and thinks like a 10-year-old."
As the empire collapsed at the end of the war, he fled to Switzerland, but refused to abdicate. He was then manipulated by rightwing Hungarian nationalists into staging two comic-opera attempts at reclaiming the throne in Budapest. The result: the British dumped him on Madeira where he died of pneumonia.
But the biggest controversy surrounding Charles is also the main reason the Vienna cardinal applauds him.
Through his French brother-in-law in 1917, Charles secretly sued for a separate peace with France, deserting his German ally. When news of the overture leaked, he strenuously denied all involvement. The furious French then published letters signed by him, infuriating the Germans and making him a laughing stock.
"He was a liar," says Brigitte Hamann, a Viennese historian. "He lied to everyone, the whole world."
The church maintains Charles was the sole wartime leader to follow the precepts of the Vatican and pursue peace.
Should he ever make the grade for canonisation, suggested the Austrian weekly Profil, he should be nominated as the patron saint of losers.
A Prayer for the Canonisation of the Emperor Charles
O Almighty God, for the sake of the Sacred Heart of thy well beloved Son we beseech Thee to help us and all nations in our time of need. Accept our prayers and sacrifices as an expiation for injustice everywhere. Vouchsafe that we may follow the example of Thy servant Karl of Austria, who despite having suffered indignities, suffering and exile, remained faithful and sought always to do Thy will. Grant, we beseech Thee, that his fidelity may soon bring him to the honour of public veneration. We ask this through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever One God, world without end. Amen.
From the webpage of the Catholic Church of Resurrection in New York.
The Church's vew of the Kaiser's life:
Charles I of Austria-Hungary,
Saint in the Heart of Europe and in the Heart of God
by Father Swain
How much easier it is for the poor and the lowly to contemplate sanctity and achieve success! Those with much of this world’s goods and absorbed with many weighty affairs often allow themselves the imagined luxury of ignoring God. There can be few who were more likely to fall into this snare than the Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary.
Charles was born 17 August 1887, the great nephew of the reigning Emperor Franz Josef, who had then already reigned for nearly forty of his sixty-eight years on the throne. Charles was the son of the Archduke Otto, who was the son of the Archduke Karl Ludwig, the Emperor’s brother. His mother was the Archduchess Maria Josefa, the daughter of King George of Saxony. Little Charles was far from the throne: there was Crown Prince Rudolf, any male children he might have, then the Emperor’s brother Karl Ludwig, and his eldest son Franz Ferdinand. The child’s father, Otto, was an Army officer and travelled widely, and was, unfortunately, a well-known libertine. His mother, however, was a strong maternal figure, and a devout Catholic. Charles’ life began to change when he was but two. Crown Prince Rudolf was found to have committed suicide, having first killed his mistress, at the hunting lodge at Mayerling. This made Charles’ grandfather heir. The child grew up happy and normal, though he was early noted for thoughtfulness and consideration of others. He had an Irish governess and, as a result, spoke perfect English with an Irish brogue!
When Charles was ten, his grandfather died of contracting typhoid from drinking Jordan River water during a visit to the Holy Land. He was about to leave for the Coronation of the Emperor Nicholas II in Moscow when he was taken ill. Speculation began to increase that the child would one day be emperor, as his uncle Franz Ferdinand suffered from tuberculosis. The uncle survived, but in 1900, sealed his nephew’s fate when he contracted a morganatic marriage with a non-royal woman, and was obliged to sign away the rights of his children to the throne. It now appeared that, after a perhaps lengthy reign of his uncle, Franz Ferdinand, Charles would succeed as Emperor. In the wake of this, his preparation was increased, and he began to be schooled rigorously academically and in the Army, to be ready when his time came. In 1914, came the famous and devastating blow: the uncle was assassinated with his wife while on a tour of Bosnia. A Bosnian fanatic, of the kind still active there, murdered them at Sarajevo, a town famous in our day for the Winter Olympics and, less happily, for the civil war, which began upon the break-up of the old Jugoslavia. This assassination, following the death of Otto’s father previously, meant that when the elderly Emperor Franz Josef died, probably quite soon, Charles must be ready.
All this the young man accepted with equanimity. Despite fairy tales and soap operas, few men, even then, would have relished having a throne thrust upon them, especially so difficult and uncertain a one as that of Austria-Hungary. In 1911, he had taken a step which would strengthen his resolve, and forever give lustre to his life: he married the Princess Zita, daughter of Duke Robert of Bourbon-Parma and the Infanta Maria-Antonia of Portugal. This young girl, with a glittering pedigree embracing all the Catholic Royal Families of Europe, was one of twenty-one children born to Duke Robert of two wives! She was a direct descendant of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa, among others. She, too, was raised in an old-fashioned, strict and utterly pious household, and the two were well-matched. They were destined to have eight children of their own.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, of course, brought on the Great War, which Austria-Hungary entered on the side of Germany, against the Triple Entente of Britain, France and the Russian Empire. After just over two years of fighting, the elderly Emperor Franz Josef died in November 1916. With the greatest reservation and some fear, Charles and Zita realised that their destiny had come. Immediately the Ministers and courtiers realised that a new day had dawned. The old Emperor resolutely refused any change; the new one drove a motorcar and had a telephone on his desk. But there was more. From his accession, Charles, haunted by visions of death and suffering, began to seek peace. In a famous episode, his brothers-in-law, Sixtus and Xavier, serving in the Belgian Army, were enlisted in a secret bid for peace to the French President and the British Government. That it failed ultimately was not due to Charles and his brother-in-law, who risked life and limb for peace. The young Emperor had clearly placed the love of peace and concord over ambition and nationalism.
Such selflessness won him no consideration when the war ended in defeat for Austria, Germany, Turkey and Bulgaria, and all the ruling dynasties of these countries fell in revolutions in November 1918. Charles and Zita were forced to flee with their young children. Charles and Zita and their children, who heard Mass every day, and had done for years, did so on their last day before leaving for exile. The eldest boy, Otto, to-day the head of the family, served the priest at the altar. Directly after, they set forth into a very uncertain exile. They were permitted to take no money and few belongings. There were threats and suggestions that Charles should stand trial as a war criminal, along with William II of Germany. At no time in this exile did a bitter or vindictive word escape the ex-Emperor’s lips. At first, they began exile in Switzerland, but were soon taken by a battleship of the Royal Navy to Madeira, where in a cramped, chilly and damp villa, they took up residence. On the journey, their son Robert became quite ill, and Zita, heavy with child, had to act as nurse. Charles welcomed them at Funchal with tears in his eyes, though only 35, his hair was grey and his face heavily lined.
Years later, Archduke Otto remembered their time in Madeira, how his father had talked to him about their family and obligations, and the duties of a Christian ruler under God. The whole family heard Mass daily and said the Rosary (for variation the polyglot family used a different language nightly rotating among English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Hungarian and Czech!) When Charles caught a chill, it quickly became pneumonia, telling Zita, “I must suffer like this so my people will come together again.” By now he desperately needed oxygen, which was terribly expensive and available only in small cylinders which afforded only seven minutes’ relief each.
On his deathbed, he said of his heir, “I would have liked to have spared him all that…but I had to call him to show him an example. He has to know how one conducts oneself at times like this, as a Catholic and as an Emperor.” He sent a special telegram to King Alfonso XIII of Spain, one of their few still-reigning friends, to commit his wife and children to his care. On his deathbed, he blessed his children, “Protect their bodies and souls…” and died holding a crucifix. The cause of Charles’ canonisation has been introduced at the Vatican, and it is widely supported by a league of prayer for it. He has been declared a servant of God, which is the last step before beatification and canonisation. The Empress Zita lived past her hundredth birthday and died only in 1989, and was accorded a state funeral in Vienna and buried in the Kapuzinergruft of the Habsburgs. The ancient burial ritual of the Habsburgs was observed. The Chamberlain of Zita’s household approached the gates and a Capuchin Friar waited within. “Who goes there?”, the friar asked. The Empress’s full titles were read out, over forty of them. The friar responded, “We do not know her.” The Chamberlain then said simply, “The Empress Zita asks entry for burial.” “We do not know her”, came again. Finally, the Chamberlain said, “A poor sinner and a child of God asks entry”. At this, the huge metal gates swung silently open and the procession entered the charnel house beneath the Kapuzinerkirche where all the Habsburgs are buried. The remains of Emperor Charles are eventually to be transferred there.