Charles. The emperor who became an exile

Even this term "exile" does not fit his fate, because it is too solemn, too royal. "Exile" is a word that fits the fate of John Without Earth, the Byzantine Justinian II, or possibly Polish Boleslaw the Bold. A lofty tower, a tawny owl, knights trudging through snow or sand, everything as if from a romanticised engraving - I can understand, this is how one can go into exile. But to die, coughing in a damp room, looking at inadequate curtains, a pregnant wife, a poorly gilded crucifix and the first-born, a nine-year-old who tries valiantly to stop his chin from trembling? How unromantic. Perhaps that's what his martyrdom was all about.

Dynamic reactions, avidly studied by physicists, do not have to be just explosions: a spring that has been under tension for too long can fire (and kill) with the same force as TNT if one of the clamps is loose, or steam in an overheated boiler that has found a crack. During the 68 years of Franz Joseph's reign, the Austro-Hungarian Empire - as described with pain and delight by his most faithful authors, such as Joseph Roth - looked more and more like a weakening hitch, a steam-driven cauldron, a dam behind which the waters were piling up: with all its might it held back the onslaught of modernity.

This is not to say that it was some fairytale, artificially medieval land, a frosted Neuschwanstein castle. Yes, it had telephones, a radio and X-rays, Dr Freud solved complexes between cigar puffs, and dozens of avant-garde painters and musicians flourished in the heart of Vienna. But in Schönbrunn Palace, as in the past, parades of cuirassiers were held and thousands of candles burned, the Supreme Lord rode into parliament in a carriage drawn by four Lipizzaners, and the lives of the ladies of the court were regulated by 17th-century etiquette.

This world lasted through a great effort of will, like the imaginary kingdoms created by the Father in the stories of Bruno Schulz, yet another heir to the Empire. And, as in Schulz's stories, when the will ran out, everything suddenly went grey, the dam collapsed, the cauldron burst - and the new, less than thirty-year-old Emperor found himself unexpectedly in a world of war-gas, loans, blackmail, strikes and traitors.

Maybe a bishopric, maybe a regiment

He did not expect this. To be honest, today we don't really know what he expected: one of a dozen or so archdukes from a family that, although afflicted by suicide (Rudolf), terrorist coups (Elisabeth), firing squads (Maximilian), rickets and scrofula, was branched out enough so that there was no shortage of contenders.
Charles I - or rather, at the time, Karl Franz Josef Ludwig Hubert Georg Maria - and Zita Bourbon-Parmenian - de facto Zita Maria delle Grazie Adelgonda Micaela Raffaela Gabriella Giuseppina Antonia Luisa Agnese. Photo by Carl Pietzner - Carl Pietzner, Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6803883
It was expected that after the longest reign of Franz Joseph I Archduke Rudolf would sit on the throne, the next in line was Archduke Charles Louis, and after his death in 1886 - Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Charles could count on several titles, a few orders and palaces, a beautiful wife from a princely family (he got her - Zita, from an impoverished side line of the Bourbons, and after her mother from the Portuguese Bragança dynasty), maybe a few regiments to command.

So, too, the Archduke's education, solid but without fireworks: private teachers (for experimental classes in physics and chemistry, however, he attended the state grammar school), several years of officer service in the Czech garrisons, three years of law studies at Charles University in Prague, but without pretensions to a scientific or military career.

The shots fired in Sarajevo, which ended the 19th century, the existence of several empires and the primacy of Europe in the world, changed his fate too: after the death of Archduke Ferdinand, he became heir to the throne overnight. But who was to train him to navigate the Central European empire when suddenly the world began to collapse? Ministers, scattering like panicked ants? The generals, years too late trying to rearm the army from lances to carbines? Or the 84-year-old emperor? For the first six months, the man who was about to decide the future of a dozen nations continued to draw up a schedule of changing the guards in the Cieszyn garrison.

Only in spring 1916 was he appointed Field Marshal (Feldmarschall) of the combined Austro-Hungarian army. But even this was a decorative element, a bit like the decorations awarded to him by the allied countries: the Order of the Vendée Crown from the Duke of Mecklenburg, the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius from the Tsar of Bulgaria... Brass scrap, the laughter of generations. More important was the command of XX Corps on the Italian front. Barely able to make a name for himself there with his directness, courage and decisiveness, he was transferred to the Romanian front. And then - on 21 November 1916 - the Emperor died.

Black plumes

In the Pathé newsreel showing the funeral of Franz Joseph I, everyone moves at an almost curt pace, but that's the way it is with films made at the beginning of the 20th century, when the speed at which films were shot (16 frames per second) could not be matched to the speed of projectors. In fact, this November funeral, with its dwarf horses in flapping plumes of black dyed ostrich feathers, was like the worst omen for the Empire.

The orchestras have long since fallen silent. The exchange of orders and triumphal announcements about the capture of Lvov or Belgrade had long since ceased. In 1916, the war was already "running out of steam", as the German General Staff documents put it. The autumn balance sheet was concise: a million dead on the Somme. On the Italian front - a quarter of a million. From Macedonia to Volhynia, from the Adige to Verdun - mud and corpses. Cut off from its ports, the bleeding country shook with fever, avitaminosis, strikes and conspiracies. Such was the opening balance sheet for the new Emperor of Austria (since 21 November 1916) Commander-in-Chief of the Army (since 2 December) and heir to the Crown of St Stephen (since 30 December).

In 1914, the ambitious heir to the throne, who had been apprenticed to a uniform since childhood, could dream (although this would mean not rushing out at the head of a charge, but drawing on staff maps with a compass) of commanding an offensive, of leading the imperial troops to Kiev, Milan or Thessaloniki. In 1917, generals (or rather bare-breasted lieutenants) could still dream of such advantages. The only task on the Emperor's scale could be to bring about peace.

He went about it out of time, alone, without support and without advisers. Blindly, bypassing diplomatic and intelligence paths, he sought the first channels of contact.

An almost unbelievable undertaking: in the fourth year of the war, with a dozen fronts, with losses (in 1917) of six million dead, with the entry into the game of the United States, nay, the Kingdom of the Fijiaz and China! - to propose peace?

The Fellowship of the Ring and Indiana Jones

He had three aides: his childhood friend, now adjutant Tamás Erdődy. One of the greatest European troublemakers of the 20th century, deservedly known in Poland as "the devil's cousin" and associated, among others, with the Gibraltar disaster - Józef Rettinger - and his brother-in-law, Prince Systus de Bourbon-Parma, a few years younger, nominally an officer in the Belgian army. Not a bad Fellowship of the Ring, isn't it?

And to think that it could have worked! The Empress Zita personally carries the first letter to Switzerland, where she meets her beloved brother Sixtus, who has received a month's leave from the Dutch trenches. Prime Minister Clemenceau, Field Marshal Hindenburg - everyone knew, indeed, everyone was "consulted". These corridors, these seals, these sympathetic inks, blackening over the flame of a candle!

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To this day we do not know the details of those conversations (Sixtus spent the rest of his life as a rentier, writing essays on still life, Rettinger as a rule did not put anything in writing), the gaps remain to be filled by imagination: in the serial version of Indiana Jones' adventures, young Indiana (played by Sean Flanery) is involved in smuggling Sixtus and his brother Xavier (who was responsible for negotiating the British consent) from Switzerland to Vienna...

Everything was on the negotiating table: the handing over of Alsace and Lorraine to France (which had been given to Germany after the War of 1870), the restoration of Belgian independence, guarantees for Serbia (including in Bosnia) and the handing over of Constantinople to Russia. Also, "peace without annexation and contribution", a concept first raised in those days not by Vladimir Lenin, but by Pope Benedict XV.

There was no Polish independence - but Rettinger never particularly cared about it either...

Nobody wanted to agree to anything. Berlin had no intention of giving up Alsace and held out the prospect of a rapid Russian collapse. No one had informed the Turks, the Allies of the Central Powers, of their intention to deprive them of their capital. The Italians had no intention of giving up the Alps; the French of reparations.

A year and a half of butchery remained - and Charles was humiliated: in the spring of 1918, Georges Clemenceau revealed the Emperor's letters to Sixtus, containing details of the negotiations. Angered, Berlin first demanded that the Austrian emperor resign, then de facto took the remnants of the Kaiser's military and arms industry under its command.

On three crowns he stands, and alone without a crown

It remained to prepare a reform of the losing state - but even this failed. On 16 October 1918, Charles issued a proclamation in which he granted the Poles independence and the right to "unite with their brothers, hitherto under Prussian and Russian rule, and establish an independent state". To the rest of his peoples united by the Habsburg crown, he proposed a modern federal state, composed of four elements: German, Czech, Ukrainian and South Slav - at the same time, at a higher level, proposing a solution in the spirit of the so-called trialism. The state was to consist of three crowns: the imperial crown, St Stephen's (the kingdom of Hungary) and Zvonimir, the founding king of medieval Croatia.
Only that, as the poem says, "no state wanted consent of the nations". The peoples were leaving to their own history: the Croatian Sabor was declaring the creation of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, the West Ukrainian People's Republic was just beginning its fight for Lvov with the Republic of Poland, Dr Tomáš Masaryk was preparing to proclaim independence.

The concern for words remained: in a proclamation, issued on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, Charles recognised the right of the Austrian people to determine the form of government and "removed himself from any influence on the course of state affairs". Two days later, from Eckartsau Palace near Vienna, he issued a similar proclamation addressed to the Hungarian people.

The word "abdication" was not mentioned in any of them. Charles had no desire to do so, but above all - he believed he had no right to do so. At this point begins his epic of the erroneous knight, ending three and a half years later with agony from pneumonia. Rather than, like so many other former monarchs, profitably cash in his properties and memories, move to the Riviera and matchmake children (he already had five of them, there was enough to keep him busy; three more were to be born) - he did what he thought was his duty; he still took his vows from two years ago seriously, even though they were worth as much to the rest of the world as wet ostrich feathers.

The Austrian people had already decided on the form of government (republic) in the autumn of 1918, and refused their former emperor further hospitality in March 1919. The situation was more complicated in Hungary - attached to the monarchical form, but much less so to the Habsburg dynasty, first engulfed by the flames of the socialist-liberal "Aster Revolution", and from spring 1919 - by the conflagration of the Bolshevik Revolution, and what is worse - at the same time occupied in almost three fifths by the troops of the hated, disregarded, and now victorious Romania.

It was not until the autumn of 1920 that Admiral Miklos Horthy, titled regent, consolidated his power on the Danube. And it was only in the spring of 1921 that Charles, encouraged by the Hungarian regalists, began to make a serious bid for the Crown of St Stephen.

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Really? In fact, it was clear from the start that the Allies did not want any Hohenzollerns or any Habsburgs in power. The elegant but firm "no" of Paris and London was overlaid with a shrill "no way!" of the Romanians, Serbs and Czechs - future members of the Little Entente, united by anti-Hungarian and anti-Habsburg phobias. This was clear - what remains a mystery are the motivations of Admiral Horthy, who twice pronounced obedience to Charles and once was ready to turn his guns against him. Was he motivated solely by reasons of state and the conviction that a Habsburg on the throne of Buda meant the occupation of the country by Wallachians and Slovaks? Or was he attached to his role?

The emperor of sugar does not worry about his fate

The first humiliation was still inflicted 'with gloves on'. Charles, having sneaked into Hungary with a false Spanish passport, reached Horthy on Easter Sunday afternoon - the Admiral was supposedly just eating soup (sour?) when the adjutant announced the Emperor... The details of the dramatic two-hour conversation were passed on only by Horthy: Charles did not stoop to explaining his reasons. The Admiral refused to give up power, warned of the possible partition of the country, and cursed him to desist from action. Discouraged, Charles left the country after a week.

He returned half a year later, on 21 October, sitting at the wheel of a Junkers F 13 monoplane whose engines went out several times in mid-air. He landed in a cornfield on the estate of Prince József Cziráky, formed a provisional government from his loyal regalists and marched (by rail) to Budapest.

Once again, he has confused eras. The journey to Budapest was not a Napoleonic march from Grasse to Paris during the "hundred days", nor a march from Sulejówek to Warsaw. It was a pilgrimage during which, from the open carriage, he accepted the oaths of local notables and the tributes of the peasants, convinced that in a moment the whole country would come over to his side. And in Budapest, Horthy was receiving more ultimatums from neighbouring countries ("subversion means intervention!") and arming his troops.
Archduke Karl Franz Joseph during a journey in 1915. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
The Emperor arrived at Kelenföld station; today you can get to the heart of Budapest from there on the M4 metro, back then it was still a station on the outskirts of the city. Several salvos were fired and 19 people died. What is that compared to a million on the Somme! But this blood froze the Emperor, convinced that all his people were waiting for him. A tedious night's negotiations ensued; running in and out of the carriages, still being deputed to the Portuguese court and to Paris. Charles sat in the dark compartment, gazing at the lights of the chateau of Buda. "Come on! I forbid fighting. It all makes no sense anymore". - he was to say on the morning of 24 October 1921.

Like a skylight on the waves of the Danube

The rest of the events rushed in like dryads. The Entente had no desire for any repetition of the Hundred Days, no errant knights. The British gunboat HMS Glowworm (an allusion to the Emperor's ethereal plans?) took Charles and Zita to the mouth of the Danube, where another warship awaited them - aboard HMS Cardiff they sailed all the way to Madeira in the Atlantic. Stifling, damp, jewels strewn about; the wife's distant relatives of the Bragança family provided them with a few rooms in Quinta do Monte. Musty oatmeal eaten with a silver spoon.

The Royal Navy did not bring the seven children (the eighth still under Zita's heart) to the island until February. Charles seems to have managed to go for a few walks with them; riding a donkey is almost as much fun as riding a Lipizzaner, especially when you're three years old. On 9 March he started coughing. Bronchial tubes, lungs, two heart attacks: this continued for three more weeks, until 1 April 1922.

The last words of one who died a century ago? In the monarchical variant: "I must endure these sufferings so that my peoples may one day be together". In the human variant: "I love you so much". (to Zita). In the martyr variant: "I cannot bear it anymore. Thy will be done", Christ. Knowing Charles - all three could be true.

The Vatican was the only one not to forget the Emperor's efforts during the World War. "The Cause" was opened in 1954, and in 1972 his tomb was opened (he still rests in a chapel in Funchal). In 2003 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints recognised his heroic virtues. On October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him "Blessed", establishing as his feast day October 21, the day on which he married Zita. He is considered the patron saint of peace efforts, although he should probably also become the patron saint of errant knights.

– Wojciech Stanisławski
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: 8 February 1921: Charles I (1887-1922), the last of the Habsburg emperors, with his wife Zita (1892-1989) and children in Switzerland. After his abdication in 1918 he went into exile with his family. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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