Death of former 'kaiser in exile' and last heir to Austro-Hungarian throne


OTTO VON Habsburg, final heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, died yesterday aged 98, his family announced.

Mr von Habsburg, who devoted his life to public service, championing the cause of European unification and overcoming Cold War divisions, died in his sleep at his Bavarian home.

“My father was an extraordinary personality and with his passing we have lost a great European,” said his son, Karl von Habsburg, now head of the family.

Amid tributes from around Europe, Austrian condolence messages betrayed the lingering complexity of von Habsburg’s relationship with his homeland, even half a century after he renounced his right of succession.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer called him a “loyal citizen of the republic of Austria” and, in a nod to a prickly past, said the relationship “had developed well in the last decades”.

Otto von Habsburg was only four when his father ascended the throne in 1916 as Kaiser Charles I, only to “renounce participation in affairs of state” two years later at the end of the first World War – in effect ending seven centuries of Habsburg rule in Europe.

The family was exiled to Madeira, where Charles died in 1922. Because his father had never officially abdicated, the nine-year-old Otto succeeded him as kaiser in exile, and the family was forbidden to enter the Austrian republic.

In the early 1930s, von Habsburg championed Austrian resistance to the Nazis, refused invitations to meet Hitler and, in an effort to head off looming annexation, offered to become Austrian chancellor.

“The darkest day of the century for me was the 12th of March 1938 when Austria vanished [into the Third Reich],” he said later. “Many believed that it was the end.” He was evacuated to the US during the second World War, though he returned in the postwar years and entered politics. At 67 he entered the European Parliament for the Bavarian Christian Social Union, serving for 20 years.

A staunch Catholic, one of his most famous interventions occurred when Ian Paisley heckled Pope John Paul II during a 1988 visit to the Strasbourg parliament. Snatching Paisley’s banner reading “John Paul II: Anti-Christ”, von Habsburg helped eject Paisley from the chamber.

Regina, his wife of 59 years, predeceased him last year. He is survived by seven children, 22 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He will be buried in the Habsburg family crypt in Vienna; in line with family tradition, his heart will be buried in Hungary.