Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Lessons From the Life and Legacy of Blessed Karl

Blessed Karl of Austria-Hungary’s great-grandson discusses the continuing relevance of the last Habsburg emperor.

Archduke Imre, the great-grandson of the last emperor and king of Austria-Hungary, Blessed Karl (1887-1922), and his wife, Servant of God Empress Zita (1892-1989),  lives in Switzerland near Geneva with Kathleen and their three daughters, Maria-Stella, Magdalena and Juliana.
Archduke Imre, the great-grandson of the last emperor and king of Austria-Hungary, Blessed Karl (1887-1922), and his wife, Servant of God Empress Zita (1892-1989), lives in Switzerland near Geneva with Kathleen and their three daughters, Maria-Stella, Magdalena and Juliana. (photo: Courtesy of subject)

Sometimes it is hard to believe that saints were once flesh and blood: So often we see church statues of the blessed that look unreal. Harder still is it to recall that some of these saints had children and that today their descendants are living, breathing men and women. St. Gianna Molla is one such example.

His Imperial Royal Highness Imre von Habsburg-Lothringen, archduke of Austria, is the great-grandson of the last emperor and king of Austria-Hungary, Blessed Karl (1887-1922), and his wife, Servant of God Empress Zita (1892-1989). So how does it feel to have a Blessed in the family? 

“Holiness is unfortunately not hereditary!” replied Archduke Imre, speaking to the Register Oct. 15 from his home in Switzerland just a few days before the feast day of Blessed Karl (or Charles) on Oct. 21. “Many of us surely have holy ancestors, but some are indeed more well-known than others. That said, Karl and Zita have been an inspiration for me and a model to strive for in my marriage, trying to become a better husband and father.” 

Interestingly, Archduke Imre’s U.S.-born wife, Kathleen, had developed a devotion to Zita — whose cause for canonization is also underway — long before meeting her future husband. In fact, the young Kathleen had entrusted her future vocation to Zita, unaware that she would end up marrying Zita’s great-grandson. More providentially, Archduke Imre and Kathleen met and were married in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21, 2010, the feast day of the archduke’s great-grandfather. “Needless to say, Karl and Zita are still very active from above!” observed Imre. “They are an inspiration for our marriage.” 

Blessed Karl and Zita were an especially united couple. What does their witness have to say to the modern world? 

“Their marriage was their strength throughout all the difficulties they had to endure,” said Archduke Imre. “Shortly before their wedding, Blessed Karl said to Zita this striking phrase: ‘Now we need to help each other get to heaven.’ This shows that they understood that marriage is a vocation and a path to that holiness to which we are all called, despite our sins and weaknesses.”

He went on to explain how Karl and Zita gave themselves to each other totally, always trying to be “respectful to each other, to constantly look for the other’s interest, to be open to life, to pray together.” Prayer was key to the family life of this exceptional couple, he said. 

“They were praying a lot as a family,” he added, “before lunches and dinners, before bed with their children [the couple were to have eight in total], and long hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament during the exile when Blessed Karl had more time.” 

In 2004, Pope John Paul II beatified Karl and chose his feast day. As Archduke Imre points out, “This was not his death day [April 1] or his birthday [Aug. 17], but his wedding day. The Pope clearly understood that Blessed Karl, together with his wife, Zita, had a message to deliver on how to live a fruitful and virtuous marriage. I think their life and the way they lived it is of ongoing significance for today, as the institution of marriage is so often under attack as we try to redefine what it means, attempting to destroy the very first cell of our society, the place where faith, values and citizenship is passed on through education.”

Imre thinks today’s youth especially “need to rediscover the beauty of marriage, but always remain realistic about it, knowing it can be challenging at times.” As he said, “Blessed Karl and Servant of God Zita show us that a fruitful and heaven-oriented marriage is worth striving for.” 

Emperor Charles died of respiratory failure on April 1, 1922, while living exiled and in poverty on the island of Madeira. Zita, then pregnant with the couple’s eighth child, was at his side. The emperor’s last words to his wife were: "I love you so much.”

Born in 1985, Archduke Imre is a graduate of the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He went on to complete a year of anthropology and theological studies at the Philanthropos Institute and then obtained a master’s degree in European studies at the College of Europe in Warsaw. After working in politics and economics in Brussels and Washington, he spent three years working in auditing and consulting with Ernst & Young in Luxembourg. He now works as the managing partner of MultiPlus Finance in Geneva — a consulting company at the service of families, religious congregations and foundations. He is the founder of Aliter Invest, a company specializing in ethical investment funds. 

Currently, Archduke Imre lives in Switzerland near Geneva with Kathleen and their three daughters, Maria-Stella, Magdalena and Juliana.

While devotion to Blessed Karl is increasingly widespread throughout the world, less well known is the fact that Zita’s canonization cause is also progressing. 

“[Her] cause was opened in 2008. She has now this beautiful title — ‘Servant of God’ — which is the step before beatification,” explained Imre. In recent years he has witnessed an increasing devotion to her, “especially among the younger generations looking for models in life. We also meet more and more little girls named Zita, which is a joy!” 

Zita died when the archduke was very young, and his memories of her are scant.

“My father took us one day from Geneva to Zizers, where she was living [as a widow] in a monastery. This was shortly before she passed away. I have, unfortunately, very vague memories of this episode, but I do remember very well my father telling us in the car before arriving: ‘Children, remember this important encounter with your great-grandmother!’”

Emperor Charles and Zita lived through the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, a public-health emergency that killed millions. Imre draws a parallel with today.

“While we don’t experience hardship in the same way [as in 1918], it seems that this pandemic shows us how fragile we are,” he said of COVID-19. “I hope this will be an occasion to turn to God and realize how valuable our lives are and how important it is to prepare for the life beyond.

“The so-called ‘lost generation’ went through World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and finally the Second World War,” explained Archduke Imre. “So my great-grandparents lived through very hard moments during the war, during the exile, where they experienced material poverty and the loss of friends and homeland. But their response was to trust God in all aspects of their lives and remain positive about the future.”

Following defeat in the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. As a result, the reign of Blessed Karl ended in a wave of anti-royalism throughout Europe and eventually communist takeover of Hungary by Soviet Russia. The archduke acknowledges resentment may remain toward him in the former empire.

“Pope John Paul II told us during the 2004 [beatification] ceremony that Blessed Karl’s beatification will not be necessarily popular or understood in his homeland countries,” said Archduke Imre. He added, however, that in the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, there are now many churches with the former emperor’s relics and that there is an increasing devotion to him — especially among the younger generations.

“Politically and historically, he is less well known, as he ruled for only two years (1916-1918),” observed Archduke Imre. “But during this period, he tried all he could to achieve peace among the nations.” “Unfortunately, all peace negotiations failed. He was the only major monarch to accept the peace proposal of Pope Benedict XV,” the archduke added. More and more historians are writing about this aspect of his life, his role in Austria and the other countries of the empire, and for the peoples he so deeply loved.” 

Europe is once more in crisis. Before the onset of COVID-19, Brexit and other problems assailed the peoples of the Continent, as in the lifetime of Blessed Karl. Archduke Imre suggested that the former emperor’s life and witness have much to say specifically to Europe today. “The Austrian-Hungarian Empire is often described as a European Union before its time. This unique empire, with its mix of religions, languages and cultures, allowed the most diverse faiths and peoples to live together for six and half centuries.” 

Archduke Imre further identified two reasons for his great-grandfather’s continuing relevance. “On the one hand, all peoples were united in the crown, in the monarch and his family. For instance, Karl was Emperor Karl I in Austria, King Karl IV in Hungary, King Karl III in Bohemia, and so on. My family’s role was to be a unifying factor and to make sure that minorities were protected. On the other hand, it was recognized that in order to remain united, the principle of subsidiarity was key, which meant the decentralization of power and culture; for instance, the instauration of local parliaments, the encouragement to keep local traditions, the use of local language, the freedom of religion, etc.” He added, “It wasn’t perfect, there were tensions at times, but, overall, the peoples almost never fought against each other and remained united.”

The upcoming feast day of Blessed Karl comes at a time of extreme polarization in much of today’s political debate, not least in the United States. Karl’s legacy is as a statesman who valued peace between warring parties, an emperor who strove to end a wholly destructive European war and once more return the continent to recognizing its common destiny, one based on its Christian roots. 

As to that last characteristic, Archduke Imre goes on to say that presently Europe is experiencing a deep identity crisis. 

“There is a need to acknowledge and re-discover who we are and where we come from. Just like a tree, our roots need to be constantly irrigated; otherwise, the tree weakens and eventually dies,” he added. “The same is true for our dear Europe, which possesses many cultural roots that need to be recognized, including our rich Christian heritage.”

The significance of Blessed Karl is not confined to Europe, however. Devotion to him has grown strongly and unexpectedly in countries as diverse as the United States, Brazil, the Philippines and Lebanon. Archduke Imre understand why this modern saintly king, husband and father strikes such a chord with people from all over the world at a time when monarchies are rare.

“There is a need,” he said, “for guidance in a world of increasing confusion, where good and evil are hardly distinguished anymore. The Church offers us models to follow, to guide us. Jesus is, of course, the model par excellence, who taught us how to live a virtuous life. But there is also a necessity to find inspiration and example in other men and women, lay or religious, who lived before us and shared our struggles.”