Skip to Content
Search Icon

Nunc Dimittis

Final Salute

On the history of the Habsburg family.


A lot of people seem to like the Habsburgs. At least, that’s the impression I get. Occasionally, when I say something perceived as too conservative, I am bombarded with a storm of jokes of the inbred/marry-your-cousin/Habsburg-jaw variety. When I wrote a sympathetic tweet the day that Queen Elizabeth II died, I was called an “inbred moron.” But this usually settles down, and the positive reactions to my family’s history return.

I know that I move in a friendly bubble. Nevertheless, I think we feel more than just nostalgia. The Habsburgs can indeed be seen as a model of a large, successful family, blessed with many marriages and lots of children. Historically, the family experienced few assassinations and made no great conquests through war, killing, or cruel intrigues. But more than this, in a time in which every Christian value is being increasingly driven out of public life and politics, the Habsburgs stand for timeless things like family, faith, the peaceful cohabitation of nations and languages, and the peaceful co-existence of diverse races and cultures. For all their faults, the Habsburg rulers appear to have cared for their subjects quite well. Personally, I am very proud to belong to this family, proud to have the blood of Rudolf, Maximilian, Maria Theresia, and Franz Joseph running in my veins.

Even if you are born a Habsburg, however, you still must become one. Today, young Habsburgs often first discover who they really are in school. The fact is, from 1273 until almost the present day, members of the Habsburg family were intimately involved in nearly every decade of European history. Not infrequently, a history teacher will lift his eyes and end a sentence saying, “But this is surely something that Mr. Habsburg can tell us more about?” Alas, Mr. Habsburg, who is usually blushing in the last row, typically knows little or nothing more about it. Unlike the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, we are not born with the memories of our ancestors.

On the other hand, parents do teach the occasional bits of family history. Through my own father, I learned how his grandfather saw the Emperor Franz Joseph, because my great-grandfather, Archduke Joseph August, had married Auguste von Bayern, who was a granddaughter of the emperor. I personally had the privilege over many decades to know Otto von Habsburg (who, as a child, stood beside Franz Joseph in a famous and poignant photograph). And I have told my own children about him. I have also told them how, as a child, I met the wonderful, and deeply impressive, Empress Zita, the last empress of Austria-Hungary. She herself of course knew all about her husband the Blessed Emperor Karl, but she could also “reach back” to knowledge about Empress Elisabeth, from so much earlier.

At some point, a young Habsburg begins to read books that mention the family history, and suddenly a portrait in an uncle’s apartment gets a backstory. Then—if you are a young Habsburg—you discover that there are portraits of your ancestors in nearly every famous museum of the world. If you look carefully, you might see the Order of the Golden Fleece dangling around their necks. As you get older, you may be invited to centenary memorial celebrations, in front of a statue of some emperor perhaps, where Schützen guards in traditional costumes and with historic weapons salute the family and fire salvos to celebrate the remembrance.

I am very grateful that I have had the chance to meet occasionally with members of the still-existing European monarchies, to get to know them and to learn about how they raise their own children as “rulers-in-training.” These glimpses into another reality are reminders that the current, prevailing republican form of government is not the only possibility. In fact, after a visit to these fairy-tale remnants of the world that your family knew, the normal world can seem quite mundane. After all, even most Habsburgs now live in normal apartments and houses and no longer in castles. But with such an incredible family heritage, the temptation to live at least partly in the past is very strong—which, to a certain degree, can be good, as knowing who you are and where you came from provides a solid foundation for living, even in the here and now.

This article is adapted from Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen's latest book, The Habsburg Way: 7 Rules for Turbulent Times. It is reproduced here by arrangement with the publisher, Sophia Institute Press.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?
Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen is ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta.