When history is harsh, it can break a man or build his character. But if he lives long enough, sometimes he is vindicated, and a subtle yet sublime victory is claimed.
Otto von Habsburg, the eldest son of the last reigning monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, looks back at a life marked by setbacks with some satisfaction. The House of Habsburg fell long ago, but his hopes for a unified Europe are materializing and his warnings about Nazism and communism proved prescient.
Otto von Habsburg, 93, was the heir of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, deposed in 1918.
(Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
"People ask me how, at 93, I can still be an optimist," he told 150 guests at a gala in his honor hosted by the Hungarian American Coalition on Wednesday. "I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, it is because I am 93."
Archduke Otto was 6 years old when his father was forced to abdicate in 1918 following the defeat of the Central Powers at the end of World War I. The Habsburgs lost everything: power, land, castles and extensive art collections.
Habsburg shrugs off the tumult of his early life with a crack of a smile and a twinkle in his gray eyes. "I was born in the eye of the storm . . . and that has been a great education," he said. "I took everything as it was."
The family embarked on a life in exile. But soon after, when he was 9, his father died.
As a young man, Habsburg attended college in Berlin and completed his studies there in 1933, "the year Hitler appeared in my life," he recalled.
As a student, Habsburg had read Hitler's "Mein Kampf." Hitler "was not dishonest about his intentions," Habsburg said. "The problem in Germany was that everybody purchased the book. . . . What was tragic was that nobody had read it."
Late one night when he was in his early twenties, he said, a man who had worked for his father knocked at his grandmother's door at her home in Munich. "He came to warn me: 'For God's sake, get out, they want to kill you.' " said Habsburg, who at the time maintained an immense following as a symbol of a former era and world order. "I believed him and left the next morning."
That night, the man who had warned him was severely beaten and died a few days later.
When he was 23 and living in Belgium, Habsburg received a similar visit from an assistant to one of Hitler's confidants who said a plot was being hatched to "have me put away. It was a very useful tip. They never found me, and I was very careful," he said.
After completing his doctorate in Belgium, Habsburg began traveling abroad to warn leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, about the dangers of Hitler's National Socialism and the designs of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Habsburg was sometimes taken seriously, but his efforts failed to deflect the flow of events. His attempts to restore the Habsburg dynasty also failed.
After the war, Habsburg assisted groups who were resettling refugees in the United States. He was a statesman without a state, shuttling between continents.
In 1967, Habsburg decided to return to Austria, but the government was paranoid about his popularity, he said, telling him it would return his property only if he promised to stay out of the country and politics. "If I accept your blackmail, then you can blackmail everybody else," he recalled saying. Seven years later, the courts ruled in his favor and he was given a passport.
He spent many years in debt but earned money by joining the U.S. lecture circuit and advising companies that had major assets in Germany but could not get their money out immediately after the war.
Habsburg represented Bavaria in the European Parliament from 1979 to 1999. In 1989, he helped persuade the Hungarian government to open its border to East Germans. An exodus of East Germans to the West via Hungary ensued -- the historic "Pan-European Picnic" that helped bore a hole in the Iron Curtain.
"It has been marvelous," Habsburg said. "The nations with whom I had been close and disappeared have now come back. It all began badly, and through many difficulties everything has turned out the way it should. . . . When I cross borders in Europe now I am happy, because I remember what it was like when they were closed".
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) said Wednesday night that Habsburg had "a Churchillian vision and statesmanship unprecedented in our time, a man who had fought the twin evils of Nazism and communism with the courage of his convictions and brilliance of his intellect."
Today, Habsburg travels throughout Europe, helping former Soviet countries map their transitions to modern democracy. He resides in Poecking, Germany, with his wife, Regina, whom he met while she was working at a refugee camp. They married when he was 39 and had seven children.
"I regret so little. It all came out so well," he said. "Borders between nations are disappearing. When you remember what misery certain countries were in, and you see them now, . . . you have in your life a permanent spring."