I am delighted to welcome Christina Croft, author of the Shattered Crowns trilogy, to Cross of Laeken to share her research and reflections. Like King Albert of Belgium, Emperor Karl was a devout Catholic and a loving family man who wanted to end the senseless slaughter of the First World War. Karl's wife, Zita, was also the first cousin of Albert's wife, Elisabeth. Zita and her children took refuge in Belgium for a time after Karl's death.
"A Saint To Whom No One Listened"
Even in the midst of something as terrible as a war, stories of courage and selflessness serve as a reminder that, no matter how evil the circumstance, goodness can never be crushed. I have not found the ‘Shattered Crowns’ trilogy easy to write because it is a story of deceit, destruction, manipulation and quite simply evil. What makes writing it possible is the hope that in doing so, it is possible to bring to light the bravery, sincerity and humanity of the central characters and none more so than Karl, the young Emperor of Austria-Hungary, of whom the French satirist Anatole France wrote: “...he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world.”
While the war brought untold suffering to most of the monarchs involved, Karl was in the most difficult position of all. As heir to his great uncle Emperor Franz Josef, he had played no part in the build-up to the conflict, possibly because Franz Josef, deliberately kept information from him so that no blame could be attached to him, but more likely because Franz Josef’s ministers deceitfully kept information from both the Emperor and his heir. Unlike those ministers and their puppet-masters, however, Karl almost immediately joined his regiment and served on the front line, seeing first-hand the scale of the destruction and slaughter. For anyone such an experience was horrific enough but for Karl it must have been even more traumatic since he was a deeply spiritual man whose entire life was built around trying to live according to the message of the Gospel. It is interesting that spirituality and meekness are often mistaken for weakness, for Karl demonstrated incredible strength of character and amazing courage in the face of danger. His men reported that he was frequently seen praying the rosary immediately before an offensive and remained absolutely calm in the midst of battle even when others around him were panicking. On one occasion he leaped into an icy lake to rescue a drowning man, and he frequently risked his own life to aid the wounded. Nonetheless, the sights that he saw appalled him, particularly the use of poisonous gas and the death or wounding of innocent civilians.
In November 1916, the aged Franz Josef died and, on becoming Emperor, twenty-nine year old Karl immediately set to work implementing many reforms. By then, the war had been raging for two years with loss of millions of lives, and, due to the British blockade, many of his people were starving. Karl was shocked to discover the extent of the corruption among many industrialists and even members of his own extended family who were profiting both from arms sales and the from the people’s desperation for food and basic necessities. Rectifying this, Karl also arranged for Imperial carriages to deliver coal and provisions to the poor, and continued to live on basic rations as he had done since the war began. He drew up plans, too – based probably on the ideas of his uncle, Franz Ferdinand – to reform the entire Austro-Hungarian constitution, granting greater autonomy to the different ethnic groups. His reforms extended to the military. He banned flogging and similar cruel punishments; he outlawed duelling – despite opposition from some senior officers; he did he did his utmost to prevent the use of gas and to protect civilians; and he provided comfortable homes with entertainment and books for the soldiers who were stationed away from home so that they would not feel so driven to seek comfort in the bars and brothels, many of which he closed for the sake of the soldiers’ wives and families.
In spite of these reforms, the war continued to take its toll and there is no doubt that Karl was becoming increasingly aware of the ‘dark forces’ behind the scenes who were purposely prolonging the conflict for financial gain and, more sinisterly, to destroy the European autocracies and sever the connections between the Churches and the state. For Karl it was imperative that the war end as soon as possible and, with that in mind, he contacted his brother-in-law, Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, a soldier in the Belgian army, and asked him to make contact with the French President in the hope of securing peace. Around the same time, United States President Woodrow Wilson revealed his plans for peace and it became very clear to Karl that the Allies’ intended to completely dismantle the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although Karl himself was planning to grant autonomy to the different regions, he could not possible accept the complete dismemberment of his Empire not only because he was convinced that it would give rise to greater divisions and wars (as had happened in the Balkans) but also because it was a clear indication of the plan to dissolve the ancient connection between the Roman Catholic Church and Karl’s ‘Apostolic Kingdom’. It must be remembered, though, that although Karl was eager to uphold that connection, he had no desire to impose his own beliefs on other cultures. The Empire comprised people of many Christian and non-Christian religions, whose rights to freedom of worship, Karl was intent on upholding. After several months of secret negotiations with France, during which Karl showed a willingness to make just compromises in order to create peace, the French President handed his letters to the newspapers and made them public. Karl was denounced as traitor and, during an unpleasant visit to Germany, he was fiercely berated not only by the Kaiser but also by the Kaiser’s wife.
Soon afterwards, the war eventually ended and, as had been predicted, Austria-Hungary was basically decimated. The economy collapsed so completely that unemployed people in Britain travelled to Austria to buy whole streets with their welfare payments! Karl, though refusing to formally abdicate, was sent into exile and tragically died shortly afterwards at the age of only 34.
This was a man who was a model of courage and humanity in the midst of unimaginable horrors. He showed physical courage on the battlefield, and even greater moral courage throughout his life. Regardless of criticism, he acted always from the highest motive – as was demonstrated not only in the major events of the war, but also at the funeral of his uncle, Franz Ferdinand. No other member of the family went to meet the train bringing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s bodies back from their fatal trip to Sarajevo, but Karl was there. When Franz Ferdinand’s enemies tried to prevent the crowds from paying their respects to the Archduke, Karl broke through the cordons to lead a peaceful procession behind the coffins. He showed great courage too in the way in which he bore the fallacious and ridiculous calumnies levelled against him after the war (he was a drunkard and a womaniser? – allegations which, incidentally, were thoroughly investigated and proved to be entirely false during his beatification process). A devoted family man, who put the service of his people before his own needs, and a man of great humility, he lived his entire life according to his faith and it is fitting that he is now recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, to which he was so committed, as ‘Blessed Karl of Austria.’
Karl plays a major role in the ‘Shattered Crowns’ trilogy, the first two book of which: The Scapegoats (1913-1914) and The Sacrifice (1914-1917) are currently available in paperback and Kindle formats. The third book, The Betrayal, is coming soon...
Thank you, Matterhorn, for your hospitality and for allowing me to write on your fascinating blog!