The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times
By Eduard Habsburg.
Sophia Institute Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 176 pages, $19.95.

Reviewed by David G. Bonagura, Jr.

What makes the Habsburgs, rulers for six centuries of the Holy Roman Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so popular among American conservatives? Why would an imperial family find adulation in a nation born from rejecting a king?

As American culture and politics have been shaken from their Christian moorings, traditional conservatives have sought models, past and present, where Christianity animates political and social life. Many of the Habsburg emperors, from Maximilian I and Charles V in the early years to Franz Josef and Karl at the end, embodied this ideal through their open Catholic piety and capable political leadership. The personal sanctity, magnanimity, and humility of Karl, in particular, who, upon inheriting the throne in 1916, sacrificed public prestige in pursuit of peace for Europe, has captured the imagination of Catholics disgusted by American politicians’ lust for self-aggrandizement. Add to this that Karl lost his empire through the new world order fantasies of President Woodrow Wilson, whom media personality Glenn Beck has repeatedly ridiculed as the first on his “Top Ten Bastards of All Time” list (ahead of Pontius Pilate and Pol Pot), and the Habsburgs are suddenly glorified as victims sacrificed on the altar of progressive internationalism, which, by creating a power vacuum in central Europe with Karl’s exile, paved the way for Hitler and World War II.

But there is something deeper. The ideal of the heroic monarch, surrounded by castles, court trappings, and military might, speaks to the imagination from a young age in cinema (e.g., The Lion King) and in print (e.g., The Chronicles of Narnia), and it continues through adulthood (King Arthur, The Princess Bride). Such fantasies are easy to indulge because the imagined monarchs, for all their evil-slaying power, have no claim over us. The same goes for the Habsburgs: the ill-fated reign of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (1864-1867) notwithstanding, they never have nor ever will make a claim that touches American life or law. This explains why they are more popular in America than in Europe, where they once claimed tremendous quantities of territory under their double eagle banner. Now, over a century removed from the throne and from governing controversies, because the Habsburgs lack political power, they have been able to gain cultural prestige through their legacy. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Habsburg failures and sins have been confined to dusty tomes that no one reads; most people know only what they stood for. A mystique has thus built up around them so that they appear to modern Americans as Aslan or Aragorn, champions of a bygone era whose virtues will somehow redeem a vicious modern age. 

Unlike the innovative claims of early Habsburg rulers—that the family descended from Noah and Aeneas, that Julius Caesar had elevated Austria into an archduchy, that the Golden Fleece of Jason and the Pillars of Hercules incorporated into the monarchy’s symbolism herald continuity with ancient greatness—today’s Habsburg mystique stems from real history. Yet this mystique receives its enticing power from the family’s ideals more so than its accomplishments; though the latter are considerable (in the sixteenth century, the sun never set on the Habsburg empire, which straddled four continents), the former are more compelling because they touch the imagination. Archduke Eduard Habsburg, Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta, has woven this interplay of ideals and history into “seven key rules” that “would greatly improve our contemporary world” if they were adopted by our leaders today. Charming and candid, The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times exhorts us with historical vignettes, some serious and others humorous, to strive after the same ideals that Mr. Habsburg’s family has stood for since Rudolph I became king of the Holy Roman Empire in 1273. 

These seven rules are hardly innovative. In fact, as emanations of the Permanent Things, they are timeless. Yet they are now profoundly countercultural in a secular and individualistic age, and, as such, they serve as fresh encouragement to live in a “new way.” “The Habsburgs were slow to change, stood for continuity and traditional values, and (with the exception of Joseph II) stand for the values of their fathers as a matter of honor.” The achievements—and failures—of emperors and empresses through many centuries sprinkle these time-tested rules with a venerable pedigree at which modern arrogance can only snicker—because it is powerless to offer a significant rejoinder. 

The first rule, “Get Married (and Have Lots of Children),” has been a foreign concept for Europeans for decades and for Americans more recently. From the dashing marriage of “the last knight,” Maximilian I, to Mary of Burgundy (which peacefully added this wealthy land to the empire), to the heroism of Empress Maria Theresia keeping the dynasty alive by giving birth to sixteen children while ruling, to the mutual sacrifices of Karl and Zita in war and in exile, marriage, Mr. Habsburg assures us, is not primarily about romance (“while wonderful, it is slightly overrated in our times”), but “about serving each other—and helping each other into Heaven.”

The second rule provides both context and motivation to live out this vision of marriage: “Be Catholic (and Practice Your Faith).” Mr. Habsburg is not quite proselytizing, though he asks for indulgence “if I am occasionally not as diplomatic or ecumenical as usual.” His reason is simple: “I am writing from the heart.” His goal is “to focus on certain individuals and historical periods that best illustrate how the Habsburgs let their Catholic faith influence their lives”—a feat that American politicians of all religions routinely reject. His goal is not to reestablish Catholic confessional states in Europe, or establish one for the first time in America, though he warns that a false conception of the separation of church and state, now “a Western dogma,” has gone too far. Rather, his vignettes show how religion improves the well-being of individuals and society by giving them meaning, purpose, and morals. He admits that in the throes of the Protestant Reformation, when Catholic Europe needed the Habsburgs the most, the emperors were “weak sauce.” Emperor Joseph II, extolled in American textbooks as one of the three “Enlightened Despots” of the eighteenth century, receives repeated scorn for attacking, and forcibly ending, much of Austrian monastic and devotional life. 

On the surface, the remaining rules ring as if they only apply to monarchs—“Believe in the Empire”; “Stand for Law and Justice”; “Be Brave in Battle”—but Mr. Habsburg concludes each chapter by illustrating how these principles apply to our own lives, in whatever state we find ourselves and in the midst of whatever small-scale battles we must fight: defend the rights of local government; treat employees and subordinates with love and respect; endure the trials God sends us. The fifth rule, “Know Who You Are (and Live Accordingly)” offers poignant advice to those who feel modernity’s pressure to be unique: “Knowing who you are gives you sovereignty over yourself. It will give you the confidence not to be swayed by fleeting fads, but to follow the truth—about yourself and God. The alternative is the empty aimlessness that torments so many and characterizes so much of modern life.”

The final rule, “Die Well (and Have a Memorable Funeral)” recounts the famous “knocking ritual” for Habsburg funerals, perhaps the greatest single practice that has contributed to the Habsburg mystique. In these evocative tales we see the goal toward which all seven rules are directed: to love, honor, and serve God in this life so that we may be happy forever with Him in the next. “Even if many Habsburg rulers were imperfect Catholics, Christ came to save sinners. And that is a very hopeful thought.” The Habsburg Way offers grand examples to emulate—and to avoid—so that we sinners, imagining ourselves as leaders, however flawed, may share that same hope of salvation.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is the religion editor of The University Bookman. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenge of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated