One Hundred Years Ago, an Ex-Emperor wanted to have another go at it – October 1921: Karl of Austria-Hungary

Zur deutschen Fassung.


After World War I, four empires lay in ruins. The former rulers dealt with sudden unemployment in very different ways. The Russian Czar Nicholas II got himself shot. The Ottoman Grand Vizier Talât Pasha got himself shot. The German Emperor Wilhelm II went into exile in Holland, where he discovered his petit-bourgeois streak and devoted himself to chopping wood. And to supporting the National Socialists.

Only Emperor Karl (Charles) I of Austria was, at the age of 31, too young and impetuous to give up. Or rather, to point to the true instigator of this drama, his wife, the even younger and even more impetuous ex-empress Zita Maria delle Grazie Adelgonda Micaela Raffaela Gabriella Giuseppina Antonia Luisa Agnesewar of Habsburg-Lothringen, née Bourbon-Parma, was not ready to give up the throne. She had already thrown a tantrum when Karl had renounced his official duties after the revolution in November 1918, although, realistically, there had been no alternative.

“What the f***, Charlie? I want to be an empress, not a housewife.” Not that Madame had ever lifted a finger in the kitchen herself, but being Italian, she was a bit melodramatically inclined.

Besides, when she’d found herself an emperor, she’d envisioned more of a Napoleon type who would conquer all of Europe and stuff.

“Six hundred and fifty years of monarchy, and you just sign that away?”

“But Zita, we’re still young. We can start something new!”

Zita was much more attached to the job than her husband, who was actually looking forward to have more time to travel, to read books, to take it easy. Besides, he hoped, this would enable him to resume his interrupted law studies. (Austrian emperors and chancellors often come into office a bit prematurely and then have to let their studies languish.)

“Switzerland is also nice,” Karl tried to make the exile in Prangins, to where the imperial family left in March 1919, palatable to her. And that was not even a lie.

But once a relationship is in trouble, even the best vacation can only cover up the problems for a short period. Zita continued to nag: “As far as I understand, you are not only Emperor Karl I of Austria, but also King Karl IV of Hungary and King Karl III of Bohemia.” At some point, probably in a war of succession, the Habsburg numbering had gotten mixed up, and poor Karl had to suffer the ensuing confusion.

“Yes, but that was just by virtue of being Austrian Emperor. And for that post, I signed the resignation.” Sometimes, Karl wished that this would have relieved him of the ambitious empress as well.

“But you only resigned in Austria, not in Bohemia and Hungary,” the canny empress objected.

“There is no more Bohemia, honey,” Karl explained the new world order, “it’s Czechoslovakia now, and they certainly don’t want a king who doesn’t speak Czech.” Learning Czech is famously impossible because the language is entirely devoid of vowels: Chrt zdrhl z Brd. Vtrhl skrz strž v tvrz srn, v čtvrť Krč. Blb. Prskl, zvrhl smrk, strhl drn, mrskl drn v trs chrp. Zhltl čtvrthrst zrn skrz krk, pln zrn vsrkl hlt z vln. Chrt brkl, mrkl, zmlkl. (Personally, I am particularly sorry about this, because in Germany, I live not far from the Czech Republic and would very much like to learn the language of this friendly neighboring country. But I ain’t got the tongue-twisting talent.)

One morning, Zita came into the room all excited, the newspaper in her hand, and exclaimed, “Hungary is a monarchy again!” Indeed, after a brief interlude that we touched on in August 1921, Hungary had declared itself a kingdom again. However, one without a king. Instead, with Miklós Horthy, whom we already know from said episode, as regent. The regent is a kind of administrator, a straw man, someone who keeps the chair warm while the boss is away.

“They’re just waiting for you!” the empress was on fire, and Karl had to admit that events could be interpreted that way. Now, the problem was that Austria had forbidden not only the ex-emperor and ex-empress, but all Habsburgs from ever entering the country again. At that time, in the spring of 1921, the airplane had not yet been invented. So Karl put on a false beard, got himself a false passport (probably in Malta, it’s quite easy there if you have money) and secretly and undetected drove from Switzerland through Austria to Hungary.

The Habsburgs had already experienced some bad luck when traveling by car, but on Easter 1921 everything went smoothly. Until the arrival in Hungary.

The emperor had forgotten one thing: He had not informed Horthy. And the regent, who was supposed to keep the Hungarian throne warm for the king, was quite taken aback when one day the doorbell rang like in a Halloween prank, and Karl I, or from the Hungarian point of view Karl IV, or even, if one took into account the interruption of the monarchy, Karl V, stood in front of the door.

“Hello, it’s me, his majesty.”

“Well, I didn’t expect that. But please come on in. I’m afraid we only have a little soup left.”

Karl shared his plan to retake the Hungarian throne and was quite taken aback that Horthy did not want to vacate it voluntarily.

“Horthy, you swore an oath to me!”

“Yes I did, Mr. King, but you see, the global political situation …” And Horthy explained his fear that the Entente would attack Hungary if another Habsburg ascended the throne. This was, of course, a flimsy pretext. In reality, Horthy had simply become accustomed to ruling a kingdom without a king. Since he was also an admiral without a fleet (or even a port city), that suited him quite well.

What Horthy did not mention, was that he had already found a new best friend. Another Austrian.

The conversation at Horthy’s kitchen table was to no avail, and in the end the emperor had to ask for a guest room in his own palace in Budapest. It was just as well that the palace was not one of the smaller ones. On the other hand, perhaps that was why the Horthys were so reluctant to move out.

Karl I/III/IV/V stayed another week, every evening discussing possible ways to his re-enthronement, but at some point realized that it had been a fool’s errand to go to Budapest without any plan, without any agreements, without any allies.

They parted with face-savingly vague promises to keep in touch, and the emperor drove back to Switzerland. Honestly, the furor of his wife worried him more than the vacant throne and the already-inhabited palace.

And really, the time in Switzerland was even more unbearable for Karl than being bored in the guest room of his own palace. Zita was now bothering him almost every day, teasing him, sometimes even cheekily mentioning that maybe she should look for another emperor. (Haile Selassie, the Shah of Persia and the Emperor of California were top on the list of European princesses at the time.) And when he thought about it, Karl had to admit that this Horthy guy was somehow pulling his leg.

So he staged a second attempt to reclaim the Hungarian throne! In October 1921 and thus – appropriately for this little series – exactly 100 years ago.

“This time, I’m coming with you,” insisted Zita, who no longer had full confidence in her husband’s unconditional determination to succeed. Neither of them had any confidence at all in Admiral Horthy, whom they therefore again did not inform in advance. Conveniently, the airplane had been invented in the meantime; the two bought a Junkers F-13 and flew to Hungary.

This time the Habsburgs had even prepared a few troops, the so-called Legitimists. Because flying was new and unfamiliar, however, the imperial couple and the Legitimists missed each other and it took a while for them to find each other in western Hungary.

Back then, and you wouldn’t believe it if you wandered over the barren fields there today, western Hungary was a hot spot. Reading every month that World War I did not end in 1918 is probably as tiring as a long walk across the Pannonian Steppe, but even between Austria and Hungary there were still unresolved territorial questions lingering at the end of 1921.

This one was particularly tricky, because at the peace negotiations in Paris, or rather in the eponymous castles around Paris (Neuilly, Sèvres, Saint-Germain, Trianon, Versailles), Austria-Hungary was initially one defeated country, which then quickly split into several countries that wanted absolutely nothing to do with Austria-Hungary, which had, after all, triggered the world war in the first place. “Austria? Never heard of it,” said the Hungarians. “We were actually the first victims,” said the Austrians, and – surprisingly – got away with it. So the victorious powers awarded the border strip disputed between the two countries (essentially today’s Burgenland) to Austria, not least because Vienna would otherwise have been very close to the border with Hungary and would not have had sufficient agricultural land in its environs to feed the capital’s population, which has always been endowed with a healthy appetite. Moreover, by an unfortunate coincidence, Hungary was briefly communist at that very moment (you remember), which did not earn it any sympathy from the victorious powers.

Vienna, by the way, is still quite close to the border, despite the Burgenland, which is why this is one of the few possibilities to walk from the capital of one country (Vienna) to the capital of another (Bratislava) in one day, as I once spontaneously proved, just for the fun of it. This was not even possible between East and West Berlin, because the latter was not a capital. Jerusalem and Ramallah might be another option, but this will immediately hail protesting comments, denying the statehood of the one and the role as capital city of the other.

But back to the Burgenland conflict, the Middle East conflict of our grandparents’ generation. Although, actually, let me cut this short, because I myself do not understand what’s going on between Saint-Germain and Trianon, between Wieselburg, Ödenburg and Eisenburg, between the Association for the Preservation of Germanness in Hungary, the Association of German Compatriots from Western Hungary and the Action Committee for the Liberation of Western Hungary, between the Austrian Legion, the Royal Hungarian Western Hungarian Insurgents, the Legitimists, the Friedrich Liberationists, the Osztenburg Detachment and the Interallied Generals’ Commission. All these parties fought against each other, with each other, and among themselves.

About a few fields. (Burgenland is about the size of French Polynesia. Or Cape Verde. Or South Georgia and the Southern Sandwich Islands. None of that tells you anything, which just proves how small Burgenland is.)

You would think that after four years of world war, people would have been tired of fighting. But that was not the case. Not at all. Quite the contrary, in Austria things were just heating up.

And into that pandemonium, into that witch’s goulash cauldron, into that paprika powder keg, his imperial-royal highness Karl I and his wife jumped out of a plane to claim the throne.

It took him a few days to even figure out who was with him and who was against him. In the course of the discussions thus triggered, many of the brigades, parties, and free-army corps split into anti-monarchist, monarchist, revanchist, legitimist, moderate royalist, constitutionalist, Magyarist and dozens of other groups. But at least this had a pacifying effect, because now there was no more shooting, but debating. (Which is why there is no Hollywood movie about this offshoot of World War I. Which, in turn, is why you’ve never heard of it.)

For a photo at the train station in Ödenburg, they at least managed to gather a handful of soldiers paying homage to Karl I/III/IV/V.

The woman with the bouquet is Zita, who, because they were already at a train station, urged the party to travel to Budapest, to the great castle. So the imperial couple got on the train, together with a few soldiers, most of whom probably didn’t care about Karl, nor about the monarchy, but were thinking: “Oh, great, finally to Budapest! That must surely be better than Burgenland.” At that time, Budapest already had cinemas, pubs and pretty female students, because George Soros had opened a new university.

In the meantime, news of Karl’s renewed excursion to Hungary had reached Admiral Horthy. He was less eager about having to discuss the matter with his nominal boss again. Instead of setting the table and preparing the guest room, he rallied his troops to stop the train at Budaörs, a suburb of Budapest. On 23 October 1921, a small skirmish took place. 19 soldiers died. When Karl saw that the accession to the throne would not be a walk in the park, he called it off.

The person most unhappy about this was Zita. She herself had never renounced anything, so she still felt herself Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria, Queen of Jerusalem, Archduchess of Austria, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Cracow, Duchess of Lorraine and Bar, of Salzburg, Steyer, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukovina, Grand Duchess of Transylvania, Margravine of Moravia, Duchess of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Auschwitz and of Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Ragusa and Zara (this has nothing to do with the clothing line, I think), princely Countess of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca, Princess of Trent and Bressanone, Margravine of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria, Countess of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz and Sonnenberg, Lady of Trieste, of Cattaro and on the Windisch Mark, Grand Voivode of the Voivodeship of Serbia, Infanta of Spain, Princess of Portugal and of Parma.

But before the couple could have a mighty royal quarrel, the two were already arrested, put on a Danube steamer and, at England’s insistence, taken far away, where they could do no more mischief: Madeira, an island belonging to Portugal, far out in the Atlantic, where Zita discovered that her “Princess of Portugal” was worth absolutely nothing. Portugal, always one of the most progressive countries in Europe, had dismissed the king, the nobility and the church already in 1910.

Still much better than St. Helena, I would say.

Karl did not have much of the beautiful island, because he died – unvaccinated – of the Spanish flu. But Portugal learned quickly from this, responded to Covid-19 in an exemplary manner and is now the world’s vaccination champion.

How do they manage that?

In Portugal, every citizen who has not yet been vaccinated receives a personal letter and a phone call. From this man: Vice Admiral Henrique Eduardo Passaláqua de Gouveia e Melo, the submarine captain from “Red October”.

The result? More than 98% of the over-12 year olds in Portugal are vaccinated.

It’s a pity that in Germany, all the George Clooney knock-offs, if we even have somebody like that, are anti-vaxxers. And Austria has sunk its submarine fleet in the Bay of Kotor after that nasty experience with Admiral Horthy.

Ex-Emperor Karl was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004. I didn’t really understand why. Really, these Catholics are weirdos. The Emperor Karl Prayer League has branches and places of worship around the world and a desperate appeal on its website: “We urge you to report answered prayers!!!” Well, if people in 2021 still believe that a dead emperor will help with an empty stomach or with a high-school chemistry test, how are we supposed to believe in progress?

Instead of a prayer, let me close with a quote by Karl Kraus:

Admittedly, a monarch can be an idiot for the duration of his reign; this does not contradict the monarchical idea. But if he behaves like an idiot even in the time when he is no longer a monarch, for example by the way he wants to become a monarch again, one should think that even the supporters of the monarchical idea should deny him the suitability for that position.

By the way, Austria did indeed get Burgenland in the end, but without its capital Ödenburg (Sopron in Hungarian), where the imperial plane had landed. So, both sides could feel like they won something, and there have been love, peace and Kaiserschmarrn for a hundred years.

Speaking of which: Writing really makes me hungry…

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Austria, History, Hungary, Madeira, Portugal and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to One Hundred Years Ago, an Ex-Emperor wanted to have another go at it – October 1921: Karl of Austria-Hungary

  1. Diana says:

    Gosh, that was a fun read! Vielen Dank!

  2. Very entertaining read, thank you!
    I can’t really say I learned anything historically useful, but Kaiserschmarrn looks delicious.😂
    And extra credit to you for keeping track of all of Zita’s titles😂

    • I honestly don’t believe she could keep track of her own titles. And some of them were clearly ambitious, like the Queen of Jerusalem. Austria was a large empire, but it really didn’t include Jerusalem.

      Kaiserschmarrn is very easy to make. Flour, milk, eggs and raisins if you want. I let the raisins soak up rum for at least a day, for some extra flavor. And I ignore all the other complicated things that they recommend in the cooking videos.
      If you are ever bored, try it!
      Or wait until I come to visit. ;-)

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