The Sixtus affair, Emperor “Karl the Unready”, and the end of the Habsburg empire

Yesterday I saw a documentary on (then newly) declassified documents about what to me was an unknown episode in the First World War. Briefly, the last Habsburg emperor, Karl I was persuaded by his consort, Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma, to make back-channel approaches to the Allies via her brother Sixtus, an officer in the Belgian army. (She saw the famine and privations striking Vienna, and correctly saw that the Dual Monarchy would not survive unless Austria-Hungary extricated itself from the war.)

When the German leadership — Kaiser Wilhelm II, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff — found out, this blew up famously. See all about it in the fascinating documentary below.

I couldn’t help thinking that Karl I should really have been called Karl the Unready. Yes, I know that “Aethelred the Unready” really meant “Aethelred the unwilling to listen to counsel”, but I could not resist the pun. Karl I had not expected to ever come to the throne following the very long reign of Franz Joseph (who’s up there with Louis XIV, Elizabeth I of England, [Addendum: Queen Victoria, Hirohito], and Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in the shortlist of longest-ruling monarchs). However, first the heir apparent, the melancholy Crown Prince Rudolph, had killed himself and his lover in a suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge.

Rudolf having been an only son, Franz Joseph’s younger brother Archduke Karl Ludwig became the heir presumptive, but he died in 1896 from typhoid fever, presumably contracted on a trip to Eretz Israel and Egypt. All hopes had then been put on his son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Franz Ferdinand appears to have been a garrulous sort, but he was clear-sighted in one regard: the only way the Habsburg dual monarchy could survive was its reform into a federation of states for all the nationalities. It is quite possible that, had the assassin’s bullet at Sarajevo missed and had he lived to succeed Franz Joseph when the latter died of old age in 1916, the Habsburgs might still be on the throne ruling a form of Central European Commonwealth. (It is unlikely that World War Two would ever have broken out in this timeline: hmm, I see an alternate history project once I’m done with Valkyrie 1943…)

Franz Ferdinand had married a commoner in a morganatic marriage (a.k.a., a “left-hand marriage”), i.e., one in which the offspring are excluded from the line of succession. Suddenly, Franz Ferdinand nephew, Karl Ludwig’s grandson Karl, found himself the heir presumptive, his father Archduke Otto Franz having died of syphilis in 1906.

Karl wasn’t a wastrel or a roué like his father had been: he was a devout Catholic and appears to have been an enthusiastic military officer who studied on the side, but had never been prepared for his duties as head of state for the simple reason nobody expected those to befall him.

Karl would die a broken man in exile on Madeira: after Austria declared itself a republic in 1918. He had tried repeatedly to reclaim the other Habsburg throne, that of Hungary, where Admiral Miklos Horthy was nominally his Regent: Horthy, however, refused to play ball and vacate his position, as we have covered here previously. Zita outlived him by many decades; Karl’s nominal heir, Otto von Habsburg, would go on to play a major role in post-WW II politics at the level of what would become the European Union.

Allow me to include a Biographics video on Emperor Franz Joseph, the predecessor under whose reign the prewar Viennese culture we think of came to be. His Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” (from the Bavarian royal House of Wittelsbach) is the second player in this video, and was instrumental in reforming the Austrian empire into the Austro-Hungarian “Royal and Imperial” dual monarchy.

2 thoughts on “The Sixtus affair, Emperor “Karl the Unready”, and the end of the Habsburg empire

  1. In the short list of long reigns, I’d add Queen Victoria and Emperor Hirohito who both did 60+ years and remove Elizabeth 1 who only managed 44 years on the throne. (see if you want to find the others, a fascinating list in fact)

    Its interesting that both Britain and Austro Hungary had long reigning monarchs at more or less the same time

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