It has been one month since the passing of one of my greatest heroes of the twentieth century. I heard of his passing from my friend Charles Coulombe when I rang him that day, July 4. Both of us agreed that he had been a salient influence in our lives from childhood. He had been a part of my conscious experience for as long as I can remember taking an interest in the history of Europe, which for me began when I was twelve years old.
We both lost someone we had both looked up to for many years as children of the post-World War II era, having in him a living link to a world that no longer exists.
When he was born on 20 November, 1912, he was heir to a dynasty that had ruled a series of realms known first as the Holy Roman Empire, and then, from 1867 to 1918, with the union of Austria and Hungary, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of the history of the European continent can’t be told without some reference to this illustrious house, having expanded its dynastic influences to over sixteen kingdoms and duchies. His father, Karl I, was the last ruler of an ancient dynasty that had played an important role the European political scene since 1438. Under his reign, Austria-Hungary was a diverse set of kingdoms representing many nationalities and cultures, and also many faiths, primarily Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish. His “abdication” in 1918 was done under duress, and therefore carried no legal authority.
Young Otto, then, saw the end of one world, and the beginning of another. He was witness of the aftermath of the “war to end all wars,” sweeping away, in an instant, not only the Habsburgs, but also the Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties as well. The Treaty of Versailles, eager to exact a victor’s peace upon the vanquished Germans and Austrians, laid the foundations for the scourge of Fascism and Nazi-ism.
Hitler wanted to meet the young Archduke Otto, but the young Archduke could not countenance shaking hands with the nefarious and murderous tyrant. Hitler returned the favor by marking him for death upon his capture.
Thankfully, the Archduke was able to escape Hitler’s grasp, and lived to see a new Europe emerge after the war. He desired to lend a hand in building this new Europe, on the basis of tradition, faith, and respect for the rights and dignity of every individual. He was active in the European Parliament, championing traditional virtues, and being a powerful advocate for Europe’s Christian heritage. He did not experience many legislative victories, as the politicians running the new Europe wanted to take it in a decidedly “new” direction, but his legacy will always be one who stuck by his deeply-held Catholic principles in the face of insurmountable opposition, and let the chips fall where they may. He never folded and gave up the fight, struggling for the Europe he loved to the very day he left this world.
The world seems a bit poorer now that he is not around. In him we had a man who represented a Europe that was conscious of its Christian character, and of the fact that there are things worth preserving and fighting for. The world has lost a true Christian gentleman.
My wish now is that his son Karl will take up the mantle, and carry it further than his father so valiantly did.