Charles I of Austria

From New World Encyclopedia

Emperor Charles I of Austria

The Blessed Charles I (Karl Franz Josef Ludwig Hubert Georg Maria von Habsburg-Lothringen), (17 August, 1887 – 1 April, 1922) (Hungarian: Károly IV (Károly Ferenc József) was, among other titles, the last Emperor of Austria, the last King of Hungary, the final King of Bohemia, and the last monarch of the Habsburg Dynasty. He reigned as Emperor Karl I of Austria and King Károly IV of Hungary from 1916 to 1918. He was a direct descendent of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire.

At the end of World War I, Charles was compelled to sign a withdrawal of power but refused to sign an abdication document, despite receiving threats. Convinced of the necessity of the monarchy, he sought to regain the throne until his death.

Charles I had ascended to the throne at the age of 29 lacking sufficient experience to handle a monarchy on its last legs, with the many nationalities vying for independence and German nationalism on the rise. Historians vary in the assessment of his efforts, with some arguing that he was a benevolent man, even a saint, who exerted himself to halt the war that he had inherited, while others contend that he was weak and lacking in political skill. His determination to end the war culminated in what came to be known as the Sixtus debacle; his attempt to negotiate peace in dealing directly with France, a representative of the Allied Powers. In the end this in fact contributed to the dissolution of the monarchy. When the individual countries within the empire declared independence, aided by the Western world, the bell tolled for the Habsburg Monarchy and its last emperor.

Charles died at the age of 34 while in impoverished exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

Life and Heritage

The Habsburgs

The Habsburg family was an important ruling house of Europe and is most well known to be the ruling House of Austria (and the Austrian Empire) for over six centuries. Mainly by marriage though sometimes by conquest, the Habsburgs ruled half of Europe. They were Holy Roman Emperors and one of the most powerful families in Europe. It was the assassination of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that sparked off the events that led to World War I. Europe was to a large extent shaped by this lineage, as was the history of the Holy Roman Empire and its legal code. The dynasty was generally a unifying force, though there were those who might be considered despots. In the 1500s the dynasty split into two forces, a Spanish line and an Austrian line. Both lines died out in the 1700s. However, the heiress of the last Austrian Habsburg (Maria Theresa) had married Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, Duke of Lorraine, (both of whom were great-grandchildren of Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand III, but from different empresses) and their descendants carried on the Habsburg tradition from Vienna under the dynastic name Habsburg-Lorraine. It was to this line that Charles I (sometimes known as Karl I of Austria, or Charles IV of Hungary) was born.

Immediate family

Born Karl Franz Josef Ludwig Hubert Georg Maria von Habsburg-Lothringen on August 17, 1887, Charles I was the son of Archduke Otto Franz of Austria (1865–1906) and Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony (1867–1944). He was also a nephew of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, whose assassination triggered World War I. He became heir-presumptive in 1914 when his uncle was assassinated in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo of 1379, in which Serbia lost independence to the Turks. He ascended to the throne as emperor two years later, following the death of his grand-uncle, Franz Joseph. In 1916, he also became a Generalfeldmarschall (general field marshall) in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

Charles I married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma in 1911 and they together bore eight children:

  • Crown Prince Otto (1912–), married Princess Regina of Saxe-Meiningen and Hildburghausen
  • Archduchess Adelheid (1914–1971), unmarried
  • Archduke Robert (1915–1996), married Princess Margherita of Savoy-Aosta
  • Archduke Felix (1916–), married Princess Anna-Eugénie of Arenberg
  • Archduke Karl Ludwig (1918–), married Princess Yolande of Ligne
  • Archduke Rudolf (1919–), married firstly Countess Xenia Tschernyscheva-Besobrasova and secondly Princess Anna of Wrede
  • Archduchess Charlotte (1921–1989), married Count Georg of Carlow, Duke of Mecklenburg
  • Archduchess Elisabeth (1922–1993), married Prince Heinrich of Liechtenstein

The last emperor of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy died of pneumonia, presumably caught after taking a walk while already a sickly man, on a freezing winter's day on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1922. He remains buried in the island’s Church of Our Lady of the Monte despite several attempts to move his remains to the Habsburg Imperial Crypt in Vienna.

Eighty-two years after his death, in 2004, Charles I was beatified by Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church, who stated in part, "From the beginning, the Emperor Karl conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions."

Charles I's (Karl I) ancestors in three generations
Karl I, Emperor of Austria Father:
Archduke Otto Franz of Austria
Father's father:
Archduke Carl Ludwig of Austria
Father's father's father:
Archduke Franz Karl of Austria
Father's father's mother:
Sophie of Bavaria
Father's mother:
Maria Annunciata of the Two Sicilies
Father's mother's father:
Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies
Father's mother's mother:
Maria Theresa of Austria
Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony
Mother's father:
George of Saxony
Mother's father's father:
John I of Saxony
Mother's father's mother:
Amelia of Bavaria (1801-1877)
Mother's mother:
Maria Anna of Portugal
Mother's mother's father:
Ferdinand II of Portugal
Mother's mother's mother:
Maria II of Portugal


Peace efforts

In 1917, the unsuccessful American offer of mediation to end World War I prompted Charles, desperately trying to put an end to the war, toward secret negotiations with France as a representative of the Entente powers.

With the aid of his wife Zita's brother, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, he was able instead to make his most bold initiative for peace. Two of Zita's brothers, including Sixtus, were serving with the Belgians, Austria's enemy. Through Sixtus, Charles made a peace offer to the Allied governments. Sixtus approached the French government first and later the British government, speaking to Prime Minister David Lloyd-George.

Charles' peace plan allowed for sweeping territorial gains to the Allied nations - he was more interested in peace than in preserving the full boundaries of the Empire. This was another reason for secrecy; the full revelation of what he was prepared to negotiate away in the interests of peace would certainly have caused a strong reaction from the more aggressive elements within Austria-Hungary. Charles' willingness to make concessions went even further than that of Pope Benedict XV, himself an ardent and enthusiastic peace campaigner. Charles was willing, for example, to cede Alsace-Lorraine, a territory which was traditionally Habsburg but currently then in German hands.[1]

When the news of the overture leaked in April 1918, Karl denied all involvement, but the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau published letters signed by the emperor himself. As a result, The French president and the British Premier Lloyd George came to view the emperor as a man who could not be trusted by his own subjects and could not continue in the peace negotiations. The events were further complicated by Russia’s revolution in 1917 and the entry of the United States into the war in the same year. This event came to be known as the "Sixtus Negotiations". [2]

Attempts to save the monarchy

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was wracked by inner turmoil in the final years of the war, with much tension between ethnic groups. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 demanded that the monarchy allow for the self-determination of its peoples as part of his Fourteen Points. In response, Emperor Charles agreed to reconvene the Imperial Parliament and allow for the creation of a confederation with each national group exercising self-governance. However, the reforms quickly spiraled out of control, with each national government declaring complete independence. Karl's political future became uncertain. For a while it appeared as though he might reign as monarch of a newly independent Austria, but Austria's new Republican government ultimately vetoed this idea.

The Emperor made attempts in late October of 1918 to save the Habsburg monarchy; he issued a manifesto announcing a federal union of four components (German, Czech, South Slav, and Ukrainian), but it was impossible to sway events outside of Vienna any longer, and an armistice was signed on Nov. 3, 1918. The government remained hopeful that the Habsburg dynasty would continue on in what had remained of it after the secession of the Slav areas, but Charles wisely took the advice of Heinrich Lammasch, a renowned authority in the field of international law, and on November 11, 1918, proclaimed "I relinquish every participation in the administration of the State" but did not abdicate his thrones.[3].

This declaration marked the formal dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy. Charles then fled to Switzerland and continued to pursue regaining power while in exile. Encouraged by Hungarian nationalists, he sought twice in 1921 to reclaim the throne of Hungary but failed due to various factors including the lack of support from the Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy, which monarchists view as treason, although critics attribute Horthy's actions to his firm footing in political reality.

After World War I, members of the family who refused to renounce the throne were exiled from Austria; the exile was repealed in 1996.

Final Decades of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire

Nineteenth century

The Habsburg Monarchy began showing signs of decline in the nineteenth century, when Emperor Francis Joseph (1848–1916) lost control of Italy and Prussia, with the latter taken over by Germany. Moreover, Russia proved to be a challenger in the Balkans. In 1867 the Habsburgs redrew the boundaries of their lands to create the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At the same time, the task of ruling the lands became increasingly more difficult with a plethora of nationalities vying for control of their own countries amidst the absence of a unifying ideology. Hungarians, Germans, and Poles were the most vocal nationals. In addition, the Habsburgs were unable to meet the demands of the booming middle and industrial classes.

The restructuring of the monarchy spurred crises among the various Slav peoples within the monarchy. Czechs oscillated toward the Pan-Slav movement and held the Congress of Slavs in July 1908 in Prague. On the day of the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne of the widely unpopular Francis Joseph, the discontent and criticisms spilled into riots that prompted the imposition of martial law in Prague. In 1909 Prime Minister Baron von Bienerth made an attempt to appease the nationalities by including national representatives (Landsmannminister) in his Cabinet. The Germans, on the other hand, viewed the monarchy as an extension of German culture, while the Slavs aspired to save Austria for the sake of themselves, as they comprised two-thirds of its population. However, the Poles' loyalty to the central government diluted the Slavic efforts at national representation, which consequently crystallized into largely a Czech-German standoff that polarized even political parties within Bohemia.

Twentieth century

The twentieth century brought with it the culmination in the Balkan discontent, with Bosnia and Serbia stepping up national demands. In 1913, Austria was mulling military action against Serbia but could not follow through for lack of support from Italy and Germany. Instead, the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw its territory shrink in the Balkan peninsula, with the consequence of pushing the Turks out of Europe. It was increasingly difficult to maneuver among demands of individual nations of the Empire, and when the Habsburgs took the side of Bulgaria against Serbia, they undercut their standing in Romania, which harbored antagonism toward the monarchy due to the treatment of non-Magyar nationalities in Hungary. Consequently, Romania joined with Italy and Serbia in support of anti-Habsburg actions inside the monarchy. By 1914, Vienna felt it was crucial to stem these developments in order to preserve the empire.

World War I

The declaration of the war became imminent when Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir of Francis Joseph, was assassinated by a Bosnian nationalist at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, an event that served as a pretext for curbing the Serbian threat. Supported by Germany, the Austro-Hungarian foreign office officially assigned responsibility for the assassination to the Serbian government. This was to the dislike of the Hungarian prime minister, István, Count Tisza, who feared that a military action against Serbia and the country's subjugation would increase the Serbian population in the monarchy, but once he was assured of the opposite, he joined the war club. The Serbian government agreed to all but two Austro-Hungarian demands, but the monarchy was already decided to wage war with Serbia, notwithstanding that such action could provoke a large-scale war. The European governments put forward compromise solutions, but on July 28, 1914, Francis Joseph signed the declaration of war.

The German government took advantage of the Habsburg woes and declared war against France and Russia in an effort to address its own issues with those countries. Germany and Austria-Hungary entered into a military agreement that bound the latter to give up military action against Serbia and protect the German invasion of France against Russian intervention. Austria-Hungary thus reluctantly became a military satellite of Germany.

The German public was in favor of the war as were some Polish leaders, albeit as a result of the mounting anti-Russian feeling, but the Czechs had had enough of the monarchy at this point. One of the most prominent proponents of the Czech cause, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, emigrated to western Europe, and the Pan-Slavism advocate Karel Kramář was imprisoned for treason. Ethnic Germans living in Austria had seen most of their influence dissipated; in military matters they could only follow German orders. Hungarians had the upper hand in economic affairs; they controlled the food supply. In January 1915, the foreign office went again to a Magyar, István, Count Burián, whose skills were not sufficient to keep Italy and Romania, which had territorial claims, out of the war.

In the Wake of the Sixtus Debacle

King Charles taking his oath as part of the coronation ceremonies
Budapest, December 1916.
Karl as King Charles IV of Hungary, with Zita of Bourbon-Parma and Crown Prince Otto von Habsburg.
coronation portrait, Budapest, 1916.

Two months after the public exposure of the Sixtus negotiations, the French government recognized the Czechoslovak National Council as an official agency of the Czechs, as did the United States and Great Britain. At the same time, national revolutions within the monarchy were gaining momentum. Foreign Minister Burián sent a note to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on October 14, 1918, asking for an armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points, which Wilson rejected on the grounds that “in view of the political development of the preceding months and, especially, in view of the fact that Czechoslovakia had been recognized as being at war with the Central Powers, the U.S. government was unable to deal on the basis of the Fourteen Points anymore.”[4]

The monarchy was on its knees, which was evidenced by the fact that serious negotiations were held with the representatives of the Austro-Hungarian nationalities rather than the monarchy’s Joint Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both the Western European and American publics viewed the nationalist trends, partly encouraged by food shortages and the Bolshevik victory in Russia, as a democratic liberation movement. From early 1918, the Allied governments began officially advancing the activities of the emigrants from Austrian-controlled lands, particularly those of Masaryk, but the foreign assistance alone did not bring about the demise of the Habsburg Empire. It was the strife for independence of the individual nationalities within the monarchy that rendered the coexistence no longer viable.

National councils were established in all provinces of the empire which acted as national governments. On October 27, Foreign Minister Gyula, Count Andrássy, sent a new armistice note to President Wilson, accepting all the statements set forth in the U.S. note of October 18, thus recognizing the existence of an independent Czechoslovak state. The Poles declared their independence as a unified state on October 7, while the South Slavs advocated union with Serbia. The dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy was thus consummated by the end of October 1918, that is, before the war actually ended.


Historians have been mixed in their evaluations of Charles I's reign. Helmut Rumpler, head of the Habsburg commission of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, has described Karl as "a dilettante, far too weak for the challenges facing him, out of his depth, and not really a politician." On the other hand, others laud him as a brave and honorable figure who strove to halt World War I. English writer Herbert Vivian wrote: "Karl was a great leader, a prince of peace, who wanted to save the world from a year of war; a statesman with ideas to save his people from the complicated problems of his empire; a king who loved his people, a fearless man, a noble soul, distinguished, a saint from whose grave blessings come." French novelist Anatole France stated: "Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost."

These viewpoints give weight to the words of Pope Pius X, who told the young Karl during an audience with him: "I bless Archduke Karl, who will be the future Emperor of Austria and will help lead his countries and peoples to great honor and many blessings – but this will not become obvious until after his death."

Recognition in the Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church has praised Charles I (Karl I) for putting his Christian faith first in making political decisions, and for his recognized role as a peacemaker during the war, especially after 1917. He was the first, and only, world leader during World War I who banned the use of poison gas.

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna became the Church's sponsor for his beatification. [5] This process began in 1949 when testimony was collected in the Archdiocese of Vienna regarding his life. Beatification is a necessary step towards being declared a saint, following being declared venerable and prior to the step of canonization (recognized sainthood). In 1954 he was declared venerable.

Stages of Canonization in the Roman Catholic Church
  Servant of God   →   Venerable   →   Blessed   →   Saint  
  • On April 14, 2003, the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the presence of Pope John Paul II promulgated Karl of Austria's "heroic virtues."
  • On December 21, 2003, the Congregation certified, on the basis of three expert medical opinions, that a miracle in 1960 occurred through the intercession of Karl. The miracle attributed to Karl was the scientifically inexplicable healing of a Brazilian nun with debilitating varicose veins; she was able to get out of bed after she prayed for his beatification. Miracles are a requirement for beatification and canonization.
  • On October 3, 2004, Charles I (Karl I) was solemnly declared "blessed" in the ceremony of beatification conducted by Pope John Paul II.[6]
  • Currently, several possible miracles attributed to his intercession are being investigated and documented. Another miracle is required for his canonization as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

During the Mass of Beatification on October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II stated:

"The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God's will in all things. The Christian statesman, Karl of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as "something appalling". Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV. From the beginning, the Emperor Karl conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!"[7]

The feast day of Blessed Karl I (Charles I) is October 21, the anniversary of his marriage to Princess Zita in 1911. He proposed to her in front of the Blessed Sacrament at the Marian Shrine of Mariazell, when the tragic murder of his uncle, the Hapsburg Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand, was still three years away.[8]

Official Title of Karl I

Monarchical Styles of
Charles of Austria
Krone Kaiser Rudolf II Kaisertum Österreich.jpg
Reference style His Imperial Majesty
Spoken style Your Imperial Majesty
Alternative style Sire

His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty,

Charles the First,

By the Grace of God, Emperor of Austrian Empire,Apostolic King of Hungary, of this name the Fourth, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, and Galicia, Lodomeria, and Illyria; King of Jerusalem etc., Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow, Duke of Lorraine and of Salzburg, of Styria, of Carinthia, of Carniola and of the Bukovina; Grand Prince of Transylvania; Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Duchy of Modena, Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Oświęcim (Auschwitz) and Zator, of Teschen, Friuli, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trento and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and in Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Vorarlberg, Bregenz, Sonnenberg, etc.; Lord of Trieste, of Kotor, and in the Wendish Mark; Grosswojwod of the Voivodship of Serbia and Tamiš Banat etc. etc.

House of Habsburg-Lothringen
Born: 17 August 1887; Died: 1 April 1922
Preceded by:
Franz Joseph I
Emperor of Austria
Succeeded by: Directory of the Council of State
King of Hungary
Succeeded by: Mihály Károlyi
Provisional President of Hungary
King of Bohemia
Succeeded by: Tomáš Masaryk
President of Czechoslovakia
Head of the house of Habsburg
Succeeded by: Otto von Habsburg
Preceded by:
Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Archduke of Austria-Este
Succeeded by: Archduke Robert of Austria-Este

See Also


  1. James Bogle. April 1996. Emperor Charles I: World War I peace campaigner, AD2000; The Thomas More Centre, Retrieved March 21, 2007.
  2. 1917, Feb.–June, The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition, Retrieved March 19, 2007
  3. May 22, 2004, Emperor Karl I's Abdication Proclamation, 11 November 1918, First World War Website, retrieved March 10, 2007
  4. Austria: The end of the Habsburg empire Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Retrieved March 10, 2007
  5. Blessed Karl of Austria, Emperor and King, Beatification and Canonization Site, Retrieved March 19, 2007
  6. October 3, 2004 Emperor and mystic nun beatified British Broadcasting Corporation Online, Retrieved March 19, 2007
  7. October 3, 2004Profiles: Emmerich and Karl I, BBC News Online, Retrieved March 19, 2007
  8. Christopher Westley, October 6, 2004, An Emperor Blessed Christopher Westley Archives, Retrieved March 19, 2007

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Flenley, Ralph. 1970. Makers of nineteenth-century Europe. Essay index reprint series. London: J.M. Dent. ISBN 0836915712
  • Harding, Bertita. 1939. Imperial twilight; the story of Karl and Zita of Hungary. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co.
  • Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire: 1526–1918. Berkeley; and London: University of California Press, 1974. ISBN 0520024087.
  • Zessner-Spitzenberg, Hans Karl, and Katharina Rasinger. 1963. The Emperor Charles I of Austria, a great Christian monarch; a short history of his life and death. London: K. Rasinger.


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