The Pan-European

Born a Crown Prince, Raised in Exile, Otto Habsburg Has Been A Witness to the Many Horrors and Hopes of the 20th Century; Webster Prof. Gregory Weeks Crashes His 95th Birthday Party

Otto Habsburg-Lothringen, 95, born under the imperial monarchy | Photo: NVP

Prof. Gregory Weeks was determined to take part in the reception at the Haus der Industrie in Vienna on Nov. 19, given in honor of the 95th birthday of Otto Habsburg, the son of the last emperor of Austria. A historian by training, Weeks was eager to see for himself a man, born a prince and raised an exile, whose life stands witness to the broad span of 20th century change.

Entering the Haus der Industrie on Schwarzenbergplatz, Weeks gazed up at the glorious marbled stairs and walls trimmed in gold in the glow of the chandeliers, at the red carpet rolled out for the former heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by today’s Princes of Commerce. He brushed some imagined lint from his lapel, squared his shoulders and headed in.

He was stopped by an usher. Could he be so kind as to show his invitation? Weeks tried to bluff: a call from a colleague…, working on a project…. The man put up his hand. “The paper invitation is required, sir.” Weeks retreated to a seat downstairs near the building’s entrance, hoping to see the friend who had invited him or someone else he knew. He sat calmly in the nearly empty entrance hall as the latecomers trickled in through the entrance and up the stairs. He picked out Alois Mock, Austrian Foreign Minister from 1987 to 1995, who with Hungarian Guyla Horn had cut through the barbed wire fence of the Iron Curtain at Sopron on the Austrian-Hungarian border on June 27, 1989, allowing waiting crowds of East Germans to escape to Austria and thus speeding the end of communism in the so-called “Pan-European Picknick.”  Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Mock shuffled slowly along, leaning on his wife’s arm, in spite of all, still a man of stature.

At last, Weeks spotted an acquaintance, the artist Ernst Fuchs, with whom he had worked in the past. He quickly walked up and greeted him, and absorbed in animated conversation with Fuchs, passed unimpeded up the stairs and into the gilded 19th century hall.

Political labels can be a dangerous thing, as became readily clear that evening in the case of Otto Habsburg, for whom the usual categories of conservative or liberal are not particularly helpful. He considers himself a “pan-European,” a supporter of the unification of Europe, attitudes he held long before any EU Treaty in Lisbon had ever been signed.

“If we succeed in uniting Europe, we will finally have world peace,” Dr. Habsburg told the assembled quests. While noticeably frail and a bit shorter than he once was, Habsburg still stands erect and with vigor remarkable for his age, or even in someone a decade younger.

On the next day, Nov. 20, his actual birthday, he would celebrate in the Bosnian cities of Banja Luka and Sarajevo, where the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered the beginning of World War I. It was a way of re-affirming bonds across time, tragedy and religion – this last he finds too often overlooked in the importance of its contemporary social and cultural role.

“Religion is one of the most important elements on our path to a united Europe,” Habsburg said, “a weapon against totalitarianism and the filth of everyday politics.” Instead of avoiding the issue, especially now as the gap between Islam and Christianity seems to be growing, he sought to underscore its central importance, seeing a strong set of religious morals and values as a stronghold against the abuse of power and corruption.

The son of the last emperor, Karl I, and his wife Zita, Otto Habsburg saw the downfall of the 700-year monarchy, was exiled abroad, taken by his parents first to Switzerland and then to Spain. His assets confiscated, he was forbidden to re-enter Austria for decades. In the face of all this, one would have thought he would have turned his back on politics and the idea of a multicultural union called Europe. Instead he dedicated his life to creating a united Europe. He became an EU parliamentarian and president of the PAN-European Union, and a living symbol of an unshaken belief in a multi-cultured society.

Did he regret the lost Empire?  Well he did sometimes find the sessions of the EU Parliament interminable, going on for hours and ending nowhere…

“If it continues like this, I’ll become a monarchist in my old age!” he once joked after a gruelling session of Parliament.

Having witnessed the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the founding of the First Republic, the murder of Chancellor Dollfuß, the rise and eventual fall of Hitler and Austria’s – and all of Europe’s – resurrection from the post-war rubble, he has never lost his vision of a cooperative Europe conceived and joined and as a confederated union.

After all, this was the Habsburg ideal, the liberal tolerance of Emperor Franz Josef’s Vielvölkerstaat – his multi-cultured nation, considered more civilized and more open at the end of the 19th century, for example, than their neighbors to the north. But that might have been predictable.

“There were diligent Habsburgs long before there were virtuous Prussians,” Habsburg teased in an interview for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on September 15.

Otto Habsburg might be called the model for a “true European.” Speaking seven languages, he switched on this evening elegantly and effortlessly from German into French and Spanish in his speech, and offstage into English with the Grand Mufti of Sarajevo.

“A clear language and way of speaking is of crucial importance,” he stressed, basic to communication and, ultimately to understanding – especially, in these times of increasing nationalism and political jealousies. Nationalism at its worst means separation, that emphasizes the differences between cultures rather than what they share.

Otto Habsburg has spent his life fighting against intolerance and for a united Europe. For a historian like Weeks, it was certainly a great moment and one that speaks volumes about how far Europe has come in Habsburg’s lifetime.

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