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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Enduring Family

Eduard Habsburg’s new book articulates the principles that formed his ancestors.

Vienna,,Austria,-,Oct,13,,2019:,Empress,Maria,Theresa,And
(Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)

The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times, by Eduard Habsburg, Sophia Institute Press, 176 pages.

For many families, the question of how to pass on their values to their children is of supreme importance, especially if they want them to go against the West's trends toward secularism, individualism, and leftism. Fortunately, parents can now study the outline of how one of the most successful families in history has managed the feat for more than a thousand years, thanks to Eduard Habsburg’s wonderful new book, The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times.

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With only twelve chapters and 176 pages, The Habsburg Way is neither a comprehensive history nor a sociopolitical analysis of the imperial family and their realms. Rather, it is an attempt to distill inherited wisdom through illustrative anecdotes drawn from history. The attempt mostly succeeds, and the book is written with real warmth and gentle humor. Readers who follow Eduard—the Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See—on Twitter will recognize his style instantly, while those who don’t might find themselves surprised by references to anime, Dune, and Star Wars.

Habsburg’s seven rules are 1) Get married and have lots of children; 2) Be Catholic and practice the faith; 3) Believe in the empire and in subsidiarity; 4) Stand for law and justice and your subjects; 5) Know who you are; 6) Be brave in battle; and 7) Die well. The stories Habsburg tells are drawn from all periods of the family’s history, from the 13th century's Count Rudolph, the first of the family to be elected King of Germany, all the way to Otto von Habsburg, the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary, who died in 2011.

However, one concept only alluded to, but deserving of its own rule, is family unity. Both current and deposed European dynasties continue to live public lives, and the twists and turns and headlines these generate resemble a soap opera. The messy divorces and affairs of the British Royal Family, the allegations against Prince Andrew, and all the drama surrounding the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are very well known to American audiences. But the drama of continental royal families takes on a further surreal, comic quality, with arguments and lawsuits over defunct thrones and titles. For instance, the two competing pretenders to the defunct throne of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II and his cousin, Prince Amadeo, feuded in public and even got into a fistfight. Meanwhile, the Habsburgs have been free from such things.

Although the book draws on stories from throughout Habsburg history, it tends to focus on two specific and relatively recent eras: the 18th century, with Maria Theresa, her children, and grandchildren; and the early 20th century, with Blessed Karl of Austria. These were appropriate choices. Indeed, to hype the launch of the book Eduard Habsburg ran a series of polls on Twitter inviting people to vote for their favorite member of the dynasty, and those figures were the top female and male selections.

They are also well-deserved selections, as the dynasty faced its greatest crises during those two eras. In the early years of the 18th century, the family was on the verge of dying out and faced several international and domestic crises. Through all this, Maria Theresa was almost continually pregnant, eventually having sixteen children, eight of whom died in childhood.

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Her son and successor, Joseph II, embraced the Enlightenment, and tried to reform his dominions along “rational” grounds. However, he alienated his subjects, because his reforms came at the expense of local freedoms and took the form of heavy-handed edicts from Vienna. By the time of his death, rebellions had broken out against his rule. His brother, Leopold II, was an able reformer as Grand Duke of Tuscany, but canceled many of Joseph’s reforms in favor of stability. Although he only reigned for three years, he stabilized the future of the dynasty by having six sons, each of whom had children of their own, producing the four branches of the Habsburgs today.

Eduard calls Leopold’s children “The Glorious Generation,” and their stories are crucial to the family’s present status. The eldest, Francis II, made the momentous decision to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire to prevent Napoleon from usurping the title; Archduke Charles reformed the army and even defeated Napoleon at the battle of Aspern-Essling; Archduke Joseph, the author’s ancestor, was palatine of Hungary and codified the laws and advocated for the Hungarian people; Archduke Rudolph was Cardinal Archbishop of Olomouc and a patron of Beethoven. With their other brothers, they reformed the Habsburg lands into a modern state that made it capable of surviving the Napoleonic Wars.

They also exemplified the various Habsburg virtues. Recounting Archduke Charles’s career forms a key part of Habsburg’s chapter on being brave in battle, while Archduke Joseph’s career in Hungary demonstrates the importance of subsidiarity to Habsburg rule. Bl. Karl, of course, epitomizes the family’s relationship to the Catholic Church. He was not only personally devout, but attempted to rule as a Christian. He refused to permit chemical warfare, attempted to end the war through diplomacy, and commuted death sentences imposed on political radicals. All these decisions became factors in Austria-Hungary’s defeat and dismemberment, and so the world dismissed him as weak. But when he caught pneumonia in exile on Medeira, he expressed his intent to offer his suffering to Christ on behalf of his people.

Although The Habsburg Way emphasizes the family’s traditions, we also get a look at how they have been renewed over the centuries to allow the family to adapt. In the 13th century, King Rudolph fought and defeated the forces of King Ottokar of Bohemia to secure his throne and restore order in the Holy Roman Empire; in 1921 Bl. Karl accepted exile and deposition rather than start a civil war (and almost certainly invite foreign invasion) in Hungary. While their decisions were different, they were both ultimately made from a love of justice and to protect the innocent.

While the application of many of the virtues to those of us who aren’t born to rule is straightforward, the most open-ended and, in some ways, weakest chapter is on the importance of knowing who you are. The chapter discusses subjects such as the Order of the Golden Fleece and the two-headed eagle that came to represent the imperial family. While confusion over identity and constructing it as an exercise in personal consumption is at the heart of many issues today, there is no easy way out. Americans must be able to draw on the stories we tell about our history to build an identity, even if the stories are made up. Here, too, the Habsburgs may show the way: in the 14th century Rudolph IV, then just the Duke of Austria, composed a document known as the Privilegium Maius, created to elevate the family’s status in the Empire. We need stories to reconnect us to each other.

It is the sense of continuity amid the disruptions of the modern world that accounts for the fascination many people have with the Habsburg family today, a fascination that goes beyond the political: Mexico has a chocolate bar named after Charles V. Blessed Karl was in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. If, like me, you watched a lot of History International on Saturday mornings, you might have seen Géza von Habsburg presenting a documentary about Fabergé egg. These days Ferdinand Habsburg, the future head of the family, is a race car driver and Formula One commentator, but if you look at his Instagram, you can also see him meeting Pope Francis and visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima. Cousin Eduard writes, “a core Habsburg ability is being able to translate values into the appropriate form for any given time without sacrificing the principle.”

In reading about the Habsburgs, one gets the sense that history is a small and passing thing, but family lasts forever.