In the early spring of 1945, roughly 18,000 Japanese and 7,360 American troops met their end on the island of Iwo Jima. It was one of the bloodiest battles in the last major naval war in history. It was also mostly pointless. The captured airstrip, the only real asset on this tiny patch of land, was hardly ever used by the victorious Americans. The invasion of Japan, for which the little island would have been a springboard, never happened; American leaders chose instead to end the war by massacring the civilian populations of two cities.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the most valuable product of the carnage at Iwo Jima was a picture: Joe Rosenthal’s famous snapshot of six U.S. Marines raising the stars and stripes over the peak of Mount Suribachi. It is, in a way, a perfect illustration of the story of the 20th century—senseless death and top-notch photography.
That story does not begin or end at Iwo Jima, which was merely a late scene in the second act of the suicide of the West. The first act had ended decades before—a hundred years ago this week, as it happens—when the last European emperor departed his realm the final time. Charles, emperor of Austria and apostolic king of Hungary, had been born in 1887 in an Austrian castle to the European continent’s greatest royal family. When Charles was just 27, his uncle Franz Ferdinand was killed by a Serbian terrorist, an act that plunged Europe into war and thrust the young Charles into the role of heir presumptive.
Two years later, at the death of his 86-year-old great uncle, Charles ascended to the imperial throne. By then, the Great War was irreversibly underway. He tried to bring peace to his war-torn empire, to no avail. He tried to keep that empire—a vast and diverse collection of nations—together, but was likewise unsuccessful. For both these failures, especially the latter, we owe our thanks to the Great Satan, Woodrow Wilson. At Wilson’s direction, the agents of the fledgling American Empire played no small part in the breakup of every old empire that remained, nowhere more actively or more viciously than in the Habsburg domains. At war’s end, Charles found his position untenable and went into exile in Switzerland, whence his family had come seven centuries past to dominate the continent.
Its king exiled, Hungary fell briefly to Communist rule under Béla Kun. After a short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic was toppled, the monarchy was nominally reestablished, with the military leader Admiral Miklós Horthy governing as regent. Horthy, in accordance with his role as regent, wrote personal letters to King Charles assuring the monarch that control of government would be returned to him whenever he was able to take it. He had likewise sworn oaths to the monarch previously in person. Taking the admiral at his word, Charles returned to Budapest at Easter. Not yet ready to betray his oath of loyalty, Horthy could not keep it either, and convinced the king that he could not possibly reclaim his throne just then. Charles left, reluctantly, with the realization that the regent could not be trusted.
Half a year later, on October 20, 1921, Charles made his final attempt, entering the country with his wife in a tiny monoplane. Traveling by train to the capital, Charles gained troops along the way and was met with cries of “Long live the king!” On the morning of October 23—a hundred years ago today—Charles’ forces were massed outside the city. This time, the king found himself directly opposed to the regent Admiral Horthy, and though early indications suggested a victory for Charles, the tide quickly turned in Horthy’s favor. Charles was forced to leave Hungary again within the week, never to return. He would die in exile six months later, just 34 years old.
Horthy, for his part, remained in power. Two decades later he would drag the nation into alliance with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, only to be arrested by the Nazis when he thought better of his loyalties. Hungary fell again to a Communist government, a subjection that would last this time for four long decades. In quick succession, the Hungarian nation found itself trampled first by German fascists and then by Soviet communists—two imperial influences against whose advance a Habsburg king might have been the only possible bulwark.
It took a century, but Horthy’s claim to the title of “worst admiral in history” is finally being challenged. This week, Dr. Rachel Levine, President Biden’s born-male assistant secretary for health, was ceremonially commissioned as a four-star admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The levels of unreality are astonishing: a man who is convinced he is a woman becoming a medical bureaucrat convinced he is a sailor, all while going through the well rehearsed motions of Covid safety theater.
In remarks delivered upon commissioning, Levine draws attention to the service of his father and two uncles in the U.S. Armed Forces in the Second World War, then insists: “Just as they stepped up to defend our rights to freedom and liberty, I now follow in their storied tradition of service as I step up to defend the health of our nation—especially now, as we face the biggest public health crisis our country and the world has faced in modern times.” I’m sure the good doctor believes that; together with all of the other things he believes that are manifestly not true, that’s exactly the problem. What a sad view of duty and sacrifice—not to mention history—it is that equates these two vocations, that denies both the dramatically human reality of the one and the ridiculously insubstantial character of the other.
This may seem a world removed from the struggle of the last Habsburg king against usurpers, and even from the years of turmoil and destruction that resulted from his defeat. But I would suggest that the two have some relation—that the rejection of the old order that built the West (embodied in a man, an exemplary final ruler who struggled heroically against the forces of progress and evil) inevitably ends up here. Kill the priests and banish the kings, and three generations later your descendants will be cheering the installation of the world’s first openly transgender four-star officer (“openly,” they insist on saying, as if to suggest that Douglas MacArthur kept some closely guarded secret).
What Charles represents—besides extraordinary personal virtue—is an incarnational order of politics that has been almost entirely forgotten in the world Woodrow Wilson built. Charles ruled not because he had gone to Princeton, not because he had convinced the right people of the viability of his political schemes, but because of his blood and the oil by which he was anointed in a 500-year-old church in Budapest. Whoever tears that down—destroys the visible sign of civilization as a union of people who exist body and soul—will reap the whirlwind. “A nation of laws and not of men” becomes, in the end, painfully literal.
Mount Suribachi, the dormant volcanic peak of Iwo Jima, has been grumbling lately. The movement of the earth that created the island has brought to the surface skeletal ships sunken in a distant battle of Admiral Horthy’s final war. After three quarters of a century on the Pacific Ocean floor, hulking reminders of a world at war with itself have washed back up. The seismic activity continues, and observers warn that a major eruption may be soon to come.
Beate Carole, ora pro nobis.