The long life and turbulent times of Otto von Habsburg, one of history’s greatest ‘what ifs’, dead at 98.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

History is littered with ‘what ifs’ that make us wonder about the history we got, rather than the history which we so nearly got… and would have changed so much.

What if Lincoln had completed his second term?

What if “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne had crushed the Continental Army at Saratoga in 1777, thereby ensuring British victory?

What if Jesus had not been crucified?

And, today’s particular query, “What if the Austro-Hungarian empire had survived World War I, the succession descending in the usual order from Emperor Charles I to, in due course, his first-born son, Otto von Habsburg? This is one of the most important “what ifs” ever… and one that determined the fate of most of Europe… and the United States.

The Habsburg dynasty ruled the ever changing territories of what was not so much a nation as a consortium of real estate. Over time, the Habsburgs moved ahead, more successful at marriage for bountiful acquisitions than war.

Many nations coveted various pieces of the empire… but all recognized the significance of Austria, first as a bulwark against the Turks whose breathtaking advances were stopped once and for all at the walls of Vienna (1683)… later as a wall stopping the Russians from further advances, each of which made the other great monarchies of Europe profoundly nervous.

There was more, much more of equally immense significance… Austria lead the coalition that ultimately defeated and exiled Napoleon, despite the fact that its Chancellor (Prince Klemens von Metternich) had with consummate gall and cynicism married an Austrian princess to Bonaparte, to delude him into thinking they had an alliance. They didn’t… and in 1815 Vienna was the center of Europe, to the complete irritation of la belle France and its second-rate dynasties.

But the great empire, pieces constantly added, pieces constantly ceded, pieces constantly rearranged, had a multiplicity of the most severe problems, not the least of which was their long-term alliance with the new German Empire (1879). This alliance, devolved into the wrong hands, and when it did the fate of Otto von Habsburg, the last crown prince of the empire, was sealed

The imperial succession after Emperor Francis Joseph took the throne (1848) was a nightmare, puzzling to every Austrian child, murky and incomprehensible to the few in Europe who take pains to sort it out. Francis Joseph’s brother was killed (June, 1867) per order Benito Juarez after an ill-advised attempt to become Emperor of Mexico. His son Rudolph, crown prince; committed suicide (1889). The next in order, Franz Ferdinand, was killed at Sarajevo in 1914, launching was became the holocaust of the First World War.

That holocaust need never have happened… and wouldn’t had Prince Otto von Bismarck remained German Chancellor… but the young Kaiser Wilhelm II dropped the pilot and commenced the process that resulted in Europe in ruins and millions of people dead.

All unnecessary…. the combined fault of Austria and the German Empire. The last of the great powers to need a war in 1914 was Austria. An ill-assorted hodge-podge with ramshackle systems, Austria needed peace… and could have had it even after the next heir, Franz Ferdinand, was killed by anti-Austrian terrorists.

But the Austrian military wanted war… and the German Empire backed her to the hilt, causing Bismarck to spin in his grave… and millions of others to go prematurely to theirs.

Into this world Otto von Habsburg, crown prince of the empire after his father succeeded in 1916, was born. Imperial to his fingertips, he was one of the most important children in the world, a prince descended from 650 years of princes, certain (so he believed) of his future and place in the world.

Unlike many imperial heirs before him, Otto grew up in a devoted family. He knew his parents, the last Emperor Charles and the Empress Zita, well; his was a truly loving and affectionate family, a fact that helped the displaced Family von Habsburg get through the difficult days ahead, when they lost an empire, but not each other.

From the moment in 1914 when Franz Ferdinand was killed, he became the heir presumptive to an aged monarchy with an aging monarch, the good Emperor Charles wanted peace… he knew that Austria desperately needed it… and its people were clamoring for it without surcease.

But just how he could get peace eluded him. The Germans, his allies, let it be known that any attempt by Austria to end the alliance and conclude a separate peace with the Western allies would result in an immediate German invasion of Austria. Since Germany remained in a position to do this right through the fateful summer of 1918, Charles and Zita, and Otto with them, was stymied, unable to break free of their always more powerful partner, until death do them part.

President Woodrow Wilson made the problem more difficult for the old monarchy and its brand-new monarchs, in his famous Fourteen Points, supporting as they did the cause of nationality as the basis of nations. It was to provide the death knell of the empire… and to many decades as a stateless imperial heir for Otto von Habsburg who continued to claim his royal and imperial thrones until 1961.

His father, the Emperor Charles I died young and exhausted in 1922; the 9 year-old Otto succeeded to the imperial crown dignities… and entirely new political realities… the first being that no one wanted Habsburgs in their territories. And so Otto became a nomad, often a person of political consequence, but not enough to retrieve any of his titles and high standing.

However this one-time crown prince of a famous empire, wanted to be of use. And so he began to champion the cause of a united Europe, a subject on which any Habsburg, and particularly this Habsburg, would be expected to expatiate at length and with intelligence. His ex-imperial and apostolic majesty did so, becoming the most useful, practical and educated of all the Habsburgs. At various times he served the interests of Germany, the United States, Spain, always Austria and Hungary… but most importantly of Europe, which he saw as a development from the multi-national empire he would have ruled and which he wanted to see strong, prosperous, a force for civilized values worldwide.

Now this man born a great imperialist, who became a great European, is dead. And an era truly ends. Given their unending suspicions about what this entirely intellectual, scholarly man might do, therefor delivering a multitude of irritations, the Republic of Austria might have been expected to make difficulties about the burial. But apparently on the proposition that the only good Habsburg is a dead Habsburg, they allowed Dr. Otto von Habsburg to be buried among all the generations of his ancestors, in the Vienna Capuchin Church, a curiosity in life, a curiosity in death.

But remember this…

Had he ruled, millions might have stayed alive and prospered. And that is why he will always be one of the great “what ifs” of history. It is more than a pity that he never had the chance to reign… for the ones who took his place made such a dog’s dinner of it all, starting with Woodrow Wilson.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is . at , providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.


I have been marketing online for 30 years helping people do it right with education, and list building tools and procedures.