Otto von Habsburg died on July 4, 2011, the son of the last reigning emperor of the empire of Austria-Hungary, at the age of 98.
Otto von Habsburg, son of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, died on July 4, 2011. The date is symbolic. During World War II, the royal family spent their exile in the United States; Otto’s younger brother was in Normandy in 1944 during the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. For most of his 98 years, Otto von Habsburg championed a unified Europe that included the nations comprising the former empire of Austria-Hungary. According to writer Andreas C. Englert, this represented the fulfillment of a life-long goal.
The End of the Habsburg Dual Monarchy in 1918
Otto’s father, Archduke Charles, became emperor upon the death of Franz Joseph in November 1916. World War I was entering its third year and the Dual Monarchy was experiencing inner political turmoil. With the death of the “old gentleman” Kaiser Franz Joseph, nationalists in the polyglot empire as well as socialists of various stripes became further emboldened to bring about the end of the monarchy.
Emperor Charles believed that the empire’s salvation rested in a diplomatic solution apart from Germany. This proved to be an impossible action. On November 11, 1918, Charles and his wife, Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma, signed papers dissolving the monarchy. Historians differ as to whether the document was actually construed as an abdication.
The Exile Years and Banishment from Austria
The family traveled to Switzerland and then to Madeira where Charles died in April 1922. Otto was the Crown Prince and would have become the next emperor. His widowed mother took the family first to Belgium and then to the United States. In 1933, Adolf Hitler took power in Germany and before the decade ended, the Anschluss incorporated Austria into the Reich.
Otto, however, resisted the Nazis, declining an invitation from Hitler despite the fact that the meeting might have mitigated the royal family’s standing in Austria. He would not see Vienna again until 1966 and only after a formal agreement renouncing any claims to the monarchy. In 1951, he married Regina who preceded him in death in 2010.
For the former empress and her family, life had been difficult. All Habsburg properties had been confiscated and the exile never led back to Austria, at least until a member of the royal family died and would be subsequently entombed in the imperial crypt.
Her husband Charles, however, is still entombed in Madeira. According to Walter Mayr (Spiegel), his 2004 beatification by the Catholic Church may stop attempts to return his body to Vienna. As in the medieval period of European history, the remains of saints served an economic purpose for the community.
Otto von Habsburg Promotes a Unified Europe
Otto served in the European Parliament from 1979 until 1999. Both of his sons, Karl and George, are involved in political affairs. He is remembered today as a devout man who lived his personal Christian values in the cause of peace and security. Otto von Habsburg resided near Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, always a favorite area for Austrian royals.
Otto von Habsburg will be entombed in Vienna, to join most of the Habsburg rulers. Yet even after nearly one hundred years without the Habsburgs living in Schoebrunn Palace, the memories are still there. Writing in Spiegel, Walter Mayr comments that, “To this day, Vienna continues to supplement individual EU laws at the national level with conditions concerning the Habsburgs, as if a return to the throne remained a constant threat.”
The son of the last Habsburg emperor had a requiem Mass celebrated by Vienna’s Cardinal Schoenbohm in St Stephen’s Cathedral on July 16, 2011. Otto will be remembered as a man whose life bridged the Dual Monarchy with a unified Europe under the banner of the EU.
- Andreas C. Englert, “Adieu, Kaiserliche Hocheit,” Frau Im Spiegel, July 13, 2011, Nr. 29
- Walter Mayr, “Politics of the Crypt: Facing the Future with the Habsburg Dead,” Spiegel, February 19, 2010
- “Otto von Habsburg ist tot,” Spiegel, 4. Juli, 2011
- Alan Palmer, Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life And Times Of Emperor Francis Joseph (Grove Press, 1994)