It was one of the greatest states in history. In the early 20th Century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dominated central Europe. At its height, it stretched all the way from modern-day Montenegro right up to the Czech-German border. Ruled for centuries by a succession of Habsburg emperors, it seemed as permanent as the United States does to us today. Yet, in late 1918, in the blink of an eye, this great empire collapsed. The man who kicked its foundations out? An inexperienced, 31-year old dilettante known to history as Karl I: the last emperor of Austria.
Before he dynamited his own empire, Karl had been an obscure royal from a side branch of the Habsburg dynasty. But a combination of freak tragedies had seen him propelled to the height of power. Made emperor before he was 30, Karl inherited an empire on the losing side of one of the greatest wars in history. In his short reign, he first tried to hold his disintegrating world together… before finally surrendering to its destruction. An emperor who killed his empire, a soldier who may become a saint, this is the fascinating story of Austria’s last emperor.
A Family in Crisis
Fittingly for a man whose reign revolved around war, Karl’s story started with a bullet. Well, specifically, it started with two bullets. Two shots fired in a palatial hunting lodge outside Vienna one cold, miserable night in January 1889.
Earlier that day, the disturbed young heir to the Austrian throne – Crown Prince Rudolf – had requested his 17-year old lover join him at the lodge. There, the two had made a suicide pact, before Rudolf shot her and then turned the gun on himself.
The death of the heir shook the empire. It created a scandal that engulfed Vienna, and emotionally broke the emperor, Franz Josef. But it did something else, too. It set Karl on a collision course with destiny.
Born a year and a half earlier, on August 17, 1887, Karl was a young boy from a side-branch of the Habsburg royal family.
His father, Archduke Otto, was the nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, and younger brother of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But while both the Franzes were famous for their pious, Catholic lifestyles, Karl’s father was infamous for treating life like one giant frat party.
He drank. He caroused. He had affairs that scandalized Austria.
Naturally, this didn’t sit well with his wife. Princess Maria Josepha was a strict Catholic who couldn’t believe her real-life Disney prince had turned out to be Gaston minus the muscles. From the moment Karl was born, she avoided her husband in favor of their son, taking him to mass almost every day.
It was a habit that would instill in the young boy a deep affinity for Catholicism.
So that was the family set-up: a not-so abnormal tale of parental division that could’ve gone unchanged for decades… had Rudolf not fired those fatal shots. Because Rudolf had been Emperor Franz Josef’s only son, the line of succession passed to Karl’s uncle, Franz Ferdinand.
Since Ferdinand was childless, that meant Karl was now third in line to the throne.
Franz Ferdinand was only childless because he was still young. It was fully expected that he would marry and start creating mini-Habsburgs that would knock Karl back out of the running to be emperor. So no-one made any special effort to start preparing Karl for life at the top. He was allowed to skip the standard Habsburg military upbringing, and instead attend a regular school.
But, events would soon conspire to keep Karl’s place in the succession.
In 1900, Franz Ferdinand married Sophie Chotek.
Now, Sophie was a Czech countess, but for a family as absurdly royal and absurdly Austrian as the Habsburgs, “Czech countess” was practically synonymous with “trailer trash tramp”. Enraged by the match, Franz Josef excluded Franz Ferdinand’s future children from the line of succession.
And just like that, it dawned on everyone that Karl really would be emperor one day.
It was too late to stick Karl on the military track, so his parents allowed him to go to university in Prague, to get a regular education. In the grand, Czech city, Karl absorbed ideas and attitudes alien to his family; becoming a cosmopolitan reformist, even as he held onto his strong Catholicism.
At first, the emperor must’ve consoled himself that the throne was still a long way from the boy’s grasp. But it soon got closer.
On November 1, 1906, Karl’s father Otto passed away from syphilis, making Karl second in line, behind only Franz Ferdinand. Now all it would take would be a single accident or, say, a single assassin’s bullet, and 19-year old Karl would be the heir presumptive.
No-one knew it in 1906, but that assassin’s bullet was already in Franz Ferdinand’s future.
And, when it was finally fired, it was going to change the entire world.
Prelude to Conflict
For the next eight years, Karl suffered a crash course in the kind of lives Habsburg heirs were expected to live.
With the young student now getting worryingly close to power, Franz Josef abandoned his previous detachment and worked flat-out to whip Karl into shape. The boy was removed from university, refused the chance to finish his degree, and dumped onto an emergency military track that saw him whisked away to garrisons all over the empire.
He was also bumped into an arranged marriage with a bride the emperor thought worthy, the suitably-wealthy, suitably-royal Zita of Bourbon-Parma.
There’s actually footage of the elderly Franz Josef at the couple’s wedding, watching them closely, like a hawk suspicious its prey might run off at any moment.
He needn’t have worried.
Despite their arranged marriage, Karl and Zita got along fine, bonding over their shared Catholic faith and interest in new ideas. But while Franz Josef may have breathed a sigh of relief over the wedding, there were already signs of trouble.
Although Karl was now having a normal Habsburg upbringing, no-one was actually showing him how to run an empire. Franz Josef kept him at arms’ length from the court, possibly on the assumption that Karl could learn later when Franz Ferdinand was emperor.
It was a risky decision.
By the time of Karl’s wedding, Franz Josef was already in his eighties. His relationship with his heir, Franz Ferdinand, was still in the sewer from the whole Sophie Chotek thing.
If Franz Josef wanted to pass any wisdom on, now was the time to do it.
But maybe the emperor was simply too busy come 1911.
After all, his empire was creaking at the seams.
Although it was known as Austria-Hungary, the empire Karl would soon inherit was far bigger than just those two countries. Alongside Austria and Hungary, it comprised modern-day Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, alongside parts of modern Montenegro, Italy, Poland, Serbia, Ukraine, and Romania.
That meant a multicultural empire filled with different ethnicities, religions, and languages. It was this multiculturalism that had allowed Vienna to thrive in the 19th Century.
It was also what was now threatning to pull it apart.
Nationalism was on the rise across Europe. Within the empire, the biggest flashpoints were the succession-minded Czech lands, and the newly-acquired territory of Bosnia. The latter was especially volatile. Only annexed by the empire in 1908, its status as part of Austria-Hungary was a sore spot for many Bosnian Serbs, who dreamed of joining Bosnia and Serbia into a single nation.
But although Franz Josef was aware of the problems in Bosnia, he seemingly didn’t realize just how acute they had become until it was too late.
On July 28, 1914, Karl’s uncle, Franz Ferdinand, visited Sarajevo as part of his tour of Bosnia.
While he was being driven through the city in an open-topped car, a young Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip stepped out the crowd and fired two shots. Just as Rudolf’s two fatal shots had many decades before, these two shots fired in Sarajevo would change history.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand meant Karl became heir presumptive. Suddenly, from a minor royal, this boy of not-yet 25 had been propelled to the very cusp of power. But no-one apart from Karl was thinking about this in mid-1914. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand had already created much bigger problems.
Convinced the Serbian government had been behind the murder, Franz Josef declared war.
This led to Russia coming to Serbia’s aid, which led to Germany coming to Austria-Hungary’s aid, which led to France coming to Russia’s aid, and so on and on until the entire continent was marching to a military drumbeat. WWI had just begun. The deadliest conflict the human race had yet seen would spend the next four years ravaging Europe.
By the time it ended, in November 1918, Karl would be emperor of an empire that no longer existed.
Despite now being heir to the throne, Karl was still technically a soldier. So, when the largest war ever seen broke out, he did what soldiers do. He went off to fight.
Although the Western Front gets all the English language press, the Eastern Front was no picnic. By the time Karl reached Galicia – the little slice of Ukraine the empire owned – the bloodshed had already reached staggering heights.
Along the front, the Russian empire was making mincemeat of the Austro-Hungarians.
In the first two months of fighting alone, the Russians managed to push 300km into Austrian territory, capturing Lemberg – now known as Lviv – and killing over 100,000 Austrian soldiers. But while the Romanov family was sitting pretty in St Petersburg, Karl witnessed the slaughter firsthand.
To say it had an effect on the young man would be an understatement.
We’ve read sources say he tried praying on the battlefield to make the bloodshed stop, but if God was up there, he wasn’t in the mood for listening. From September to May, the Russians battered the Austro-Hungarian army.
As they did so, a few things became painfully clear to Karl.
The first was that the army was weak not just because it was in urgent need of modernization, but because there was something rotten in Austria-Hungary itself. The siren song of nationalism was fraying the empire’s bonds, making its different ethnicities mistrustful, and unwilling to fight as a team.
The second was that the main threat to the army might not be marauding Russians, but getting swallowed by the German war machine. During the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive in mid-1915, Karl saw firsthand how it was only with German firepower that the empire was capable of fighting on.
Over the next 18 months, Karl toured the various fronts of WWI, noting with increasing alarm the empire’s growing problems.
In northern Italy, he saw how ready to throw off the Habsburg yoke his subjects were.
On the Eastern Front, he watched as Russian manpower smashed the Austro-Hungarian armies until their morale was non-existent. By late 1916, it was badly clear that – even if the Central Powers won – the stress of fighting might kill the empire stone dead.
What was desperately needed was someone new in charge. Someone with a vision for how to stop the slaughter, and pacify the empire’s many ethnic groups.
Naturally, Karl assumed he should be that someone. And he was about to get his chance.
In the early hours of November 21, 1916, emperor Franz Josef passed away in his bedchamber in Vienna, after ruling the empire for nearly 68 years.
Immediately, Karl was recalled from the front, arriving in Vienna shortly after.
There, amid the cold grandeur of the imperial city, he was proclaimed Karl I: emperor of Austria. At the moment he took the title, he was just 29 years old. From the go, Karl was determined to act on the lessons he’d learned on the front. That meant ending the war and ending it soon.
He even insisted on having the following phrase inserted into his coronation proclamation:
“I will do everything to banish in the shortest possible time the horrors and sacrifices of war, to win back for my peoples the sorely-missed blessings of peace.”
But despite the new emperor’s grand dreams, the reality was that peace wasn’t his to give.
By winter 1916, Austria-Hungary was completely reliant on Germany. And the chances of the Kaiser agreeing to peace were somewhere around the chances of the Kaiser agreeing to put on heels and dance for Karl in a Berlin nightclub.
But Karl was not to be deterred.
Even as he was hastily arranging his separate coronation in the Hungarian half of the empire, the young emperor was coming up with a dangerous plan. The Kaiser wouldn’t let Karl pursue peace? Then Karl was just gonna have to go over the old man’s head to get it.
If Karl wanted his empire to make peace with the Allies, the first thing he had to do was make sure it survived long enough.
The disease of nationalism had by now spread to Vienna itself. Fearing the divisions if ultra-right Austrians were given too much control, Karl made one of his first acts by hiring prominent Czechs into his cabinet. It was a move meant to neutralize the threat of Czech secession. Instead, it just meant Karl became as unpopular with the Austrians as he was with everyone else.
And, unpopular was exactly the last thing Karl wanted to be right now.
That March 1917, the February Revolution shook Russia, toppling the Tsar.
And, yes, we agree it’s confusing that a revolution named after the month of February took place in March. Blame Imperial Russia’s weird love affair with the Julian Calendar. Anyway, the Wrong Month Revolution put the fear of God into Karl, who started to worry that he might be next if he didn’t get this peace thing sorted.
So he got his wife Zita to contact her brothers, Sixtus and Xavier, who were fighting on the Allied side.
He then gave them a secret note to hand to the French, telling them Austria-Hungary wanted to make peace. Today, the Sixtus Affair is infamous for making Karl look like a jackass.
But, in March and April of 1917, it briefly looked like the key to ending the war.
When the French received Karl’s overtures, they laid out a list of cautious demands as a precondition for talks. When Karl immediately agreed to most of them, the French contacted London, being all like “whoa… this guy’s actually serious!”
Everyone was so excited by the messages that British Prime Minister Lloyd George remarked “that means peace.”
But, of course, Lloyd George was wrong.
While Karl was happy to leave Germany hanging, willing to return land to Serbia, and willing to recognize French claims to new territory, he just couldn’t bring himself to give up the Habsburgs’ last remaining chunks of Italy.
Since Italy was demanding he do just that in return for peace, the secret negotiations eventually fizzled. With hindsight, Karl’s actions here were super dumb. Austro-Hungary’s holdings in Italy were already small. While abandoning them would’ve been a bitter pill to swallow, it could’ve allowed the empire to survive.
But that was just one of Karl’s contradictions. He was a wannabee peacemaker, but he was also a guy who literally thought the Catholic God had appointed him to rule an indivisible empire.
With that mindset, surrendering territory was always gonna be a non-starter.
But even though Karl’s negotiations fell through, it wasn’t the end of the Sixtus Affair.
On January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson set out his 14 points for peace in Europe, including self-determination for all peoples of Karl’s empire – a move that almost guaranteed its dissolution. When Karl subsequently tried to strike a more strident tone against the Allies, the French published his secret letters.
This is the bit of the Sixtus Affair everyone remembers, and it was embarrassing as it sounds.
For the Allies, this was final proof that Austria-Hungary was close to collapse. For Germany, it was nothing short of betrayal. That May, the Kaiser angrily summoned Karl. In a special meeting, he forced the young emperor to put the Austro-Hungarian military totally under Berlin’s control.
With the empire now little more than a German vassal state, the writing was on the wall. There was no way Karl was escaping this quagmire without some serious consequences. But not even the failed emperor could’ve foreseen just how serious those consequences would be.
Across 1918, Karl tried his best to shore up support inside his ailing empire. He introduced military reforms. Banned flogging. Tried to halt the use of poison gas. On the domestic front, he set up a welfare system for returning soldiers, tried to demilitarize his society.
But it was too little, too late.
When Austria-Hungary entered the war, it was not a given that it would collapse. Had Karl’s peace efforts succeeded in 1917, it seems likely some form of the empire would’ve survived – minus its Italian, Serbian, and probably Polish and Czech parts, but still an empire.
By fall, 1918, though, that ship had long sailed.
On October 16, Karl published a manifesto broadly accepting Wilson’s 14 Points, declared the creation of a federal empire, and granted every nationality autonomy. But it was all just theatre. By now, it was clear WWI was in its endgame. And it was clear who was on the losing side.
Just 12 days after Karl published his manifesto, on October 28, the Czechs took control of Prague and declared their independence.
The very next day, Croatia and Slovenia unilaterally seceded. The day after that, Slovakia jumped ship.
That same day, Austria’s politicians declared the creation of a new, national parliament, effectively taking Austria out of its own empire. Within 24 hours, Hungary’s new leaders had dissolved the treaty joining their country with Austria.
On November 11, with only a handful of fragments of his empire left, Karl gave up trying to hold on.
He renounced his right to rule Austria, released his subjects from their oath of loyalty, and announced he would retreat from politics. It wasn’t quite an abdication, but it was very close.
As the guns fell silent along the front at 11am that same day, Austria-Hungary officially ceased to exist.
It seems Karl still had hope at this point. Hope his grateful subjects would recall him for his peace efforts, and ask him to lead them once again.
It was a nice fantasy, but a fantasy was all it was.
While some call Karl the “Peace Emperor” today, the fact is that he totally failed in his goal of making peace. WWI had just shattered Europe. It had claimed over 20 million lives. No-one but no-one wanted to be led by one of the guys on its losing side.
Come March, 1919, even Karl seemed to recognize this.
At the end of that month, he and Zita boarded a train bound for Switzerland and set off for a lonely life as exiles. In the wake of their departure, the Austrian national parliament passed a law banning all Habsburgs from the country, and stripping them of their right to the throne.
Any sensible person would’ve seen that this was the end. That the video was coming to its close, that the credits on Karl’s life were about to roll. But Karl wasn’t sensible. He was an idealist and a man who thought God had handpicked him for greatness.
As he crossed the Swiss border, the deposed emperor issued his Feldkirch Manifesto, revoking his own decision to step down, and announcing he would return to lead Austria-Hungary again.
It was a moment as brazen as it was foolish.
It was also a moment that would soon plunge the shattered empire right back into chaos.
You Can Never Go Back
Although with hindsight we can see that Karl’s reign was over, things weren’t so certain in 1919. France actually toyed with restoring him and rebuilding his empire as a counterweight to Germany. It was just spitballing, but word somehow got back to Karl, whose takeaway was that Paris would support him retaking his throne by force.
The only problem was, there was no throne for him to go back to.
Or was there?
In WWI’s aftermath, Hungary very quickly went through a phase of Communist rule, which ended with everyone really, super keen to do the opposite of Communism. In February 1920, Miklós Horthy came to power, restored the monarchy, and named himself regent in Karl’s name.
For Karl, this was a clear signal that the Hungarians, at least, wanted him back; and he wasn’t totally mistaken. But there was one Hungarian determined to make sure Karl never retook his throne.
Horthy may have restored the monarchy, but only as a means to power. After all, what’s a regent when his king is capable of ruling? A nobody. So when Karl snuck into Hungary in disguise on March 26, 1921, Horthy did everything in his power to keep the young man from unseating him.
When they met, he told Karl that of course he supported him, that of course he’d help him march on Budapest.
Then, when the emperor was good and mollified, Horthy snuck off and asked the French if they were, like, actually serious about supporting Karl. To Horthy’s delight, the French were not serious about it at all.
Paris announced they’d had no part of this, that Karl was both an idiot and on his own.
This delighted Prague, and the Czechoslovaks immediately threatened to declare war on Hungary if it restored the emperor. And that’s how Karl wound up fleeing into exile in Switzerland for the second time.
But the last emperor wasn’t done trying yet. That fall, Karl contacted Hungary’s elites, making sure to exclude Horthy. He managed to drum up an army of 5,000 loyalists. On October 20, the emperor flew a flight plane to the border town of Sopron, where his army was waiting for him.
Initially the venture had all the hallmarks of a glorious homecoming.
The people of Sopron celebrated Karl’s return. As his army began the long march to Budapest, more and more joined their ranks. For one shining moment, it really looked like Karl was going to get his empire back.
And then the army reached Budapest and everything fell apart. No-one seems quite sure what happened that strange day. We’ve seen sources claim Horthy tricked the citizens into taking up arms against Karl, believing he was at the head of a Czechoslovak invasion force. We’ve seen others say Karl was betrayed by one of his generals.
The only thing certain is that Karl entered Budapest on October 23. By October 24, he’d been captured, and his last chance at restoration was over.
This time, it wouldn’t end with comfy exile in Switzerland.
On November 1, the irate British sailed a warship up the Danube, and demanded Karl be handed over. They then took him away – away from Hungary, away from mainland Europe – away to the Portuguese island of Madeira, some 900km from the mainland.
And they left him there.
And that was it for Austria’s last emperor.
On April 1, 1922, Karl succumbed to pneumonia – some sources say Spanish flu – and passed away, aged just 34. At the time he died, his name was mud across Europe. His former nations had all passed laws banning him from their territory. He was seen as a weakling at best, a laughingstock at worst.
But things soon started to change.
In the aftermath of WWII, with its overtly evil trio of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, a bumbling Habsburg who’d sincerely tried to make peace suddenly didn’t look so bad. As WWI began to be viewed as a gigantic, needless, morally gray screw-up, Karl’s determination to end the war eventually began to appear decent. Even noble.
In 2004, over 80 years after Austria’s last emperor died in misery, Pope John Paul II beatified him for his peacemaking efforts. As of the time of writing, Karl is on the path to sainthood.
Is it the fate he deserves? Who can say.
While Karl really did try to make peace, he also really was an ineffectual bumbler, who failed to end the war his empire was part of. They say that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. What they neglect to mention is that – sometimes – good men really can try to do something, and still fail to stop the slaughter.
Karl may have been a decent man deep down. But if his story shows us anything, it’s that decency isn’t always enough.
Sometimes, you can do everything in your power to hold your country together, and still wind up being known to history as the last emperor.
The positive (Catholic) view: http://www.emperorcharles.org/why-canonize-an-emperor
The negative (secular) view: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/jan/19/catholicism.religion
The Peace Emperor?: https://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/karl-i-peace-emperor
Karl in WWI: https://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/karl.htm
Sixtus Affair: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/sixtus-affair
Karl’s October manifesto: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/to-faithful-austrian-people-emperor-karl
Heavy historical research on Karl’s fate in Hungary (pdf): https://www.austriaca.at/0xc1aa5576%200x00178c1f.pdf
Karl’s coup attempts in Hungary: https://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/putsch-attempts-hungary
Karl in exile (and death): https://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/habsburgs-exile-i-switzerland-madeira
Collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I/The-collapse-of-Austria-Hungary
Context within Austrian history: https://www.britannica.com/place/Austria/World-War-I
Context within WWI history: https://www.britannica.com/topic/20th-century-international-relations-2085155/The-crises-of-1917#ref304027