Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Emperor Charles I: World War I Peace Campaigner

by James Bogle


James Bogle examines the life of the Catholic Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary, who sacrificed everything for the sake of achieving peace in his country.

Larger Work


Publisher & Date

AD2000, April 1996

The evil legacy of World War I (1914-1918) was incalculable, most notably in the rise of Russian Communism, the emergence of Nazism in Germany and ultimately World War II. Among a handful of public figures, including Pope Benedict XV, who worked strenuously, but ultimately unsuccessfully, for peace, was the young Catholic Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary. His efforts were heroic, unstinting and sincere, but the obstacles of militarism and narrow nationalism were to prove insurmountable.


To the English-speaking world the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary might seem an unlikely candidate for inclusion in a miscellany of Catholic heroes and still less, for canonisation as a saint of the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, the case of Emperor Charles I is currently being considered by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, with the present Pope even indicating his own interest in, and enthusiasm for, the cause of the late Emperor. (The Pope's father was himself an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army over which the Emperor Charles was at one time commander-in-chief).

Few today know that this same Emperor, among all the political leaders of the belligerent nations, was the chief campaigner for an end to the First World War and a tireless and zealous worker for peace throughout that conflict.

This Charles came to the throne of his Habsburg ancestors at a time when Europe and the world were plunged into the bloodiest war that human history had ever, at that time, known. His great uncle, Emperor Francis Joseph I (Franz Josef), died in 1916, having occupied the throne since 1848, a year when Europe had suffered a wave of revolutions inspired by 'anti-clericals' who were opposed not only to the Catholic dynasties and their rule and the influence of the Catholic clergy upon them, but frequently to the Catholic religion itself.

With war in the Balkans in the 1990s, perhaps we are now in a better position to understand the dilemma Franz Josef and his government faced when the Bosnian Serbs carried out the assassination at Sarajevo of the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria.

An ultimatum was delivered to the Serbian government who were sheltering the conspirators and war followed. This set off a chain-reaction of alliances, beginning with Russian aid to Serbia, going on to Germany and France and rapidly drawing in Britain which came to the aid of Belgium whose territory was entered by the German armies on their way to invade France, the ally of Russia. The result was the First World War.

It was this terrible legacy that the Emperor Charles I inherited in 1916 when the old Emperor died. Charles had been born at Persenbeug Castle, not far from the Empire's western capital Vienna, on 17 August 1887 and was thus 29 when he came to the throne. Because of Franz Ferdinand's assassination, Charles had become heir. He at once set about doing all in his power to bring peace. However, he had insurmountable obstacles to overcome which were to block his every move.

Charles had married on 21 October 1911, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the daughter of the Duke of Parma. a small duchy in Italy formerly ruled by a branch of the Bourbon family until they were overthrown and expelled by the revolutionaries. Zita would live on until 1989. Their marriage had been a love match from the start, fortified by a mutually strong Catholic faith

Austria-Hungary was a polyglot empire consisting of many little nations. Since 1868 it had been a Dual Monarchy divided into two parts, one ruled from Vienna, the other (the Hungarian half) from Budapest, but both under one Emperor. The rise of nationalism meant that there were groups conspiring to split up this Habsburg empire into its constituent nations. In German-speaking parts the pan-Germanist movement had made significant gains and its adherents sought, ultimately, to unite the German-speaking parts of the Austrian Empire into the new German Empire.

Military aggression

This new German Empire had only begun in 1871. It was the creation of the Protestant Prussian militarist, Otto von Bismarck, who pursued a policy of military aggression in which he defeated France and Austria and then amalgamated all the German states into one empire, including Catholic Bavaria and Protestant Prussia, the latter dominating.

This new German Empire dominated the European political and military scene, with Austria increasingly overshadowed by it, and when Emperor Charles came to the throne, Austria was bound in alliance with Germany to whom it was militarily inferior. The German Emperor was William II, a vain, pompous and belligerent man, incompetent politically and militarily, and entirely dependent upon his generals whose dominant element were Prussian militarists and chauvinists.

Although Charles was able to get on personally with Emperor William, who was by then old enough to be his father, he could not get through to William's bombastic and belligerent generals.

With the aid of Zita's brother, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, he was able instead to make his most bold initiative for peace. Two of Zita's brothers, including Sixtus, were serving with the Belgians, Austria's enemy.

Zita wrote a moving and urgent plea to Sixtus: "Do not let yourself be held by considerations which in ordinary life would be justified. Think of all the unfortunates who live in the hell of the trenches and die there every day by the hundreds, and come!"

Through Sixtus, Charles made a peace offer to the Allied governments. Sixtus approached the French government first and later the British government, speaking to Prime Minister David Lloyd-George.

Emperor Charles' peace plan allowed for sweeping territorial gains to the Allied nations - he was more interested in peace even than preserving the full boundaries of the Empire. This was another reason for secrecy since the full revelation of what Charles was prepared to negotiate away in the interests of peace would certainly have caused a strong reaction from the more bellicose elements within Austria-Hungary. Charles' willingness to make concessions went even further than that of Pope Benedict XV, himself an ardent and enthusiastic peace campaigner. Charles was willing, for example, to cede Alsace-Lorraine, a territory which was traditionally Habsburg but currently then in German hands.


As is plain from the papers of the British Cabinet Secretary Sir Maurice Hankey, Lloyd-George saw the Emperor's peace plan as little more than a sign of weakness on the part of Austria. This was almost certainly a reason for his energetic pursuance of a policy to strike at Austria through Italy. The new French Prime Minister, Clemenceau, who had taken over in November 1917, was a notorious anti-clerical and equally determined to see the end of the Habsburg Catholic monarchy. On 12 April 1918, he published Charles' peace letters in full.

The Germans exploded in indignation at Charles' evident willingness to negotiate away Alsace-Lorraine (and much else besides) for the sake of peace. Charles wrote to Emperor William warning him that, in the aftermath of the Russian October 1917 Revolution, the real enemy of Europe was now Bolshevism and that the war must be ended as quickly as possible for the sake of Europe's future. William, under the thumb of his generals, had allowed Lenin through German territory (Charles had resolutely refused him access via the Empire) to start the revolution.

The Germans now forced Austria-Hungary to be tied inextricably to them or face a German invasion supported by the nationalists (like the Hungarians) within the Empire. Austria-Hungary had become a German satellite.

Charles, the young peace-Emperor (Friedenskaiser), as he had been called, had no more cards to play. They had all been snatched from him by the small-mindedness of others. He would remain popular with the ordinary people of the Empire but after the Sixtus affair he could not exercise any restraint on their nationalist leaders in the imperial parliaments. Added to that, his health was poor and, despite being hardly 31, he had suffered a series of heart attacks.

At war's end Charles was compelled to sign a withdrawal of power but he was careful never to sign an abdication document despite all kinds of threats of internment and violence made against him by the republican politicians who were taking over power.

It was at this point that a British officer, Lt-Colonel Edward Lisle Strutt DSO, came to the rescue. Strutt was a Catholic educated by Jesuits at Beaumont College, and at Innsbruck and Oxford Universities. He was also a linguist, a mountaineer and a war hero. Strutt was largely responsible for seeing the Imperial couple safely out of the Empire. He bluffed the new socialist government in Vienna and arranged for a train to Switzerland, but without compromising Charles' position and integrity.

The day arrived on 23 March 1919. Charles' son, Archduke Dr Otto von Habsburg (now a member of the European Parliament), recalled that Charles had ordered a Mass to be said at which he would be altar-server. Local people from all around came to say farewell to their Friedenskaiser and in Vienna a huge crowd gathered to watch their Emperor, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the direct historical descendent of the Holy Roman Empire, being taken away by train out of his ancestral land and into exile.

Ultimately, after two unsuccessful attempts at regaining the throne of Hungary, Charles was taken in 1921 to the island of Madeira where he would live in great poverty with Zita and their eight children. Within a year, in March 1922, he had caught a chill and became seriously ill. On 1st April, surrounded by his impoverished family and with the name of his Saviour upon his lips, he breathed his last at just 34 years of age.

For the people of the Danube basin history has turned full circle. Once again they are faced with a choice between co-operation and mutual help, to aid their recovery from the nightmare of communism, or an insistence on nationalist isolation. Perhaps some of the lessons learned by the young peace-Emperor who stood at the head of the Catholic empire to which their nations all once belonged, might be worth recalling.


Charles had endured a life of privation in exile with the same equanimity as he had the years as Emperor. He accepted his final suffering as a sacrifice which he had to endure for the future well-being of his family and his people. Lacking in years and experience he had nonetheless made wiser judgments than any of his elders. All were based upon a firm and well-informed Faith. He had failed in his attempt to regain the throne of Hungary only because he refused to see more bloodshed, but he never abdicated, seeing this as a retreat from duty.

A daily Mass-attender, Charles' greatest pleasure was in his family. He appreciated his inheritance and valued tradition. Such unfashionable and simple values no doubt account for his being a neglected figure in our time. His political outlook - with its refusal to avoid even the most onerous responsibilities - doubtless make him even less popular with the rootless, valueless political figures of today. God, on the other hand, may have different plans for his venerable servant. On 1 April 1972, exactly fifty years after his death, Charles' coffin was opened by an ecclesiastical commission and his body was found to be intact.

Fr Ambrogio Eszer OP of the Congregation for Saints and the Relator-General of his cause has indicated to this writer that the Cause is now poised to advance to the next stage, that of Beatification.

James Bogle, who is a barrister in London and a former British cavalry officer, is co-author with his wife, Joanna, of a biography of the Emperor Charles entitled 'Heart for Europe'. (Available from Charles Paine Pty Ltd, 8 Ferris Street, North Parramatta, NSW 2151).

Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 9 No 3 (April 1996), p. 12

See also To the Heads of the Belligerent Peoples (Benedict XI) and Reply of the Austrian Emperor to Pope Benedict XV

This item 7744 digitally provided courtesy of