In 2000, when the Queen Mother — that’s to say, the mum of Queen Elizabeth II — turned 100, Her Majesty’s Government in Ottawa decided to give her a special centennial birthday present and induct her into the Order of Canada. I forget whom else they honored that year — Celine Dion? William Shatner? Whoops, my mistake. It was Sarah McLachlan, and the sinister transnationalist Maurice Strong. I remember saying at the time that, if you’ve been crowned Empress of India, being made a Companion of the Order of Canada might seem a bit of a comedown for the woman who has — or had — everything.
But the House of Windsor are the great survivors of European royalty.
Americans rarely consider, two-and-a-third centuries after the revolution, how monarchical much of the Americas remains — not just Canada, but Bermuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize, just to stick with the Bs. After the upheavals of the Great War, the Continental dynasties — all cousins-in-law, to one degree or another, of the Queen Mum — had it tougher. Hitler considered restoring the Kaiser but concluded he didn’t need him. The Bolsheviks murdered the Romanovs and left behind little more than a perennial tabloid space-filler about a supposed escapee: In my theatrical days, I used to get sent with numbing regularity scripts for unproduced musicals about the Grand Duchess Anastasia, usually opening in a Paris restaurant with prancing waiters hurling skewers of flaming kebabs back and forth. The Ottoman throne? I believe the current pretender is a retired New York librarian.
And then there was Otto von Habsburg, last Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sometime National Review contributor (a 1962 cover story on de Gaulle), who died the other day at the age of 98, and was buried in Austria, except for his heart, which (in keeping with Habsburg tradition) was buried in Hungary. His father lost his thrones in Vienna and Budapest, and his son made the best of it. The rightful Holy Roman Emperor, he ended his days as a member of the European Union’s ghastly pseudo-parliament, which, even in her dotage, the Queen Mother was never reduced to. For what it’s worth, Archduke Otto liked it. Born the heir to the prototype incoherent multicultural Euro-entity, he ended his days a lusty cheerleader for its even more preposterous successor.
A long life reminds us of how short history is: Franz Josef, the Great War, Béla Kun, Admiral Horthy, Anschluss, another war, The Third Man, the Warsaw Pact, the Hungarian uprising, the transnationalization of Vienna, the fall of the Iron Curtain — the great churning tides of fate wash in and out, and through it all old Otto’s still there, still hanging in, even as his very surname labels him as yesterday’s man.
Anybody who lives long enough undergoes some sense of cultural dislocation, but most of us don’t bear the burthen of enough history to get too hung up about it. These days Continentals live especially in the present tense. Indeed, the entire European Union project is devoted to the proposition: Cast off the past, forget the future, hold the moment — “Linger awhile, how fair thou art,” in the words of Goethe’s Faust. If you were born in Mitteleuropa a subject of the Emperor and lived through Nazism and Communism, Iron Guards and people’s republics, why wouldn’t you feel that way?
But it’s different for the Emperor. Your expectations about power and place endure for centuries. And then one day all the assumptions are cast to the wind, and they never come back. Post-imperial Germany, Russia, and Turkey became something other. But post-imperial Austria is Austria without a point — if not Hamlet without the Prince, then The Merry Widow without music. Back in the Nineties, Michael Kunze, Europe’s boffo German-language librettist, wrote a rock opera about the Empress Elisabeth, Otto’s grandmother, murdered by an anarchist. “The Habsburg monarchy is still alive here,” I remember him telling me in Vienna. “If you walk around this city, if you talk to people, they talk about Elisabeth and Franz Josef as if they were relatives who’ve just gone” — and could always be invited back.
Adapting better than most dispossessed sovereigns, Otto von Habsburg, relic of the past, reinvented himself as man of the future. Yet, even in his modish enthusiasms, he was behind the times. The united Europe he foresaw in that National Review cover story would be “immune to Communism because it is Western and Christian.” Today Eurocrats use the phrase “post-Christian Europe” approvingly, and proponents of the EU’s ersatz constitution vetoed any reference in the preamble even to the Continent’s Christian past. A former Swedish deputy prime minister dismissed any such claim as “a joke” and a French Socialist sneered that it was “absurd.”
So much for “Christian.” As for “Western,” the empires have gone but the old Habsburg/Ottoman fault line that did so much to make the Balkans such a lively place has shifted west. Shortly after 9/11, I was in Vienna, and went to a maternity store a stone’s throw from the Hofburg: Every expectant mother in there wore a Muslim covering of one kind or another. Austria is one of the few European countries whose government statistics office measures religion: The fertility rate for Muslims is over twice as high as for non-Muslims. Protestant women have on average only 1.21 children; non-religious Austrian women have only 0.86 of a child. According to the Vienna Institute of Demography, by mid-century a majority of Austrians under 15 will be Muslim. This is a country that not so long ago was 90 percent Catholic. But “not so long ago” is another country: Salzburg, 1938, singing nuns, Julie Andrews — “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Salzburg, 2038: How do you solve a problem like sharia? Post-monarchical Europe threw away the assumptions of hereditary continuity not just for the Habsburgs, but for the general population, too.
Permanence is the illusion of every age. Dispossessed kings understand that better than most. But so should we all.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline. (www.steynonline.com).