Volume > Issue > An Archduke’s Guidance

An Archduke’s Guidance

The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times

By Eduard Habsburg, Archduke of Austria

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 159

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Thomas Banks

Thomas Banks lives in North Carolina and teaches online at the House of Humane Letters. His writings have appeared in First Things, Quadrant, The North American Anglican, Modern Age, and other publications.

The House of Habsburg has given to history one or two probable saints, a sprinkling of definite scoundrels, and a plentiful host of respectable mediocrities whose preponderance within that storied dynasty may well have much to do with its considerable endurance. One of its living representatives has now written a guide for the perplexed modern person, based on those principles of faith, duty, and conduct his family has for many centuries embodied or, failing this, at least publicly acknowledged. So far as can be judged from these pages, the author, Eduard Karl Joseph Michael Marcus Koloman Volkhold Maria Habsburg-Lothringen, bears the weight of his family’s complex legacy with greater ease than might be expected of a man with ten names. I opened this book anticipating more affectation than humor and am pleased to report that my assumptions proved to be ill-founded. Its writer, hereinafter to be referred to as the Archduke, writes with an unstudied bonhomie about his ancestors’ foibles and eccentricities, and he betrays no sign of having been raised in a gilded bubble, isolated from and unacquainted with the habits and interests of the gemeine Volk whom he volunteers to benefit by his instruction.

The Archduke has divided The Habsburg Way into roughly equal parts history and soulcraft. The history, necessarily sketchy in so short a work, is adequate to its purpose and zestfully stocked with gossipy digressions and lore of a kind not known to many outside the family guild. It is a small relief, for instance, to discover that the famous Habsburg jaw was not the result of rampant intermarriage within the prohibited degrees. We smile to learn that Duke Rudolf IV of Austria (1339-1365), one of the family’s most ambitious scions, attempted to strengthen his position among the nobles of the Holy Roman Empire by producing an epistle in florid Latin from the Emperor Nero conferring on a distant (indeed, nonexistent) forebearer the right to assume the title and arms of archducal rank. The forgery was detected by the great humanist Petrarch, though it should be allowed that many a classicist far less brilliant might have done much the same.

Another contrivance in the department of ancestral fictions was the product of the genealogical curiosity of the Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519). The early growth of the dynasty, in Maximilian’s telling, included Roman emperors and princes of Homeric Troy. And lest the annals of sacred history remain unplundered, the emperor managed also to generate evidence of “a descent all the way back from Noah in the Bible.” Reading this confirmed me in my belief that one argument against democracy, albeit a minor one, is that this kind of genetic snobbery is not only not discouraged by its equalizing ethic but multiplied by a factor of millions. I have met more than one presumably sober person from an unremarkable middle-class background much like my own who has claimed descent from Charlemagne or Napoleon. We live free from any temptation either to deify or decapitate any crowned head, but Ancestry.com is there to make us believe that each of us has one or two royal branches in the family tree.

One word more concerning the Emperor Maximilian, which the Archduke does not share with us, but I cannot resist reporting: In his final days, that most flamboyant of Renaissance monarchs attempted to arrange for his posthumous canonization, boasting in a bizarre missive to his daughter, Apres ma mort vous seres contraint de me adorer, dont me je trouvere bien gloryoes (“After my death you will be compelled to venerate me, of which I find myself quite proud”). The cause for the emperor’s beatification remains unopened as of this writing.

Abundant as might be the quantity of the ludicrous in an imperial house so eminent during the growth and decline of Christendom, more sterling traits have appeared in more than one crisis the Habsburgs endured in eight centuries of war and peace. In a generation famous for royal opportunists on the thrones of several kingdoms, Charles V (1519-1558) stood apart as a model of paternal longsuffering and conscientious moderation as the ruler of lands on three continents. Only a very shrunken soul can remain unmoved by the tale of Charles’s renunciation of the imperial purple in the last season of his life and retirement to the Monastery of Yuste in Extremadura (presently an autonomous region of Spain) where, half crippled by gout, he assumed the garb of a cloistered monk of the Hieronymite Order. In his last will and testament, the former lord of so many peoples and nations, the adversary of Luther and the Turk, stipulated that he should be buried by the altar of the Spanish royal crypt, so that the feet of whatever priest should chance to say his Mass on that spot would stand directly over the dust of his remains. Not every Habsburg mastered the art of ruling. One, at least, knew how to die well.

The Archduke’s account of the long past of his family, its glories and humiliations, is by turns stirring, humorous, romantic, and rather sad. In its other purpose, the book falls short of success. Here I should pause to doff my hat to the Archduke’s fine intention to offer a small help to the man or woman who desires some easily digestible wisdom to feed the confused soul-hunger that is one of the more common diseases of the 21st century. As a storyteller, the Archduke wins us over with little effort; as a mentor, he is the victim of a fatal infatuation with redundancy. Surely, no one except a sophist or (dire thought) a professor of ethics would wish him to invent for anyone’s use a novel system of morals, which can at best amount to nothing better than a new kind of drug. But of the writer who would repristinate for us a wrongly abandoned set of spiritual ideals, he should be asked to present these in a form that does them justice — a form, that is, in which they are not mistakable for another arsenal of the uplifting memes with which the Internet bombards us on a daily basis. Such a form the Archduke has not discovered. Instead, he states, “I believe we all must be courageous and brave in all our battles, in whatever form life (or God) presents them.” And, “We are all swept, whether we like it or not, into the future, every moment of our lives. When you ‘know yourself,’ you can carry yourself into the future without losing yourself along the way.” These observations are unarguably true, and the principles they embody must be enunciated every time a new generation is born to take its place upon the earth. However, their offhand presentation in this book never convinces us that the writer feels their urgency for our time or any other.

The Habsburg Way entertains but does no more than that — which should leave its author not ashamed but certainly unsatisfied.


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