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Blessed Charles of Austria and the principled road less travelled

What Charles Coulombe invites us all to imagine in his excellent biography of Emperor Charles of Austria  is Western civilization – or better yet, Christendom.

I am of the opinion that if the Allies at the peace table at Versailles had not imagined that the sweeping away of long-established dynasties was a form of progress, and if they had allowed a Hohenzollern, a Wittelsbach, and a Habsburg to return to their thrones, there would have been no Hitler. – Winston Churchill

In brief asides in his latest book, Charles Coulombe examines the careers of forgotten statesmen such as Engelbert Dolfuss and Pyotr Stolypin. As Prime Minister of Russia, Stolypin employed draconian measures against socialist agitators while simultaneously seeking to undermine the revolutionary impulse by providing more opportunities for peasants to own private property. As dictator of Austria, Dolfuss had sought to protect his country from being taken over by either Nazis or Communists, explicitly declaring his commitment to guide his country by Catholic principles as enunciated in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno.

Would either man’s agenda have proven realistic and borne fruit? Nobody can know, as Stolypin was assassinated in 1911 by a socialist revolutionary and Dolfuss in 1934 by Nazi agents seeking Austria’s annexation to the Third Reich. What is undeniable is that both men are obscure to Americans today, even among their respective Catholic and Orthodox co-religionists, even among those self-identifying as conservative.

This brings us to the actual subject of Coulombe’s Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy. No, Emperor Charles was not himself assassinated, but he was persecuted both by revolutionary nationalists and communists, and there is no denying that he, like Stolypin and Dolfuss, represents a road less traveled. Unsurprisingly, some American Catholics are put off by Charles’s beatification because he was an “undemocratic” figure; such persons are evidently satisfied with the results of centuries of uncritical celebration of Equality and Democracy. Those of us less comfortable with a world devolving into placeless, formless, post-cultural pansexuality might find something worth learning from this straight European male of royal blood, even if the civilization he represents cannot be revived.

For example, one lesson might come from Charles’s exemplary military service at the beginning of the Great War, on the controversial Italian-Austrian borderland known as the Tyrol:

Charles was sent to that front in command of the Twentieth “Edelweiss” Corps of the Eleventh Army. His command consisted of four regiments of Tyrolean Kaiserjager, and four regular infantry regiments, one of each being Upper Austrian, Salzburger, Romanian, and Czech. Spending a great deal of time among them, the archduke was popular among his men – going so far as to rescue one during a flash flood. The stage was set for a massive offensive in which he would be a junior commander, although Charles had grave misgivings about its likely success, he put himself into it. As the attack began, Charles issued an order to his officers: “Any commander who has too great a loss for no good reason will be ruthlessly held accountable by me. The vigor and offensive spirit of our splendid troops is so great and there is so much rage against the treacherous hereditary enemy, that the leadership must make sure the troops do not suffer even heavy losses through unstoppable forward storms.” At first it was a great success, with the Austrians smashing through the Italian lines. But the terrain slowed them down, and suddenly Charles found himself and his troops literally without a road forward.

It should be emphasized that at the time he found himself first embroiled in the rigors of modern trench warfare, Charles was next in line for the throne of the Empire, and so as an active participant in a war he strove to end he stands in marked contrast to modern politicians and power-brokers, who have no qualms about promoting and perpetuating violent upheavals which they and theirs never need experience personally. Likewise, Charles orders’ about safeguarding his troops came during a war which saw men of both sides consistently treated as cannon-fodder. For him noblesse oblige was a real thing.

Early in the war the old emperor died, leaving the throne to Charles and to us an extraordinary image to be pondered:

When the funeral cortege arrived at the Capuchin church, the door was closed. As ceremony prescribed, the court chamberlain knocked with his staff against the portal. The friar behind the door asked, “Who is there?” The chamberlain responded with the late emperor’s name and all of his many stirring titles and decorations, only to receive a brusque: “We do not know him!” and the door opened once more, and the friar asked the same question; this time, the chamberlain said, “Franz Josef of Habsburg, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary.” This received no more of a sympathetic hearing than the first attempt, and the door slammed once more. Finally, on the third attempt and the chamberlain’s identification of the deceased as “Franz Josef, a mortal, sinful man,” the body was allowed inside.

Surely this is a striking contrast to the extravagant eulogies of recent celebrity funerals, and surely it is ironic that we must turn to Franz Josef’s burial to find a proper demonstration of the kernel of truth in egalitarian ideology. Granted that rituals are one thing and day-to-day life something else, one hardly need be a monarchist to admit the salutary quality of such a scene.

Not only Franz Josef but the Habsburg realm itself proved mortal in the end, with Allied armies hardly more dangerous to it than the various national independence movements within the Empire itself. Of course one such movement – the Black Hand – had played a role in provoking the war through the assassination of Charles’s uncle, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and throughout the war internal tensions continually threatened to pull the regime apart. Upon ascending the imperial throne and donning the Hungarian sword and crown of St. Stephen, Charles quickly decided that

the important thing to do was to cut the ground out from under the nationalists by renovating the imperial structure as both Franz Ferdinand and Charles himself had always wished to do. But having sworn to rule constitutionally at his Hungarian coronation, Charles did not feel he could simply impose such changes by fiat or that they were likely to work if he did. His plan was to recall the Austrian Parliament, lay reforms before them, have them adopted, and move on – having reduced the nationalist threat – to negotiate a peace.

Coulombe goes through various explanations for why Charles’s plans for peace and reform failed, leading to the Empire’s thorough dismemberment. A pan-Germanic “deep state” saw the emperor’s efforts to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies as disloyal to Germany, even as other intransigent elements resisted the subsidiarity-oriented reform efforts needed to keep the Austro-Hungarian system flexible and sustainable. Meanwhile anti-clerical elements among the Allies were implacably hostile toward the Empire, regarding it as an emblem of the “Dark Ages,” and hearing in its death throes the birth-cries of a new, enlightened liberal order of small, peacefully co-existing nation-states.

This new order was not to be, either. Having in the 19th and 20th centuries served a revolutionary purpose – leveling the local, provincial, and religious loyalties which stood in the way of establishing a homogenous and unitary national consciousness – nationalism in the here and now is passé, an obstacle to the next phase of revolution, as national loyalties stand in the way of forging a homogenous and unitary planetary consciousness. Perversely enough, today’s European Union can be seen as a top-down, desacralized, and ahistorical parody of the Holy Roman Empire.

Noting the emergence of counter-globalist alliances such as the Visegrad Group, Coulombe suggests that the legacy of Blessed Charles might be the basis of a Christian alternative to the EU, a more authentic union. For

commemorating the peace emperor, studying his life, and assisting at Masses in his honor with members of nationalities you have been raised to dislike – but who as individuals love the blessed who loved them all – are powerful experiences […] To stand at the platform at the train station filled with Czechs, Austrians, Germans, (some of Sudeten heritage), Hungarians, Slovaks, and others all cheering and waving double-eagle flags until the imperial train pulls in and the band strikes up the Kaiserrhymne is quite an intoxicating experience. It is reenactment, but reenactment with a purpose, as the old feelings of joint loyalty are rekindled in hearts that could never have felt them at first hand. Then, in the later afternoon, as the reenactment units perform a marchpast by one of Charles’s grandsons, the feeling is renewed, coming to a crescendo with the vote Mass in honor of Charles and the blessing with his relic.

To be sure, the feeling noted by Coulombe is a far cry from an embodied regime with a budget, diplomatic corps, public assemblies, and army and navy. But then the things of the spirit transcend as well as precede politics, and in commending the Habsburg legacy Coulombe is surely on to something.

In contrast to liberal democratic aspirations for a godless, deracinated utopia, the vision of the double-eagle is rooted in history, tradition, and the Faith. It is a vision at ease with the distinct identities of diverse peoples, even while striving to connect them all through a classical inheritance exemplified by philosophers and poets like Boethius and Dante, as well as by saints like Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Jerome. What Coulombe invites us all to imagine, then, is Western civilization – or better yet, Christendom. Even if he is a dreamer, he’s not the only one.

Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy
By Charles Coulombe
TAN Books, 2020
Hardcover, 268 pages

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About Jerry Salyer 60 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.


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