August 2014

Mary Mann


Matrimony, War, and the Habsburg Chin

Royal families were the Kardashians and Brangelinas of the 1690s, and any seventeenth-century People magazine worth its salt would have been heavy on Habsburgs. Charles II (insensitively known as "Charles the Bewitched" due to his many physical and mental disabilities) ruled the Netherlands, part of Italy and the whole Spanish empire, which included the Americas plus the East Indies. His cousin (also uncle, also brother-in-law) Leopold I was Holy Roman Emperor and essentially king of central Europe, which included what would become Germany, Hungary, Austria, Romania, and a big chunk of the Balkans.

And that wasn't all. Due to the Habsburgs' long history of gaining power by marrying into other royal families -- their motto: "Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers to you" -- Leo and Charles had family ties almost everywhere, most significantly in France, where Charles's sister Maria Theresa was Louis XIV's wife.

It's impossible to overstate how powerful the Habsburgs were.

This was the pinnacle of the Habsburg Empire, which had grown steadily since an eleventh-century Swiss count named Radbot called his castle House of Habsburg, his descendants adopting the name as title and beginning their strategy of royal intermarriage. The 1690s were not the last days of Habsburg power, but they were the last days of total Habsburg domination. In 1701 Charles would die childless, and the resultant War of Spanish Succession would strip the Habsburg's of Spanish rule.

Charles's apparent sterility exposed the fundamental flaw of royal marriage: if you only marry royalty, and you keep doing so for several hundred years, your gene pool will inevitably shrink such that everyone's in an "I'm My Own Grandpa" situation. The Habsburg Chin (think Jay Leno's chin times five) is still the poster child for inbreeding deformities. Charles V was among the most severely afflicted, unable to speak clearly or even close his mouth. Legend has it that when he toured Spain in 1530 a peasant shouted: "Your Majesty, shut your mouth, the flies of this country are very insolent."

Though the Habsburgs lost a lot in the War of Spanish Secession, their remaining empire was still one of the largest in Europe. It's hard to fathom the former strength of the Habsburg Empire today, when the family has none of its land, power or prestige. As recently as 2005, Karl von Habsburg filed a suit before Austria's constitutional court to reclaim former Habsburg family properties. He was unsuccessful. I'd never even heard of Karl before a Google search ("Are there any Habsburg's left?") led me to him, yet the history of the western world is largely a history of Habsburgs.


On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Habsburgian heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, toured Sarajevo with his wife, Sophie. Their marriage fourteen years previous had been controversial; the old Habsburg marriage policy still stood: any bride or groom of a Habsburg must belong to one of the reigning dynasties of Europe. Sophie came from a noble family, but that didn't cut the mustard for Franz's uncle, the Emperor of Austro-Hungary. They were only able to marry once Franz agreed to conditions: Sophie would never be called Empress, and neither she nor their children would inherit Habsburgian titles or privileges when Franz died.

But in the end, it didn't make much difference. Both Franz and Sophie were killed on that June tour around Sarajevo, giving Austro-Hungary an excuse to declare war on troublesome Serbia. Germany backed Austro-Hungary, Russia backed Serbia, and the whole thing escalated into World War I (in which Captain von Trapp -- immortalized as the dad who calls his children with a dog whistle in The Sound of Music -- was declared a national hero for his service in the Habsburgs' navy).

By 1919 there was no Habsburg Empire to inherit. Their land was divided by order of an international treaty and the Habsburgs banished from it. No Habsburgs would live in Austria again until 1961, when Otto von Habsburg formally renounced any claims to any throne in order to be allowed back in his ancestral home.


Some versions of World War I analysis present Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century as astoundingly peaceful. The war came out of nowhere, these accounts suggest. It's primarily because of this logic that World War I, more than any other war, is given as an example of mankind's abiding desire to fight. In the aftermath of World War I, Rebecca West wrote, "Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer days of happiness... the other half of us is nearly mad."

You don't have to be a general or politician to see the truth in this statement; just visit an eighth-grade lunchroom, where the politics are as complex and seemingly irrational as they are between nations.

But while WWI does seem senseless, it did not come out of the blue. Just as the conditions of World War II would not have been possible without World War I -- Hitler likely wouldn't have gained power if the German climate hadn't been self-conscious after paying reparations and befuddled after the fall of the empire -- so World War I would not have happened like it happened were it not for a long history of conflict, partnerships, grudges, land grabs, and Habsburgs as far as the eye can see.


How far back do you go? We could be at this all day, all week, all year even. Keeping our history Habsburg-focused narrows the scope but not by much: they were everywhere, all the time, for about nine hundred years.

Let's say we start with the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, a sort of European civil war with incredible losses. Germany took an especially large hit, losing an estimated forty percent of their population. Fresh hostilities -- states against empires, empires against states, empires against other empires -- began to flower.

Yet on a grand scale, things were relatively quiet until 1740 and the War of Austrian Succession, which could technically have been called World War I. It involved almost all the European empires plus their territories (King George's War in the U.S. and the First Carnatic War in India were both part of the War of Austrian Secession). Fighting and negotiating occurred on a global scale, setting a precedent for future conflicts.

What were they fighting about? Well, the heir apparent to the Habsburg Empire was named Maria Theresa. Women weren't allowed to inherit titles, so the whole Habsburg Empire suddenly seemed available -- in that era of expansion it was just too tempting. Prussia moved in, as Prussia was wont to do in the eighteenth century (Maria Theresa referred to Prussia's Frederick the Great as "that evil man"). But Maria Theresa was craftier than anyone expected a woman to be, and a PR whiz to boot, garnering the support of her subjects and eventually becoming the only Empress to ever sit on the Habsburg throne.

But there's no rest for the weary (or the power-hungry). After the War of Austrian Succession, Europe got a brief break then jumped into the Seven Years War in 1754, which offered a taste of the growing nationalism that erupted in all sort of ways through the years to come: revolutions, coups, more revolutions, and World Wars.

More and more people wanted independence. Empires were a drag.

Nationalism really hit the Habsburg's in 1848. That year's Hungarian Revolution became a war that pulled in all the other Habsburg territories, including Austria, Serbia, Slovakia, and Romania -- unaffiliated Russia even jumped in. This messy conflict officially resulted in Austro-Hungary, a complicated multinational empire in which Austrians and Hungarians had different governments but both swore fealty to the Habsburgs.

Austro-Hungary was a powerful empire -- then the second-largest country in Europe, after Russia -- but an unstable one. Hungary was all but independent, but still chaffed under Habsburg rule, and the smaller ethnic groups within Austro-Hungary -- Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians -- wanted a say too. Anger, resentment, frustration and fear fomented throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the last half of the nineteenth century.

With the second-largest country in Europe simmering angrily for over half a decade, it shouldn't have surprised anyone that it eventually boiled over into the rest of Europe.


Yet World War I was a surprise to many, even people who lived in Austro-Hungary. In the recently published memoirs of Hungarian artist and soldier Bela Zombory-Moldova, The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, he tells of his shock when he learned his country was at war: "There had been no war in Hungary for almost seventy years. When my grandfather spoke of 1848 we would listen with bored half smiles: it was all so alien to us, so far removed from us. This was the twentieth century! Europe at equilibrium in the era of enlightenment and democratic humanism. It seemed impossible that a dispute should be decided by fighting."

Knowing what we know, it seems na´ve, but it's probably the most honest, typical reaction of the ordinary citizen in times of war. Most of us don't know what's happening in the war rooms or on the frontlines. Horror in the news always seems far away and abstract. On 9/11, girls in my Indiana high school cried, and boys smashed their fists on desks. "How could this happen?" people asked. "It came out of nowhere!"

But nothing comes out of nowhere, not really.

Events come out of actions, and actions come out of history, and the War on Terror, too, has its roots. It all goes back to the flaws of empire and prejudices of nationalism and the innately human desire for identity and home. We don't like to believe that concepts as pure and good as identity and home could ever inspire hate, though history tells us it's so.

This is why war surprises us.


After a day spent immersed in Habsburgian lore, I had dinner with a friend. She's Jewish, has been to Israel several times, and was torn up over what was happening between Israel and Hamas. "Israel makes bad choices, but Hamas is also a terrorist group. There's no easy answer and I'm scared of anti-Semitism coming back. So few people seem to really understand what's happening. I guess it's too complicated."

Complicated indeed. The story of this particular conflict -- like that of most conflicts -- goes back impossibly far, in so many directions, lines of history long and tangled like ancient tree roots. One root I could pick out stretched back through World War II, German reparations, World War I, nationalist revolutions, the Seven Years War and so on and on all the way back to 1020, when Count Radbot built a castle in what's now Switzerland -- the byword of neutrality -- and named it House of Habsburg.