A couple of years ago, Eduard Habsburg, or Eduard Karl Joseph Michael Marcus Koloman Volkhold Maria Habsburg-Lothringen, Ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta, and, by traditional title, Archduke Eduard of Austria, marked Twitter’s “Follow Back Friday” by asking interested followers to give a reason why he should follow them. Mine was that my history-buff son, then 11, had collected Habsburg-themed items such as Double Eagle stickers. The follow followed.
Habsburg’s a natural on Twitter, engaging his followers with humor and pop culture references while expounding family history, upholding Catholic traditionalism, and representing Viktor Orbán’s rightist government. Eduard’s style of cheerful engagement contrasts with Twitter’s Musk-era trend toward greater nastiness and with the general tone of the current-day right. And it fits with much Habsburg history, in which a certain agreeableness and tolerance could help hold empires together.
The ambassador-archduke’s new book, The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times (Sophia Institute Press), delves into centuries of dynastic power, and distills some principles of lasting relevance; the result is an unusual and intriguing self-help guide, with examples from some 800 years of political tumult in Europe and beyond. I’ve only modest overlaps with Habsburg’s worldview, as a lapsed conservative and active Episcopalian, but my family background has a similar geographic center (three of my grandparents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my Jewish paternal family fled from Nazi-ruled Austria; the Habsburgs were prominent in opposition to Nazism, including the exiled Otto von Habsburg, who helped many Austrian Jews). I found the book absorbing and hope it receives a wide audience.
Habsburg’s seven rules are: (1) Get Married (and Have Lots of Children); (2) Be Catholic (and Practice Your Faith); (3) Believe in the Empire (and in Subsidiarity); (4) Stand for Law and Justice (and Your Subjects); (5) Know Who You Are (and Live Accordingly); (6) Be Brave in Battle (or Have a Great General); and (7) Die Well (and Have a Memorable Funeral).
Marriage has long been a core element in Habsburg thinking, with political wedlock touted over warfare as a key to power. Bella gerant alli, tu felix Austria nube, or “Others may lead wars, you, happy Austria, get married,” is a phrase associated with the royal house back to the 15th century. Recounting various family marriages through the ages, Eduard contends that marriage and many children tend to be conducive to happiness. In an aside, he says reformulating marriage as something other than between a man and a woman is “absurd,” but doesn’t argue the point. Noting the notorious “Habsburg jaw,” he downplays inbreeding’s role in propagating the trait.
Habsburg writes from faith, spreading his “Be Catholic” rule across two chapters, unlike the other rules that each get one. He praises those among his ancestors who were particularly devout, and laments the ones who wavered in their beliefs. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, who died in 1705, is credited with presiding over “the pinnacle of Catholic faith in Habsburg lands,” while Enlightenment monarch Joseph II, who died in 1790, is decried for shutting down “useless” monasteries that emphasized prayer rather than serving social or political aims. The last Habsburg ruler, Karl I, was exiled after World War I but was beatified by Pope John Paul II as Blessed Karl.
“Empires have gotten something of a bad rap lately. I blame George Lucas,” Habsburg writes, arguing that the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires had little in common with the galactic tyranny in Star Wars. Rather, he contends, they put an emphasis on subsidiarity, “the principle that issues should be addressed by the lowest institutional level that is competent to resolve them, whether in countries, states or other institutions.” Thus, for instance, nations or states shouldn’t take over what counties or cities can do; and government shouldn’t supersede families. He adds that this is “a key principle in the United States; and it should also be a ruling principle in the EU.”
Eduard presents an upbeat view of monarchs running diverse empires. “Serving always means putting your own interests second,” he writes. “In a country with several languages, your preferred language was not used exclusively; rather, all the country’s languages were spoken. Your preference for one region or for one kind of people could not be indulged. You were a symbol of unity and had to show respect to all regions and all people.” Moreover, since you weren’t elected, you were supposed to “engage real problems honestly,” rather than pandering for votes; and as your children would someday inherit the throne, you didn’t want to leave “any mess” for them to clean up.
In the rule to “Know Who You Are,” Habsburg extols traditional values as a bulwark against fads and aimlessness. “Knowing who you are gives you sovereignty over yourself,” he writes. One way his ancestors have done this is by upholding symbols such as the Double Eagle or the enigmatic abbreviation AEIOU; the latter dates to Emperor Frederick III in 1437 and took on various meanings, including Austriae Est Imperare Orbis Universi (“Austria should be ruling the world”) and Aller Ehren Ist Oesterreich Voll (“Austria is full of all honors”).
Regarding war, Eduard discusses how a preference for diplomacy didn’t always win out. Among the high points of Habsburg conflicts was the 1809 Battle of Aspern, when Archduke Charles showed that Napoleon could be beaten. Sometimes the Habsburg rulers relied on formidable commanders from outside the family, such as Prince Eugen of Savoy (1663–1736), who, after leaving France because his youthful military aspirations were dismissed by Louis XIV, went onto an extraordinary career commanding Austria’s forces against the Ottoman Empire and other foes.
In a chapter on the rule “Die Well,” Eduard recounts a ceremony known as the “knocking ritual” that’s undertaken when an eminent Habsburg dies, and which reflects the significance of humility. The ritual can be seen on YouTube, as with the 2011 funeral of Otto von Habsburg. The coffin is brought to the closed entrance of the Capuchin crypt, and a master of ceremonies knocks on the door. A monk within asks who seeks entry, and the man answers with the name and titles of the deceased: “Otto of Austria, once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia,” and so on. The monk says, “We do not know him.” The master of ceremonies knocks again, and the monk asks again. This time, the answer includes various achievements of the deceased. Again, the monk says, “We do not know him.” There’s a third knock, and once more the question. The answer now is, “Otto, a mortal and sinful man.” The monk says, “Then let him come in,” and the door swings open.
—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and posts at Post.News.