Europe bemoans death of Otto Habsburg

Otto Habsburg, the last heir to the throne of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire and oldest member of the Habsburg family, has died at the age of 98.

Habsburg “peacefully passed away” yesterday morning (Mon), his family announced. They explained all of his seven children were at his death bed in Pöcking, Bavaria, Germany. He will be laid to rest at the Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft) in the Austrian capital Vienna on 16 July. Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn will hold a requiem mass at the city’s St Stephen’s Cathedral earlier on the same day.

Habsburg’s condition has deteriorated in the past years. He had to be hospitalised after falling over at his residence in Pöcking around two years ago. Habsburg – who was born in Reichenau an der Rax in Lower Austria – ordered his spokeswoman to release a statement similar to a famous quote by American author Mark Twain at that time: “The news about my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Otto Habsburg was the oldest son of Karl I. (Charles of Austria), the last emperor of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Karl’s wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, had to flee with her children to find exile in Switzerland in 1919, around one year after the end of World One (WWI) which meant the demise of the Royal Empire. The family went on to live in Madeira, Portugal as well as in Spain – where Otto Habsburg graduated – and Belgium.

Habsburg – whose wife Regina deceased in February 2010 – saw himself kept from returning to his homeland due to the strict so-called Habsburg laws enforcing members of the family to relinquish all kinds of privileges as well as ambitions to rule. He met with Kurt Schuschnigg, chancellor of the country during the era of Austrofascism, in 1935. Habsburg tried to convince Schuschnigg to approach the western allies amid the increasing power of Adolf Hitler in the German Reich. However, Schuschnigg rejected his appeal as well as the suggestion that he, Habsburg, could become Austrian chancellor in a country disassociating itself from the fascist regime in Germany. Austria became part of the German Third Reich of Hitler three years later.

Habsburg fled to the United States of America. The Nazis charged him with treason and ordered his dispossession in absence. The controversial Habsburg laws stepped into force in Austria again at the end of World War Two (WWII). Habsburg returned to the country only in 1966 – 21 years after the war – due to the ongoing controversy among Austria’s political leaders about how to deal with members of the family who once ruled vast parts of Europe. Already in 1961, Habsburg declared to abstain from reaching for power in Austria.

He regained the Austrian citizenship upon arrival in Austria and became a German citizen in 1978. Habsburg represented the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) in the European Parliament (EP) for 20 years until 1999. He co-organised the so-called Paneuropa picnic in the Austrian-Hungarian border region in 1989. The event is considered an important factor in Western Europe’s attempts to end the Communist regime in the east of the continent.

“Whole Europe is crying,” Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Othmar Karas said when being informed about the death of Habsburg.

Austrian Social Democratic (SPÖ) Chancellor Werner Faymann praised Habsburg for his clear stance against fascism, while CSU boss Horst Seehofer said he did a lot to help tearing down the Iron Curtain.

Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission (EC), described Habsburg as a “great European.”