Blessed Karl of Austria-Hungary: Emperor of Contradiction, Emperor of Reconciliation
Now available to all readers, the great historian Charles A. Coulombe reflects on the legacy of Blessed Karl of Austria-Hungary.
Charles A. Coulombe is an internationally recognized historian for his in-depth knowledge of Vatican politics and the influence of Catholicism in America and Europe. His articles have appeared in the New Oxford Review, National Catholic Register, American Thinker, among others.
The knowledge that Bl. Karl, Emperor-King of Austria-Hungary, would be beatified in 2004 gave rise to a great deal of critical commentary in the world’s press. Showing their usual ignorance of history, every one of the tired bits of propaganda cooked up by his military opponents and the politicians of the various successor states who seized power in the wake of his downfall were breathlessly repeated as though they were fresh and new discoveries. Of course, the chance to blacken the reputations of both a Habsburg and the Holy See which was raising him to the altars was impossible for the small-minded and the ignorant to resist.
Moreover, the campaign of vilification had allies in both Church and State in Austria. The current Austrian State, of course, owes its origins to Karl Renner, a man who betrayed his country three times: first, when he betrayed his Emperor; second, when he sold his party’s votes to the Nazis for the Anschluss, and third, when he went to work for Stalin in 1945 — first as Chancellor, and then, having been defeated in the polls, as president, in which government job he died in 1950.
From this reality has risen a pathological need to blacken the reputations of the Habsburgs in general and Bl. Karl in particular ever since. Cardinal Piffl, Archbishop of Vienna in 1918, had sword allegiance to Renner in 1918, and informed his flock that supporting the Socialist against their Emperor was a religious duty.
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Cardinal Innitzer would subsequently refuse to support Dollfuss’ successor against Hitler in 1938, and Cardinal Koenig would similarly desert Paul VI over Birth Control in 1968, and the Austrian People’s Party in the abortion struggle the following year. Thus, neither were happy at the prospect of the hapless “Peace Emperor” returning to public consciousness. Nevertheless, in the long run, reality will out, no matter how high-ranking the liars who try to obscure it. At the end of World War I, leftist writer Anatole France — disgusted as he was with the carnage — wrote:
This war without end is criminal. What is abominable is that they do not want to end it. No, they do not want. Do not try to tell me that there was no way to end it. Emperor Charles offered peace; he is the only decent man to have appeared in this war, and he was not listened to. There was, through him, a chance that could have been seized ... Clemenceau called the emperor a ‘rotten conscience,’ it's ignoble. Emperor Charles sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. A king of France, yes a king, would have had pity on our poor, exhausted, bloodlet nation. However democracy is without a heart and without entrails. When serving the powers of money, it is pitiless and inhuman.
For all that the Emperor was betrayed by most of his peoples’ major political figures, many of the lesser remained loyal — and countless of his humbler subjects continued to love him until their deaths. One of these was an obscure Polish Sergeant Major in his army named Wojtyla. He would name his son Karol, in honor of his beloved Commander-in-Chief. That son grew up to become Pope John Paul II.
Well aware of both his namesake’s personal holiness, the incorrupt state of his body in his lonely tomb on the island of Madeira (when Karl had been exiled), and the miraculous healing of a Brazilian nun for which he was accountable, the Pope ignored the cavils against his namesake. In beatifying the Emperor, he created his own patron saint, which surely must be some sort of record. But the result was the idiot’s chorus of abuse to which we have referred.
That chorus continues to this day. But apart from the fact that Karl now has a second approved miracle (an American woman who was a non-Catholic at the time that her prayers to Karl ended her cancer), and that there are rumors of a third whose approval may be en route, and that his wife’s cause as a Servant of God has been opened, devotion to him has grown by leaps and bounds. There are now thirty shrines to him in the United States.
Why the popularity? There are a number of reasons. His personal qualities — loving husband, dutiful and affectionate father, and loyal son to both parents of a difficult marriage — offer a wonderful example to any number of modern people in difficult personal situations. His personal piety — devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, the Rosary, his intense prayer life in general — would be the envy of many in religious orders, let alone laymen in positions of authority.
As a soldier he was personally brave, considerate of his men, chivalrous toward prisoners, and devoted to the mission at hand. His vision for his peoples and for a peaceful Europe was far better than that of the majority of politicians of his time.B ut above all, his was a kind of sacrificial leadership. We who are used to rulers who happily sacrifice our blood and treasure for their own sakes are attracted to someone who repeatedly showed himself ready to lay down his life for his subjects.
Indeed, on his deathbed he told his wife that he was “suffering so that his peoples might come back together.” Thinking on the one hand of how acrimonious the relations between those peoples have tended to be down to our time — even leaving out the occasional bouts of bloodshed — it is truly amazing how much Karl loved each of them, from Tyrol to Transylvania and from Czechia to Croatia. Aware as he was of their differing strengths and weaknesses, he was bound to them by oath, and loved them as his children.
Today, those peoples face incorporation largely by Putin; what lies ahead of them are the fates of Belarus or Ireland unless they can find within themselves the unity, the ability to overcome their mutual antipathies so clearly symbolized by Karl and his family down through the ages to the present. Until the outbreak of World War II and the resulting Soviet-American dyarchy made such a quest impossible, Karl and his heirs had sought the creation after 1918 of a Danubian Confederation under their aegis to maintain the peace and happiness of Europe. Today, such a grouping seems essential if they are to resist Russian domination or Western corruption in the long run.
Of course, Karl was a great man, who deserved far better from his countrymen and the world. He might have failed to grow in sanctity had he triumphed in pursuit of his goals. In truth, the tragedy of his defeat was not his, but ours — those who had to deal with the wreckage and his descendants. But apart from seeking his intercession from Heaven and to emulate his personal example, we might also try to make his goals our own: personal integrity and holiness, peace among nations and between social classes, and — if we descend from one of his peoples — reconciliation with our neighbors, for the greater goal of maintaining Christianity in our homelands.
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