The First—and Last—"European"?

Published August 3, 2011

The Catholic Difference

One of the great bits of repartee in The King’s Speech comes as the maverick Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, is just getting to know His Royal Highness Prince Albert, the stammering Duke of York:

Logue: “Surely a prince’s brain knows what his mouth’s doing?”

Bertie: “You’re obviously not well acquainted with many royal princes.”

No one could have imagined any such dialogue involving Archduke Otto von Habsburg, who died on July 4—not because the Archduke was a fearsome personality, but because he was a pre-eminently intelligent and decent man.

The full name he was given at his baptism in 1912—Franz Josef Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius—speaks volumes about the history of his family, whose rule over central Europe extended back some seven centuries. Otto might have been thought an anachronism after his father, Emperor Karl, was driven from the throne of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in the waning days of World War I. Yet the son declined to disappear from the scene and played roles both dramatic and useful over the eight decades of his maturity.

He worried Hitler, who saw him as a potential threat to the Anschluss uniting Austria with Germany. So the Nazi Führer twice tried to meet the young Austrian nobleman when Archduke Otto was studying in Berlin in 1931-32. Otto von Habsburg not only rebuffed Hitler on both occasions, thus putting himself firmly on the Gestapo’s list of enemies; in 1938, as the Nazi vice was closing on an independent Austria, the archduke, at obvious risk to his life, volunteered to return to Austria as the head of government, to provide a national rallying point against Nazi paganism.

In June 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the Belgian castle in which Otto von Habsburg and his family were living, just hours after the family had fled south ahead of the Wehrmacht‘s drive west. Hounded by the Gestapo in neutral Lisbon, Archduke Otto and his family came to the United States at the invitation of President Franklin Roosevelt and spent the Second World War years in America. Otto von Habsburg returned to Europe after the Nazi defeat, married Princess Regina of Sachsen-Meiningen, who was working as a nurse at a Munich refuge camp the archduke visited (and whose father, Duke George III, had died in the Soviet Gulag); the couple had seven children, and lived a model Christian family life.

Elected to the European parliament in 1979, Otto von Habsburg spent twenty years as perhaps that body’s most respected member: an adroit debater in seven languages, he kept alive the vision of a post-Cold War Europe reunited as a single civilizational enterprise, built on the sturdy foundations of biblical religion, faith in reason, and commitment to the rule of law. In that sense, Otto von Habsburg was arguably the first modern “European”.

He may also have been the last. For the European Union, as it has evolved in the early 21st century, has been built around a naked public square in which biblical religion plays no role; faith in reason is faltering under the assault of post-modernism and political correctness; and the rule of law is jeopardized by what another great son of Mitteleuropa, Joseph Ratzinger, has called the “dictatorship of relativism.” In 2006, I spent a memorable evening discussing this unhappy situation with the Archduke Otto, at an Acton Institute dinner in Rome at which we were seated across the table from one another. He was not bitter, for he was a man of deep Catholic faith, and thus a man of hope. But he was concerned about Europe’s future, and his concerns have turned out to be entirely prescient.

Otto von Habsburg’s father, Emperor Karl, was beatified by John Paul II in 2004. The late pope once greeted Archduke Otto’s mother, Empress Zita, by saying that he was “happy to receive the widow of my father’s last sovereign.” It is entirely safe to say that we shall not see their likes again. May they rest in peace.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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