Shaken Foundations and Lost Roles

What do you do when the role you have been trained for since birth, and the world for which you were conditioned, go away? Especially if the system under which you live includes a religious mandate that you are destined, by G-d, with certain duties and privileges, and to fail to live up to those duties is to fail G-d?

It is a trope that appears in a number of works of fiction, with varying responses. Most of the time it seems to be the villain/antagonist who cannot cope with the new world, or who does whatever is possible to recreate or preserve the old world. In fiction it can be entertaining or thought-provoking. When it happens in reality, and the person is the leader of a country or empire, the results tend to range from sad to tragic to disastrous. I’m thinking in particular of Wilhelm II of Germany and Charles I of Austria.

I’d never considered the two men in quite this way until I was watching an older BBC documentary about WWI, and it quoted Winston Churchill talking about pitying Wilhelm II, who had been born and trained and conditioned from birth that his duty was to rule Germany and to ensure its survival and security. That alone would be enough to make life challenging, but Wilhelm II was also born with a withered left arm, meaning that it was weak and not really fully functional. Why? Hard to say, but a physically imperfect boy born into a culture that emphasized military life and “manly men,” that insisted on warrior prowess from its leaders and that looked back to people like Frederick the Great, is going to have some difficulties, to put it mildly. In some ways Wilhelm came too young to the throne. His grandfather lived a long life, but his father died within months of being crowned emperor, due to complications of cancer. The Germans called it the Dreikaiserjahr, the Year of the Three Emperors.

So Wilhelm II had been trained to be emperor, to be a ruler of men and leader of the army, but also knew he was physically incapable of many of the things soldiers do. The newsreels showed him hunting, but with someone assisting him to brace the shotgun, and taking and reloading it. The latter was quite normal for the time, all over Europe and Britain. The former was not so common. A careful examination of photos shows Wilhelm resting his hand on his sword hilt, or on a cane, or otherwise doing something so it does not have to fully extend. At the risk of psychoanalyzing a man who lived in a very different time, Wilhelm had some problems. Trying to emerge from the shadows of his grandfather and his grandfather’s Chancellor, Bismarck, were two of those problems. Wilhelm also tended to be excitable and to vacillate a little, and to “shoot from the lip” as my father puts it. The German Foreign Office issued many, many clarifications, corrections, and follow-up statements to what the Kaiser said. Inflammatory was a good way to describe his words and reaction to events.

Although he became to bogey-man for the Allies in the First World War, Wilhelm II was not evil. He failed to exceed his upbringing, and he failed to mature in many ways, but who was going to tell him “no?” The title for the German Kaiser was “All Highest,” which alone I think answers the question. When he attended military drills and decided to participate, he was not permitted to lose, and the exercises were re-organized to his benefit. There are other examples, but you see the problem. So what does such a man do in a world that is rapidly changing, away from personal rule to mass armies and democratic politics?

In Wilhelm’s case, we won’t know because he was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Belgium in 1918. However, Charles von Habsburg shows one option – you keep trying to do what you think is right even when the world turns against you.

Charles was born in 1887. His grand-uncle was Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary. Charles, or to give his full name, Karl Franz Joseph Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Marie von Habsburg-Lorraine, grew up to be a Habsburg prince, with a decent education and basic military training. Keep in mind that the Habsburg Empire was very much like a family business, and so Charles was groomed to be a high official and to have government duties, but not to inherit the throne. There were several other candidates that his grand-uncle preferred, and Charles’s branch of the family was not entirely in Franz Josef’s favor (not uncommon in that family). It didn’t help that the children of the official heir to the throne could not inherit because of . . . complications (they were legitimate but the marriage was morganatic.) And so Franz Josef pushed Charles to marry Zita of Bourbon-Parma in order to have heirs for Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They did like, and love, each other and married in 1911. Charles became heir to the Habsburg throne on June 28, 1914. When Franz Josef died in 1916, Charles became emperor and king.

In 1917 Charles tried to start secret peace negotiations with France, based on his belief that a common Christianity and desire to end the war would be sufficient. Alas, the negotiations became public and pushed Austria harder towards Germany, a nation that had a great deal to lose and that was about to be in a position to launch the final strike against the Allies, capture Paris and conclude things. When the end came in 1918, it came quickly. In October the Allies let it be known that they wanted the Habsburg Empire dissolved and would support an independent Czechoslovakia and other bits if they chose to leave. On November 11 Charles issued a statement saying that the people of the Empire had the right to choose their own type of government. He never abdicated, although to many it may have seemed so.

Instead, Charles spent the next four years trying to be recalled and invited back to rule. In 1921 he attempted twice to regain his throne in Hungary, with some encouragement from Hungarian royalists. The main part of the government, and the Allies, would not allow it, and he and his family were sent into exile, where he died on April 1, 1922.

Why did he keep trying? because he sincerely believed that he was the rightful ruler of Austria and Hungary, and that he was the best option for those places. He’d vowed to rule and to serve G-d, and he intended to do so. After all, his family had kept eastern Europe together, had driven out the Turks, had survived Napoleon, and had watched the peoples under their rule prosper and move through the Renaissance and Medieval, into the modern world. Who else could rule, who else understood what was involved? Perhaps if he’d been trained from the start as heir, perhaps if Charles had possessed a stronger personality, a firmer will, more determination to do what was necessary and yet flexible enough to bend a little to accommodate the changing times, he’d have ended up a constitutional monarch like King George V.

Both men, Wilhelm II and Charles of Austria (now the Blessed Charles of Austria. He was beatified in 2004) tried to life up to the expectations of their training and upbringing, as best they could. That neither fit the times, and that neither had the kind of personality that would allow them to rise above their backgrounds to cope with the fast-changing world, made their stories tragic, or terrible, instead of heroic. If Charles had been more like his crazy Uncle Johann, who modernized his lands in order to maintain the traditional ways, perhaps there might have been a Habsburg Commonwealth in the 1920s-30s. Or perhaps not. If Wilhelm II had been less excitable and more long-thinking, perhaps WWI would not have been as severe, or have transpired when it did?

But they weren’t. They were human men trained for roles that no longer fit the world they found themselves in, in part because of their own actions.


2 thoughts on “Shaken Foundations and Lost Roles

Comments are closed.