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‘The Habsburg Way’: Lessons for Today, From Openness to Life to How to Die Well

ROME — The Catholic faith and traditions of the Habsburg monarchies helped them enjoy mostly stable marriages and large, happy families that were crucial in governing their kingdoms for more than eight centuries.

Now, some of those principles they lived — and died — by have been recorded in a book by Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen, a direct descendent of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916), an archduke of Austria, and Hungary’s current ambassador to the Holy See.

In this April 18 interview with the Register in Rome on the day the Italian edition of his book was launched, Habsburg discusses these and other principles that he believes all people can learn from in this troubled age when marriage and the family are especially under attack.

In doing so, he also recalls a poignant story regarding the execution of Habsburg Queen of France Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution; the contributions of Emperor Charles V, the Habsburg ruler during the Reformation; and the example of the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary, Otto von Habsburg, who famously resisted the Nazis. He closes with words of Henry Kissinger about the Habsburg dynasty, given just six weeks before he died.

Ambassador Habsburg, what prompted you to write the book? 

On a very practical level, I was asked by Sophia Institute Press to write a book on the Habsburgs. I thought, “I’d rather not write another Habsburg history book because there are already hundreds and so I’ll do something a bit different.” About a year before, I had given a talk on the Habsburg principles in a club in Boston, and the organizer told me not to only speak about the Catholic faith, because many of the listeners wouldn’t be Catholic. So I had to sit down and actually say what other things characterize the Habsburgs. The first things that sprung to mind were the Catholic faith, the family, and lots of children. Then I sat down, and I made a list, and I came up with 10 for the talk, which I condensed down to seven for the book.

You also found it would have resonances with the United States? 

What surprised me very much while writing the book was to discover that there were many, many common points between the United States and a few Habsburg ideas. I discovered that, for instance, the American system is built from the grassroots up, which is very close to the idea of subsidiarity in the Habsburg Empire and in the Holy Roman Empire, which is a chapter of my book.

I also noticed that not only have these seven principles gone missing in large parts of Europe but also, in the States in many places, and therefore, what I’m writing could be useful. There are also strong connections to the States, between the States and the Habsburgs. For instance, the first governor of Texas was put there by the Spanish Habsburgs, so I always like to joke with my American friends that California, Florida and Texas are old Habsburg territories.

Could you give a few examples from The Habsburg Way on creating a stable marriage and a happy family life?

Compared to other kingdoms in the 16th century, the Habsburgs had, on average, about 12 to 16 children, and very consciously so, because they didn’t have affairs with other women. They didn’t sleep around, so to say. They were aware that marriage is a sacrament. They were aware that they had to produce heirs for the throne, and spares, as one used to say. The last emperor, Blessed Karl, had eight children in 11 years of marriage. He had a very Catholic marriage. He loved his wife dearly. And many of my cousins nowadays have lots of children. Perhaps, not 16 anymore, but some of us have five, six, seven children.

Do you think what differentiates the Habsburgs from other monarchies was the depth of their faith?

Yes, the Habsburgs were Catholics from the first to the last, some of them a bit less, some of them a bit more, but constantly, over 850 years, you had a Catholic family. If you are Catholic, then you believe that marriage and a marital relationship between a man and a woman has to be open to life. Then you believe that having affairs on the side or not having children goes against the plan of God and is a sin. Then you believe that if something goes wrong in your marriage, you have to carry it into confession. All of these play together to create an atmosphere of strong openness to life and of long, stable marriages.

What other “Habsburg Ways” could we draw upon today to help society get through these confused times? 

I suggest getting married and having lots of children. I think this is not only a recipe for personal happiness for both spouses, but, also, for incredible happiness of the children and the best thing that you can give the state you live in and the society you live in. And I, of course, advocate for the Catholic faith. I believe that this makes you happy, because it’s the true faith. I believe in that.

Do you also think that having the true faith puts all into the right perspective, especially parenting, because it forms you to realize that your primary purpose is to help bring your children to heaven?

Yes. You can’t guarantee that your children will live the faith the same way you do, but I believe that living yourself the Catholic faith to the fullest will give your children a good chance. My father always said that children don’t do what you tell them, but what you do. So, if they see you praying, and they see you getting up early to go to Mass, also, during the week, they will do that, too. Therefore, live a Catholic life, and your children will live like that. You want to get them to heaven; I absolutely agree with that. The Habsburgs are very, very serious on that point.

One chapter in the book, the last chapter, is about dying well. I try to keep everybody always aware of that: The moment and the way you die decides your eternity, and you have to prepare for that. All your life is preparation for your death. The Habsburgs lived like that, all of them. They were acutely aware that the way they died would be decisive for their eternity, so they prepared for this moment all their lives. They wanted it and did everything for it to be the way it should be as a Catholic, which is receiving the sacraments, ideally surrounded by your family, and going to confession.

Can you share any stories of Habsburgs who died according to these principles?  

The story I would like to repeat here, because most people don’t really know it, is of how Marie Antoinette died. Most people know her as the queen who told people to eat cakes, which she never did. She never did. The most important story is how she died, told by an unsuspicious source, not from a Habsburg fan, but the executioner of Paris, Charles-Henri Sanson.

Marie Antoinette was described as incredibly nervous, anxious, looking around and looking at the houses to the left and to the right of the path as Sanson sat beside her in the carriage on the way to her execution. And, then, they drove by one house, and she was in total peace, serene and happy, and rolled on to the Place de la Concorde.

Years after the revolution, this story was explained to Sanson by underground Catholics. They told him that Marie Antoinette suffered horribly because the revolutionary committee didn’t want to allow her to go to confession. They offered her to go to confession to a priest of the revolution, but you were excommunicated if you confessed to them, because they were excommunicated. She suffered horribly because of that. If you were a priest, a real priest faithful to Rome or even a bishop, and you were caught in France, you were immediately killed. But they smuggled the bishop into Paris, and they smuggled him to a window along the road of her march, and they told her: “He’s going to stand at the window and give you absolution in extremis.” So, she was looking out for him, and when she saw him, she knew everything was good. This gives you an idea how important faith, sacraments, eternal salvation and dying well was for the Habsburgs.

Turning to Habsburg Emperor Charles V and his resistance against the Reformation, what can we learn from him in terms of battling against secularism today, including within the Church?

I have to tell you that I’m very proud of Charles V. He had just barely been elected when the whole [Martin] Luther thing slammed into the Holy Roman Empire. And it was a real revolution going on. One of the duties of the emperor was to keep peace and unity within the empire. So, how do you deal with that? At the Diet of Worms, the answer that Charles V gave to Luther directly was, basically, an appeal to tradition. He said to him, “Listen, mate, very nice what you say. But my ancestors always stood with the Holy Roman Catholic Church, with all the saints, with the teachings of the popes, of the councils. If I have, on one hand, what the Church taught for 1,500 years, and all my ancestors stood for it; on the other hand, I have a monk from Germany — I know who I stand with.”

That was pretty cool, I have to say. He was able to be a very clear-cut Catholic emperor in a very difficult time.

Is a monarchy needed to combat secularist trends? 

I believe we should be thankful for the existence of monarchies. I believe it is the best form of government, and the reason is best explained in the famous episode between Franz Joseph and Roosevelt that I caught in my book. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt came to Vienna and met old, gray-bearded Emperor Franz Josef, then in his 80s. Roosevelt, obviously, wanting to provoke the emperor a bit, said, “Well, Your Majesty, given that there are elections and democracy and ministers and prime ministers and parties, what exactly is your job?” And Franz Josef seems to have answered, “My job is to protect my people from their politicians.” A monarch is a power above and beside party politics, above and beside the system, with no motivation to be reelected in four years, and therefore able to see further, to not make short-term decisions.

Do you think a monarchy, and specifically a Catholic monarchy, also has a certain stabilizing spiritual as well as temporal role, which you don’t get in a president?

I absolutely agree. And it was so tantalizing to see, in the funeral of Queen Elizabeth and the coronation of King Charles, the Catholic elements shining through, the spiritual elements being present everywhere.

The last crown prince of Austria-Hungary, Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011), was famous for his resistance to Nazism. What can we learn from his example?

Well, the first example that you have to learn is that you have to study your enemy. Otto was one of the few people who had bought and read Mein Kampf when it came out. So, most people bought it and put it onto the shelves, but nobody read it. He actually read it. And he knew what murderous and terrible ideas were in the heads of this man and that he was against everything that the Habsburg family stood for. In fact, the Anschluss of Austria, in 1938, was called Unternehmen Otto (“Operation Otto”), because Hitler saw him as a real danger. What Habsburgs always do is to try to implement their principles, the ones that I give in the book, into the world they live in.

Can you tell us about the “knocking ritual” that happens at the funeral of a Habsburg ruler? 

The Habsburgs took a lot of care when it came to funerals because it can be a place, to put it in modern Catholic speak, of evangelization. The Habsburgs wanted to teach their subjects a lesson in humility, knowledge that the emperor is a sinful human being and is in need of grace. So when the Habsburgs were buried, they were carried through the streets of Vienna in a huge, gigantic funeral, to the gates of the Kapuzinergruft, a Capuchin monastery in the center of Vienna, where Habsburgs have been buried in the crypt since the 16th or 17th century. When the master of protocol knocks at the door that leads down to the crypt, a monk from inside asks three times, “Who is there?” And, then, they read all the titles saying, “Zita, empress of Austria, queen of Hungary, queen of Bohemia, queen of Croatia,” and all the titles. And the voice says, “We don’t know her.” And, then, he will knock again, and he will say, “Who goes there?” And, then, they would read all the achievements of that ruler, everything he or she has done, all the wars fought, all the marriages, all the children. And again, the voice would say, “We don’t know him.” And, then, the third time he knocks, he says, “Who goes there?” He would say, “Zita, a poor, sinful woman.” And, then, the door opens. It’s a message everybody around it understands: She might have worn a crown, but she was a sinner like you and me, and we have to prepare for death.

Do you think the Habsburg monarchy needs to make a comeback, given the state of the West and especially Europe?

Well, we can end with a quote by Henry Kissinger. When I visited him six weeks before he died and brought him my book, he said, “You know, I’m very happy that you give me the book about your family, because I believe that the Habsburgs are the best thing that ever happened to Europe, at least to Central Europe.”

He said, “Taking into account the personal weaknesses of each emperor, you can still say that, over the centuries, it was the best thing that happened to Europe. And the moment the Habsburgs were taken out of the equation, all the problems in Central Europe began that have not stopped.”

That’s what he told me when I met him in October 2023.

Because it gave stability to Europe?

Yes. First, to the Holy Roman Empire; and, after 1806, to Central Europe. And the moment you took it away, and the moment [Woodrow] Wilson and the others decided to make their own idea of Europe, all the problems began. That’s what Kissinger said.