This past month, Otto von Habsburg celebrated his 97th birthday. As the eldest son of the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he is a link with history – the heir apparent to one of Europe’s most powerful dynasties that ruled Central Europe for more than 650 years.
Otto’s life was borne amid conflict. He was just a small boy of four when his father Karl ascended the throne of Europe’s third largest country, right in the middle of the First World War – a conflict which was to bring about the collapse of the monarchy in 1918. Emperor Karl died just a few short years later, making Otto the titular head of the impoverished family, which was forced to live “on the run” in Switzerland and Spain.
Throughout his years of schooling, Otto was tutored in the fiendishly difficult Hungarian language. This was deemed important because Otto’s father had never relinquished his claim to the throne of Hungary — and because Hungary was still technically a monarchy, ruled as regent by Admiral Miklós Horthy, once supreme commander of the Austro-Hungarian navy.
But soon thereafter came the destruction of Second World War and the spread of communism throughout most of the lands of the old empire. At this point, it seemed almost inevitable that Otto would be destined to become “just another” ex-royal personage, whiling away his days in carefree locations like Monte-Carlo, St. Tropez or the Aegean Isles.
But here is where Otto played his hand differently – and in the process became an important player on the international stage and an advocate for a new European political order. Renouncing any claims to the throne, he became instead an indefatigable champion of European unity. An ardent anticommunist, Otto believed the key to Europe’s future was to strive for common interests and common ground. He stood for election to the European Parliament and was an early member of that body, eventually serving for 20 years.
He also became an important historian and lecturer, traveling the world and speaking with audiences everywhere. I remember hearing Otto von Habsburg give a speech at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, MN in 1972, when I was a student in high school. The predictions Otto made in that speech were uncanny in their accuracy. He forecast almost to the exact year the fall of communism (1990), and he also warned about Europe’s smoldering powder-keg (the breakup of Yugoslavia into squabbling mini-states).
And when the Iron Curtain finally did come down in the early 1990s, Otto offered up his services to the new post-communist governments in the land of his forefathers. Subsequently, he played a significant role as a kind of unofficial cultural and social ambassador for several countries, most notably Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. The prestige of the Habsburg name and its ties to a proud history provided added “cachet” to the early efforts of the post-communist governments to establish meaningful economic and business ties with the West. (Otto’s fluency in the Hungarian language, thanks to all the many hours of tutoring when he was a boy, turned out to be quite handy in a wholly unexpected yet very welcome way.)
Today, at age 97, Otto von Habsburg is still very much with us. He has slowed down a bit, but still shuttles regularly between his home in Bavaria and “his” cities of Budapest, Vienna and Zagreb. From the vantage point of history – where we can now see how the “brave new world” of the 20th Century brought forth more than its share of human misery along with all of the political innovation – the virtues of the “old order” have become easier to recognize.
Certainly, that is the case in the lands of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Otto, “the man who would be king,” has not only been declared an official citizen of several countries, but is also respected by people all across the political spectrum. In the end, not a bad legacy at all.
So here’s a hearty toast to Otto von Habsburg: 97 years young and a true citizen of the world.