One of the most impressive defenses of the European Union that I have heard was delivered during a lecture on the theory of federalism in the South Tyrolean city of Bozen, to a class consisting mostly of young people from the Balkans (and one middle-aged American journalist). The speaker was a political scientist who had been born into an old Czech noble family, and there was something, well, noble in the way he spoke of the founding fathers of the union – Monnet, Schuman, De Gasperi – and their utopian idea to save Europe from itself by building a community based on common values no less than common coal-mining standards.
The last living claimant to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Otto von Habsburg, who died on Monday at the age of 98, was cut from the same cloth – a man who believed in service, honor, devotion. About 175 comments were posted to this obituary on a Czech news portal, and I was surprised that quite a few took a thoughtful, long view, in among the expected German-baiting rhetoric. For instance:
“If the Austrian monarchy had not been broken up, there would probably be some kind of constitutional monarchy in Central Europe today, similar to Great Britain, the emperor’s seat would be in Prague, the EU institutions as well, not in Brussels. And we would probably have avoided the devastation caused by the builders of brown and, later, red socialism.”
Otto was only four when his grandfather Franz Joseph died (see photo), and six when the empire ended, yet he retained a lifelong devotion to at least some of its former constituent parts. When he sat in the European Parliament he was eager to help the Czech democratic exiles, as Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (another blue-blood, so perhaps not the most unbiased of sources) explained in an interview for Ihned.cz:
“When I was working with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the 1980s, I met Jiří Pelikán [exiled former head of Czechoslovak television who became a member of the European Parliament for the Italian Socialist Party]. When I asked him who in the parliament could help, who took an interest in our nation [the Czechs], he told me, ‘Well, you should know, Otto Habsburg is the only one who knows his way around this and does something about it. You can always turn to him.’ ”
At the tail end of communism in Central Europe, Schwarzenberg recalled, Habsburg was there when the Iron Curtain was breached on Hungary’s border with Austria, as a co-organizer of that delightful event the “Pan-European Picnic.”
For the sake of balance, here is another reader’s comment:
“… as a Habsburg [Otto] was forbidden by law to enter the Czech Republic from the founding of this country in 1918, and that was good. Pity that this did not extend to all the Schwarzenbergs and suchlike oppressors.”
Kind of reminds you of the politically correct discourse on the east side of the curtain before Otto held his picnic, doesn’t it?