Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

100 Years Ago: The Death of Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary

Once an Emperor, Charles Habsburg

What does an emperor do when his empire dissolves beneath his feet and he doesn't believe it's acceptable to abdicate his throne? Well, we have a case study from the Great War in the person of Charles I of the Austria-Hungary. 

On 16 October 1918, he declared a new federalist constitution by himself which, because of the armistice on 3 November 1918 and the foundation of the Austrian republic on 12 November 1918, never came into force. On 11 November 1918, influenced by his Minister Ignaz Seipel (1876–1932) and the Archbishop of Vienna, Friedrich Gustav Piffl (1864–1932), Charles renounced any participation in government. After the armistice, the Austrian parliament demanded his abdication, which was refused by the emperor, who retired to Swiss exile on 23 March 1919. He stayed in Rorschach and Prangins, before twice moving to Hungary to push for restoration (in March and October 1921). But as he did not want to provoke a civil war after Regent Miklós Horthy (1868–1957) refused to hand over power, he was forced to give up those efforts.

The first attempt at restoration started on 26 March 1921. Having secretly negotiated with the French Prime Minister Aristide Briand (1862–1932), Charles believed that France would support him against menacing interventions from Hungary's neighbors. Charles managed to travel to Szombathely for preliminary negotiations with the Hungarian Prime Minister Pál Teleki (1879–1941). On the next day, he succeeded in meeting Regent Miklós Horthy in the Castle of Budapest, but even after an emotional two-hour discussion, Horthy refused to hand over power to the king, with the argument that this would necessarily lead to a civil war. Despite this, Charles stayed in Szombathely until 5 April 1921, expecting Horthy to change his mind. Disappointed, he then returned to Switzerland.

Wedding Day with Great Uncle Emperor Franz Josef
 in Attendance

On 20 October 1921, accompanied by his wife Zita, Charles tried again, having landed near Sopron with a small airplane. Without intending to seek compromise with Horthy, he formed a provisional government. Supported by Hungarian legitimist politicians and officers, and parts of the army, Charles tried to march to Budapest. Horthy made a military proclamation that he would retain power and demanded loyalty from his army. On 23 October, the legitimists arrived at Budaörs, a village close to the capital. The following confrontation might have led to civil war. Nineteen victims remained on the battlefield, dead. To avoid further bloodshed, Charles reluctantly agreed to armistice negotiations. He then dictated a surrender order.

Together with his family, he was sent into exile on the island of Madeira, where he would see his last days.  On 9 March, Emperor Karl took his two oldest children with him to the town of Funchal to buy a birthday present for Karl-Ludwig who would turn four the next day. At the top of the mountain where they were living, the air was densely foggy, cold, and damp; while at the base in town, it was sunny and warm. On the return trip, the emperor became overheated with exertion, and was not properly dressed for the chillier climate on top of the mountain. This affected a chronic lung problem he had suffered from for several years. A few days later, Karl went down to Funchal again, but on his return, he went to bed exhausted, with a cough and fever. Since he could not afford a doctor, he delayed calling for medical aid, and his sickness became worst, developing into pneumonia and influenza. 


Finally, doctors were summoned, but Karl was seriously ill, and in a weakened state. They injected him with camphor, turpentine, and caffeine; they applied mustard plasters, and gave him small balloons of oxygen when it could be obtained. Finally, in desperation, they cupped his back—a painful procedure meant to suction infection out of the body. 

Despite his suffering, the emperor never complained about his pain or agony. In fact, he was more worried about the trouble he was causing the household, and the possibility that he might be contagious to others. The extent of his suffering was evident when he was overheard speaking to himself: "How good it is that there is confidence in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Otherwise, it would be impossible to bear with all this." Karl's devotion to the Sacred Heart was particularly strong. Everywhere he traveled, he took with him an image of the Sacred Heart, which he kept under his pillow. During his final illness, he also kept a relic of the True Cross, a second-class relic of Pope St. Pius X, and a relic of Br. Conrad. 

His wife stayed with him throughout most of his ordeal. She would hold him, soothe him, and pray with him. He prayed for his oldest son, Otto, as well as all of his children. He forgave those who betrayed him and prayed for his subjects. On the evening before he died, he uttered: "I must suffer like this so that my peoples can come together again." But his most frequent prayer was: "Thy Will be done!" 


Dead at 34

On the morning of his last day he whispered to his beloved wife," I love you unceasingly," and she held him in her arms for the rest of the morning. He prayed aloud, "Jesus, I live for You, for You I die, dear Jesus come!" The emperor rested for a while. He later requested Holy Communion, which Father Zsambóki administered to him, anointing him a final time. The Eucharist was exposed in his room, and he prayed in the Lord's presence. About ten minutes before he died, he prayed, "Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes, yes. My Jesus, as You will it—Jesus." Then he whispered "Jesus" softly and died. It was shortly after noon on Saturday, 1 April 1922. He was only 34 years old. In 1954, the process of beatification was initiated. Fifty years later, on 3 October 2004, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II (1920–2005).

Sources:  Encyclopedia 1914-1918 Online; Emperor Charles Website


  1. Thank you for presenting this, very well done. Would also enjoy more articles on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Eastern Front, if possible. Today’s headlines of Ukraine mention many of the same areas fought over in WW1. Vladimir Sputum is the new Tyrant in the East.

  2. Empress Zita of Austria and Hungary died in 1989 aged 96, after 67 years of widowhood. She was the last surviving European Empress.