Otto von Habsburg at 97: A Link to the Past … and the Future

Four-year-old Otto von Habsburg, flanked by his parents, at the time of his father’s coronation as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (1916).

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.

Otto von HabsburgHe 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.

The Berlin Wall Looking Back 20 Years: What Caused the Fall?

Austro-Hungarian Border
Border guards dismantling the fence dividing East and West: Austro-Hungarian border, Summer 1989.

This month, the world commemorates the momentous events of 20 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell and a divided Germany came together amidst the wreckage of the Soviet Empire.

Already, there have been poignant tributes such as the recent celebration in Berlin honoring three elder statesmen who were at the center of the events at that time: Mikhail Gorbachev, President Bush (the elder) and Germany’s Prime Minister Helmut Kohl.

But what seems lost among the commemorations is the fact that the Berlin events were set in motion earlier in 1989, some 350 miles to the south. And they involved neither East nor West Germany.

In fact, the first “hole” in the iron curtain came about at the Austro-Hungarian border, masterminded by Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and his equally brave Austrian counterpart, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky.

A reformer who was also a Communist Party member, Németh had come to power in 1988 and was determined to bring Hungary into a more close economic and political relationship with the rest of Europe. Faced with horrific economic conditions at home, he knew had had limited time to effect positive change or he would be replaced.

Students of history know that the “ties that bind” Austria and Hungary date back ~700 years, through centuries of the Habsburg Empire to the early 1900s when Vienna and Budapest were two of the most glittering cities of Europe.

In a sense, the forced separation of the two countries between East and West Bloc factions was as unnatural as the division of Germany itself; a quick look at the bevy of German and Hungarian surnames in the Vienna telephone directory proves the point.

Secret communications between Hungary and Austria culminated in a public ceremony held on the Austro-Hungarian frontier on May 2, 1989, where, documented by television cameras, the electric fence running the length of the border was declared an “anachronism” and a hole was ceremoniously cut in it.

“What are those Hungarians up to?” bellowed East German premier Erich Honecker at an East German Politburo meeting the next day. The answer was obvious. Soon throngs of East German citizens, traveling to a fellow Eastern Bloc country on tourist visas, simply moved across the Hungarian border into Austria from where they could continue on to West Germany to be reunited at long last with relatives and friends.

The die was cast. Faced with the prospect of its citizens draining out of the country, the East German government had little choice but to announce a relaxation in travel restrictions to West Germany.

This attempt at accommodation was a classic case of “too little, too late”:  The avalanche that was soon to come was simply overwhelming. Down came the Berlin Wall – and down went the East German government.

In hindsight, it’s easy to recognize the important role Mikhail Gorbachev played in the events of 1989. By signaling that Soviet troops would not necessarily come to the aid of beleaguered Eastern European satellite regimes, Gorbachev gave the restive citizens of East Germany the courage to seize the moment and take decisive action while they had the chance.

But the most credit must go to the governmental leaders of Hungary and Austria. It was these unsung heroes who took the biggest risks from the very beginning, bravely plotting their moves in the face of potentially severe political and military repercussions. (After all, memories of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the subsequent refugee flight across the Austrian border weren’t all that distant.)

In a sense, history came full circle in 1989. At the beginning of the century, Germany had been dragged into World War I because of problems faced by its Habsburg neighbor, Austria-Hungary. So many of the major political challenges in the 20th Century – communism, fascism, the Cold War, even the Middle Eastern conflict – stemmed from that struggle. And none of these were more searing for Germany than World War II and the subsequent division of the country between East and West.

Once, Austria and Hungary had created problems for Germany. Seventy-five years later, they helped solve them. Not a bad result in the end!