Good Night, Good Prince

July Fourth’s fireworks flashed for me beneath a long, sad shadow. On the birthday of my motherland died my fatherland’s father: Otto von Habsburg, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and son of Blessed Karl I (the last man to serve that Catholic empire as its steward). It was Karl who reigned when my grandfather left the Austrian province of Croatia, and however patriotic an American I am, by the time I was twelve I had read enough (in the work of Catholic political philosopher Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn) of the many services done by that monarchy for Europe and for the Church that I’d developed another loyalty: to the vanished empire and its dynasty.

As I tried to explain it to my understandably baffled (Texan) girlfriend, I have always felt that I was really in some sense Otto’s rightful subject. “If he told me to do something that wasn’t a sin, I’d pretty much do it,” I told her. “Well, then. It’s a good thing you haven’t met him,” she said. And while some friends of mine did have that honor, I never did. The next time I’m in Vienna, I will pray at his tomb in the Capuchin crypt. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Why should I, an American right-wing libertarian, pay attention to the death of a throneless Austrian royal? First of all I should as a Catholic, since it was the House of Habsburg that for centuries helped preserve my ancestors’ faith in the face of Muslim invasion, Protestant preaching, and squabbles with neighboring Orthodox. After the mutual violence of the Reformation era, the Habsburgs proved to be tolerant rulers of folk of every faith; the Jews of Austria-Hungary had the most cause to miss them in the 20th century, but Catholics under Yugoslav rule, and Orthodox under the heel of fascist Croatian nationalists, would each have fared far better had the monarchy never fallen.

So would all of Europe: Almost every inch of the Austro-Hungarian empire would fall first to Adolf Hitler, and then to Josef Stalin, whose Iron Curtain only excluded western Austria. Torn apart by the first great plague of the 20th century, the idolatrous cult of nationalism, the monarchy’s crownlands would later be drowned by the second: socialism — which, in its democratic guise, drained postwar Austria of energy and life, and in its more consistent, dictatorial form, tyrannized the Hungarian, Czech, south Slavic, and Polish peoples for 40 more years.


I also care as someone who tries to steward the intellectual heritage of the great humane economist Wilhelm Röpke, who befriended Otto von Habsburg and joined his postwar efforts to promote a wholesome Christian internationalism — a pan-European order that leaned not on structures of bureaucratic oligarchy, but rather on the spiritual heritage that formed the civilization of the West. It was only within the friendly shadow of Christendom, Röpke believed, that free institutions and a free economy could long survive. A brilliant student, scholar, and advocate of the market economy, Röpke believed that it was the only one that respected the dignity proper to man.

He also knew that true human dignity such as we treasure is only plausible in a Judeo-Christian culture. Remove the underpinning of revelation, and you soon will come to agree with evolutionary biologists who reason that the “sanctity” of human life is (like crowns and kings) a superstitious fetish from the past. You will have no guard in your heart against economists who promise better living through “rationalized” collectivism, racialists who wish to “purify” human breeding stock, or any other wave of persuasive utopians who love man so much that they wish to remake him as another species entirely. Against such empty pomps that intoxicate the second-rate intellectual, there really is no stronger defense than the intuitive peasant piety that leads men to cross themselves when they pass by a church, to honor a distant emperor as in some sense their earthly father, to leave wreaths (as I observed some still do) at the kaisers’ crypt in Vienna.

Röpke differed from his more dogmatically libertarian colleagues in seeing that conservative, patriarchal institutions such as the papacy, hereditary monarchies, and the traditional family served as indispensable buffers against the friction produced by the dynamism and blind efficiency of the market. Marx was a monster, not a fool. He knew that the unfettered strength of human cooperation made possible by free markets could undermine every humane institution that stood in its way — if men made money their measure. When popes fell prey to this, the indulgences they sold cheaply cost Christendom dearly. Shorn of moral restraints, the market found it efficient to traffic slaves — and many Yankee fortunes were built on the trade that resulted.

The market is the most moral means by which men can work together to steward their talents and earth’s bounty; but it knows nothing of ends. Unlike coercive systems that yoke men to building pyramids for Pharaoh, the market frees men to follow their hearts–which are shadowed by sin, so many will choose to worship golden calves. Remove the internal restraints of Christian conscience, and soon enough men will trade in women, in children, in drugs, and in human organs. If socialism is a bus that takes us slowly but surely to prison, the market is a flock of Maseratis racing nowhere in particular. The faster the car, the more sober must be its driver. Precisely because of its greater power and precision, a market economy needs the constant infusion of non-economic values; it needs firm barriers beyond which trade may not intrude; it demands of us deference to inherited pieties, lest it tear down all the cathedrals and Roman ruins to throw up shining towers of Babel.

On July 4, one of our holy ruins fell to earth. A zealous Catholic who strove to keep the Nazis out of Austria in 1938, who helped pierce the Iron Curtain in 1989 and in the West tried to build a new Europe based on Christian humanism, Crown Prince Otto of Austria was a worthy son of his saintly father. Let us pause to mark Otto’s memory and recommit ourselves to defending those household gods our founders brought here from across the ocean. Our republic rests not on toxic Enlightenment ideology but Anglo-Saxon liberty and Christian common law — whose cornerstones are the dignity of the person and the sanctity of the family. Such inherited institutions and notions, which can be defended intellectually but cannot be “proved” true, are the flags for which we should rally to fight; they are the fruit of Christian faith and its best earthly defense against aggressors. Without them, men will not long stay free. That is the expensive lesson of the terrible 20th century.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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