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Feeling Blessed

At the Habsburg convention in Plano
A portrait of Karl I of Austria with a halo behind his head.

Why did several hundred people in Texas pay good money to spend a beautiful Saturday inside, listening to three living members of the Habsburg family and a scattering of Carlists talk about what ails the world? It’s clear what the Habsburgs got out of it: the conference, held in Plano and organized by David Ross, a Dallas-area realtor and right-wing Catholic, was in support of the family’s effort to win a sainthood for Emperor Karl I, perhaps the least successful and most tragic Habsburg monarch, who reigned for the last two years of World War I and then died penniless on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The family hoped to keep their memory alive—and maybe sell a few books. What everyone else might get out of it was unclear, at least at first.

Plano, a town of some three hundred thousand people just north of Dallas, seemed an unlikely place for a monarchist conference. The city’s name is pronounced Plain-o, which is about as complete a travel guide as you need. It is not unpleasant: it’s prosperous, peaceful, a good place to raise a kid. It is simply boring. If it has other redeeming characteristics, they are unknown to me. These are the kind of suburbs that foster alienation and a feeling of aimlessness even as they provide material security.

The Habsburgs can relate, perhaps. “We don’t rule anymore,” said Paul von Habsburg, the great-great-great-great grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, from the stage, “so we find other things to do.” It is important to stay busy. “You might know I have a cousin who is a race car driver,” he added. Members of the Habsburg dynasty have been movers and shakers in Europe for a thousand years, during which time they married whom they had to marry and did what they needed to do to keep their family in power and their throats un-slit on top of the continent’s unending dogpile. Now, like his audience, he found himself adrift, an archduke of nothing. Before, he would have been born with a purpose. “There’s no real path anymore,” he said. “I think that’s good.”

Tales were told of a time and place when there was a path, whether those paths were “being the Habsburg emperor” or “serving the Habsburg emperor.” Eduard Habsburg, currently the ambassador to the Vatican of Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary, noted that Texas was once Habsburg land—through the descendants of Charles V of Spain, who oversaw the boom years of Spanish colonialism. To his mind, he said, it still is. The audience cooed.

Twice, the Kaiser Hymne—a sort of anthem of the Habsburg family, written in 1797—was played, once by a violinist running for city council in nearby Irving and once via YouTube video sing-along. Both times, the audience stood, solemnly, as if it were their own national anthem. “Wealth and blood for the Emperor,” the YouTube choir sang. “Wealth and blood for the fatherland.” When they sat down, a member of the audience near me resumed snacking on some contraband Chick-fil-A.

There were two faces to the day’s events: the general strain of advocacy, or at least apology, for monarchy and monarchism, and a defense of the Habsburg empire. The other was discussion of the last emperor and his wife, both on the long, slow track to sainthood. These sat uneasily together because the case for the Blessed Karl—called so because he has already passed two of the three steps to sainthood—is partly that he bore his tragic failure well, and that failure calls into question why he should have been on the throne in the first place, doomed to inherit the record of failures generated by his family.

There is a significant and apparently well-resourced campaign to elevate Karl to sainthood, of which this conference was only a minor part.

Contradictions abounded. The most visible members of the audience were three young men who wore the red berets of the Carlists, the bizarrely long-lived Spanish monarchist movement that has sought, since 1833, to put a more conservative branch of the Bourbon dynasty on the Spanish throne. Carlists supported the fascists in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, but the dictator Francisco Franco later turned against them. Carlism has always had a strange following on the American right: William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell Jr., was an evangelist for the cause. The Bourbons and the Habsburgs hated each other for most of their history. Time, however, makes all men brothers: in 2250, perhaps, Hitler and Stalin fans will join hands at an autocrat appreciation conference.

To the left of the stage, a young man with a Carlist flag sat keeping watch over the audience. Midmorning, the emcee Ross, dressed in black tie, as one might for a formal wedding, noted that he was giving the Carlists fifteen minutes to make their pitch. In essence: if you like our defeated king, you might like theirs.

But no Carlist has ever been able to adequately explain what Carlism is actually about to a normal person. The Carlist who took the stage, den father to the beret-wearing cubs in the audience, started strong. “Carlism is the oldest counterrevolutionary movement that is around today.” And he ended strong: “Liberalism is a sin.” In between, it might as well have been Scientology. An audience that had patiently listened to some pretty dry stuff all morning was clearly fading during a long reverie about the brilliance of Xavier of Bourbon. “In the U.S. there’s this myth that Franco was this defender of the Catholic Church,” the speaker intoned. This was fake news. Franco “grew up with the liberal-conservative perspective,” he said, not immune to the lies and ideology of the fake Bourbons.

The speaker was from a recently formed Carlist Circle in Texas—based mainly in nearby Irving, apparently—that’s dedicated to spreading the good word. The Carlist to the left of the stage, proud in his bright red beret, stood at attention with his flag outstretched. Overlaid on the traditional red cross of the Carlists was a seal with the Alamo, the symbol of Texas nationalism that was once a Catholic mission. The Carlist Circle seeks to return Christly rule to “the Spains, including Texas,” and proudly advertises that it was convened under “His Royal Highness Prince Sixtus Henry’s blessing.” I can think of no finer endorsement.

The most vigorous proponent for Habsburg apologia at the conference was the monarchist Charles Coulombe, who boasts that he’s written fifteen books, several of them about the family. In a three-piece tan suit and matching hat, he looked like a newspaper editor from Karl’s time. All day, he hinted darkly at the conspiracy of “socialists and masons”—that is, Freemasons—who did in the family. He dropped Woodrow Wilson’s name as if speaking of a lesser Satan. Eduard, whose speech was bland by comparison and bent toward general life counseling, listened politely behind him.

The last emperor was the victim, Coulombe said, of “a major series of injustices” authored by the United States. We were to blame for the “terrible crime,” he said, of when the family was dethroned at the end of World War I in 1918, and the lesser members of the dual monarchy became nations. However, by recognizing and holding up the Habsburgs as a model for godly leadership, the United States has “actually begun to make reparation.” As he made this grand claim, one of the Carlists yawned.

“The crisis of our time is the loss of reality,” Coulombe continued, under the double-eagle flag of the century-dead empire. Teaching the young about the Habsburgs will help remind them of certain eternal truths: “It’s not just that we need to teach our children that there are dragons. It’s that we need to teach them there are knights to slay them.” Karl, the last Habsburg, was slaying dragons in this world and the next.

This conference was only a minor part the significant and apparently well-resourced campaign to elevate Karl to sainthood. The Gebetsliga, or prayer league, which claims delegations in eighteen countries, lays out the case on their website. It contains a page with talking points, if you happen to be talking to an audience to whom Karl’s greatness is not immediately apparent. “Where there are couples living together without benefit of a committed relationship and marriage,” it offers, “we need Karl of Austria’s example of Christian matrimony.”

Karl was beatified in 2004, but full-blown sainthood requires two certified miracles. The Catholic Church prefers “miracles of life or death,” explained Suzanne Pearson, a Catholic activist, interviewed on stage about the canonization process. Karl’s racked up one of those so far. In 2008, the Church found that a “devout Baptist” woman in Orlando had been saved from cancer after Catholic women in Louisiana prayed to Karl. But “most of his miracles are not life or death,” Pearson was quick to add. She credited the emperor with saving marriages that were on the rocks and helping women who have had difficulty conceiving.

“When it comes to ruling, we went out with a bang.”

To help Karl along to sainthood, Pearson told the audience, they should pray repeatedly to him, soliciting specific help. If they receive divine intervention, they should report it to the relevant authorities immediately. It was important, she clarified, to only pray to Karl, or to his wife Zita, because both of them are up for canonization, and a miracle delivered by both at once would count for both of them by the Vatican paper pushers who would not know to whom to attribute the miracle.

But miracles are ultimately about checking forms and post-hoc rationalization. Supporters of Karl argue that he deserves sainthood because he perfectly embodied Catholic mercy in his life, that he bore his trials and tragedies well, that he loved his family to the end of his life. They argue that he was a peacemaker who struggled to end World War I early, that he ruled with the good of all Europe in mind. He embodied the values and teachings of Christ. “He lost everything,” Pearson said, “and he was so vilified by slander. Yet he exuded always a feeling of joy and gratitude to God.”

Or as Paul von Habsburg put it: “When it comes to ruling, we went out with a bang.”

While giving the Politifact treatment to the story presented in Plano of the Blessed Karl would not be a good use of this space, I should say that while Karl faced much personal tragedy, the historical evidence for the sainthood-advocates’ gloss on Karl’s life is thin. There is a lot of weight put on Karl’s peace initiatives, and we are reminded often of what came after the dynasty was destroyed. Had this multinational, multiethnic empire survived under Karl’s wise and godly leadership, the horrors of World War II might have been avoided, or at least mitigated.

Those who knew Karl did not think this, by and large: contemporary accounts, and most historians, treat him as something of a dim bulb at best, a person whom history was acting upon rather than the reverse. This is not surprising, given that Karl was never meant to inherit the throne in the first place and received very little practical instruction in affairs of state. The old emperor Franz Joseph had ruled the increasingly moribund empire since the revolutions of 1848. His son died by suicide in 1889. The next in line for succession, his brother, died in 1896. That brother’s son Franz Ferdinand was blown to hell by a Serbian in 1914. That left Karl, who came to the throne in 1916, after the writing was on the wall. One advisor wrote of his disappointing presence: “You hope to meet a thirty-year-old man, but you find the appearance of a twenty-year-old youth who thinks, speaks and acts like a ten-year-old boy.”

He was from his first day in power a physical manifestation of the Habsburg dynasty’s exhaustion, the hollowness of the European monarchies, their inability to meet the present moment. His wife, Zita, was from a branch of the Bourbon dynasty that had been dead fifty years: still, Karl ran his hapless peace initiatives through her impotent relatives. In the historian A.J.P. Taylor’s dense work about the last century of the Habsburg dynasty, Karl is given brief and brutal treatment, in relation to his “senile plans,” “barren” attempts at internal reconciliation, and “feeble” hostility to the empire’s constituent nations. His attempt to break away from the vassal-state status Austria found itself under the German Kaiser and put the Hungarians—finally—in their place was the “jerk which preludes the ending of rigor mortis.”

Did Karl love peace? Well, he did try to secure a separate peace during World War I, an attempt to win a diplomatic victory that had eluded the Habsburg armies on the battlefield—and which would allow the dynasty to save face. As in all things he did, there was an element of delusion: Karl demanded at times that the empire be given more control over Poland, hegemony over Serbia, and he even offered the German territory of Alsace-Lorraine to the French, something he had, of course, no power to promise. The newborn Council of People’s Commissars, at roughly this same time, moved to end Russia’s participation in the war by simply unilaterally ordering the end of fighting, even though they would eventually have to swallow territorial losses as a result.

Karl could not end Austria-Hungary’s war the way the Russians did—unilaterally, or by offering concessions—because the continuance of his dynasty and his tenuous grip on his empire had become tied up with the outcome of the war, a war which had, of course, been started by his predecessor. Some twenty million people died because Franz Joseph declared war on Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, despite the fact that he was unsure whether Serbia was responsible and knew full well it would kick off a wider war. The written ultimatum he gave to the Serbians blamed them for attempting to “detach from the Monarchy territories belonging to it,” making clear that the whole awful war was being started for his family’s sense of honor.

Karl, suddenly the heir presumptive, was made a field marshal after the start of the war—though he knew even less about war than he did about statecraft—and sent men to ultimately pointless deaths on both the Italian and Russian fronts. After he became emperor, he enlisted the help of German chemical warfare experts for his own army. At the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo in 1917, his forces sprayed the Italian army with poison gas and smashed them, leading to some three hundred thousand enemy casualties, a defeat so bad it helped pave the way for Mussolini’s rise to power five years later. Karl is perhaps the only current candidate for sainthood who has drowned his enemies in chlorine gas.

Was Karl undone in peace by, as Coulombe alleges, “masons and socialists?” Not really. The empire didn’t crumble because of Woodrow Wilsons’s half-baked ideas about self-determination. By the end of 1918, a great unstoppable centrifugal force was spinning off parts of the Habsburg monarchy. There was no more time for reform. Centuries of failed leadership and bad decisions and lack of imagination—first of all, the decision to start World War I in the first place—had come due, and it was time to pay the piper. Austria-Hungary had become one of those videos where a man throws a brick into a running washing machine and it self-annihilates with the force of a bomb.

The war ended. The Czechoslovaks and Poles and Yugoslavs won independence, and Karl was initially granted refuge in Switzerland. After two disastrous and comically inept attempts to put the dynasty back in power, which risked starting a new regional war, Karl seemed to absorb the message that the world thought him a madman. He resigned himself, and his family, to exile.

The family has returned: they are now legally allowed to live and work in Austria. But what have they returned to? Eduard is the most prominent Habsburg, and he has become something of a minor celebrity on the transatlantic right. He has the perpetually easy demeanor of a man who has never truly faced difficulty. He identifies as a fan of anime, tweeting about his love of Neon Genesis Evangelion. He wrote a script for a zombie movie set in Austria that was never produced. Somehow, he became Viktor Orbán’s emissary to the Pope.

There’s one thing about the Habsburg empire that’s worth pining for: its relative tolerance and pluralism.

There’s a lot to unpack. Orbán, a Calvinist with autocratic tendencies, has tried to rehabilitate the regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the Calvinist dictator who ruled Hungary during World War II and who “betrayed” Karl during his attempts to win the Hungarian throne. Orbán’s regime is big on Hungarian irredentism, the nation’s desire to reclaim lost lands, and Magyar chauvinism was a thorn in the side of the Habsburgs for hundreds of years. It was, in the end, a major reason the empire failed.

So it’s a bit odd to see Eduard serving as a lesser ambassador for a regime that embodies political tendencies that long tormented his family. Eduard’s real value to Orbán is in interfacing with the American right, whose opinions Orbán cares about a great deal. Last year, Eduard sat down with the conservative podcaster Michael Knowles to discuss his new self-help book The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times. (If the rules you followed led you to Plano, of what use were the rules?) Early on, Eduard self-identifies as a “weeb,” and it gets weirder from there.

The event in Plano was broken up by Q&A sessions. In one, a member of the audience asked if Eduard would ever serve as emperor. “In order to become emperor, first there would have to be an empire,” he replied. “But also, I would need to kill about eighty-two Habsburgs.” It was a joke, of course, and the audience laughed, but it was the kind of joke that makes one suspect he’s done a bit of fantasizing on the subject. How could he not?

I have not read The Habsburg Way. But I have read Dubbie: The Double-Headed Eagle, a very peculiar little children’s book that Eduard published in 2020, when the government he represented was closing down hostile universities and ruling by emergency decree. Dubbie is a story about a double-headed eagle who sets out from its nest to find its family, in the company of a little girl named Emma. The bird and the girl make their way to Vienna, where they learn that double-headed eagles are the symbol of the Habsburg family.

Along the way they are stalked by two bumbling investigators, Mr. Waschlapski and Mr. Pospischil—those are Polish and Czech names, like those of the nationalists who helped dethrone Karl, if the symbolism isn’t clear—who belong to a secret organization dedicated to upholding the “status quo” and hiding the truth about history. They are ordered to kill the eagle before it realizes its true lineage. “We can’t have a living double eagle,” say the sinister Slavs. They hide and destroy traces of the proud Habsburg legacy in order to make the people think they couldn’t possibly return.

But in the end, the Slavs are defeated, and Dubbie is shown to his new home, the family’s original castle—a place where the Habsbirds can “stay until the day when the double eagles soar over your country again. When you will be needed.” The book is tongue-in-cheek, of course. At the Plano conference, the Habsburgs seemed so much more normal than those around them that I wondered what they must think. Was this seemingly well-adjusted man just giving a polite audience to American cranks? Reading Dubbie after the conference, though, made me wonder if there’s a much deeper madness in Eduard—one that can’t be found at all in the New World.

There’s one thing about the Habsburg empire that’s worth pining for: its relative tolerance and pluralism. It is praised for this quality on both the left and right, and by Karl’s sainthood campaign. Sarajevo around the turn of the last century was a peaceful and fabulously diverse place. Vienna, though run by a Catholic monarchy, was tolerant enough that a cocaine-addled Jewish doctor could develop the witchcraft of psychoanalysis there mostly unmolested. Because we know what came next, it looks like a golden age.

But there is, today, a multiethnic, multinational empire in Europe kept together by bewilderingly complicated traditions and administered day-to-day by bureaucrats and viziers. It’s called the European Union, and Eduard, like Orbán, is not a fan. Closer to home, the United States, for all its faults, is a fabulous mix of cultures and peoples bound together by a tradition of republican pluralism and not the bafflingly complex family tree of an inbred polycule of medieval origin. But that’s precisely what many right-wing Catholics who pine for Franco or Salazar or Don Carlos or the Blessed Karl don’t like about the United States—the concessions that we make to live freely and with each other. They, and their protestant and evangelical brethren, believe that tolerance has doomed us.

The event’s organizer David Ross, with his black tie and slight Texas twang, stood up at the end of the conference to deliver a striking monologue about the lessons he has drawn from the Habsburg story. “Our so-called progressive society is looking more and more like a leaking ship,” he said, at the spear-tip of a speech that lasted some fifteen minutes and only got darker. “Every day seems to bring confirmation of the inevitable downward plunge.”

It becomes clear that for all the talk about Karl’s joys and love for peace and service to the lord, what Ross most identifies with is Karl’s misfortune to be alive at the tail end of a dying empire—a fate which he imagines himself to share. The American condition was terminal, he said. Standing tall in his tuxedo, he closed with some bizarre and visceral imagery. “The next time you hear of a new wave of moral septic waste floating down the stream taking some with it, know that it is dead bodies which go downstream,” he said, the royals looking on politely. “It takes a living body to resist the current.”

A boy in traditional German garb played an accordion while the audience exited. None of the Carlists would go on the record, to my great disappointment. I pulled around back after the event to see Ross’s large family loading his Habsburg swag into a large, older-model brown minivan: the double-eagle flag carefully folded and placed in back, above an antiabortion bumper sticker. The glory was preserved for next year, while we all returned to the moral sewer.