Remembrance

Death of an Imperial Pen Pal

July 11, 2011

Multiple Pages
Death of an Imperial Pen Pal

The San Fernando Valley in the 1970s was a very dull place. Hot and dusty, filled with lackluster architectural construction thrown together during the postwar housing boom, it was the last place I wanted to be.

Back in those far-off days, the LA Archdiocese’s paper, The Tidings, ran a column by the Archduke Otto von Habsburg, son of Austria-Hungary’s last Emperor-King.

My family was historically minded, and my upbringing gave me a hatred of the French Revolution and a love of the Habsburgs, Bourbons, and Stuarts. In high school in the 1970s, I became a monarchist. In the LA Central Library lurked such volumes as The Purple or the Red, Kings Without Thrones, and Monarchs-in-Waiting. I resolved to write to the Archduke Otto concerning issues political and religious. Off my note went into the post.

“Our stumblebum rulers are greedy, stupid, evil, insane—or all four at once.”

A response came back—and it was not a form letter. Instead, it contained cogent responses to the ramblingly naïve queries of a high-school lad in far-off Sylmar, California! This was the beginning of a regular correspondence that continued for six years (until after I left college) and sporadically ever since. On his birthday and Christmas in the past decade I made a point of sending him See’s Candies—a purely California product which he very much enjoyed. I had the privilege of meeting the Archduke twice: the first time in 1999, at the Vienna launch of his son the Archduke Karl’s unsuccessful run for the European Parliament. There, in his ancestors’ throne room, the heir of so much that is best in Western culture recalled our correspondence and expressed great pleasure at our finally meeting. The second time we met was in Rome in 2004, at the beatification of his father, the Emperor Karl. One can only imagine the emotions that ran through his mind on that occasion, but he was unfailingly gracious and attentive as ever.

In 2009, I made it to Budapest and visited the site where four-year-old Otto had stood at his parents’ coronation in 1916 in the St. Matthias Church. It was a potent reminder of all that he had lived through: war’s outbreak, his parents’ brief reign and attempts at regaining Hungary; his father’s death in exile; his own attempts to rally resistance to Hitler before and after the Anschluss; his warnings about communism after World War II; his work to create a united Europe that would be both free and true to its religious and secular traditions; and his father’s beatification.

The Archduke’s political causes were almost entirely defeated. From that standpoint, his career must be regarded as a failure. But it was not merely a long series of defeats for Otto von Habsburg, but for general sanity and decency. We all share the effects of his life’s tragedy, even as a victory for him in any of his political struggles would have benefited us all. If he was defeated, he at least acquired an enormous fan base: the Paneuropa Union, the Union of Austrian Catholic Student Fraternities, the Order of St. Lazarus, and Austrian, German, Hungarian, and Czech monarchists, to name a few. The Archduke was made an honorary citizen of countless towns and cities throughout his former realms and was received publicly (as a “Highness”) by Pope Benedict XVI.

And now this witness to all that has befallen the West since the Great War is gone. There will be an imperial funeral at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, followed by the ritual interment at the Kaisergruft. His son, the Archduke Karl, will attempt to fill his father’s shoes. God help him to do so.

Our stumblebum rulers are greedy, stupid, evil, insane—or all four at once. Contemplating their deeds and persons could easily lead one to think that leadership is the birthright of the mentally defective or the criminally malicious. But the Archduke Otto, both in his teachings and his work, was living proof that it need not be that way. He taught me that holding onto one’s principles in the face of overwhelming odds is not only praiseworthy, it is possible.

 

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