Blessed Karl of Austria: A Short Biography

By Br. Nathan Cochran, O.S.B.


Resting in the arms of his beloved wife, his breathing labored, he prays: “My Jesus, Thy Will be done—Jesus.” With these words he takes his last breath, and gently meets his Lord and Savior. His lingering illness and suffering is over. The torment of betrayal and rejection is over. It is shortly after noon, on Saturday, April 1, 1922. His name is Karl, a humble, mortal man facing the end of his life with dignity. To his fellow countrymen, he is His Majesty, Karl, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary.


Childhood and Early Adulthood


On August 17, 1887, a son is born to Archduke Otto and Archduchess Maria Josefa in their family home in Persenbeug, Austria. He is named Karl Franz Josef Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Maria. He is the couple’s firstborn, and he is greeted with joy and thanksgiving. The Imperial House of Austria rejoices in the birth of Emperor Franz Josef’s grandnephew, but the rest of the empire barely takes notice—as the newest archduke is far down the line of succession. It is not yet known that a series of tragedies and events will alter his destiny, and that of the empire.


Karl’s childhood is simple and wholesome. He is tutored and attends school at the Schottengymnasium in Vienna. He is taught the Catholic faith, and loves to practice it. He becomes known as a kind and compassionate child, who performs various chores and tasks in an effort to raise money to give to the poor and buy gifts for those around him. As he grows, it becomes apparent that he will follow in his father’s footsteps and become a military man. At the age of 16 Karl is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Imperial Army. He is known as an intelligent and thoughtful young man, someone who is totally loyal and dependable. He is an inspiration to his fellow soldiers and works his way up the ranks, earning various promotions. He is consciously groomed for his future role in the empire, but it is thought that he will not succeed to the throne until after his uncle and father have both reigned—perhaps thirty or forty years in the future.


A Devout Husband and Father


In 1911, when Archduke Karl begins thinking of marriage, he remembers the younger sister
of some of his childhood playmates. Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma is a young, beautiful, vivacious and religiously devout young woman, and Karl’s heart is set on marrying this exceptional woman. Because he is shy around women, he asks for assistance from his step-grandmother—who also happens to be Zita’s aunt—Archduchess Maria Theresa. She arranges a week long hunting party at her estate and invites both of the young people, giving the opportunity for them to meet, talk and get to know one another. Afterwards, Karl takes Zita to the Marian Shrine of Mariazell, where he proposes to her in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and places their engagement under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


Their marriage is set for October 21, 1911 and on the eve before Karl tells his bride: “Now we must help each other get to Heaven.” Their union is blessed with eight children: Otto, Adelheid, Robert, Felix, Karl-Ludwig, Rudolf, Charlotte and Elizabeth. Their family and devotion to God are their first priorities, and they try to live a simple, quiet life, while Karl continues his military career.


A Christian Soldier and Catholic Monarch


On June 28, 1914, word is sent from Sarajevo that the Heir Apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is assassinated, making Karl the new Heir Apparent and changing his life forever. As a consequence of the assassination, war breaks out and quickly engulfs Europe. Karl is called to lead various military actions, and comports himself with valor and honor. He leads victorious efforts on the eastern and southern fronts, and is known for incorporating his moral convictions into his battle plans. In Italy, he commands his officers to avoid needless bloodshed, and "to ensure that the wounded are taken care of as quickly as possible and that the troops are always provided for as well as possible…I forbid the order to take no prisoners…I forbid most emphatically stealing and plundering and wanton destruction. Every soldier in the 20th Corps must be filled with the conviction that we are the bearers of culture, even in the land of traitors."


For Karl, the culture he bears is Christianity, and in the face of being in a war he considers immoral, he insists that he and the army act morally. In the midst of war, Karl is summoned to the side of a weary and elderly Emperor Franz Josef. On November 30, 1916, Karl is near the Emperor’s deathbed praying the rosary with Zita when he hears the words “Your Majesty” addressed to him for the first time. His first priority as Emperor is to bring peace and security back to Europe and his empire. He begins secret peace negotiations through his brother-in-laws, the Princes Sixtus and Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, who are in a position to smuggle letters from Karl to the Entente leaders in France and England. These negotiations occur from November 22, 1916 through February 20, 1917, when a new government in Paris puts a halt to the talks.


He begins a second series of attempts that last until the end of the war. In these negotiations, his Foreign Minister Count Czernin and the French Representative Count Armand, discuss terms in Switzerland. However, these talks come to nothing, and are damaged by the French revelation to the world press of the “Sixtus Affair.” The leak also hurt Karl’s reputation and ability to function as an intermediary in the effort to bring peace to the world.


Pope Benedict XV proposes a plan for peace as well, but only Emperor Karl accepts the Pontiff’s solutions—the other belligerents are intent on continuing the war for their own selfish advantages. With the advent of the United States in the war, President Wilson issues “Fourteen Points” necessary for the war’s conclusion. Karl accepts all of them, but by this time the Entente no longer recognizes him as a legitimate ruler. Although Karl’s attention is focused on peace throughout his reign, the Emperor still has to wage a war that is not of his making, and care for his suffering people. Upon his accession to the throne, he grants a general amnesty.


Militarily he prohibits the fighting of duels, and the practices of flogging and binding wrists to ankles. He despises and forbids the use of mustard gas on the enemy, and the employment of submarine warfare. He orders that soldiers, prisoners, and the wounded must be humanely treated, and creates a great books program for soldiers. Whenever possible he commutes death sentences— both military and civil. Civilly, he organizes soup kitchens, uses the palace’s horses and carriages to deliver coal to the Viennese, he fights against usury and corruption, and gives away his personal wealth— distributing alms beyond his means. He is the first world leader to establish a Ministry of Social Welfare, which is commissioned to deal with youth welfare, the war-disabled, widows, orphans, social insurance, labor rights and protection, job placement, unemployment relief and emigration protection and housing.


Spiritually, Emperor Karl shares in the same privations as his people, and orders the palace to observe food rationing and smaller portions. He invokes the name of God in all decrees and governmental acts, creates a Catholic press, and plans the building of more churches in Vienna to serve the growing needs of the faithful.


Exile, Restoration Attempts and Death


Despite working himself to exhaustion, the war continues to erode the empire until it collapses on November 11, 1918. The war is finally over, but so too is the concord of the Habsburg Empire. Karl is asked to abdicate, but he refuses, stating that his crown is a sacred trust from God, and he will never betray God, his subjects, or his dynastic inheritance. His ministers finally coerce him to withdraw from personal participation in government, and go into seclusion with his family at a family-hunting lodge in Eckartsau. However, the new, socialist government continues to deem Emperor Karl a threat because he has not abdicated; so they send him into exile in Switzerland. In Switzerland the family lives a quiet, humble lifestyle for a time—until the Emperor hears from many of his subjects begging him to return to his Hungarian Kingdom and take the reins of power once more. Karl makes two attempts to regain his throne.


During the first attempt, his regent, Admiral Horthy, persuades the Emperor that the time is not yet auspicious, and that he should return to Switzerland until all of the necessary preparations are made. When it becomes clear that Horthy has betrayed him, and plans to illegally retain power, Karl makes a second attempt, which has the support of the people who appeal to his coronation oath. Furthermore, a “White Terror” against Jews, union members and political opponents is taking place in Hungary. However, Horthy once again betrays his true monarch, arrests him and hands him over to the Entente as a prisoner. Zita accompanies him on the second attempt, and joins him on the long journey into final exile on the island of Madeira.


On Madeira, the Imperial Couple is penniless, without any means to support themselves. Their children, who are initially kept separated from them, do not join their parents for several months. Finally, the family is reunited on February 2, 1922, and the family takes comfort in each other’s presence.


Their joy is short-lived, when a few weeks later Karl becomes ill with pneumonia and influenza. Emperor Karl prays and suffers for several days, saying: “I must suffer like this so that my peoples can come together again.” When he realizes he is dying, he calls his son, Archduke Otto, to his bedside to say goodbye and to show him “how a Catholic and Emperor conducts himself when dying.”


On April 1, 1922, he whispers to his wife, “I long so much to go home with you. Why won’t they let us go home?” She holds him in her arms for most of the morning, and he receives Holy Communion and the Sacrament of the Dying. The Eucharist is exposed in his bedroom, and Karl tries to hold a crucifix in his hands. Shortly after noon, he tries to kiss the crucifix and whispers: “Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes—yes. My Jesus, Thy Will be done— Jesus.” He whispers “Jesus” a final time and expires. The Peace Emperor, husband, father, and man of faith, is dead at the age of 34.