Perhaps no one knows Europe like Otto von Habsburg, who at 96 is still fighting to ensure that the European Union is based on Christian values.
Otto von Habsburg is 95, but what’s that compared to the nine-century history of his family, the Habsburg dynasty?
Otto, Crown Prince of Austria, was born in 1912, the eldest son of Bl. Charles I, the last Emperor of Austria and last King of Hungary, and his wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the last Empress of Austria and last Queen of Hungary. He is a former member of the European Parliament for the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) party and honorary president of the International Paneuropean Union.
To meet von Habsburg is to meet history. He was born two years before World War I would begin and change his family’s — and Europe’s — destiny. He opposed the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Reich, and was hunted by the Nazis. His father was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004.
Since the end of World War II he has been fighting for a Europe unified on a Christian foundation. Von Habsburg spoke recently with Register correspondent Robert Rauhut about Europe’s Christian history — and its future.
You spent many years in exile from your home, especially during the Second World War. What memories do you have of your return home?
When you arrive in Europe … all these monuments of Europe, everything, expresses its spirit, it’s a Christian spirit.
I cannot forget the following scene. During the War, I had been in the United States for three years. And one of the most beautiful days of my life was when I was flying back to Europe on an old “Clipper,” and when you are slowly coming in over Europe, along the coast, the first small town was a town in the center of which there is a cathedral, and not a bank, not a huge financial institution and not a bureaucratic center. That’s Europe.
The buildings express the spirit of the people, whether the people know it or not, whether they like it or not. You always have to be active in promoting the public expressions of your Catholic identity because a lot of the de-Christianization of Europe arises from the fact that many have turned their backs on these outer signs of inner attitude. And we Europeans have not done enough to prevent that.
After the attempts to write a European Constitution came the Treaty of Lisbon. Neither included any reference to Europe’s Christianity. How can Christians reassert themselves?
Remember, the first project of a European Constitution, when people started talking about it “based on a Christian foundation”? I had been in the European Parliament at that time (and even today I have a lot to do with it) and had known that we would lose that struggle because we were still a minority and had not undertaken sufficient actions in order to prepare a majority. Therefore I said: “The battle for us is the invocatio Dei [invocation to God] in the preamble to the European Constitution.” The name of God has to be there, because then we can get the votes of the Jews and Muslims and that is necessary. I think the most important thing to have in the Constitution is the invocatio Dei: Afterwards we will get the rest.
Europe is a Christian continent, whether certain people like it or not. But I think we should be much more active in promoting that identity. The perspective of some who say, “Oh God, the Muslims are coming,” is not very helpful. We have to recognize clearly: That’s an open invitation for us Christians to do something. We have to appear in public, openly. But we do not even talk publicly about our Christian roots anymore. … You have to bring God into the conversation. Otherwise we will not make any progress.
My experience is: When you speak clearly and unequivocally, it goes much better. Take, for example, my daughter, Walburga. She is enjoying a highly successful career representing Sweden in the European Union — Sweden, an area where there are hardly any Catholics. There are a few good, honest and upright Protestants there, but not much more. My daughter clearly represents her principles without capitulation. And it works. The people have a high opinion of her. That you have to take risks, that is perfectly clear, but you have to. Look at the Muslims, they dare to do so. Why do not we have the courage to do so?
What is the biggest challenge Islam brings to a Christian Europe?
I am very involved in dealing with Islam. I have been a member of an Islamic academy for many years. I keep these contacts because I respect people who dare to talk about their truth. And here you can get very close to these people. I mean, Islam somehow grew out of a Christian surrounding, Muhammad had grown up in a Christian environment.
And when we read the different holy Scriptures, you will find much of our faith. And that is something we have to bring into the discussion with them.
And — if I may say so as a Christian — I prefer a Muslim who believes in God to someone who reads Karl Marx. …
Shortly, I will go to Paris, and a new member of the academy will be admitted, a Muslim. I am very much in favor of that, because he stands on the same ground, he talks with us, he stands with us, he prefers a Christian, who believes in God and sticks to his Christian principles, than somebody who hides all of this somehow.
What do you think of the baptism of that former Muslim by the Pope on Easter?
That was a wonderful sign.
What spiritual forces rule now in Europe?
Generally speaking? Where there is no God anymore, there is no pressure. It seems to be a nicer life in the perspective of the non-believers. It is a life in which there is quiet and so forth. Nobody is raising their voice. With regard to the Christians it looked like they had capitulated before the battle. There is no longer a battle. Therefore one has to have the courage to get involved in the struggle.
Do Christians have to be “combative”?
Naturally. That’s just it. If you have the conviction that you have the truth, then you should not hide this truth under a bushel. We must not be afraid of interacting with the other side, because he who is afraid of such contact shows that he is the weaker one.
Why not? If you have the truth, if you believe it … certainly no violent mission, but that a lot more should be done is plain. With capitulation you will not win a battle.
How will Pope Benedict XVI affect the debate about Europe’s soul?
He is a European, he originates from an area that is a battlefield with regard to the future of Catholicism. And he has managed that very well so far. I am very much in favor of him. I have to add at the same time, that I am an old fried of his or — more appropriate — he is an old friend of mine, to tell the truth, because at the time when I first ran for a seat in the European Parliament, he was the only one in the Church who supported me. Many were against it; he was the only one as a relatively young bishop who supported me publicly. He appeared publicly to support me.
He can affect a lot. With regard to Islam he has already done a lot. He will also give something to us, which I am waiting and hoping for.
He will bring us a lot from China. China is one of the areas of hope of Catholicism. If you take account of the fact that we started with 5 million and now there are 15 million, that is a nice thing.
For Europe in particular: He is one of us. He is European. He knows us and he is someone who advances his ideas clearly and courageously. And he has great influence among the intellectuals, because he is one of them, because he knows a lot about that and presents it in a very human way. There he can do a lot, when some intellectuals are brought to the good side.
Where do you see your field of action in the remaining time given you by God?
I think I am quite at the end of my earthly journey, but it is particularly central Europe which is of interest to me. I have a good reputation there because of my whole attitude. National Socialism has passed, communism has passed … and it is an area where one still can do a lot.
Robert Rauhut writes from
- May 11-17, 2008