Great European: Otto von Habsburg

The PDU continues its Great European series with Otto von Habsburg, who devoted much of his life to European Integration. By Alois Maderspacher

‘I’m a European,’ answered the heir to the throne of the once mighty Austrian Empire in 1941 when an American journalist asked about his nationality. Otto von Habsburg, indeed, was to become one of the great Europeans of the 20th century, devoting his life to the project of European integration at a time when the Continent was ridden with the deplorable economic and political aftermath of the Second World War and artificially divided between a communist East and a free West by what Winston Churchill had dubbed the Iron Curtain; a division Habsburg neither accepted nor regarded as permanent.

Otto von Habsburg in 2004.

Otto von Habsburg in 2004.

Born in 1912, the son of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Otto von Habsburg saw his destiny not in the role of the eternal pretender reclaiming the lavish palaces and medieval princely and regal crowns his family lost in 1918. Instead, he primarily devoted his adult life to the cause of European integration. What made him a truly European personality from the start was the fact that he was the heir of a multinational central-European empire. When nationalist fervour finally had broken up the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918/19, most of its territory was turned into seven nation states and the remnant parts of which were transferred to six further countries. The counting is a according to today’s map of central Europe. After, Habsburg lived all over Europe. First exiled to Switzerland and Portugal and then to Spain, where he spent his teenage years; he eventually took up his studies in Belgium, earning a doctorate in Political Economy from the University of Leuven. Habsburg was a bitterly opposed to Hitler and hoped to protect Austria from the claws of Nazism. When war broke out in Europe, Habsburg helped thousands of people, many of them Jews, to obtain visas and escape their fate under Nazi rule. Eventually, he himself had to leave for America since the Nazis had sentenced him to death in absentia. After the Second World War, Habsburg finally settled with his family at picturesque Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, Germany, close to his native Austria. While dual citizenship is still hotly debated today, the international Habsburg was ahead of his time, and collected an impressive array of European passports issued by Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Monaco, and the Order of Malta.

Europe needs to ‘grow like a tree’

Though his official political career started only late in life – he was already 66 when he became an MEP –, early on the polyglot public intellectual and prolific author of dozens of books on history and political affairs popularised his vision of a united Europe. He wanted it to ‘grow like a tree and not to be put up like a skyscraper.’ He was an active member and later, from 1973 onwards, president of the International Pan-European Union, the oldest European integration movement. It was founded in the 1920s by his like-minded fellow Habsburg-Austrian countrymen Count Coudenhove Calergi, who was then already working towards the United States of Europe. Eventually, he was among the first directly-elected Members of the European Parliament in 1979, where he played an eminent role as an elder statesmen (though he had in fact never held a political office before) and foreign policy expert for two decades, until 1999.

Habsburg was a devout and steadfast Catholic who saw his religious conviction at the centre of his Weltanschauung. It provided him with a sense of humility and he saw it as a moral counterweight to both communism and fascism. Above all, he considered Christianity ‘the soul of Europe’, a deeply rooted and a unifying force. And yet, ever the cosmopolitan, he promoted tolerance towards Islam as well.

His religious piety and conservatism brought him criticism from the political left. Notably his stand against the division of Europe was under attack at a time when the then German Chancellor Willy Brandt favoured a slow rapprochement to the communist block instead of unwavering opposition towards it.

Neither East nor West – Europe is one

Habsburg, on the other hand, always rejected the division of Europe along the lines drawn at the Yalta Conference in 1945. He was an early advocate for the expansion of the European Community, as it was then called, into central and Eastern Europe. In 1979, he advocated in favour of an ‘empty chair’ during European Parliament sessions to remember the deputies and West-European peoples alike of their brethren suffering under the yoke of the Soviet empire. For him, Europe was one: ‘Who truly wants Europe, can only mean the entire Continent.’ When the time was ripe, he grasped the opportunity. Habsburg’s Pan-European Union helped to organise the famous Pan-European pick nick at the Austrian and Hungarian border near Sopron in August 1989, during which hundreds of East Germans had the chance to flee to the West. This was, indeed, one of the events that marked the beginning of the end of the division of Europe. Naturally, Habsburg became an ardent advocate for the enlargement of the EU to the East in the following years. He laboured hard for this goal of pan-European unification.

The Head of the Imperial House of Habsburg once jocularly mentioned that he could only peacefully die when all of his crown lands were members of the EU. He was almost successful to the end. Shortly before he died in 2011, Croatia, the hitherto last of ‘his’ countries, had permission to be admitted to the European Union and joined in 2013. However, by then, the pretender of the ancient Habsburg crowns had long become one of the godfathers of European integration.

Image: Otto von Habsburg (2004) via Wikipedia, published under Creative Commons 2.0.

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