Blessed Charles of Austria: The Indivisible Emperor

Today is the feast of the Blessed Emperor, Charles I of Austria-Hungary. The release of my new biography of the saintly monarch last month have for obvious reasons brought him to my mind in recent days. Added to this is the impending dedication of the 16th shrine in his honor in these United States, at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in rural Jasper, Georgia. It is worth noting that for all that the blessed emperor and his equally holy empress, Servant of God Zita, were quintessentially European, his two Church-approved miracles were both wrought in the New World: one in Brazil, and the other in our very own Florida. While one can understand his popularity in his former domains in Central Europe, and his Bourbon-Braganza wife’s Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and French homelands—even Brazil and Mexico, which had quondam empires of their own—the fervor of his American followers might well seem a bit strange.

Certainly, they are fervent. The North American branch of the Emperor Charles League of Prayer for Peace Among the Nations (the Gebetsliga, or “Prayer League,” for short) is extremely active in spreading the word about this greatest of modern rulers. They have produced a prayer book in English, a Rosary, and countless devotional items, and they keep Charles’s devotees up to date about what is happening in his ever-expanding network of American shrines.

My suspicion as to the reason for his popularity amongst Americans is at once unconscious and fairly simple. He represents a sort of leadership which is entirely foreign to our experience: one which is willing to sacrifice itself for the sake of those whom it leads. The idea of a ruler who would endure suffering and even death for the sake of his people is not one we would associate with most of our serving presidents, save perhaps Washington and Lincoln—though Theodore Roosevelt certainly risked his life on San Juan Hill, and a number have been veterans.

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In any case, and national considerations aside, the admirers of Emperor Charles across the planet often tend to focus on particular aspects of his character and personhood, often to the detriment of or by ignoring others. There are some who admire the individual, but not the institution over which he presided. For them his personal holiness and his admirable record as husband and father are enough to excite their interest. But his military prowess and political efforts and opinions are irrelevant to them. The imperial tradition which was such a huge part of what made him is at best embarrassing and at worst distracting. They take great pains to ignore the monarchy from which he sprang, save where it is absolutely unavoidable.

On the other hand are those who are fascinated by Charles’s political vision, military prowess, and social concern, but in turn are embarrassed by his religiosity. For them, if anything, the emperor’s spirituality was itself a distraction from his worldly duties. Consideration of his devotional life at best elicits a somewhat sheepish response on their part.

This division on the part of those who admire the last Austrian emperor is understandable, in that we live in an age that tries to separate not merely Church from State, but spirit from flesh. Among other virtues, however, Charles was the very opposite of a dualist. For him, his varying roles as ruler, father, husband, soldier, and son (of a most difficult and estranged couple) were in fact part of a seamless whole. His search for peace and for a more equitable constitution for his domains was for him a religious duty, as were his paternal and husbandly roles. “Now we must help each other to get to Heaven,” he told Zita after they were married. The emperor’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacred Heart, and Our Lady were both very public and very sincere. His deathbed offering of his horrible sufferings “that my peoples might come back together” was the epitome of his personal synthesis. To try to divide it up is to woefully misunderstand him.

It is, however, precisely this synthesis which causes, even after almost a century since his death, some to hate his memory. Charles was betrayed by very many people: his allies, his opponents, and even some of his ministers. In Central Europe, many political figures benefitted from this betrayal, and the reins of power they created in the wake of the monarchy’s fall continue to exist today. Similarly, the leadership of the Allied countries (particularly our own United States, where President Wilson  insisted on Charles’s deposition and Austria-Hungary’s partition) contributed hugely to Charles’s dry martyrdom. It was the Allied powers’ insistence on preventing any funds from reaching him and his family at his place of exile in Madeira which led directly to his painful and prolonged death.

To make our case even worse, as Winston Churchill pointed out at the end of World War II: “This war would never have come unless, under American and modernizing pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer on to the vacant thrones.” These collective political sins, in the light of Charles’s endless search for peace among the nations—which would have spared millions of deaths, had he been heeded—and between his peoples, would be enormous in any case. But his personal holiness puts us in the place of the English soldier who cried out at the judicial murder of Saint Joan of Arc, “God help us, we have burned a saint!”

In the face of such a colossal injustice as was done to the beatus and his family, the most natural human reaction has prevailed on the part of his persecutors since his death: denial. In Austria itself, the socialist Karl Renner, who was directly responsible for Charles’s and his family’s initial exile, and who later managed to collaborate with both Hitler and Stalin, is still considered a hero by many, with streets and squares named after him. Charles’s direct heirs’ properties, returned by the Austrian government in 1935, were seized again by the German occupiers three years later, and remain in government hands—despite the long court cases fought for restitution of Nazi loot by other heirs to similarly stolen goods. So it is to a greater or lesser degree in the other lands that were carved out from the monarchy.

The need for government, media, and academia to blacken his name and that of his dynasty is often so shrill that one can well understand his son Otto’s assertion that it is almost a “psychological complex.” The problem of course is that if it is a question of who is right—a saint or oneself—it is oneself who is invariably wrong. The woke in the United States constantly prattle about the need for a reckoning in our country, and this is certainly true in Central Europe. A reckoning, not with some imagined systemic ills, but the very real and ongoing lies about one of the greatest and best figures the region has ever produced in its entire history.

What good would such a reckoning do? Has not a century passed since the deed was done? Indeed it has. At the moment, the nations of the area are not simply fighting for the memory of a holy man who was broken for his love of them. There are far more menacing enemies in Western Europe and America who would take from them the remnants of religion and national identity which they yet retain.

None of them are strong enough to resist that hideous strength by themselves. To do so successfully, they must overcome their antipathies toward each other which have been stoked since the 19th century, and which the Habsburgs—and none more than Charles—have struggled manfully to bridge. Already, Blessed Charles’s cult has begun to play a role in bringing at least the devout of these countries closer together. Acknowledgement of that shared guilt toward him, and of the shared benefits he and his brought them, will help cement this needed unity.

For the rest of us, contemplation of Blessed Charles’s unique mixture of qualities not only provides a great role model and intercessor, but may perhaps lead us to raise the bar in regards to our own Catholic leaders. That’s not a bad thing these days.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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