Emperor Karl I
Emperor Karl I of Austria (1887-1922), known as Charles IV of Hungary) was Austria-Hungary’s last emperor. Variously described as heroic, saintly, weak, even naive, he is my favorite of the last European monarchs that the US worked so hard to depose. He came to the throne too late to save it and like his contemporary, Nicholas II of Russia, died too young to make his reforms enduring.
Born on 17 August 1887 in Persenbeug Castle, Austria, Karl was a grandnephew of the man he succeeded, the aging Emperor Franz Josef I. He became heir to the throne with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 (whose own children were barred from rights of succession based upon an agreement undertook by Ferdinand upon his marriage).
A cavalry officer until the outbreak of war in late July 1914, he subsequently took up an appointment as liaison officer, in which capacity he served during the opening Galician campaign. Following promotion he was recalled to court in mid-1915, but returned to active duty in May 1916. On the Italian Front he was given command of a corps before being transferred back to Galicia following the Russian Brusilov Offensive.
His military career was ended by the death of Franz Josef in late 1916; he became Austrian Emperor (Kaiser) on 21 November, and King of Hungary on 30 December.
Acutely aware that Austria-Hungary’s entry into the First World War (having essentially brought it about) was likely to prove the undoing of the empire, Karl quickly sought a means of negotiating a separate peace with the allies.
Much influenced by his pro-Allied wife, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, Karl sent peace feelers to France through the medium of his brother in law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma. Inexpertly managed - clumsy even, since he refused to cede any territory to the Italians - his efforts were dismissed by the French government, although they were put to handy propaganda use the year during the great German push of Spring 1918 (to the great annoyance of his German allies, who never again trusted the Austro-Hungarian emperor).
Regarded as weak by both political extremes, left and right, Karl nonetheless drew support from political moderates. Karl responded with the appointed of a succession of liberal, reformist prime ministers, pretty much reflecting his own views.
Similarly determined to reform the army, Karl banned flogging, ended duels, called a halt to strategic bombing and limited the widespread use of poison gas; which served merely to infuriate his high command. He also decided to jettison Austria-Hungary’s long-standing Chief of Staff,Conrad von Hotzendorf, replacing him with the more pliable Arz von Straussenberg.
It was all too late however. Utterly dependent upon German’s military might, Karl’s reforms achieved relatively little. With the Germans by now suspicious of Karl and Austria-Hungary generally, the new emperor was essentially coerced into what largely amounted to economic and military union with Germany following a meeting with the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, at Spa on 11 May 1918.
Karl repeatedly attempted in the second half of 1918 to negotiate peace with the Allies, each time without success. By now it was clear that the tide was turning in favour of the Allied effort.
With political extremism growing at home, and nationalism rampant, Karl’s attempt at domestic reform - the October Manifesto - which established a federation of autonomous Austrian states, proved insufficient.
Unusually for a monarch, Karl foresaw and largely accepted the dismantling of his empire - at least initially. On 31 October 1918 he granted permission for his soldiers to join national armies; just under two weeks later, on 11 November, he renounced his constitutional powers.
Having done so he then changed his mind, refusing to formally abdicate and instead vainly attempting to drum up royalist support. It was too late.
Forced to seek exile in Switzerland in March 1919 (with the assistance of the British), the Austrian parliament deposed him the following month. He attempted to return to Hungary two years later, but was denied permission on each occasion by the Horthy government.
The last of the Austro-Hungarian emperors died in penury in Madeira on 1 April 1922 of pneumonia at the tragically young age of 34. His wife, Zita, lived for a further 67 years, dying in Switzerland at the age of 96. She wore mourning black to the end.
Click here to hear Karl I give two speeches concerning an Austrian military fund for widows and orphans and military Orders of the Day. Click here to read Karl’s reaction to news of the peace treaty agreed between Ukraine and the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk.
Adapted from an article at firstworldwar.com