A Habsburg with a Twitter account: an interview with Hungary’s ambassador to the Vatican
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.