Austria’s last crown prince

2011-07-15 00:00

AS Vienna prepares for the funeral of Otto von Habsburg tomorrow, an ambivalent mix of nostalgic sentiment and republican criticisms highlighted that Austria is still a country grappling with its imperial past.

The final laying to rest of the last Habsburg crown prince will end two weeks of elaborate wakes, masses and processions.

The eldest son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor died on July 4 in his adopted home of southern Germany.

A requiem mass is scheduled to take place in Vienna's main cat­hedral, with Austrian President Heinz Fischer, an army honour guard and assorted European royals in attendance.

The remains of Von Habsburg and his wife Regina, who died last year, will then be carried to the family crypt in a procession, accompanied by conservative groups wearing historic military uniforms.

The heart of Von Habsburg, the son of Charles I, is to be entombed a day later in Hungary.

Army lieutenant general Christian Segur-Cabanac expressed no qualms about organising the military honours for the late 98-year-old, whose princely title expired when nobility was abolished in 1919.

"This is about ending the frictions in the Austrian republic's dealings with the Habsburgs," the general said of the guards' deployment.

He referred to the recent decision by parliament that finally allows Habsburg family members to run for president.

However, some criticism has mounted over the elaborate ceremonies.

The left-wing Republican Club said the family event seemed to resemble a state funeral, pointing out that Von Habsburg never held an official position in Austria.

Others argued that the pomp is simply an expression of nostalgia for the "good old times," before the empire covering much of eastern Europe fell apart after World War I.

"In the times before that, Austria was much bigger and more significant. There was glamour, there was the empire," said Rudolf Roubinek, lead writer of the popular television comedy show We are the Emperor.

The show features an actor playing fictional emperor Robert Heinrich I, who patronises his celebrity guests in front of a live audience.

"The audience participated with incredible enthusiasm," Roubinek said. "They are really crazy about the court protocol and the pomp," said the comedian.

However, Austrians do not only fondly remember the monarchy, they also profit from it.

A 2009 marketing study identified Austria's imperial heritage as one of Vienna's strongest selling points.

"The Habsburgs contributed a lot to Vienna's attractiveness, and they still do," said the city's tourism board spokesperson Vera Schweder.

But the noble family that ruled Austria for centuries also left a dark legacy that has come into the focus of historians in recent years.

The Habsburg Black Book lists not only the 1,2 million Austro-Hungarian soldiers who perished in World War I, but also describes the brutal suppression of religious, social and ethnic dissent under Habsburg rulers.

Co-author Hannes Leidinger criticised Austria's politicians who blindly use the symbolism of the past imperial era.

Official balls regularly take place in the Vienna State Opera, formerly the court opera, he said in an interview. "Members of government use the emperor's box," he added.

Historians generally give Von Habsburg a favourable write-up, praising his lobbying for the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and for the unification of Europe, as a long-time member of the European Parliament for Germany. He held several European passports.

However, they also point out that he renounced his claim to the throne only in 1961, and that his aides continue to refer to him as His Imperial and Royal Highness to this day.

Fischer summed up Austria's ambiguous approach to Von Habsburg's past in an interview with the weekly Profil, in which he said that he had disagreed with the late Habsburg on many issues.

But he added: "I will represent the republic at the requiem at Saint Stephen's cathedral, and I think it is the right thing to do." — Sapa-dpa.

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