Mixed feelings as Austria bids farewell to the last of the Habsburgs


Austrians felt a mixture of clashing emotions as Otto von Habsburg was buried at 98

IN THE cool, dry air of a Vienna crypt, Austria will today agree an uneasy truce with the late Otto von Habsburg, the man who would be kaiser.

After nearly a century connecting the old European order with the new, Dr von Habsburg, who died last week aged 98, will be laid to rest beside his illustrious forebears as Austria debates once more the unfinished business of their vanished empire.

Today’s funeral lowers the final curtain on the Habsburg dynasty, that using a strategic mix of wars and weddings held together a cosmopolitan mosaic of central European peoples for over six centuries.

His father, Charles, was the last Habsburg to ascend the imperial throne in 1916; two years later, the empire broke apart after defeat in the first World War and the last kaiser relinquished the throne without formally abdicating.

After two restoration attempts failed in the new Austrian republic, Charles died in exile in 1922. His widow, Zita, princess of Bourbon-Parma, raised Otto in exile as the rightful head of the empire, part of which would soon vanish into the Third Reich, and part, eventually, behind the Iron Curtain.

After the second World War, von Habsburg settled near Munich and campaigned for European unification, sitting for two decades in the European Parliament.

In the humid, heavy air of Vienna’s Capuchin friary chapel yesterday, visitors paid their respects at his coffin, draped with the yellow and black family colours; adjacent, the coffin of his wife Regina, who died a year ago.

“The Habsburg throne lives on forever/the unification of Austria’s good fortune,” wrote one mourner in a condolence book, quoting the imperial anthem. Another wrote: “With your death a historical era has ended.”

Habsburg’s death has revived old divisions in Austria: the wave of sympathy in rural areas and regional cities has thrown off guard the liberal establishment in Vienna, Austria’s traditionally left-wing capital. For many Austrians, the name Habsburg was the trigger for the first World War, the end of which contained the germ of the second. Historian Karl Vocelka dismissed as “inappropriate” the scale of today’s funeral in St Stephen’s Cathedral, to be attended by Austrian and European political leaders and European royalty.

Habsburg’s six children view the event as “natural and normal”. “People want to say farewell to the head of a family that played such a huge role in Austrian history,” daughter Walburga von Habsburg-Douglas, a deputy in the Swedish parliament, told The Irish Times. “It’s about people coming to terms with their history and the many open questions – what might and might not have happened.”

For prominent newspaper columnist Anneliese Rohrer, the Habsburg funeral is an “escapist fantasy” in troubled economic times that is “inherently dishonest”. “If Austrians really want all that back they should give back the Habsburg property,” she said, “but no one is calling for that.” A 1930s compensation agreement for seized Habsburg property was later reneged upon and the family forbidden from entering the country.

“Many Austrians feel a certain shame over the manner in which the family was treated after the first World War,” said Dr Declan Downey, UCD historian and Habsburg specialist. In addition to today’s “nostalgic indulgence in a dynastic funeral”, he suggests, lies a feeling that something is missing in today’s political class. “There is very little evidence of real leadership with vision and purpose,” he said. “Perhaps as a far-sighted MEP, Otto is candidate for the leadership that Europe never had.”

Present euro zone worries mixed with monarchy memories outside Vienna’s Capuchin friary yesterday. “At a time of so much bad news in Europe, I think people sense that, at its best, a monarchy brings with it a neutrality and continuity,” said Harald Sorger of the monarchist Black-Yellow Alliance.

In the crypt, visitors filed past seven centuries of continuity, decorative Habsburg sarcophagi up to Emperor Franz-Josef and Empress Elisabeth, the beloved Sissi. “For many of us, the Habsburgs are a connection to a time when Austria enriched the world – a vanished greatness that still pains us,” said Erika Rauscher from Salzburg, before the two empty marble plinths to be filled today. “Without being sentimental, I think many people miss in public life today a feeling of continuity and dignity the Habsburgs once represented.”

At heaven's door: A prince, politician and mortal seeks admission

AFTER A requiem at Vienna’s St Stephen’s Cathedral, the funeral party will enter Vienna’s Capuchin Friary (Kapuzinerkirche) after the following “knocking" ceremony.


Capuchin Friar: “Who desires admission?”

Leader of funeral party: “Otto of Austria, former Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, Prince Royal of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, Modena, Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Osweicim and Zator, of Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trento and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria: Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and Windic March; Grand Voivod of the Voivodship of Serbia”

Friar: “We do not know him!”


Friar: “Who desires admission?”

Leader : “Dr Otto von Habsburg; President and Honorary President of the Pan-European Union; Member and Father of the House of the European Parliament; Holder of honorary doctorates from countless universities and freeman of many communities in Central Europe; Member of numerous noble academies and institutes; Bearer of high and highest awards, decorations and honours of church and state made to him in recognition of his decade-long struggle for the freedom of peoples, for right and justice.”

Friar:“We do not know him!”


Friar: “Who desires admission?”

Leader : “Otto — a mortal, sinful man!”

Friar:“Let him be admitted.