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from issue no. 06 - 2003

Charles of Asburg

The last Catholic Emperor

The last emperor of Austria has been proclaimed “Servant of God”. He reigned in the years of the Great War, “a futile slaughter” that Karl tried in vain to stop and that was to lead to the final waning of what remained of the Sacrum Imperium

by Paolo Mattei

the Emperor Karl I of Austria the day of his crowning as Apostolic King of Hungary

the Emperor Karl I of Austria the day of his crowning as Apostolic King of Hungary

It was a spring day in 1922 in Funchal, on the Portuguese island of Madeira. In the cathedral of Nossa Senhora do Monte 30,000 people were attending the funeral of a thirty-four year-old king. The man, who had been emperor amid the smoking rubble of early last century, had died poor and exiled on that Atlantic island in the arms of his wife the empress, on 1 April of that year. The thick crowd inside and outside the church and the majority of the islanders considered him a saint. His name was Karl, Karl I, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. In his last hours, he had jokingly asked the doctors who were trying in vain to cure his grave pneumonia: «Comment allez-vous? Moi je vais bien!»
His face was calm, the island’s illustrious guest, and the people were there to say farewell to the man who for five months has comforted their lives with his presence. The bishop of Funchal was to tell an Austrian priest some time later: «No mission has worked so effectively to reawake the faith in my diocese as the example given by the emperor in his sickness and death».
Last April, eighty-one years after that spring day, in the presence of the Pope, he was recognized to have had “heroic virtues”, the first step on the way to beatification.
On the night before he died, Karl had whispered to the wife: «All my aspiration has ever been to know as clearly as possible the will of God in all things and to follow it, and precisely in the most perfect manner». It was an aspiration that had accompanied him all the days of his life.

The career of an emperor
Borne to Persenbeug on the Danube, in Lower Austria, on 17 August 1887, Karl was the firstborn of Otto Franz, Archduke of Austria – nephew of his imperial and royal highness Franz Jozef – and of Archduchess Maria Josephine, born princess and duchess of Saxony. Like every scion of his line, he was taught the varied languages spoken in the Empire, taken music, middle and high school courses, at the Benedictine abbey of “Schotten” in Vienna, and studied Law at the university in Prague. In 1911 he married Zita of Bourbon Parma. The marriage was blessed by Pope Pius X who, in a private audience with Zita, foretold her consort would become emperor and revealed to her that the Christian virtues of Karl would be an example to all peoples. Eight children were born of the marriage, the last of whom saw the light after the death of Karl.
His military career began in 1903 and finished in 1916, when he mounted the throne. Karl had in fact become crown prince on the death of his uncle Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination, the spark of the deflagration of the Great War, took place on 28 June 1914. Immediately after the Archduke’s death in Sarajevo, Pius X sent Karl, through a high Vatican official, a letter in which he begged him to inform Franz Joseph of the danger of a war that would bring great misfortune down on Austria and on all Europe. But the contents of the letter became known to those intriguing for hostilities, and the Vatican official was blocked at the Italian frontier. The letter was delivered to Karl much later, at the height of the conflict, when it was far too late to prevent.
Two years after the start of hostilities, on the death of his great-uncle Franz Joseph, Karl became emperor with the title of Karl I: that was on 21 November 1916. The following 30 December he was crowned in the church of Saint Stephen, the cathedral of Budapest, Apostolic King of Hungary with the title of Karl IV: the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy went back to 1867, when, with the recognition of Hungarian autonomy, the lands of the Empire were divided into two blocks: Cisleitania, under Austrian administration, and Transleitania, under Hungarian administration. The Constitutions, the governments and the presidents of the councils were distinct, while the two parts kept the emperor in common - emperor of Austria and king of Hungary – and the Foreign, Finance and War Ministries.
Karl inherited a throne in crisis and decline: Austria was in fact already under pressure from German expansion and the defeats inflicted by Italy in the course of the wars for independence, and now it saw itself threatened even in its Balkan territories. Furthermore, after the first triumphant battles, the imperial troops were in poor shape. If what the historian Victor Tapié says in his Monarchia e popoli Turin 1993 [Monarchy and peoples of the Danube] is true about the start of the conflict, that is that «the Austro-Hungarian army fought with constant energy and whatever his ethnic origins, the individual soldier, bound by a personal feeling of loyalty, which he did not take lightly, gave proof of endurance and courage», it is also true that already by the end of 1915 fatigue and the loss of life had almost taken over. Half of the regular army – poorly equipped, technically backward, insufficiently financed – had already been eliminated in the fighting of 1914. For the Austro-Hungarians the outcome of the war depended entirely on the allied German power.
Karl reached the front on 10 September 1914, in Galicia, and immediately asked in the emperor’s name to be allowed to visit the front line troops. He went to inspect the soldiers on all the sectors of the various fronts, he decorated deserving officers and he provided Franz Jozef with truthful reports on the military situation, without hiding the fact that with the passage of the months the conflict was turning into unprecedented slaughter. The infantry was being sent to the slaughter ordered to follow the mad tactic of head-on attack with bayonets. Karl took over command of the XX Corps in 1916, the year of the massacres of Verdun, the Somme, and the first nine battles of the Isonzo; the year English tanks first appeared on the battlefield. His leadership was decisive in the conquest of Romania and in halting the advance on the Eastern front of the Russians under General Brusilov. He led the offensive on the Italian front that culminated in the victory of Folgaria. But the destruction and the killing in those victorious clashes were unbearable to him. The efforts Karl made to set going peace negotiations began precisely at the moment when the Austro-German Alliance was making very significant gains. Speaking to the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Berchtold, he said he was unable to understand how it was possible to go on «still making no program for peace. In any case, whether, if God wills, we win, or whether we are headed for defeat, we must establish it with the various allies. I cannot and will not be pessimistic». From that moment on the future emperor did everything to find a peaceful solution to the tragic war, trying every possible diplomatic road. And he continued along the actual roads, those that wound among the first-line trenches.
Positio super virtutibus is a collection of eye-witness accounts of little episodes that occurred at that time. In it one reads that «he completely wore out, by reciting it in secret, the gold Rosary that he always carried with him, so that later the young archduchess had to get him another». It tells of when he saved the life of a junior officer who nearly drowned in the flooded Isonzo. It reports the statement of a chaplain, Rodolfo Spitzl, who, along the road of the Val d’Astico towards Arsiero, during a forced march, saw the future emperor occupy himself personally with a soldier who could no longer walk because of his blisters: «I don’t believe», Karl told the medical officer, «that you or I would have marched with similar feet for as long as this man. See to it that he goes on sick leave as soon as possible». Father Spitzl tells of how he saw him relax when he learned «that in the regiment little importance was given to “religious functions on parade” and that the primary effort was to see that every subdivision – even when in the line – got a chance to hear holy mass and receive the holy sacraments at least once a month». It is also these small episodes that give an idea of Karl’s faith. And of the strength of character that got him obeyed. For example when he opposed the use of poison gas against the enemy, countermanding the order of the head of the German General Staff, Hans von Seeckt, who wanted to use it on the Eastern front. Or when he fought against using submarines to strike enemy cities on the Adriatic, Venice first of all.

From “war of force”
to “metaphysical war”

As emperor, Karl automatically assumed supreme command of his troops. Among his first decisions was that of transferring his command headquarters from Teschen to Baden, close to Vienna, so that it would be easier to fulfill his political and military duties. But he spent more time at the front than in Baden because he shared in the life of the troops, constantly visiting the front lines for inspections; he received reports directly from all his commanding officers, whom he knew personally; he found himself repeatedly under the hail of shrapnel on the battlefields. And between 1916 and 1918 he made even more stubborn attempts to put an end to hostilities, so much so that the Germans accused him of cowardice because all they envisaged was a “victorious peace”. To achieve his policies Karl appointed new ministers, choosing them from among those people who had not favored going to war.
The emperor was also aware that the social peace of his own country was a basic and necessary condition for achieving world peace. So he set up a Ministry for Social Assistance and one for Public Health. He abolished the practice of dueling and in 1917 granted a general amnesty. The nationalisms that inflamed the realm endangered internal peace and rendered international peace more distant. And so he planned a federalist state, intending to put Franz Ferdinand’s proposal into practice. François Fejtó´, in his Requiem per un impero defunto, Milan 1990, [Requiem for a dead empire], explains that, as imagined by Franz Ferdinand, Karl «wanted to eliminate from the Hungarian constitution everything that might have hampered eventual concessions to the Serb and attempts to transform the dual monarchy. He also intended to give satisfaction to the Czech autonomists, who, like other Slavs and, in general, all the pacifist forces of the monarchy - in particular the socialists – had been encouraged by the premonitory sign of the Russian revolution in February 1917». But a federalist perspective, with accompanying universal suffrage, could not please the Magyar aristocracy in power in Hungary. Leo Valiani, in his book La dissoluzione dell’Austria-Ungheria, Milan 1966,[The breakdown of Austro-Hungary], explains that to the «democratic reforms, that should have guaranteed the monarchy from collapse, in case of a peace that would have undeniably meant a confession of military defeat, were opposed a priori both by the majority of the Hungarian Parliament, and by the Austro-German parties in the Reichsrat, with the sole exception of the Social Democrats».
In the international sphere Karl saw the most concrete possibility for agreement on peace in relations with France. So he wrote a confidential letter to Poincaré, the President of the Republic on 24 March 1917, saying: «I am particularly happy to see that, though we are at present on opposing sides, no fundamental difference of perspective or aspirations divides my Empire from France; I believe I have the right to hope that the lively sympathy I nourish for France, backed by the affection that it inspires in all the monarchy, will for ever prevent a return to a state of war, for which I decline any personal responsibility». Thanks to this rapprochement, in 1917 Prince Sisto of Bourbon – brother-in-law of Karl, descendant of French kings, decorated by Poincaré with the Croix de Guerre, began to conduct along with Karl diplomatic negotiations between France and the Empire. Negotiations that had to be kept secret so as not to arouse Germans suspicions. Karl naturally had at heart a peace to be made along with Germany, but he did not exclude that, if the Kaiser did not accept an eventual positive way out of the conflict (the sine qua non of which was the restoration to France of Alsace-Lorraine and the freedom of the countries invaded), Austria would act on its own, separating itself from the Alliance and signing a separate peace. Nothing came of this initiative, partly because of the difficulty of finding definitive agreement on the territories claimed by Italy, but above all because of the irresponsible attitude of the Austrian Foreign Minister Ottokar Czernin. The historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd, in his La Tragedia degli ultimi Asburgo, Milan 1974, [The tragedy of the last Hapsburgs], characterizes Karl’s nomination of the Foreign Minister as a fundamental error, because Czernin had never looked for peace and was an unconditional friend of those Germans who didn’t want the war to end except with their total victory. In fact in 1918 Czernin saw to it that Clemenceau, the President of the French Council of Ministers, revealed to the world the secret imperial negotiation on a separate peace, putting the emperor’s life in danger and Austria’s safety at risk from Germany. Karl was forced to take a public step backwards. It was a victory for those, as Fejtó´ explains, who had «the obsession of total victory …. In the course of the war - which got bogged down more than once at a dead point, something which traditionally led one to negotiation or compromise – an unprecedented idea presented itself: that of total victory, at all costs. It was no longer a matter of forcing the enemy to yield, to withdraw, but of inflicting unhealable wounds on him; no longer of humiliating him, but of destroying him. This concept of total victory condemned a priori to failure any rational attempt at putting an end, through compromise, to futile slaughter. It changed warfare not just “quantitatively”, but also, to use Hegel’s concept, qualitatively as well. The idea arose not only out of the exasperation of the military commanders at failure or at the paralysis of battles that they had thought decisive. It came out of the offices of diplomats, out of chancelleries. It seemed to arise out of the depths of peoples. It had an almost mystical tinge. It was ideological. It consisted in demonizing the enemy, in turning the war of force into a metaphysical war, a struggle between Good and Evil, a crusade». The victory of this idea is mentioned in an unpublished note by Augusto Del Noce: «The rejection of complicity with evil coincided for me with the “flight without end” before what seemed to me evil, the progressive destruction of what remained of the Sacrum Imperium. Loyalty to the commitment of August 1916, before school began for me».
Thinking of all this years later, the French radical socialist Anatole France said of Karl: «He was the only decent man to emerge during the war, in a post of command; the didn’t listen to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and so was despised by all the world. A splendid chance was ignored».
 Austro-Hungarian troops advancing on the Isonzo

Austro-Hungarian troops advancing on the Isonzo

Tears for the futile slaughter
The war continued and the Emperor Karl I lived, as did the soldiers of all the nations involved, among the rubble and the death of the trenches. Those were the years of the “violated nights”, spent half awake on the other side of the wire by soldier Ungaretti: «The air is holed/ like a piece of lace/ by the firing/ of the men/ withdrawn/ into the trenches/ like snails in their shells». In the August of 1917, at the end of the eleventh battle of the Isonzo, the Court photographer Schumann saw Karl cry in front of the charred and torn corpses, and he heard him murmur: «No man can any longer answer to God for this. As soon as possible I shall put a stop». In Austria – and almost everywhere throughout Europe – there were food shortages; poverty, hunger and death were the real victors in the conflict. Karl knew it, and reduced the living standard of his household to the minimum: he and his family fed off war rations. At High Command in Baden, Karl refused white bread, getting it shared out among the sick and wounded and, in the presence of his confused officers, he calmly ate black bread. He organized field kitchens, he used the horses from the royal stables to supply Vienna with coal, he gave and bestowed more than he could afford.
Meanwhile his German ally was thinking of employing more destructive weapons. During a lunch with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who was trying to convince him to bomb and bombard the Italian cities from planes and submarines, Karl refused and left the table. Apart from the destruction he was seeing every day, it was also his political intelligence that told him to avoid bombing. He knew that it would have accelerated the entry into the war of the United States of America and that that would have been ruinous for his country. But in Germany they wouldn’t give him a hearing. In February 1917 Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the submarine war to go ahead without any discrimination and the sinking of any ship crossing the Atlantic. It was the great mistake of the Central Empires, because Wilson then stopped hesitating and entered the war alongside the Entente, taking, in practice, the place of Russia which, in October of that same year, was to be overwhelmed by revolution, and in December would sign the Pact of Brest-Litovsk with Germany. Despite all Karl’s efforts peace was not brought about through the weapons of diplomacy but those of destruction.
Surrender came in 1918. On the Piave, on the Marne, at Amiens, at Vittorio Veneto and everywhere, the destiny of Germany and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was sealed. Wilson proclaimed his “Fourteen points” for the keeping of world peace. Romania signed the peace treaty with the Entente, Bulgaria surrendered, Czechoslovakia and Poland declared their independence, Turkey signed the armistice and the Kaiser abdicated, making way for the foundation, the following year, of the weak Republic of Weimar.
As events precipitated, Karl found himself isolated while the streets of Vienna filled with rioting crowds. On 11 November he signed a manifesto in which he declared: «I recognize a priori whatever choice German Austria makes as to its future form of state. The people have assumed their own government through their representatives. I renounce any participation in the government of the state. At the same time I exonerate my Austrian government of its mandate». Trusting in politicians who had guaranteed the maintenance of the dynasty if he publicly allowed the people the freedom to decide the future ordinance of the state, Karl signed the manifesto in the awareness that it was not an abdication, something he would never have subscribed to for fear of breaking the oath made before God when he became emperor. His intention was to retire momentarily from public office so as to go along with the insistence of the government figures who asked it of him and to avoid futile bloodshed. But on 12 November the fall of the monarchy was proclaimed and that same evening Karl was constrained to leave Vienna for his hunting grounds at the castle of Eckarstau, twenty kilometers from the capital. Meanwhile Hungary was in open revolt and the Prime Minister Tisza was assassinated by the revolutionaries.
In the Postio super virtutibus one may read that «despite all this situation the Servant of God continued each evening to say the Te Deum, and he had it sung on 31 December in thanks for all that the dying year had brought. It was suggested to him that he put it off, but he answered that there had been too many graces that year for which he had to give thanks». And in reply to those who asked him in puzzlement what the graces were, Karl answered: «If this year has been hard, it could have been much more tragic for us all. If one is willing to accept the good from the hand of God one must also be willing to accept with thankfulness whatever may be difficult and painful. For the rest, this year has seen the end so much desired of the war, and the good of peace is worth any sacrifice and any renunciation». And Karl also had to renounce remaining in Austria, where the situation was becoming ever more threatening to his life and those of his family. On 23 March 1919 the imperial family left the country for Switzerland and on 3 April the Austrian government officially decreed the exile of the sovereign and the forfeiture of his property. And it was from Switzerland that Karl twice tried to return to Hungary to restore the kingdom. On the insistence of many politicians, soldiers and ordinary citizens, but above all on that of Benedict XV, who, according to the testimony of the Emperor’s last cabinet chief, «spoke repeatedly about the need for a restoration in Hungary», Karl undertook two failed attempts to return to the throne, in March and in October 1921. Then all that was left to him was the road to exile. To those who were near him at the time, he would say: «Even if everything has gone to rack and ruin, we must thank God, since his ways are not our ways».
«On 19 November 1921, the feast of Saint Elizabeth, behold the island of exile appear… The emperor glimpsed the two stubby towers of a church. “What homesickness that church stirs in me! ” he exclaimed. “And how much it reminds me of the churches of my country! It must be a church dedicated to Our Lady: let’s go immediately and visit it”. It was Nossa Senhora do Monte, Our Lady of the Mountain, the church in which a few months later he was to be buried »: as Giuseppe Della Torre (Carlo d’Austria. Una testimonianza cristiana, Milan 1972, [Karl of Austria. A Christian witness) describes the arrival of Karl on Madeira. Karl was to live another five months, and during his short stay people noticed that the man had something more important than an imperial title. «Karl had occasion to meet many people; to enter into an immediate, human relationship with everybody; to infect all with flashes of his personality, rich in feelings and concern for the next man. And so it was that the initial compassionate sympathy demonstrated by the islanders towards him and his consort soon changed into manifest enthusiasm that gripped everyone’s mind».
They were almost all there, the citizens of Funchal, that spring day in 1922. They wanted to say farewell to their friend who had quitted them and earthly life with a simple name on his lips: «Jesus».
That day, in Funchal and everywhere, there were no more empires or emperors to represent the Christian people in Europe and the world. That man, that thirty-four year-old emperor, had moved the inhabitants of Madeira by something that had nothing to do with his royal title and the power that the title had meant. Maybe it was the affection with which he pronounced that simple name that had struck them in those five months. The same thing that, perhaps, had moved all those who had known him, at court or in the grim trenches of the early century. Perhaps the only defense for the Christian people was precisely the affection for the saying of that simple name, so many times implored by the last emperor.

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