On October 21st, remembering one of the few unequivocal heroes of the Great War
In one of the great westerns, "The Wild Bunch," two outlaws argue furiously over a pledge that a former comrade has made to a sinister railroad corporation. “He gave his word!” says one. No, declares his friend, giving your sworn word is not what matters, “It’s who you give it to!”
That debate neatly summarizes the issues at stake among the great powers during the First World War, which is, incidentally, the era in which this film is set. By 1917, the war had caused millions of deaths and inflicted countless lesser casualties. Worse, the escalating spiral of violence seemed infinite, with no hope of an end, short of the collapse of civilization itself. At that point, a few faithful and responsible leaders began to seek radical solutions that could bring peace – even if that the heavy cost of abandoning promises and pledges. For a few, the call to peace was a sacred imperative. This month, we commemorate one man who made this bitter choice – and who may soon be recognized as a saint of the church.
In November 1916, the beloved emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz-Josef died after a reign of 68 years. A profoundly honorable man of great piety, he had outlived his two obvious heirs. The first, Rudolf, died in a bizarre murder-suicide with a lover in 1889. The next successor, Franz Ferdinand, was killed at Sarajevo, a typical Habsburg to the last: his final words inquired about the welfare of other victims of the attack, and above all, of his cherished wife. That left as heir Prince Karl, Franz Josef’s great-nephew. Those family disasters were so relevant because they brought to the throne a man who, until very recently, had absolutely no expectation that he would ever achieve such responsibility. A simple officer, Karl was utterly untrained and inexperienced in the exercise of power.
When Karl came to power, the war had been in progress for two years. Austria-Hungary was the sworn ally of the German Reich, and his own imperial forces were fighting on multiple fronts, chiefly against Russia and Italy. Austria-Hungary would ultimately lose some 1.4 million military dead, not to mention half a million civilians, many of whom perished as a result of the Allied food blockade. As a proportion of population, Karl’s empire lost twice as many dead as did Great Britain, and almost as many as France.
As the new year of 1917 dawned, Europe seemed to have no hope of peace, and revolution was soon to overtake imperial Russia. The only words of peace came from the Vatican, as Pope Benedict XV’s envoys struggled to bring the opposing sides together. But each nation declared that it could no nothing without the consent of its allies. Diplomacy had reached an impasse.
Something, obviously, needed to be done. In early 1917, Karl made a decision that was astonishingly bold and, according to the feudal standards of his aristocratic world, profoundly wrong. Karl could make no peace without betraying his sworn ally, Germany, a country pledged to absolute victory. Yet that was exactly what he now resolved to do. He approached his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus of Bourbon Parma, an officer in the (enemy) Belgian army, with radical peace proposals. Sixtus would contact the French government, granting from the beginning some far-reaching French demands, including that country’s control over the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine. The Austrians also agreed from the start to the independence of the then-occupied lands of Belgium and Serbia.
With those critical concessions made, Karl pursued peace negotiations with France, with a view to withdrawing his country from the war. If he had succeeded, the chain of interlocking alliances would have been sundered, and peace would have come quickly. Probably the nightmare of the Bolshevik Revolution would never have occurred, and Europe would have been spared the twin monsters of Nazism and Communism.
However noble the effort, the attempt failed disastrously, as the Germans still held hopes of victory, and saw no need to grant the slightest concessions. Worse, Karl’s correspondence went public in 1918, causing a massive breach with his empire’s much more powerful ally, and even raising the prospect that the Germans would occupy Austria-Hungary.
Karl had failed, and by the end of 1918 his empire was in dissolution. He died in 1922, never failing in his legendary piety. He was beatified in 2003, and he may well be canonized.
The Great War produced few unequivocal heroes, but Karl certainly has claims to such a status. Of the people with the power to bring peace, how many dared to venture such an attempt, even at the possible cost of their thrones? French novelist Anatole France famously proclaimed that "Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost." It is difficult to challenge that statement.
Karl always kept his word – but to God first, and the German Empire second.
Karl’s son Otto von Habsburg died in 2011 at the venerable age of 99. He attracted many stories during his lifetime, not least his famous response to an interviewer’s question in the 1990s whether he had watched the recent Austria-Hungary soccer match. No, he reportedly replied, who were we playing?
More seriously, he spent his life championing the best causes of his day, from a fierce anti-Nazi resistance that put his life at risk, to asserting the virtues of a democratic European Union that fully respected national and religious traditions. He was truly his father’s son.
Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History atBaylor Universityand author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.
ASolemn High Mass will be held in honor of the Blessed Karl of Austriaon October 21st at 7pm at St. Mary, Mother of God parish in Washington, DC. Veneration of the relic of Blessed Karl will follow.