If you have not already, I strongly urge you to read Blessed Charles of Austria, by the author of this essay. It tells the whole tale of Bld Karl and his Empress, the Servant of God Zita.
By Charles A. CoulombeWhen Bl. Emperor Charles was only seven years old, an English writer named Anthony Hope released a novel entitledThe Prisoner of Zenda. This exciting yarn, with its swashbuckling hero, suspenseful plot, and final submission of desire to duty has engendered a whole genre of similar novels and films from that day to this (the 1937 film version of the original novel that fathered them all is my personal favourite). Few readers of Zenda at its first appearance could have foreseen that there was a child prince already living who would one day prove himself quite as brave and daring as Hope’s Rudolph Rassendyl.
Of the future Emperor’s many virtues, his courage in the face of personal danger at the front – before and after his accession to the throne – was commented upon by many (he had even rescued a lame soldier from a flash flood on the Italian Front). But by early 1921, it seemed that the need for such bravery had passed. Comfortably ensconced in a villa in Gland, Switzerland (now the clubhouse of the Golfe Club Imperiale), for two years Charles, his wife Zita, and their growing family enjoyed a pleasant and natural family life. This period would be remembered by their oldest children as their happiest. At the same time, he was in touch with loyal followers from throughout his former Empire, and from his exile had been able to exert a small but noticeable influence on the outcome of the peace treaties.
But pleasant as his own time was, Charles was all too aware of what was going on elsewhere – especially among his peoples. None of them were doing very well, but the story of Hungary under the 1919-1920 Communist regime was as horrific as it was mercifully short. Defeated by the Romanians, Bela Kun’s reds were replaced by the Whites under Admiral Miklos Horthy – who not long before had visited Charles and swore his undying loyalty. This latter included a promise to restore the Emperor-King to his Hungarian throne as soon as possible. Now the Kingdom was restored, the Admiral served as Regent for the King – but had shown no interest in fulfilling his oath.
In the meantime, Hungary lay prostrate – not only for the mistreatment she had received under the Kun regime, but the effects of losing huge swaths of territory to her newly created neighbours – Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Greater Romania. Forming the “Little Entente,” these successor states to Austria-Hungary were themselves vowed to keep the Habsburgs out; they relied on the French patronage to reinforce them against either restoration in Hungary and/or Austria, a resurgent Germany, and Italy – if that wartime ally should decide to look eastwards for power. The French premiere and foreign minister, Aristide Briand, had other hopes. He wanted to see Central Europe stable and allied with France, but doubted the ability of the Little Entente to maintain stability in the long term. He had come to know Emperor Charles during the wartime peace negotiations, and become convinced that if he were restored to at the very least his Hungarian throne in the immediate, a nucleus of order that neither Germany should it rearm, nor the Soviets should they again attempt revolution, would be able to unseat. So Briand indicated privately to the Emperor that he would not only look favourably upon his return to Hungary, but that he would keep the Little Entente at bay and aid the hard-pressed Hungarian economy with much needed financial credits. Of course, if he should fail in any such attempt, Briand would deny all knowledge.
The Ruritanian romances are filled with stories of various stalwarts risking all for King, Country, and Honour. But in this case, it was the Monarch himself who decided to hazard all – including his own life - for his people’s good. Charles resolved to make the attempt, despite lacking any sort of resources to do so. On March 21, 1921, he wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XV explaining his reasons for making such a desperate attempt. After summing up the dark and divided political situation in Hungary, he wrote “…it is not out of pure ambition, but inspired, above all, by a feeling of the duties incumbent on me as crowned King, and which are also, if not more sacred to me than my rights, which I made the decision to myself return to Hungary, in the hope of putting an end, by my presence, to these internal struggles. It is, of course, not without any reflection that I made up my mind, and it is with all my heart that I begged the Almighty to enlighten me and to show me the path to take to ensure happiness and tranquility to my people.”
As it happened, Charles had a Portuguese gardener at his Swiss villa, Roderigo Sanques, who so closely resembled him that passersby who saw him often thought the Emperor himself was working in his garden. In a strange twist on the plot of The Prisoner of Zenda, Charles resolved to use Sanques’ Portuguese passport to travel back to Hungary. Only Empress Zita and a very few others in his confidence knew what he planned. On March 24, which was Maundy Thursday that year, he left his villa on foot, both Portuguese and a forged American red cross passports on his person, and walked across the frontier into France. A waiting car brought him to Strasbourg, where his journey would begin in earnest. It is interesting to note that Charles’ adventure began on Maundy Thursday – the day when – had he been peacefully seated in his palace and Vienna, he would have washed the feet of twelve old men in the throne room of the Hofburg as did his predecessors. On this Maundy Thursday, travelling in disguise, he hoped to do a greater service for a far larger number – having to wear disguise was even more humbled than the traditional ceremony required.
In Strasbourg he boarded the Orient Express Night Train for Vienna, arriving at the Westbahnhof the next evening. He took a cab to Landskrongasse 5, in which building his childhood friend and former adjutant, Tamás Count Erdődy in the city’s First District. One can only imagine what went through his mind passing through what had been his family’s capital for eight centuries, and now posed an enormous danger to him, should he be recognised. Arriving at the building, he rang the bell and was received by the astonished Count. As he passed through the lobby, Charles no doubt said a quick prayer by the statues of The Madonna and Child and her parents, Ss. Joachim and Anne, which still grace the entrance hall. Having explained his intentions to the Count, the exhausted Monarch took his rest while his old friend made the arrangements for the next part of their journey. So ended Charles’ last night and last Good Friday in Vienna, where in normal times on that feast, the Emperors would devoutly venerate the Cross. Now, the last of them – thus far – was preparing for his own.
The Count had to secure the necessary paperwork for the supposed Portuguese Roderigo Sanques to enter Hungary. Erdődy contacted the Hungarian Consul General in Vienna. Despite it being Holy Saturday – which in those pre-1955 years featured the Easter Vigil Service in the Morning, and all sorts of processions in honour of the Resurrection – he was able to get the visa and set off in a taxi with the emperor in the direction of Seebenstein. Schloss Seebenstein was the home of the senior heir to the Portuguese throne, the Duke of Braganza – among whose sisters were both Zita’s mother and Charles’ step-grandmother. There awaited Schlederer, Charles’ former bodyguard and chauffeur with a car. Afterwards the trio drove through Aspang, Mönichkirchen, and Pinggau to the Austro-Hungarian border crossing at Sinnersdorf. At that time, what is now the Austrian State of Burgenland was still the westernmost reaches of Hungary.
There was some difficulty at the Austrian side of the border, regarding the passports and the car, which was not authorised for entrance into Hungary. All was smoothed over, however, by an Austrian Gendarme who took the Count by the hand and whispered to him: “Do you think, Herr Graf, I don't know who you smuggled? I shouldn't recognize the man who pinned this medal of bravery to my chest with his own hand?” The Hungarians recognised the Count, who often used this entrance to return to his Hungarian estate and let the party walk through. At last, the Emperor King was home. But what to do now?
Erdődy suggested that they walk to the Hotel Lehner at Bruckgasse 6 in Pinkafeld, whose proprietor he knew. This they did and ordered lunch. Lehner recognised his illustrious guest; Charles begged him to keep his secret, and the loyal innkeeper did so. But he did keep the plates and silverware his King had used; in later years they were displayed – until the Soviet troops stole them in 1945. Lehner lent his coach, horses, and coachman to drive the Count and his “Portuguese” companion to Großpetersdorf, where Erdődy had a friend whose car he believed he could borrow, in order to drive to Szombatheley, whose Bishop, Janos Mikes, was known by the Emperor to be an ally.
As they drove through Oberwart, the town’s Holy Saturday procession was making its way through the main street. The coach stopped, and the Count and his mysterious companion got out to kneel as the procession passed by. They then returned to the coach and continued, but at one point Charles took off his goggles, and the coachman recognised the man for whom he had fought during the recent war. Letting the duo off at the Count’s friend’s house, he made his way back to Pinkafeld, excited and happy to have played his part in whatever his King was planning, as he delightedly told Lehner. At the Count’s friend’s home. A maid served them coffee, and the screamed, dropping the pot. In the Count’s words, “She stood in front of the king and exclaimed: ‘Jesus Maria! ... ‘The King!’ And rushed out. The incident soon cleared up: the girl was headquartered in Baden during the war, just then, served as a cook … and of course saw the Kaiser almost every day ... Now it would have made no sense to try to keep the incognito. Suddenly the siren of the fire brigade broke through the rural silence: the news of the arrival of the king had spread like wildfire, and the Großpetersdorf fire brigade stood in front of the Schey house in the best gear and aligned for the parade. This became the king's first greeting by an official body on the soil of Hungary. In the meantime, two beautiful horses neighed, a 'rubber cyclist' drove up, and we got into the car with the roar of 'Eljen' (Long live the King) shouts. The noise slowly ebbed behind us, and we set course for Szombathely. Here the first political consequences should follow from the adventure of the King ...”
About 10 P.M. they finally arrived at the Bishop’s Palace in Szombathely. The Count banged on the door, and a servant came and asked what was wanted. Told to fetch the Bishop, he went off again. As it happened Mikes was hosting a dinner party which included the cabinet minister, Msgr. Vass and the local garrison commander, Col. Anton Lehar. He came to the door somewhat annoyed and asked the Count (whom he knew) what he wanted. Erdődy asked if he did not recognise his companion. When the Bishop said no, Charles removed his goggles, and Mikes dropped to his knees, saying, “Majesty!” He quickly escorted them upstairs and announced, “His Majesty, the Apostolic King!” Vas declared that the cabinet was dissolved on the King’s return, and Lehar pledged his loyalty. It was agreed that a message would be sent to Prime Minister Pal Count Teleki who was staying at a nearby estate. The King then went to sleep in a guest bedroom, certain that all would at turn out well.
We shall leave His Majesty there, little knowing, surrounded as he was by friends, that treachery awaited him. The Prime Minister would indeed be contacted the next morning and promised to go to Budapest and prepare Horthy to surrender power to his King. Instead, Charles would go unarmed with a small escort, and find Horthy unaware of his arrival and unprepared to surrender anything. They would have a confrontation, at the end of which the King would return to the Bishop’s Palace, aware that Horthy could not be unseated peacefully. Despite a telegramme from Briand urging him to stay, Charles resolved to leave, and return in a better armed manner. But on April 1 – as it happened, a year to the day upon which he would die in far off Madeira – he took ill in Szombathely. When he at last recovered, he departed by train after addressing a cheering crowd from the palace’s terrace. On the way back to the border the train stopped at every station, for more cheers, speeches, and loyal addresses at each halt. At the Austrian border, three officers – American, British, and French – took charge of him, and stayed with him until the return to the Swiss border. Once safely ensconced in his new home in Switzerland (the Swiss authorities forced the family to move to less easily departed premises), Charles and Zita began to plan a return.
It had been a mad adventure – and does indeed read like something from a novel. Its failure should not detract from the fact that in addition to his many other qualities – sanctity foremost among them – Charles possessed the kind of bravery and daring we would expect only in a fictional hero. But he was flesh and blood and walked among us only a century ago. Among the many things we may ask of him in prayer, one is certainly the courage to follow our duty, wherever it takes us – as he did; the other is that God would raise up leaders of his calibre once more.