“Because we have the truth,” replied Otto von Habsburg when I asked him why he was convinced that Europe would return to the Christian faith. In light of the ongoing political secularization and the influx of non-Christian immigration in Europe, I, a Catholic and European (from Germany), was understandably concerned. The manner of his response made a deep impression on me. It was sovereign and serene, and filled with a glowing, inspiring hope—a hope anchored in an unwavering faith in Christ and His Church.
He was once asked to give an interview for a documentary about the Capuchin Crypt in Vienna, also called the Imperial Crypt, where the Habsburg emperors are put to their rest. When the cameras went out, he put aside the historian and turned to the reporter. “You know,” he said, “I dislike being in the crypt. Every time I go, I feel like the Capuchin monks eye me up and down, taking note of my measurements.”
On July 4, the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal and the day of American Independence, Otto von Habsburg died at the age of 98 in his home in Pöcking, Bavaria, Germany.
Upon receiving this sad news, my thoughts immediately returned to our conversation in 2007. The audience was scheduled for forty-five minutes. After two hours, tea, German pastries, and several kind reminders by his personal secretary, we finally parted. My wife and I felt rejuvenated in hope and faith, and filled with great admiration and love for this man who was wholeheartedly a guardian and servant of the common good, a Catholic steward, seemingly of another age. We looked at each other and realized the tremendous privilege we had just been given.
I confess I had never been with a person who exuded such humility, kindness, and charity yet strength and determination and steadfastness. His countenance revealed a deep, human wisdom elevated by the divine. The nobility of his character was crowned with a genuine joy for life—and a sense of humor.
Otto von Habsburg was the oldest son of the last reigning Habsburg Emperor and King of Hungary, Blessed Karl I and his wife Empress Zita, by birth princess of the house of Bourbon-Parma.
In 1918, the multi-ethnic empire of Austria-Hungary collapsed under the centrifugal forces of nationalism and movements for national self-determination. Within a year the monarchy gave way to the Austrian republic. Barred by the Habsburg Laws from returning to Austria, Emperor Karl died three years later in exile, at the age of 34. The Habsburg Laws barred Otto’s return to Austria as well unless he gave up his claim to the throne (he did so eventually in 1961).
The experience of his father’s death formed Otto von Habsburg for life. In 1922 Emperor Karl had become ill with pneumonia and influenza. When he realized he was dying, he called his son, then ten years old, to his bedside to say goodbye and to show him “how a Catholic and Emperor conducts himself when dying.” He received the last rites—the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist, of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick—and, kissing a crucifix, prayed: “Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes—yes. My Jesus, Thy Will be done—Jesus.”
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, has recognized Otto von Habsburg as “a great European of deep Catholicity.” Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, recalled his tireless defense of the Catholic faith and the dignity and sanctity of human life. His father, the Cardinal continued, “instilled in him from an early age that the office of a ruler is one of holy service and selfless sacrifice for the good of the peoples entrusted to him.” Late in life Otto von Habsburg agreed to become a patron of the Dignitas Humanae Institute, an organization which advocates man’s dignity be recognized definitively by his creation in the image and likeness of God.
Among the long list of efforts and achievements of Otto von Habsburg’s remarkable life, his orchestration of Austrian resistance to Hitler while in exile in the United States is of special note. It was no coincidence that Hitler had named the plans to annex Austria “Project Otto.” Then, during World War II, von Habsburg helped numerous Jews to escape the Holocaust. Throughout his life Otto von Habsburg fought against any form of totalitarianism and contributed to bringing down the Iron Curtain in 1989.
As member of the European Parliament and as president of the Pan-European League between 1979 and 1999, Otto von Habsburg labored passionately for a unified Europe. He envisioned not just a political unity, but a spiritual unity. He knew that the future of European and western civilization lay in its Christian past and identity.
His oldest son Karl Habsburg succeeded him in the office of president of the Pan-European League. Karl told Austrian media sources that the loss of his father means the loss of a “towering personality” whose impact in Europe cannot be measured.
On July fourth, Christian Europe lost one of its most ardent defenders. His body will be laid to final rest in the Imperial Crypt next to his wife Regina and his Christian Emperor forefathers. His heart will go to the Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey in Hungary.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.
Denis Kitzinger is pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland). Both he and Karl von Habsburg were once Wilbur Fellows at the Russell Kirk Center.
A eulogy for one of the great defenders of Christian Europe. May he rest in peace.