Otto von Habsburg R.I.P.

July 8th, 2011
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It’s the nature of some long-lived people that they go through cycles of apparent relevance and irrelevance. So it was with Otto von Habsburg, who died this week at the healthy age of 98.

At the time of his birth, he was third in line to the throne of Austria-Hungary, a country whose very name sounds antediluvian; its history known perhaps only to the older generation or young hobbyists. Its border spanned parts of 13 modern countries – from the Adriatic to Ukraine -  and had 12 official languages.

When Otto was born, the Habsburg dynasty had ruled much of this region for 600-plus years, but was considered by all right-thinkers to be a “prison of nations”. Everyone knew then that the natural order was for each “nation”, or large ethnic group,  to have its own independent political structure and that multi-national empires were a thing of the past. Austria-Hungary was considered, along with the Ottoman Empire, to be organically “sick” and beyond redemption.

Out of this cauldron emerged nationalist and ideological forces that led, directly and indirectly, to National Socialisms of various stripes and influenced totalitarian Communism. Once the nationalist bacillus had run its course, tens of millions were dead and as many or more cleansed from their ancient homelands. An entire cultural region had been wiped out. In light of this carnage, it’s not surprising that the Habsburg tradition was re-evaluated. If nationalism was the “cure” then perhaps it was worse than the Austrian “disease”.

Throughout the nationalist turmoil, Otto von Habsburg was a lonely voice, hearkening back to apparently lost virtues of faith and mutual understanding. Habsburg treatment of ethnic minorities had been comparatively benign, at least in the western, German-dominated part of the empire. Unfortunately, the Habsburgs were essentially powerless to counter the ascendancy of  Hungarian (Magyar) nationalism after Austria’s defeat in the war against Prussia in 1866. Magyar ambition was satisfied mostly at the expense of minorities in Hungary and of the Slavs of the Empire in general – particularly the Czechs. All of these conflicts obviously pale in comparison to the destruction wrought by the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansings that followed WWII.

So it was that the conventional wisdom “caught up” with Otto von Habsburg after the Second World War. The slaughter of the World Wars led to a call for a union of European states. Von Habsburg played a significant part – as a member of the European parliament – in expanding the EU into the former Eastern Bloc.

Ironically, by the end of von Habsburg’s life the EU had taken on similar flaws to those seen in the old Empire. Economically sound regions in the old Austria, primarily the German and Czech provinces, had to prop up the backward regions, leading to even more internal strife. The more things change…

Furthermore, the empire’s internal structure was considered ossified and antiquated. Its bureaucracy was legion, and legendary for its asphyxiation of enterprise and innovation. It is no surprise that the Austrian School of Economics originated there, with important scholars like Menger, Boehm-Bawerk, von Mises and Hayek emerging in the years of the Empire’s decline and fall. The proliferation of the modern “Eurocracy”, and the suffocation of (particularly) economic freedom in modern Europe suggests few lessons from the old Austria have been learned. On the contrary. The Euro-zone appears even more mired in bureaucracy than could even have been contemplated a century ago.

Here von Habsburg’s legacy is less clear. Although he was an outspoken advocate for private property and greater freedom from taxation, the chosen model of European union – via financial strictures and bureaucratic strangulation – seem to obviously contradict those freedoms. Unless Europe can remain a free-trade zone, and drop the bureaucratic straightjacket, the myriad of European ills are likely to persist.

Despite Europe’s uncertain future, Otto von Habsburg’s personal legacy is exemplary. Rarely has an individual conducted himself with such consistent personal integrity in chaotic times and risen consistently above the political turmoil that overwhelmed so many of his contemporaries. And rarely has a lifespan, from before radio tubes on to Youtube, had its length matched by its quality.

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By John Weissenberger