Bidding farewell to last vestige of Austro-Hungarian empire


VIENNA LETTER:Amid a colourful and heartfelt ceremony, Otto von Habsburg’s body was laid to rest in the imperial crypt in the Austrian capital. The cheated monarch’s heart was interred in Budapest

ST STEPHEN’S Cathedral is a sea of mantillas and medals. For two hours on Saturday afternoon, over 2,000 mourners meditate on Haydn’s Requiem in C Minor, the sound of an imperial farewell.

Before the high altar, the coffin of Otto von Habsburg is draped in the yellow-and-black family colours and surrounded by seven metre-high candles. To the right, his seven surviving children and their families with tired faces and eyes.

In a final act both traditional and subversive, the organ intones the final verse of the imperial Kaiserhymne, a familiar Haydn melody later lifted for the German national anthem.

As the Habsburgs exchange secret smiles, St Stephen’s vibrates with imperial tradition as President Heinz Fischer, head of the Austrian republic, stands stoney-faced and silent.

“God preserve, protect our Emperor, our country/Austria’s good fortune remains intertwined with Habsburg’s throne.” With that, Austria had its answer to a question posed by the July 4th death of Otto von Habsburg aged 98. Was the country saying farewell to a man who, in other circumstances, would have been crowned emperor in 1922, following a six-century tradition? Or burying a citizen who campaigned for European unity and renounced all claims to the Austrian crown half a century ago? Would the Austrian republic, where all aristocratic titles are forbidden, permit a state funeral for a might-have-been monarch?

In the end tradition triumphed over technicalities, the tone set at the outset of Saturday’s requiem by a letter of condolence from Pope Benedict to the Habsburg family.

“With deep sadness I learned of the return home of your father, his imperial and royal highness Arch-duke Otto of Austria,” he wrote.

“In this hour of mourning, I am united with the entire imperial family in prayer for the deceased.” In his homily, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna tried to reconcile the two Austrian camps with their multifaceted son.

He was a man of “modest self-confidence” who neither mourned the monarchy’s passing nor allowed the denial of its six centuries of achievements – for good and ill.

The Austrian primate drew a line from the 1914 assassination of Habsburg heir-apparent Franz Ferdinand and the “senseless spilling of blood” that followed in the first World War, the rise of “two poisonous ideologies”, followed by another war and European division.

“Might we not understand the deceased’s life’s work as a tireless attempt to make good the calamity humanity suffered as a result of the first World War?” he asked.

After two hours, the coffin left the cathedral carried by uniformed guards from Austria’s nine provinces, to applause from 10,000 onlookers.

Under a strong sun and cloudless sky – “kaiser weather” – the cortege took a 2km route through the capital, through the Hofburg palace complex and to a final 21-gun salute.

Soon the black mourning garments were intermingled with hundreds of colourful historical imperial uniforms and members of contemporary orders: the Order of Malta, the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Onlookers had mixed emotions as the ceremony neared its end.

“I think it’s a sign of Austria’s maturity as a republic that we were able to acknowledge our Habsburg history,” said Andreas Trost (45).

At a subway station along the route, closed for the day, a harassed Maria Friedl (29) was less enthused. “Such a fuss for a Habsburg. They should see him off and be done with it.”

The journey ended at Vienna’s salmon-coloured Capuchin Friary where, after three symbolic knocks, 10 candle-carrying, bearded friars filed out to receive the remains of “Otto – a mortal, sinful man”.

After a private service, the coffin was carried 21 steps down to the imperial vault below and laid to rest in a gleaming copper sarcophagus adjacent to his wife Regina, who died last year.

Yesterday, after a requiem Mass in Budapest, von Habsburg’s heart was interred at the Benedictine monastery of Pannonhalma.

Back in Vienna, close family and friends said their farewells amid the imposing Habsburg sarcophagi, as the flowers of 23 waist-high wreaths scented the air.

Soft conversations moved between past and present, including last month’s parliamentary vote in Vienna to set aside the 1919 laws excluding “in perpetuity” the Habsburgs from public office.

Writer Robert Dulmers recalled once pressing his deceased friend on whether he ever accepted in his heart his 1961 renunciation of the crown that allowed him return to Austria.

Otto Von Habsburg’s answer: “One cannot give up what one was raised to be.”

Well-connected: The Habsburgs and other royals

OTTO VON Habsburg is survived by seven children. The new family head is Karl (51), whose brief career as a television quiz show host was followed by a European Parliament career cut short by a donations scandal.

The family’s political ambitions lie elsewhere: 46-year-old Georg is a Hungarian special representative to the EU. Their sister Walburga (52) is an MP in the Swedish parliament. Her sister Gabriela (55) is a diplomat, serving as Georgian ambassador in Berlin.

Attending Saturday’s Requiem Mass were King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden; Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein and Princess Marie; Henri, Grand Duke of Luxembourg; Princess Astrid of Belgium, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent; Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia; Alexander, Prince of Schaumburg-Lippe; Infanta Cristina of Spain, Duchess of Palma de Mallorca; the former monarchs of Bulgaria and Romania, Simeon II and Michael I. Heads of government from Austria and Georgia were joined by president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek.