After Communism, What? A New Specter Is Facing Europe—The Specter of Fascism

Otto von Habsburg, in conversation with George Urban

In a rare interview, Dr. Otto von Habsburg, Member of the European Parliament and President of the Pan-European Union, discusses the future of Europe with the noted British commentator, George Urban. The full transcript of Urban’s conversation with von Habsburg will appear in Apres Gorbachev, edited by Jean-Marie Benoist and Patrick Wajman, to be published this May by Politique Internationale Press, Paris.

Urban: I wonder whether in a generally volatile world it mightn’t be in our interest—as Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper suggested—to keep the Soviet Empire stable. When you think of that nightmare of unruliness that holds much of the Near East and Middle East in its grip, don’t you feel that we need a relaxed USSR as a partner in world-stability?

Habsburg: Whether we need it or not, we can’t get it. I am deeply skeptical about the whole idea of con-ceiving the USSR as a source of stability. One lesson we ought to have drawn from Mikhail Gorbachev’s years in power is the system’s patent fragility. There is unrest in Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirgizia; there is inter-ethnic strife between Georgians and Abkhasians, between Armenians and Azerbeijanis, and between Russians and virtually all non-Russian nations and nationalities. The Baltic states now look upon themselves as being under military occupation on the argument that the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was invalid ab initio, so that the incorporation of the Baltic states was invalid too.

None of this makes for stability. In fact, it has all the makings of international disorder. Peaceful order in the USSR can only be obtained if self-determination is restored to every nation that has been forcibly deprived of it.

Urban: There was a widespread belief (“conceit” might be a better word for it) in the nineteenth century that nations, and especially empires, had to have a “mission.” The French thought their civilization equaled human civilization par excellence, which it was their duty to propagate; the British saw themselves as harbingers of the rule of law and parliamentary government; the Russians believed that their mission was to defend Christianity against the Turks and to save a cynical and effete Western Europe from itself. Only the Austrian Empire did not have a mission. Or did it? As head of the House of Habsburg, if you were to append a single tag to the Habsburg Empire and leave it there for our successors for easy identification, would you say that tag would be the co-existence of cultures under one European Culture, with a capital C?

Habsburg: Indeed, I would. You see, the very existence of Austria-Hungary was a cultural statement. There appeared in Vienna some years ago an excellent book under the title of Das blieb vom Doppeladler. Auf den Spuren der versunkenen Donaumonarchie (1966), by Ernst Trost, one of Austria’s best historical writers. Trost went in search of the cultural heritage of Austria-Hungary from Chernovitz to Cattaro, and he was right in first assuming, and then finding, a profound cultural link binding all the Empire’s constituent elements into a somewhat undefinable but very real whole. That link, that Habsburg-inspired lifestyle, still exists.

But when I say that the Habsburg Empire was first and foremost a cultural community, I have to add in the same breath that it was a cultural community with a mission, and the name of that mission was the defense of Europe. Had we not defended Europe against the Turks in the Danube valley, we would not be here today; we would be praying in some mosque on the Rhine or the Seine. The danger of that happening was very real.

None of this is to say that I deny the mission of other empires, or the mission today of the U.S. with its roots in the Old Testament and the faith of the Pilgrim fathers. (That faith has by now disappeared in its narrow sense, but its penumbral effects still dominate American thinking.) The Habsburg Empire, and Austria-Hungary in particular, are best understood as a tree of many branches that grew from a single root but has shed its seed in many directions, fructifying its neighbors and being enriched by them in turn. The defense of European culture and civilization was the great idea the Habsburg Empire stood for.

Urban: How would you answer historians who contend that the smaller and mainly Slavic nations of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy did not enjoy the same cultural and civic freedoms as the two ruling races of Austrian Germans and Hungarians? Before and during the First World War, R. W. Seton- Watson and Wick-ham Steed, for example, fought a long and successful campaign in support of Czech, Slovak, and South Slav separatism on the argument that these small nations were ripe for independence and the Empire stood in the way. Even sympathetic observers of the Monarchy such as Leo Valiani and Edward Crackshaw ascribe its fall to the unwise nationalities’ policy of Vienna and especially Budapest.

Habsburg: Minority rights must be understood in their historical context. Some of the national cultures you have mentioned are of very recent vintage. The whole idea that national consciousness and national culture have a specific political meaning which governments and the members of other cultures ought to respect did not begin stirring until after the French Revolution. Even Magyar culture, although of long and respectable history, did not assert itself in the form in which we know it until 1848. Up to 1848, Latin was the official language of Hungary, and Latin, not Hungarian, was the language spoken in the Hungarian assembly. Much the same goes for the Czechs. For centuries, Prague was a completely German-speaking city of German culture. Think of Charles University which was and is an ancient seat of German learning, or, in our own time, of Rilke and Kafka who lived in Prague but wrote in German.

Governments do not normally jump ahead of public consciousness—they usually lag behind it. New perceptions are always the work of creative minorities. It was only in the nineteenth century that certain social thinkers began to feel that society had a collective responsibility for its weaker members. Communal solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged would have struck our ancestors in the eighteenth or seventeenth centuries as preposterous.

Urban: Without wishing to pry into your private life unduly, may I ask you about the personal behavior of the Emperor Charles and the Empress Zita? What sort of personal tradition was handed down to them, and then to yourself, from Franz Joseph?

Habsburg: Race and nationality never played any role in the thinking of our family. Even religion did not. My father was a modest and very mild person. It was difficult to rouse him to a state of anger, but I remember a scene at our dinner table—it must have been in 1918—that made a deep impression on me. Somebody at table made an anti-Jewish remark. My father flew into a rage and told this person very bluntly what he thought of him and where he should go. You see, for us it was an unquestioned and unquestionable fact that the Empire was multinational. It would have struck us as monstrous (and, of course, highly impolitic) to discriminate on grounds of race, nationality, or religion. We just didn’t think in those terms.

Take, for example, the aristocracy in Hungary: the fact that Manfred Weiss had been elevated to the baronetcy was considered to be entirely just and natural because he had great industrial achievements to his name. That he was a Jew did not count as a plus or a minus. The fact that he belonged to one denomination rather than another just did not enter our family’s thinking. One could cite other examples.

Urban: A comparison, then, with the practices of the multinational Soviet empire would not redound to the credit of the USSR.

Habsburg: Indeed, it would not. In the Soviet Union racism—racism, that is, at both the popular and the poorly disguised official levels—plays a major role. Look at the Pamyat organization with its rampant racism and open anti-Semitism. Boris Yeltsin was a candidate of Pamyat at the last elections and obtained a very impressive majority. I find this alarming. True, he was not a candidate of Pamyat alone, but he came out on top with the support of a movement that has the makings of Nazism. At the meetings of Pamyat some of the old Nazi language has shamelessly resurfaced. Russia’s misfortunes under Communism are ascribed to a world Jewish conspiracy. The so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion are bandied about. Who prints these and how are they distributed? I find it distressing that many Western commentators celebrate Yeltsin as a great dissident democrat and do not detect the voice of a Nazi-type of extremism among the people who support him.

I am following these trends in the Soviet Union rather carefully, and I would not exclude the possibility of the Communist system transforming itself, via National Bolshevism, into a kind of Russian National Socialism.

Urban: Not into a corporatist system of the some-what milder, fascist kind, as some Sovietologists suggest?

Habsburg: No, into a National Socialist system proper; current developments in the USSR point to outright Nazism. A few years ago, Assen Ignatov, a former Bulgarian Communist, pointed out that, after the collapse of Communism, National Socialism, would be the wave of the future. Collectivism, in order to survive, would have to take on many of the features of Nazism. We are, I believe, already witnessing the USSR going down that road.

Urban: Taking the idea of culture a step further: would you say that the kind of Europe we are in the process of hammering out needs a “dominant theme,” even if it does not need a “mission”? That dominant theme, it seems to me, could not be any of the leitmotifs of the earlier incarnations of Europe: it could not be a Europe that defines itself against the “barbarians” (as the Greeks did), nor could it be a Europe that is coterminous with Christendom. Wouldn’t a United Europe at the turn of the millennium naturally define itself as a Europe of European Culture—much as you have said the Habsburg Empire did on a much smaller scale?

But if the new Europe were to draw its inspiration from European culture, would culture prove strong enough to secure the allegiance of Germans, Frenchmen, Italians, and Britons? De Gaulle once observed that Frenchmen would fight and die for France, but only for France. Would Europeans die for European culture, or the “common house of Europe” if we could agree on the meaning of that nebulous term?

Habsburg: I strongly believe that a United Europe is going to define itself around the idea of European culture but not, as you imply, because the older definitions have become anachronistic, but because European culture is a living thing which will, as time goes on and we acquire a more profound consciousness of belonging together, gain in strength and depth.

There is, apart from culture, also another feature that distinguishes us from other nations and continents: we are more freedom-loving and more liberal than they are. Even in the U.S. we can observe how the drive for equality sometimes threatens to strangle freedom, while we in Europe are prepared to accept a certain amount of inequality because we put a high price on individualism. European society is the most individualistic society yet created.

Erik von Kuhnelt-Leddihn makes the observation that if we polled 100 Frenchmen as they were coming out of a Paris metro station we would find that there were almost as many views as there were interviewees: some would say they were Monarchists, other would be anarchists, flat-earthers, Trotskyists, Catholics who believed in the retention of the Latin rites, philo-Semites and anti-Semites, Arab-haters and romantic admirers of Arab culture. You would get the whole spectrum. But if you ran a similar exit-poll at one of the New York underground stations you would probably find that out of 100 people 99 would be conformists. There lies the difference. Great diversity within a fundamental unity is the hallmark of European culture.

Urban: How does so much emphasis on the rather decentralizing factor of individualism tie in with your views as a leading Federalist?

Habsburg: There is no contradiction. Federalism is going to preserve the differences; it is for us to see that it does. This goes a fortiori for the smaller languages. These are extremely significant for the profile of European culture as a whole. Our technocrats are, from time to time, inclined to belittle and resent manifestations of “smallness,” but they must not be allowed to get away with it. I strongly believe that even the smallest languages are integral parts of our heritage, and if they die, something in our common culture dies with them.

The follies of uniformity and central control can and should be prevented either by a new statutory interpretation of the existing Treaty of Rome, or perhaps by a new treaty which would enshrine the idea of “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity means that no problem arising in community affairs is to be referred to a higher level for resolution until all means of dealing with it at a lower level of competence have been exhausted. My impression is that we do need a new treaty to make the principle of subsidiarity crystal clear and enforceable in the European courts.

Urban: May I take you back to de Gaulle’s point: Wouldn’t European culture, even a Federal Europe, be too weak an inspiration to generate European loyalties of the visceral kind we would need in critical situations?

Habsburg: I don’t think so. Europe is an idea so long as we don’t identify Europe with the statistics of the European Community. De Gaulle was right: no one would die for that standard of living—which would be a contradiction in terms, anyway. But I am convinced that people would die for our freedom, our cultural values, and our way of life. People fight and are prepared to die for symbols, but these are a long time in coming. You do not start with the symbols. Europe is now in the process of establishing itself as a new reality. It will have its own frontiers, its economic and “federal” interests, its distinct way of life and culture. The symbols will grow out of these organically as they always have done in history.

Urban: Would it be a mistaken reading of your career to say that your leadership as a European federalist and member of the European Parliament is an indirect attempt to create, on the ruins of the Habsburg Empire and World War II, a revamped version of the Habsburg Empire?

Habsburg: I would not disagree with that reading of my role if future historians did me the compliment of writing about me. The day I obtained my German naturalization—a precondition for standing for election to the European Parliament—Franz Joseph Strauss, the then Bavarian Minister-President, said to me: “Thank God—the Holy Roman Empire is back with us.”

Urban: Let me now look at the present state of the Soviet Empire and ask whether analogies drawn from other empires, notably the Ottoman and the Habsburg, might be reasonably applied to it.

I wonder whether a determined regime at the head of the Soviet state couldn’t hold down almost indefinitely restive Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Latvians, or Moldavians with the sheer force of arms. That is how the Ottoman Turks stayed on top of their empire for centuries, and that is how, it is now feared by Soviet liberals, a disintegrating Soviet Establishment might react to the turmoil under glasnost and perestroika.

Habsburg: I do not believe that force, at the turn of the millennium, can achieve what it could in earlier centuries. The world has shrunk; information has become ubiquitous. Shortwave radio and television see to that, so that even illiteracy is no longer a barrier. In the nineteenth century the Bulgars in their mountains and the Kirgiz and Uzbeks on their steppes could be sealed off from the rest of the world. They were outside the political processes of our civilization. Not so today. Events in our world are global in their impact and it is, therefore, much harder to keep fissiparous states together by old-fashioned military means.

Urban: Now, to the parallel with the Habsburg Empire: The domestic upheavals that followed the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy are one of our best examples of imperial hangover. After defeat and dismemberment in 1918, Hungary fell into the hands of a Communist regime, followed by Romanian occupation and the Regency under Admiral Horthy. She came under Nazi and then Soviet control. Austria was gripped by an identity crisis and ideological fanaticism which culminated in civil war in 1934. She was cured of “imperial hangover only by seven years of Hitler” (in the words of Hugh Seton- Watson).

If the Soviet Empire is now heading for slow disintegration, is it your judgment that the metropolitan nation—Russia, and especially the Russian political class—will be gripped by analogous crises when the scale of the disaster is finally realized? Is the Soviet Empire heading for colonial wars as the French were in the 1950s in Indochina and Algeria?

Habsburg: The fear of colonial wars and signs of an Imperial Hangover are already discernible in the behavior and utterances of the Soviet establishment. The words you have just quoted are not a bad example.

I’d put it like this: you suffer a mighty fall from a window on the tenth floor of a high-rise building, but somehow you survive. The trauma is immense; it will take you a long time to start living a normal life again, if indeed you ever will. That, I think, is the sort of danger threatening to engulf the Soviet imperial civil service and the establishment as a whole.

Urban: You said that some form of Nazism would be the first Russian reaction to the loss of Soviet superpower status.

Habsburg: Yes, I foresee a National Socialist phase—or a violent reaction along Chinese lines. I do not exclude the possibility that Pamyat, ultra-conservatives in the Party, and the military might join forces to accomplish it (the military, mind you, have lost so much self-confidence since the debacle in Afghanistan that their current role in any state leadership must be treated with skepticism). Then, to repeat, I foresee a great colonial war, or several wars, within a time frame of two or three decades. It is not only that the deprived nations will rise against Russian colonialism and against one another, but they will be egged on and supported by their co-religionists and racial brothers across the Soviet frontiers in Iran, Pakistan, and China.

In sum, I foresee cataclysmic developments which may not remain isolated. That is why I feel that European unification must be pursued with speed and determination so that by the time all these things come to pass we in Europe have a modicum of security. Politically and psychologically, the collapse of a great empire produces a chain reaction just as terrible in its effects as a nuclear melt-down. A political Chernobyl is what we have to brace ourselves for.

Urban: You hinted a minute ago that the Red Army, too, might be facing a crisis.

Habsburg: Since the defeat in Afghanistan, the notion of invincibility has been much weakened. For let us make no mistake about it, when General Gromov crossed the River Termez on the Soviet-Afghanistani frontier, with tears running down his cheeks, he was bringing up the rear of a defeated army. We in the West didn’t at the time fully realize just how bitter this defeat had been for the Red Army and public opinion, but we can now tell from the evidence that it was great and its repercussions are widespread.

Urban: Let me ask you a highly hypothetical question which you may or may not want to answer: If you were head of the Soviet Empire anxious to avoid its disintegration (a big “if”), what would you, speaking from the Habsburg experience, advise your colleagues in the Party and Government to do and not to do?

Habsburg: I’m not sure whether any advice could be successful at this stage, but I would advise them to restore, and restore at top speed, the political, cultural, economic, and religious rights of all nations and nationalities within the empire—including the Russian, because we must remember that the Russian people are fellow-sufferers, even though Soviet imperialism was, in effect if not in name, carried out under their leadership.

Urban: Would you go so far as to advocate the right of secession which is, in any case, guaranteed in the Constitution but has never been honored in practice? Surprisingly, and to prove your point, Valentin Rasputin, the popular Russian writer, suggested recently that, to save its soul, Russia might do well “to secede from the Union.”

Habsburg: Yes, I would. Sooner or later, it has to be granted; so why not do it under peaceful conditions and obtain whatever goodwill can still be obtained from the aggrieved minorities? If anything is likely to slow down disintegration, speed in extending rights to the national minorities is the thing that might do it.

Another piece of advice I might offer my colleagues in the Soviet Party and Government would be to look at analogous events in other parts of the world and read their implications. The death of the dictatorship in Spain should be of especial interest to them—as it is indeed already widely acknowledged to be to many of the East and Central European Communist leaders. I happen to know many Spaniards; I witnessed the expiry of the Falange, Spain’s monolithic party under Franco. I saw their self-confidence in decline and their will power deserting them. Members of the East bloc establishment are fascinated by the history of the Falange. They can see that the Spanish ideological dictatorship was the first in history to be liquidated without revolution and bloodshed, and they wonder how the Falange did it and whether they could escape as lightly. Not for nothing is the Spanish ambassador one of the most sought -after personalities in the Communist-run states in Central and Eastern Europe! His advice is thought to be crucial to their survival.

Urban: How would you describe the secret of Spain’s peaceful transition?

Habsburg: Franco had the foresight of creating a substantial middle class; middle-class people are unlikely sponsors of revolutionary experiments. Then, by an extraordinary stroke of luck and perhaps wisdom, three very different actors played into each other’s hands: there was the King waiting in the wings; there was, eventually, Felipe Gonzales and Manuel Frage Iribarne—that is to say, one man representing, by birth, the traditional order of Spain, another the Socialist opposition, and a third the outgoing system but carrying a revised message. All were agreed to promote a free and democratic system, and they did.

Urban: What are your feelings as head of the House of Habsburg when you visit a country like Hungary—a country that makes you feel welcome, a country that could have been your realm if history had taken a different course, a country which is now trying to claw its way out from under the rubble after 40-odd years of misrule?

Habsburg: Firstly, I’m pleasantly surprised to see the Hungarians unbent and doing so well. Secondly, I see it as my task to help them in clearing away the rubble and, more specifically, to assist Hungary in its effort to rejoin the European family of nations. A united Europe plays a significant part in the Hungarians’ imagination. We must not fail them.

Urban: Do you harbor any bitterness because you are not the King of Hungary and cannot provide the kind of stability King Juan Carlos brought to Spain.

Habsburg: No, I do not. When I consider what a terrible job it is to be King, I thank God that I am a Member of the European Parliament.

Urban: Are you impressed by the truth of Benedetto Croce’s observation that “all history is contemporary history”—what with your background as Crown-Prince to the throne of the Habsburgs feeding naturally into the post-Communist revival of Central and Eastern Europe?

Habsburg: I would agree with Croce that contemporary events are, inevitably, a replay of earlier in-stances in the successive activities of men, although they are unpredictable in detail. Envelope forecasts are in order—anything more precise in not. It is in this sense that I feel that my heritage and experience have given me much to be grateful for in my attempt to serve as midwife to the birth of a new Europe.


  • Otto von Habsburg

    Otto von Habsburg (1912 – 2011), also known by his royal name as Archduke Otto of Austria, was the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary from 1916 until the dissolution of the empire in 1918. At the time this article was written, he was a member of the European Parliament and President of the Pan- European Union.

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