Honoured Dead

Amidst the theatre of Otto Habsburg’s funeral, the real man was harder to find

Opinion | Sara Friedman, Dardis McNamee | September 2011

Vienna loves a beautiful corpse – eine schöne Leiche – so the saying goes, but at the funeral of Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary on July 16, it was difficult to tell who or what that corpse actually was.

Granted, Otto’s black-and-gold draped coffin stood in the middle of the five-hour-long proceedings, but the Imperial pomp and circumstance was strangely detached from the career and accomplishments of the man himself, a former Member of the European Parliament who gained political influence quite late in life, by looking beyond Austria and his inheritance.

But there was a second entity, too, that was laid to rest on that bright summer day in mid-July. For the last time, the beautiful corpse was himself an heir to the Imperial throne. Thus the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself staged a brief reappearance, returning in splendor that was only a little frayed at the edges by the passing of more than nine decades. Its ancient traditions were honoured, its unique mythology invoked, and its farthest reaches represented in a ceremony that transported its participants to an alternate reality, one in which the 20th century, with its world wars and toppling of empires, had never happened.

During the course of the funeral of the last man ever to hold an official claim to the Dual Monarchy, the past itself was reburied.

Hours before the ceremony started, U-Bahn stops within the first district were closed. ORF television began coverage beginning with a documentary on Otto von Habsburg’s life, which could be watched by passers-by on video screens set up at Stephansplatz, Hoher Markt, and Heldenplatz. Police had put up metal barricades, blocking off the route of the funeral march as well as a large area around the cathedral; the city was planning a mass spectacle.

And spectacle it was: Regiment after regiment of exotically dressed brigade men and militia marched in step, visibly uncomfortable in the winter-weight turn-of-the-century regalia, but stoically making their way through the city and to the cathedral. By two o’clock, an hour before the ceremony, crowds had amassed at Stephansplatz, pressing close together despite the warm weather, trying to get as close as possible to the St. Stephans Cathedral.

On the videoscreen, the official guests could be seen filing into the cathedral.  Outside, flags, standards and uniforms from all corners of the extinct monarchy were on display; Hungarian regiments bedecked in the colours of their flag, tasseled banners proclaiming ancient feudal loyalties, and Christian declarations of ultimate fidelity to God and Kaiser.

But the grand scale of the funeral and its requiem mass seemed in an odd way to distract from the true matter – or was it the man? – at hand. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of the Viennese Archdiocese began by posing a question: "How can we take our leave of Otto von Habsburg with gratitude and respect?" he asked. "What should we take from his life and death, to inspire us to turn our thoughts to our own lives and our own mortality?"

Each human, Catholics believe, is created by God with a unique purpose. Though situations may change in unexpected ways, as they did for the biblical Abraham and indeed for Otto von Habsburg, and whatever one thinks of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular, it was hard to deny what must have been an unshakeable trust in God to provide a guiding light through dislocation and tumult. It brought to mind Otto’s own explanation for why he had continued to be active politically for so many decades long after losing his titles and inheritance: If you can’t win a battle on horseback, he had said, then you dismount and continue to fight on the ground.

"God," the cardinal quoted Otto from 1971, "does not require us to bring Him reports of victory. He alone gives success. From us, He only expects that we do our best."

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