29 October 2019

The House of Hapsburg in World War II

A look at the effect of the loss of the Dual Monarchy on the rise of Hitler in  the inter-war years and the activities of Archduke Otto during the War.

From The Mad Monarchist (20 June 2015)

The First World War saw the venerable Hapsburg dynasty deposed and exiled, their empire, Austria-Hungary, broken up. The Second World War saw the end of the last realistic hope for a Hapsburg restoration to date. When it comes to monarchies, history has tended to take an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude; if they do not have a throne, they are not worth remembering. However, the Hapsburgs came closer than almost anyone realizes to being restored to the Austrian throne just prior to World War II. It is also technically true that they retained, in name though not in fact, the throne of the Kingdom of Hungary until late in the war. Unlike the other Central Powers of the First World War, Austria-Hungary had ceased to exist entirely, yet, there were many factors in the inter-war period that encouraged hopes of a restoration in both Austria and Hungary. 

What had replaced the old “Dual Monarchy” did not seem to be working out so well. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were not nation-states but multi-cultural contrivances that faced serious ethnic tensions and other powers, such as Hungary and Austria found themselves isolated and wishing to be relevant again.

Altogether, the absence of Austria-Hungary helped pave the way to power for Adolf Hitler, a man who despised everything about the “Dual Monarchy”. There was the monarchy, the aristocracy, the multi-cultural nature of it as well as what he viewed as the pandering to the Jewish and Slavic populations by the Hapsburgs. 

There was nothing about it he liked and the international tensions created by the new borders drawn after World War I all worked together to create a situation the Nazis were only too willing to exploit. Yet, the former Hapsburg lands also posed the greatest threat to the Nazi movement ever gaining the domination in Europe they longed for even after coming to power in Germany. Czechoslovakia stood in the way and had an industrial center that Nazi Germany very much needed. To unite all Germans into a single nation-state also meant that the first “prize” on the Nazi wish-list was Austria and yet Austria was also their first obstacle as Italy supported Austrian independence as a buffer state between Italy and Germany and this also barred the way to the Italo-German alliance which Hitler considered paramount to his plans. A Hapsburg restoration, even if only over Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, would have created a power bloc that would have been a major obstacle to Nazi plans for German expansion considering how militarily weak Germany was at the time, even right up to the outbreak of war.

Archduke Joseph

Of the countries involved, probably none presented a greater cause for monarchist frustration than the Kingdom of Hungary. The full restoration of the monarchy there was tantalizingly close on several occasions and the fact that it ultimately failed can be attributed to two sources: the paranoia of the Allies (primarily France, though only God in His wisdom knows why) and the ambition of Admiral Miklos Horthy. At the end of the First World War, power in Hungary had fallen to the Hapsburg Archduke Joseph August of Austria, who was quite popular in Hungary and was given the place of regent. He put down one attempted revolution, survived another (communist) revolution and was restored to power again as Hungarian regent. However, in their blind and short-sighted opposition to a Hapsburg holding power in any part of the former Austria-Hungary, the Allies forced Archduke Joseph to step down in 1919. He then became a member of the House of Lords where he remained a respected figure until the German occupation in 1944 forced him to flee to the United States.

King Charles
Nonetheless, in 1920 the Hungarian government voted to restore the monarchy though they lacked a monarch and so Admiral Miklos Horthy was appointed regent. He was of service in preventing a communist takeover of the country, reestablishing stability and a general sense of normalcy but he proved to be ultimately treasonous by not handing power back to the last King of Hungary, Emperor Charles I (Kaiser Karl), when he tried to reclaim his throne twice in 1921 only to be forced out of the country on each occasion. Horthy protested that the time was not right, the Allies opposed it and though some of his arguments might have had merit, as regent it was not his decision to make. As regent, he was only to hold power until the King returned and as soon as Emperor Charles set foot on Hungarian soil, Horthy should have deferred to his legitimate monarch. According to some accounts, the idea that Britain and France would have taken action against any Hapsburg restoration in Hungary seems likely to have been exaggerated. If power had been handed over and the restored monarchy solidified, it seems rather unlikely that Britain and France would have risked a conflagration to keep the Hapsburgs from their Hungarian inheritance.

Horthy and Hitler
So, Hungary would go on through most of World War II as a nominal kingdom; a monarchy without a monarch. Without the monarchy, Hungary drifted ever closer to Nazi Germany, first by increased economic ties, later by taking part in the division of territory in Czechoslovakia and finally militarily by joining the Axis and participating in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Hungary regained some of the territory lost to Romania thanks to Hitler, regained more in the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia and took a slice for itself when Czechoslovakia was dismembered. Slovakia had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary prior to World War I and the Slovaks were persuaded to become a German protectorate when Hitler threatened to allow Hungary to swallow them whole if they tried to make any trouble about it. The Hungarians went on as less-than-enthusiastic members of the Axis but the Hungarian military was decimated at the Battle of Stalingrad and as the Soviet Red Army drew closer, Horthy began trying to get Hungary out of the Axis and surrender. When Hitler learned of this, not surprisingly, German forces occupied Hungary in 1944, Horthy was arrested and the Hungarian pro-Nazi “Arrow Cross” party took power as the willing instruments of the German occupation.

Crown Prince Otto
All of these events were watched very closely by the man who should have been King of Hungary, Archduke Otto of Austria. He succeeded as head of the House of Hapsburg on the death of his father Emperor Charles in 1922. It was at that time that he became the nominal King of Hungary but when he reached legal adulthood and was expected to actually take up the Hungarian throne, Admiral Horthy advised him not to try it. The Archduke knew well enough from the experience of his father that it would be useless to try so long as Horthy opposed him, given the current situation. With Horthy being replaced by the Nazis and they in quick succession by the communists, the opportunity to take up the Hungarian throne would never materialize for Archduke Otto. However, he did have reason to be hopeful about a restoration in Austria and if the Austrian situation had worked out, there is reason to believe that the situation in Hungary, and perhaps beyond, would have altered considerably and in favor of the Hapsburgs.

Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss
Very few people realize just how close Archduke Otto came to being restored to the Austrian throne. By his own accounts, it was a done deal, it was going to happen, the long-sought after goal of seeing the House of Hapsburg in Vienna again was no longer a question of “if” nor even of “when”. It was all planned out. The root cause for why it did not ultimately happen came from the last place anyone would have expected: Ethiopia. First, however, a little background information is probably in order. After the First World War, Austria was left as a small “rump state”, powerless and isolated in Europe. It is not surprising that Austrians initially favored a union with Germany but the Allies refused to permit this, fearing that it would strengthen the Germans. Austria went through turmoil, civil strife, the all too common threat of a communist takeover before order was finally restored by a short, fervent man named Engelbert Dollfuss, leader of the Fatherland Front. First coming to office as chancellor in 1932, Dollfuss solidified his hold on Austria after defeating the socialists in 1934 but would not survive the end of the year. He had courted the monarchists but never took them home from the dance.

Banning opposition parties, Dollfuss established a Catholic, corporatist state which has since been termed “Austrofascism”. He did manage to restore a proper patriotic pride to Austria, ended the threat of a leftist revolution and had very close and friendly ties with Benito Mussolini in Rome. He kept monarchists dangling on promises but did see eye-to-eye with Archduke Otto in their mutual loathing of the Nazis. Most importantly, this attitude was shared by Il Duce in Italy. Given the subsequent formation of the Axis, the “Pact of Steel” and so on, it can easily be forgotten that while Hitler hero-worshipped Mussolini since the Blackshirts march on Rome, that sentiment was not returned. Mussolini initially disliked Hitler and even after Hitler came to power and the two met face to face, Mussolini found something unsavory about him. This was important as the Nazis wanted Austria more than anything, it being the largest part of the German population outside Germany itself, and Italy was the one major obstacle to the Nazis being able to take Austria by force. In 1934, when Dollfuss was assassinated by the Nazis in an attempted coup, Mussolini was outraged and rushed Italian troops to the border, forcing Hitler to back down and denounce the Austrian Nazis who had done the deed.

Schuschnigg and Mussolini
At the time, Germany was still militarily weak but Mussolini was rather put off by the fact that, in that hour of crisis in 1934, he had been forced to act alone; neither Britain nor France had backed him up. In Austria itself, Kurt von Schuschnigg succeeded Dollfuss as chancellor and he knew that something more would have to be done to preserve Austrian independence and keep the country out of Hitler’s grasp. Restoring the monarchy was something Schuschnigg determined he could do. As Hitler and the Nazis in Germany grew in power and prestige there were not a few Austrians who longed to be part of the “Greater Germany” Hitler pledged to build. It was necessary then to give Austrians a greater sense of themselves as a distinct people, to recall the glory days of the past and there could be no better way to accomplish this than by restoring the Hapsburgs. There would be those in the European community who would oppose it but ultimately only two men mattered; Archduke Otto himself and the guarantor of Austrian independence Benito Mussolini.

Archduke Otto
Needless to say, Archduke Otto was more than willing to take the throne. Horrified by the thought of a Nazi takeover in Vienna and Austria becoming a state in Germany, the imperial heir offered to return at any time if he could be of help in saving the situation. The laws banning the Hapsburgs from Austrian soil were repealed and properties of the Hapsburgs were restored to them. The monarchists were jubilant, the Nazis were outraged and Schuschnigg finally put the issue to Mussolini. Would Italy support or oppose a restoration of the Hapsburg monarchy in Austria? By this time, Mussolini had come close to falling out with the Allies but still had no love for Hitler nor did he want to see the Germans on his border by annexing Austria. Surprisingly, given his background, Mussolini informed Schuschnigg that he would not oppose a restoration of the monarchy. He even went a step further and suggested that Italo-Austrian ties could be cemented by a Hapsburg marriage to a member of the Italian House of Savoy (something for which there was plenty of historical precedent). Schuschnigg arranged a secret meeting with Archduke Otto to inform him that the path had been cleared for the restoration of the monarchy. It was all agreed to and Schuschnigg stated that everything should be set for the restoration to happen the following year.

Fuhrer & Duce
Unfortunately, problems arose that prevented the speedy restoration that Schuschnigg and Archduke Otto planned. After an Ethiopian attack on an Italian outpost along the disputed border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Mussolini launched his invasion of Ethiopia. Liberal world opinion came down hard on Italy with Britain and France denouncing Italy in the League of Nations. Sanctions were imposed on Italy that succeeded in infuriating the public but not in deterring the Duce from his war. Germany, of course, did not join in the sanctions against Italy but continued to offer an outstretched hand of friendship. Ethiopia was conquered by Italian forces within seven months and Mussolini was turned against the Allies firmly and irretrievably. Since the Allies had offended him, the Duce turned to Hitler. From that point on, Austria could no longer count on Italian protection from a Nazi takeover and Hitler immediately began planning for the annexation of Austria and to do it before Archduke Otto could be restored to the throne. Fittingly enough, the Nazi plan for the invasion of Austria was given the codename of “Operation Otto”.

Patriotic rally of the Fatherland Front
Today, few people realize how close Austria came to restoring the monarchy, were it not for the British and French sanctions on Italy over Ethiopia, it almost certainly would have happened. More than that though, few people realize just how seriously the Nazis took the possibility. They were positively panicked by the idea and their fears were not entirely unjustified. Stories circulated in Nazi Germany that Archduke Otto would be restored to the Austrian throne but also that Hungary and Czechoslovakia were planning to join together under the House of Hapsburg and attack Nazi Germany. Of course, the idea that Archduke Otto or any government he presided over would have launched an unprovoked attack on Germany is absurd, yet there was some elements of truth to the stories. Schuschnigg had worked to forge better relations with Hungary and Archduke Otto was already nominally the King of Hungary anyway, so it is not that far-fetched to foresee a restoration in Austria leading to a full restoration in Hungary as well. The idea of Czechoslovakia rejoining Austria and Hungary also seems far-fetched but considering that they were under threat from Nazi Germany themselves, if Italy, Austria and Hungary had become an all-monarchy, anti-Nazi power bloc, it is not impossible to imagine the Czech government joining in as a matter of practical necessity.

The anschluss is accomplished
But, as we know, it didn’t happen. Schuschnigg called for a referendum on Austrian independence and Hitler determined to take action before it could be carried out. The only one who could have stopped him was Mussolini and he was no longer prepared to stand in the way. When this news reached Hitler, the Nazi dictator was ecstatic, knowing that Austria was as good as his. To sweeten the deal, Hitler also renounced forever any claim to the Southern Tyrol (a German populated area ceded to Italy after World War I). Prince Philip of Hesse telephoned the Fuhrer from Rome to inform him that Mussolini would keep his troops at home this time. Hitler excitedly shouted into the phone, “Please tell Mussolini that I shall never forget this…Never, never, never! Come what may! …And listen -sign any agreement he would like…You can tell him again. I thank him most heartily. I will never forget him!…Whenever he should be in need or in danger, he can be sure that I will stick with him, rain or shine -come what may- even if the whole world would rise against him -I will, I shall-” No child on Christmas morning was ever so excited and, though it was said in an obviously exuberant moment, Hitler would be as good as his word, at least as far as Mussolini was concerned. On March 12, 1938 German army units drove into Austria and in quick order the annexation was accomplished.

Archduke Otto
Austrian aristocrats and monarchists were immediately arrested by the Nazis, many of them being killed, along with any others who had opposed the union. The laws against the Hapsburgs in Austria were put back into effect, their property was again confiscated and Archduke Otto himself was declared a criminal, a wanted man and he had to take extra precautions for his own security. He moved to France and helped a great many Jews escape from Austria prior to the outbreak of World War II. He also remained adamant that the Austrians were not partners with Germany, but their first victims. Without the unity that the Hapsburg monarchy had provided, Hitler had a relatively easy time taking the German populated areas of the former Austria-Hungary for himself. First was the Sudetenland and then all of Czechoslovakia was partitioned with Poland and Hungary joining in the feast. Anyone who would dismiss the impact on the world of the loss of the “Dual Monarchy” should consider the fact that all of Hitler’s pre-war territorial gains were a nibbling away at the former lands of Austria-Hungary. It also warrants pointing out that the Allies took no action against Germany in these days and that should serve as an illustration of how unwarranted the fears were of Allied opposition to the restoration of the Hapsburgs. It would all seem to indicate that, despite the protestations of those who did not want to give up power, that the French and British would not have taken any action to oppose a return of the Hapsburgs if a country like Hungary had just gone ahead and done it. Ultimately, the only one who made a commitment to restore the Hapsburgs regardless of Allied opinion was Schuschnigg and he was abandoned.

The Archduke in Florida, 1942
When World War II broke out in Europe and the Germans finally got around to launching their invasion of France, Archduke Otto was again forced to flee, this time to the United States of America via Portugal. With the Nazi laws enacted against them, the Austrian Imperial Family in America were people without a country but Archduke Otto never relented in his anti-Nazi campaign. He settled in Washington DC but traveled across America extensively. He met with President Roosevelt several times and urged him and the American people (which at the time wanted no part of Europe’s war) to intervene and take up the cause of defeating the Axis. He also raised money for refugees from the former Austria-Hungary and charitable causes to benefit them as well as doing his best to make it clear to all that his people were not the enemies of America but victims of the Nazis just as much as the Czechs or the Poles. At the end of 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler and Mussolini declared war on the United States in solidarity with their Japanese ally, America committed itself to the world war. Always a man of peace who greatly emphasized the role played by his father in trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the First World War, Archduke Otto nonetheless volunteered to fight for the Allied cause. While in America he tried to raise funds and gain support for an army battalion of Austrian exiles but was unable to bring it to fruition.

When the war progressed in favor of the Allies, ending ultimately in the total destruction of Germany and its division among the Allies, Archduke Otto was on the scene and was briefly able to visit his Austrian homeland in 1945. His immediate concern was lobbying Allied leaders to keep Austria out of the hands of the Soviets. He put forward his own proposal for post-war Central Europe, calling for the creation of a “Danube Federation” that would encompass much of the former territory of the Empire of Austria-Hungary. British Prime Minister Churchill seemed supportive of the idea but, not surprisingly, it was thwarted by the opposition of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. As nearly all of the territory of the proposed federation was within the agreed-to Soviet sphere of influence, Stalin was able to veto the plan. Although it was not stated outright that the “Danube Federation” would be another Hapsburg empire, for the Archduke was certainly not an ambitious man, it stood to reason that he would have been the only logical candidate to assume a position of leadership in such a state. As it was, he busied himself with arguing for the rights of the German-speaking peoples outside of Germany, trying to gain recognition of Austria as a victim of Nazi aggression rather than an accessory and to form an Austrian government-in-exile. The last goal proved unreachable and he also railed against the handing over of Eastern Europe to Stalin and the Soviets which was the primary impediment to most of his plans. Unfortunately, that concerned agreements already made and involved territory that the Red Army already occupied so that, even if the British and Americans had regrets, there was little to nothing they could do about it.

With the situation as it was at the end of the war, hopes for a Hapsburg restoration vanished quickly. However, it is still a mark of how much the power-mad politicians who seized control of Austria in the aftermath of the war were about the possibility of Archduke Otto gaining the throne that, while Austria was purged of all the laws and policies enacted during the union with Nazi Germany, the post-war republican government retained those that were anti-Hapsburg. The Archduke remained banned from Austrian soil for decades until he was obliged to renounce his claim to the throne simply to have the basic freedom enjoyed by any other citizen. It was an obscene injustice for a man who had opposed the Nazi movement from the very beginning, a man who had been singled out by the Nazi regime as an “enemy of the state” and who had devoted his entire life during the war to resisting the Nazis and rescuing Austria and the other Hapsburg realms from their grip.

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