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Sean SalaiNovember 05, 2018
Ambassador Eduard Habsburg of Hungary presenting his credentials to Pope Francis in 2015. (Source: L'Osservatore Romano)

Eduard Habsburg is a Hungarian-German writer, diplomat and social media personality who has served since 2015 as ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta. A great-great-grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph, he is also known as Archduke Eduard of Austria. Ambassador Habsburg and his wife, Baroness Maria Theresia von Gudenus, have six children. On Oct. 9, I interviewed Ambassador Habsburg by email about his work and current tensions between European nations and Pope Francis over the global migration crisis. This interview has been edited.

In 1918, your family ruled Austria-Hungary and held the title of Holy Roman Emperor, with this Nov. 11 marking the 100th anniversary of their abdication. Today your family maintains its royal bloodline but serves democratic governments in different parts of the former empire. What does it mean to be a Habsburg in public service in the 21st century?

First of all, it is great to be a member of this really positive and impressive family that not only spans centuries but is also mostly known not for intrigues, murder or military success but for family and bringing countries together in a peaceful way. Our Hungarian branch of the Habsburgs is profoundly interwoven with Hungarian history for over 200 years, going so far as taking the Hungarian side in the 1848 revolution against the Habsburg Emperor in Vienna. I also perceive, in my social media presence and elsewhere, that the name—the brand—of “Habsburg” is perceived in a very positive way all over the world. All of this is great. But you pointed out rightly that we live in the 21st century, so it’s about translating this past into a dynamic present.

Eduard Habsburg is a writer and a diplomat who has served since 2015 as ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta.

How has your family history impacted your conception of public service?

I think that for centuries most Habsburgs have been raised to serve their country or their empire. Service is deeply in our genes, so to speak. And a sense of responsibility in society. Add to that a strong feeling for Europe and the peaceful living-together of different nations under one roof—this is also something of a family heirloom. You could say that a Habsburg almost always thinks internationally and sees things from different points-of-view. I think all of this might have helped in learning the ropes as an ambassador—a job I would have never guessed I would have. Fate (or God) has a great sense of humor.

Under the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has received criticism for repelling hundreds of thousands of Muslims passing through its small borders to reach Germany. Yet you have noted in interviews that Pope Francis has influenced your views with his openness to migrants. How do you reconcile this tension between the positions of your government and the pope?

Pope Francis has been very clear in calling for the care of migrants and safeguarding their dignity. He has also been clear on reminding us how migrants and refugees (two distinct categories of people) need not only to be welcomed but also to be integrated, so prudence is needed from governments in accepting people. He even stated that it is better for a country not to accept migrants and refugees than to be unable to integrate them.

Pope Francis has been very clear in calling for the care of migrants and safeguarding their dignity.

This is exactly what Hungary is doing. The government evaluated the situation and realized that it was better for the country not to import problems from other parts of the world. However, as solidarity is a compelling moral principle, Hungary has decided instead to contribute to solving those problems where they arise. The church also teaches that people have first of all the right not to emigrate and to live in peace and security in their homeland. The Hungarian government is trying its best to contribute to this goal, for example through its Hungary Helps program.

According to the 2011 Hungarian census, roughly 81 percent of Hungarians today identify as Christians, with Catholics representing the largest Christian group (50 percent) more than two decades after the fall of Communism. How would you describe the current religious atmosphere in Hungary?

Hungary is no exception to Western social tendencies in secularization and religious practice. Both Communist materialism and consumerist materialism have done great harm to religion. Christianity is seen, however, as a decisive part of the nation’s identity; this is why it has been inserted in the new Constitution of 2011. Churches recently have had a significant opportunity for enhancing their mission to society through schools and social institutions, which are subsidized by the state just as the public institutions are. This way the government respects its citizens’ right to choose the kind of education they want for their children.

In recent years, Hungary has taken up the call of Pope Francis to aid persecuted Christians around the world, hosting government conferences and creating a new Secretary of State for Persecuted Christians. What do you hope this project will accomplish?

The aim of this government office is twofold: raising awareness in international public opinion and making concrete contributions to the improvement of endangered Christian communities. Hungary is a relatively small country with limited resources, so it has decided to use them as efficiently as possible and to try to bring assistance to those who are maybe less helped by others. This is the reason for the Hungary Helps program, the main target of which are the persecuted Christian communities. We can make the difference on the ground also because we have no political, constitutional or ideological constraints in working directly with churches. So far, few other countries have followed suit, but we are very happy to see that the United States is showing clear signals of going in a similar direction.

I took to Twitter to show the world that Catholics are not sad, prudish and world-fleeing weirdos.

You maintain a popular Twitter account, tweeting in English about everything from the latest Vatican headlines to your morning cup of coffee and the cigars your Habsburg grandmother used to smoke. What inspired you to take up social media in this way?

Honestly, the fun of it. I have mostly had positive experiences on Twitter, and a great many friendships of recent years would have been impossible without it. Also, in my previous work as a spokesman of Bishop Klaus Küng in St. Pölten, I took to Twitter to show the world that Catholics are not sad, prudish and world-fleeing weirdos, but people who enjoy modern culture and can be fun in a discussion. Just because I have strong opinions about the fundamental truths of my faith doesn’t mean I won’t respect your right to have a different opinion. In fact, much too rarely—but sometimes still—I record my podcast “Glaubenssache” with my brilliant atheist friend Alexander Waschkau. We definitely disagree on quite a lot of things, but agree on humanist principles and the right to express opinions.

Many Europeans know you as a writer, but your works have not been translated into English. Can you summarize for American readers your work in that area?

I have to say that my literary output was a by-product of my screenwriting for TV and finally cinema, too. After writing all the time for a living, I tried my hand for fun at two novels; one is more romantic beach reading (Die Reise mit Nella) and one is a more literary-minded (Lena in Waldersbach) riff on Büchner’s short novella Lenz. Two short books on James Bond and Harry Potter “in 60 Minuten”—basically all you need to know on Bond and Potter and read it in roughly 60 minutes. I also translated a children’s book The Weight of a Mass by Josephine Nobisso into German. And I wrote two guides to castles.

Right now I am working, in the little spare time my very fulfilling job leaves me, on a small children’s book, Habsburg-themed. Fingers crossed.

Not only is your family Catholic, but Pope John Paul II beatified your relative Blessed Karl of Austria, the last emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and one of your brothers is a priest. Who are your role models in the faith, living or dead?

I’ll admit to being old-fashioned: Quite a few of my favorite saints are men. There’s Thomas More. He was in a “diplomatic” position, tried to balance things as long as he could, spoke very clearly when necessary and had this incredible sense of humor literally to the last minutes of his life. When his head was on the chopping block he made one last witty remark. That’s cool. I love Pope Gregory the Great for doing the right thing in a very difficult time of chaos and war. There’s my patron saint, Edward the Confessor, a man whose reign was one of the very few peaceful ones in his time and who died just before 1066. When I’m in London I try to visit his grave. Blessed Karl of Austria for balancing being an Emperor and a great family father in time of total breakdown. You see the pattern: Men who did the right thing in very difficult times. So obviously I love Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty, who stood up first against Nazism and then against Communism. I sincerely hope he’ll be beatified soon.

I love Pope Gregory the Great for doing the right thing in a very difficult time of chaos and war.

There’s one great female exception. My favorite spiritual writings are the autobiographical writings of Saint Therese of Lisieux. She’s a giant in a small Carmelite cell.


How do you pray?

My central and most important prayer time is Lauds which, by the grace of God, I manage to have almost every day. I do it before we wake up the kids, with a steaming cup of coffee, which of course reminds me of the old Jesuit and Dominican joke about whether you're allowed to smoke while praying. On the suggestion of the Greek Catholic Metropolitan in Hungary I try to sing my Lauds; I have really found that “he who sings prays twice.” But I also cherish the prayers with my children at lunch or in the evening and try to use them as real prayer times and not just as some ritual. Finally, whenever it is possible I try to go to Mass during the week, too, which is facilitated by my job as an ambassador to the Holy See—we regularly attend Masses as “part of our work.”

Although your family has renounced its claim to the throne and taken up public service, the Habsburgs continue to intermarry with other European nobility, inspiring speculation that the family stills hope to regain its titles and land one day if not its crown. How do you respond to this speculation?

Ha, ha, ha. I won’t answer this one. Better keep ‘em guessing.

What are your hopes for the future?

That Europe finds its core again and grows ever stronger and larger. That the church steers through the current difficult times and emerges fresher, renewed and centered on its values. That modern media contribute to better understanding between people. I am fundamentally an optimist.

Any final thoughts?

About seven Jesuit jokes pop to mind, but I will pass.

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5 years 7 months ago

What a delightful interview! The good Ambassador's example is an inspiration for gathering together family, faith, heritage and a mission for peace. I share his optimism after reading this!

James Finley
5 years 7 months ago

The Habsburgs did reign in Austria-Hungary in 1918, but the title of Holy Roman Emperor ceased in 1806.

Sean Salai, S.J.
5 years 7 months ago

Thanks for reading. The popes stopped crowning the Habsburgs as emperors of the Romans several centuries ago, but Habsburg emperors continued to be addressed as such until 1806. After 1806, the Habsburgs continued to claim the title even though they had given up insisting on it in public addresses, but 1918 changed all that. And I think much of the retrospective terminology ("Holy Roman Emperor" itself was never an official title until historians started using it) depends on whether you buy the old Habsburg claims. Although Austria and the world considered Blessed Karl's departure in 1918 to be an "abdication," for instance, Karl himself rejected the term and said he was merely stepping back from affairs of the state while hoping to return.

So in my first interview question, I recognized the Habsburg emperors' undisputed claim to be rightful heirs to the Holy Roman emperors right up to 1918, as they were heads of state. But I called Karl's departure an "abdication" since most of the world considered it to be such as a stipulation of the peace of 11 November 1918. Anyhow, while I think it's fair to quibble about these terms, it's largely an academic point these days.

James Finley
5 years 7 months ago

In 1804 Francis II, foreseeing that Napoleon would either force the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire or claim the title for himself, created a new imperial title (emperor of Austria). Unlike the title of Holy Roman Emperor which was conferred by the imperial electors, this was a hereditary title. It was modified in 1867. From then on, the Habsburg monarch was called emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After 1806 the Habsburg monarchs were never called Holy Roman Emporers.

Sean Salai, S.J.
5 years 7 months ago

Yes, Mr. Finley, that's correct: The Habsburg emperors stopped "using" the title. But they continued in 1918 to "hold" it as sole claimants and heirs, hoping one day to restore the empire. Just as Emperor Charles, in 1918, denied he was "abdicating" the throne in the hopes of perhaps one day returning to Austria or Hungary. Historically, the Habsburgs have been a patient family, playing their claims close to the vest even after abandoning certain usages publicly. Today I don't believe Ambassador Eduard Habsburg or any of his family openly advocates for restoring their crown, titles, or lands, having renounced their main claim to the crown publicly, but his quixotic answer to my interview question also doesn't reject lighthearted speculation about things changing. Again, there was never actually a "Holy Roman Emperor" title that anybody ever used until historians applied it retroactively, so much of this debate feels semantic. Whether you say Karl "abdicated" as history records or "withdrew for a time from affairs of the state" as he himself put it, and whether you say that the Austro-Hungarian emperor in 1918 held the title of Holy Roman Emperor or that his claim ceased when he stopped using it publicly to keep it away from Napoleon, you are entitled to your perspective.

But there are different perspectives and legitimate ways of describing those realities from our vantage point 100 years later. And I wonder if that's really the most important piece of interest in the interview; personally, I am more interested in what the Habsburgs are doing today than in the claims they maintained 100 years ago. As a Magyar-American myself, a.k.a. Szalai Janos to my distant cousins in the old country, I must admit I am somewhat more interested in the current state of Central Europe and the issues facing it that Ambassador Habsburg represents to the Holy Father. But I think we have both made our points here. If I could be so bold as to change the subject, perhaps we might at least agree to pray for each other and for the various issues like migration facing Central Europe today.

James Finley
5 years 7 months ago

The title of office of Holy Roman Emperor was not a hereditary office (unlike the head of the House of Austria which was hereditary and by virtue of the Pragmatic Sanction could be inherited by a woman). It was an elective office to which only a a man could be elected.When there was a vacancy the seven prince electors chose a new emperor. From the late 1300s until 1806 the electors chose a Hapsburg every time but one. The one time that a Habsburg was not chosen was when Maria Theresa was the head of the Habsburgs. She was ineligible since a woman could not be elected. From 1806 onward no Habsburg had a claim on the title which could only be filled by election. There never was a hereditary claim possible.

Sean Salai, S.J.
5 years 7 months ago

Yes, Mr. Finley, that's correct. When the Habsburg emperor abdicated the throne of the Holy Roman Empire and declared it dissolved in 1806, he made a shrewd political move as you observed earlier, but I must reiterate that the Habsburg emperors themselves continued to hold/claim this title as its successors or heirs (despite it not being hereditary) through 1918 in case the empire was ever restored. Again, my usage in this case took the Habsburg perspective from that time period and was correct from that angle, just as it was correct by the same logic for me to say above that the ambassador is also known as "Archduke Eduard of Austria" ("archduke" being a title that was formally dissolved along with the Archduchy of Austria in 1918, but continued to be used and claimed most immediately by the children of Emperor Charles I, who likewise continued to call himself "emperor" after 11 November 1918) to some people even now in 2018.

So if you want to be completely consistent, you can likewise point out that Ambassador Eduard is not an archduke despite being called such by some people today, Emperor Charles I (despite calling himself otherwise) was no longer emperor after 1918, his descendants (despite claiming such) were not actually archdukes after 1918, and his son Crown Prince Otto von Habsburg (who didn't formally renounce that title until well into the 20th century) was not actually crown prince after the empire along with that role was dissolved 1918. Those judgments come from today's vantage point and are quite valid indeed. But so is the usage I adopted in this article. So you are welcome to disagree with my assertion that the Habsburgs have historically continued to hold titles like "archduke" and "crown prince" and "Holy Roman Emperor" as their heirs long after such offices formally expired, but I believe that in 1918 the Habsburg emperor did continue to claim the title "Holy Roman Emperor" as its successor in the event of a Holy Roman restoration, despite the crown not being hereditary. If you wish, you are welcome to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of this perspective, and you're welcome to have the last word on this discussion if it pleases you. God bless you and keep you.

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