The Habsburg legacy

By Daniel Stratford

On July Fifth of this year, the humble author of this column was consuming a healthy dinner of hamburgers at a venerable Long Island establishment specializing in those culinary delights. All was going well, especially after I received a call from my good friend, compatriot and UMass Democrats President Emily Jacobs. The call in question was quite joyous in nature until she broke some rather mournful news –Otto von Habsburg, heir to the erstwhile throne of Austria-Hungary and scion of the Habsburg dynasty, had passed away in his sleep the day prior.

Wikimedia Common
Wikimedia Commons

Needless to say, being a dutiful scholar of European history and of Austro-German history in particular, I stood with my jaw agape upon hearing this news. I had only done cursory research on Otto von Habsburg, but what I had read I had taken quite a liking to. To me, he was the epitome of the reconstructed monarch, a bridge between the ancient blue-bloods of Europe’s past and the nascent federalism that seems to foretell its future. Some may cheer the downfall or emasculation of the monarchies of yore, which is a sentiment that I find lamentable. However, in the case of the Habsburgs, and specifically, with regards to the geographically vast and ethnically diverse empire over which they reigned for centuries, a question must be asked. Does the shrinking importance of the Old World’s monarchies signal the fact that, in Edmund Burke’s words, “…the glory of Europe is extinguished forever,” or does it merely exchange centuries of intermarriage, intermingling and interaction for a more earnest, more Habsburgian perspective on European community?

Some may cringe at the thought of a state devoid of any sort of overarching national identity, which introduces into our query the palpable difference between the ‘state’ and the ‘nation.’ To skeptics, a nation without any sort of identity, or a vast multitude of identities, possesses no identity at all. However, in the history of the world, there have been numerous examples of countries with a multitude of peoples cohabiting with one another, our own great republic being a prominent protégé of this trend. More relevant to the point of this column is the example set by Austria-Hungary, an empire which, despite its title, claimed a much more diverse membership than ostensible Austrians and Hungarians. It contained Italians, Czechs, Croatians, Slovakians, Ukrainians and Romanians, amongst a multitude of others, rendering it, in effect, a League of Nations before the formal constitution of the League of Nations in 1919, after the Paris Peace Conference.Regardless, these two supranational organizations were birthed through very different circumstances, with the League of Nations arising out of the ruins of World War I, the intellectual progeny of Woodrow Wilson’s idealism, amongst other factors. The Habsburg Monarchy and the empire over which it would come to reign was expanded and consolidated by a combination of shrewd marriages for which imperial Europe was made famous and the binding effects of both the tumults of the Reformation and the threat of Turkish expansion from the Ottoman Empire in the East. This afforded the Habsburgs a unique position as supranational defenders of the established church from both Protestant dissenters in the West and Islamic expansion from the East. Despite the fact that many emperors of the Holy Roman Empire – in effect, a type of proto-German Confederation – were of Habsburg extraction, their base of power was always in their eastern realm, for which, interestingly, Österreich – Anglicized as “Austria” – is the German translation. This was made plainly evident upon the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806,  succeeded by the Austrian Empire, and later, by Austria-Hungary.

Without going into great detail about the history of that Empire, it will suffice to say that Otto von Habsburg was born into both the Habsburg hereditary tradition and the Habsburg political philosophy. Though a mere child when his father, Emperor Charles I, fled Austria – himself holding the throne for only two years – he did not renounce his claim to his ancestral throne until 1961, whereupon he proclaimed his loyalty to the Austrian Republic. This reluctance to abandon his claim to the possessions of the old monarchy did not, however, preclude his participation in politics across Europe. He fiercely opposed both the Nazi annexation of Austria and the encroachment of the Soviet Union on former Habsburg lands. He lived in a myriad of nations, from France and Spain to Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, and spoke a plethora of languages, making him a European citizen before the concept even existed. His Habsburg lineage and his disgust at the perceived excesses of nationalism predisposed him to early advocacy for a unified Europe, which was exemplified by his support of the European Union and his longtime position as president of the International Paneuropean Union. He also served in the European Parliament as a member of the conservative Christian Social Union in Bavaria.

The question, however, remains: in spite of the decidedly pan-European example set by Otto von Habsburg, has Europe really become more integrated? And more importantly, has it been for the better? Certainly, the introduction of the euro and the necessity of collective action to ameliorate Europe’s pressing debt issue are at least somewhat indicative of a more unified Europe. However, the Habsburg legacy is not the complete elimination of nationhood. It is, rather, the promulgation of a common understanding of the roots of Europe’s continued prominence, and how those roots inextricably bind Europe together. The legacy of Otto von Habsburg and the entire Habsburg dynasty is the recognition of the beauty and diversity of nationhood without the distemper of nationalism.

Daniel Stratford can be reached at [email protected]