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NMW (or anyone else) Why was Charles I of Austria “so tits”?(r/AskHistorians)
Oh, right! I knew I forgot to add something, there – my apologies to those who asked.
The short answer: It’s a matter of perspective, and not everyone is agreed on it. The general consensus is that he was a better man than a ruler, but that depends on what sort of metric of “ruler success” you intend to employ.
I think you’re here for the long answer, though…
When we consider the crowned heads of Europe at this stage and in history just prior to it, we find ourselves confronted with an amazingly varied assortment of figures, personalities, interests and characters. A non-exhaustive list:
- Nicholas II of Russia, an earnest but inexperienced young ruler who had to struggle to cope with the legacy left by his iron-willed father:
- Alexander III of Russia, who seems to have literally lived for revenge sought against the death of his father, Alexander II.
- Edward VII of England, who had struggled with the increasing embarrassment of being the Prince of Wales well into his senior years, and was left with a brief, scandal-plagued reign as a consequence.
- George V, his son, who inherited some his father’s bitterness but not (thank goodness) his debauched excesses. It fell to him, an untested monarch, to shepherd his empire through a war the likes of which the world had never seen.
- Wilhelm II of Germany, cousin to both George and Nicholas – a cold, aloof, supremely vain figure with a withered arm and very firm ideas.
- Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, the choleric and grandfatherly emperor who had been the international face of his people for almost seventy years, and whose always-seemingly-imminent death had led to the crises of succession that made the 1914 assassination of his nephew, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so momentous.
If we go back a little further we also get people like Maximillian I of Mexico and Victoria I of England, among others, to say nothing of Joshua I of the United States (kidding… unhappily kidding). It was a time of titanic figures, but also ones who – whether through circumstance or temperament – were severely disinclined to be humble, or genial, or open to change (apart from Nicholas II and Maximillian I, arguably, but their legacies are mixed as well. Still, their ends were as sad as that which befell Charles, I think).
Anyway, it is into a world used to such people, and a war predicated upon the interactions of these people and their various empires, that we find injected the quiet, friendly, self-effacing figure of Charles I. Here he is on his wedding day; keep this image in mind as you proceed, if you’re so inclined.
Charles the Man
If it was a surprise to Franz Ferdinand to find himself suddenly the heir to Franz Josef’s throne, it was an absolute shock to Charles. It would be like if the Americans really did have to call upon the Secretary of State or Secretary of the Treasury to assume the office of the President, in terms of the remove involved. Whatever Ms. Clinton’s and Mr. Geithner’s proclivities may be, though, Charles’ were not – at first – especially focused in the direction of rule, or even of public life. He was amazingly young (born in 1887), and had spent all of his life up to that point in school, or at play, or serving briefly as a cavalryman before the war. He married his childhood sweetheart, the delightful Princess Zita, and they had hoped to live a happy, quiet life.
In 1914, with the assassination of his uncle, Charles found himself the heir-presumptive to Franz Josef’s throne. He watched the growth of the Great War with weary horror, and was not especially happy to finally find himself crowned as (what he could not know at the time) the last Emperor of Austria in late 1916. Shortly after this he took complete command of his empire’s army.
Up to this point we’ve simply been experiencing the career of a nice young man, but here’s where things start to get interesting.
Charles the Emperor
The great surprise was that the new emperor of the power that had in a very literal sense started the Great War wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Rather than continuing to posture as an aggrieved actor, or trumpet Austrian superiority, Charles set about trying to enact what was called a “peace without recriminations.” The basic idea of it was that everyone should just fucking stop fighting already and go home. I have my own ideas about the relative merits of that notion, but the only other person at the time credibly making similar demands was Pope Benedict XV, and both he and Charles were met with similar scorn from those on all sides of the conflict. The Entente powers were outraged that their years of losses and suffering should apparently go unavenged; the Central powers were outraged that the Austrians could apparently no longer be relied upon.
As I said, there were problems with the idea, but it was an idea – a revolutionary thing in a war that had stagnated for years. The French writer Anatole France famously summed up the situation after the fact:
> Emperor [Charles] is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost.
From this you may assume that Charles’ fortunes were not exactly rosy from this point onward, and you would be correct.
Charles’s authority was rocked considerably by the scandalous revelation that he had been secretly trying to negotiate peace with France – that bastard. His Foreign Minister was forced to resign, and strongly-worded letters of protest were delivered to him and his other ministers from all over Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire. To this was added the ongoing problem of the tensions caused by the AHE’s diverse ethnic make-up, to which I alluded at times in the original post about Franz Ferdinand. The clashes between groups and the seeming disenfranchisement of over half the population – both problems that FF had hoped to solve – understandably did not get any better after his murder, and Charles, though sympathetically inclined to enact similar reforms after the war, if he could, was simply not in a position to do so with the army in the field and the continent on the brink of collapse.
He found an unlikely and, as it happened, fatal enemy in a most unexpected corner: President Woodrow Wilson of the United States. In spite of Charles’ peaceful endeavours and his strong record as a reformer (he had banned flogging and dueling in the Austrian army, and had strongly denounced the use of poison gas in combat; he also made a point of taking the same rations and rest schedule as a common infantryman throughout the war, and ordered that the edible stores of the royal household be distributed to the troops), Wilson found the Hapsburg system to be utterly inimical to American values, which he audaciously supposed to be universal values, and insisted in his “Fourteen Points” and elsewhere that a necessary condition of peace was the dissolution of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the deposition of its Emperor.
It is here that we reach another moment in the development of Charles’ character, and one which might justly be said to do him credit when compared to many of the other crowned heads I listed above.
Wishing only for the good of his people, as opposed to that of his empire, Charles basically acceded to the demands. He issued declarations in October of 1918 that were viewed as radical even by his enemies, granting Poland total independence and dividing the rest of the AHE up into four quadrants to be ruled by independent elected councils, with Trieste becoming a sort of isolated city-state, if I remember correctly.
It was too late, though; seeing that the other western powers were prepared to recognize and support their bids for total independence, the subordinate ethnic conclaves declared themselves autonomous one by one. By the end of October, Charles was an emperor without an empire in a quite literal sense.
Exile and Final Days
His response to this, too, is noteworthy: in November he simply announced that he would retire from public life and the affairs of state, and that was that. He and his family left Vienna forever, and the fate of Austria passed into other hands. I will not pretend that Charles was pleased by these various turns of events, because he wasn’t, but I would suggest that it’s a tribute to his character that he accepted them with equanimity rather than with any sort of hateful “last stands” or purges or grandiose megalomania. He certainly didn’t leave with the wrathful spite of Wilhelm II, who blamed the Jews for everything and wished that they might be subjected to German vengeance as soon as possible – personally, he recommended poison gas.
For his troubles, Charles and his family were declared exiles and forbidden to ever return to Austria. The Hapsburgs, who had shaped the fate of Europe for over half a millennium, have not been a significant force since. His last two surviving sons, Otto and Felix, both died last year (2011), but not to worry: they and their six other siblings have left a veritable galaxy of children in their wake.
Life in exile proved difficult for Charles and his family, and took a great toll on the deposed emperor’s health. He made a few half-hearted attempts to re-establish the monarchy in Austria, but they all met with failure and he eventually gave up.
He died on the island of Madeira in 1922, at the age of 34, of complications brought on by pneumonia. He was a man who had attempted to uncomplicatedly serve and lead his people in an age ruled by deceit and half-measures – to be a king in an age of bureaucrats and industrialists. He tried to do a good job, and was most cruelly served for his efforts.
EDIT: In keeping with a widely-felt desire to better the quality of posts in this subreddit, here are some recommended readings:
- Baron Charles von Werkmann – The Tragedy of Charles of Habsburg (1924); very hard to get, so try for it on interlibrary loan. Its close proximity to the events it describes will doubtless influence the conclusions it reaches, but that can be all to the good so long as the appropriate critical eye is deployed.
- Heinz Rieder – Kaiser Karl: der letzte Monarch Österreich-Ungarns 1887-1922 (1981); I’ve seen it cited in translation, but I don’t know if it exists on its own in translation, if that makes any sense.
- James and Joanna Bogle – A Heart for Europe: The Lives of Emperor Charles and Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary (1993). Appears to still be in print!