Born in 1912, the young prince was being groomed to rule
by Lysann Heller
When Otto von Habsburg celebrated his 95th birthday last Tuesday, a special service was held in his honour at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and the Austrian President Heinz Fischer received him in the imperial palace where Otto’s father Karl once reigned. The fact that Austria refused him entry to his native country for over half his lifetime appears to have been forgotten. He is now widely celebrated as a “great European”.
Otto von Habsburg was born in 1912 in Reichenau in Lower Austria into a life which appeared to have been mapped out for him. The Habsburgs were at the time the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From the sixteenth century onwards they ruled large chunks of Europe until the First World War brought their reign to an abrupt end. As a child he was a cosseted Crown Prince, who would ascend to the throne of Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, and his education was designed to prepare him for this future role: he was instructed in the languages of the countries of the Habsburg Empire, and had to complete the curricula of Austrian and Hungarian schools at the same time. In addition to his native languages German and Hungarian, he also learnt English, French, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Croatian.
Yet at the age of six, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and his family were forced into exile, Otto began a decades-long odyssey, moving to Switzerland, Portugal and Spain. Later he studied in Belgium and taught in the USA, lived in France and returned to Spain, before settling in the Bavarian town of Pöcking at Lake Starnberg in 1954.
During the Second World War, the Nazis issued a warrant for his arrest on the charge of treason. Even after the end of the war his native country Austria refused him entry and citizenship for decades. It was only in 1961, following protracted negotiations with Austria’s republican government, that he renounced all claims to the Austrian throne. It took another five years of numerous complaints, political debates, and anti-Habsburg debates before he could set foot on Austrian soil again in 1966.
Not in power, but persuasive
Not taken seriously and marginalised by the powers that be, during the Second World War von Habsburg still managed to use his connections to help some 15,000 people flee, and was active in persuading US President Franklin Roosevelt not to bomb Austria. Following the end of the war, he became a public speaker, political writer and journalist. From 1936 he was a member of the International Paneuropean Union, its President from 1972, and has been Honorary President since 2004.
For 20 years between 1979 and 1999, he represented the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) in the European Parliament with the help of Franz-Josef Strauß, a leading right-wing politician in Bavaria. On 19 August 1989, together with then Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, he organised the Pan-European Picnic in Sopron at which 661 East Germans managed to flee to the west and which was a decisive catalyst of political change in the GDR and Eastern Europe.
His unrelenting and at times robust advocacy of his views has brought him not only renown, honour and prizes, but also attracted considerable criticism. In 2002, he gave a controversial interview to the far-right German newspaper Junge Freiheit in which he commented on the split in US domestic policy: “On the one hand the Department of Defense, where the key positions are held by Jews, the Pentagon today is a Jewish institution. On the other hand, in the State Department, there are blacks – for example Colin Powell or particularly Condoleezza Rice. (…) At the moment the Anglo-Saxons, i.e. the white Americans, play a relatively small role.”
In the same interview he expressed the view that, “the hysteria – against the right – has been systematically blown up by the controlled mass media, and made possible by the cowardice of the people on the right who haven’t defended themselves.” This comment provoked a scandal which still hangs over him in Germany.
In Hungary it has not been forgotten that in 1979 – at a time when the West was beginning to resign itself to the division of Germany and Europe – Otto von Habsburg as MEP had an empty chair set up for the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain in the European Parliament. There were raised eyebrows and shaking of heads when the parliamentarian stood up and gave a speech in Hungarian. Today his vision of overcoming the division of Europe is reality. Hungary is a member of the European Union and von Habsburg has been made an honorary citizen in 30 towns and cities here. Finally, Otto von Habsburg has triumphed – if not as an emperor, then as a great European.
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Austrian monarchists call for Central European monarchy
An Austrian group calling for the reintroduction of hereditary monarchy in Central Europe said they were discriminated against in their attempts to re-establish an Austrian empire despite public support. Sporting the traditional Habsburg colours, the Black-Yellow Alliance (SGA) on Monday presented its manifesto, complete with plans for forming a monarchist party and to replace the country’s elected president with a monarch in the long run.