All things considered, Otto von Habsburg was pretty modest. Had history turned out differently he would have been Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Born in 1912 he had memories, just, of the old world destroyed by the First World War. Aged four, he had walked with his parents behind the coffin of his grandfather, Emperor Franz Josef, who had reigned for 68 years, the final crescendo of the Habsburg Empire and a dynasty that had ruled for six and a half centuries. Succeeding to the throne, Otto’s father, Karl, had to play a dreadful hand. On the losing side at the end of the First War, Austria had the makings of revolution. The British King George V was haunted by the recent assassination of his Romanov cousins by the Bolsheviks, and he sent a train to rescue the Habsburgs. Otto was nine when his father died in exile, and he became head of the house, with a few loyalists calling him “Your Majesty.”
Otto learnt the main European languages, and could speak Latin, appropriate for the devout Catholic that he was. He hated Hitler, who hated him in return. Otto spent the Second World War in Washington, and had contact with President Roosevelt. Then he hated the Communists and they hated him. He never raised his voice, he had humdrum looks not improved by the spectacles he wore, but in his presence you knew that he had natural authority and would always do what he thought right. It was impossible to avoid imagining how much better and safer the world would have been if he were still ruling Austria.
The Habsburg Empire comprised sixteen different nationalities, and the Emperors always tried to find some way of avoiding national strife by constructing over-arching institutions that would make unity out of diversity. It didn’t work, it couldn’t be done. Otto became a member of the European parliament in Brussels, and for twenty years pursued the old illusion of unity there. The attempt to put together incompatible nations had ruined Austria as it must ruin the Brussels experiment. Croatia had been a Habsburg possession, and at the end of his life he was lobbying for it to join the EU. It seemed magnificently stubborn that he was so concerned with a country he might have ruled, and still refusing to learn what ought to have been the lesson of so long ago. He was 98 when he died. R.I.P.