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WASHINGTON — For anyone who thinks of blue bloods as worn out and effete, a chat with Otto Von Habsburg smacks like the backside of a duelist’s glove.
At 92, he is a dervish of optimism, energy and savvy, with a global view to make any head of state stop and take note — and he knows almost all of them.
“Aristocracy is created by history. It all depends on where you take your aristocracy from,” says Von Habsburg, son of Emperor Charles, the last Austro-Hungarian emperor (1916-1918). Traveling with his family, Von Habsburg recently visited New York City for meetings after spending a week in Washington, where he attended a gala in his honor hosted by the Hungarian-American Coalition, met with former secretary of state Colin Powell and toured Congress.
Packing the same tuxedo he wore on his last U.S. tour 25 years ago, his goal was to rally American support for a united Europe while sounding the alarm against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Von Habsburg is one of the EU’s original architects and a key supporter of EU expansion (although he is a staunch opponent of Turkey joining). His lifelong dream became a reality on May 1, 2004, when 10 central, Eastern and Mediterranean European countries became full members.
His eagerness for greater unity among European nations has hit a bump of sorts, however, since France and the Netherlands last month voted down plans for a European constitution. The rejections have sent the European Union into disarray, heightened further over the last 10 days by bickering over the structure of the EU budget. Countries such as Germany and France are pushing the United Kingdom to give up some of its budget refunds in order to support newer members like Poland.
But Von Habsburg remains a staunch proponent of greater unity throughout Europe and a Cassandra about Putin’s increasing political power. The European aristocrat is pro-God and anti-Russian.
After all, Von Habsburg calls those who criticized Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program “asinine,” lauding Star Wars as “the first armament program in history to led to peace and not war.” He lists Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Germany’s Helmut Kohl as “the three men whose decisions led to the downfall of communism.”
On the current political scene, he’s heartened by the “tremendous revival of religion,” crediting George W. Bush’s “openly religious attitude” as both a reason for his reelection and a warning to French President Jacques Chirac.
“France is certainly the weather vane of Europe,” says Von Habsburg, who after World War II lived in France until 1954, when he moved to his current home near Munich in Pocking, Germany. He lives there with his wife, Princess Regina von Saxon Meinngen, now Archduchess Gabriela Von Habsburg. They have seven children and 23 grandchildren. His son, Gyorgy Von Habsburg, is Hungarian ambassador-at-large to the EU.
“There is an extraordinary revival of religion in France,” says Von Habsburg, a Catholic who points to the French presidential election, slated for 2007, in which French candidate Nicolas Sarkozy stands as Chirac’s leading opponent.
“I never would have thought one could dare to say in France what Sarkozy is saying — that the separation of church and state in France is wrong,” says Von Habsburg. “He points out that a state which subsidizes football clubs and refuses to do any economic favors to religions who want to build churches is absurd.”
Von Habsburg reserves his strongest attacks for Putin, though, and confides a bit of Habsburg family gossip to prove his point.
“Putin has the greatness of Stalin, but it is not a sure thing whether he has Stalin’s stamina,” he says. On the power side of the ledger, he lists the business interests of a half dozen members of Putin’s cabinet, noting, “These people can do whatever they want. Their power is almost unlimited. But in the last few months, for the first time you have the phenomenon that Russians are no longer afraid of their power. A nephew of mine, whose children go to the same school as Putin’s children, for the first time has started to speak against Putin.”
Despite his openly conservative views, part of Von Habsburg’s charisma comes from his ability to socialize with the opposition, including revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, both of whom he met soon after World War II.
“I was writing an article about the Soviet Union’s Central Comitern organization operating from Panama City, and I wanted to see what was happening. There was a little nightclub on the border of Guatemala and Belize. All the members of El Legion del Caribe were flying in to relax,” he recalls. “I met them all three — Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara. They talked all night long. After all, Castro was a very well educated person, having been trained by the Jesuits.”
He remains an aristocrat at heart, however, a background for which he offers no apology. And Dr. Von Habsburg, as he likes to be called, knows a lot about the subject. The Von Habsburgs, one of Europe’s oldest and most influential royal families, provided the dukes and archdukes of Austria from 1282 on, the kings of Bohemia and Hungary from 1526 to 1918, the Holy Roman Emperors from 1438 to 1806, the kings of Spain from 1516 to 1700 and the emperors of Austria from 1804 to 1918.
Von Habsburg was six when his parents, Emperor Charles and Queen Zita, were forced into exile. After World War II, he turned down an offer from Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to assume the Spanish throne, instead acting as a friend and adviser to Juan Carlos, whom Franco in 1969 chose as his successor. Last year, the late Pope John Paul II canonized Von Habsburg’s father, Emperor Charles, making him the first monarch in almost five centuries to achieve sainthood.
(Austria, as part of a series of anti-Habsburg laws, refused to let him back into the country until 1961 when, as one of the earliest advocates for a united Europe and a longtime representative to the European Parliament, he agreed to renounce all claims to the Habsburg throne.)
“Aristocracy has to begin somewhere,” he says, recalling how a friend, the late Felix Somary, took him to the Zurich-Eiger railroad station soon after the end of World War II when Stalin began to clamp down on Eastern Europe. Somary, an economist and Swiss banker who predicted World War II and the Depression, pointed to a trainload of unkempt passengers arriving from Central Europe.
“‘Look around,'” Von Habsburg recalls Somary telling him. “‘These are going to be our overlords in the future.'”
Von Habsburg is pleased to say Somary was wrong, pointing instead to America’s political aristocracy. “You have some political families which are playing a tremendous role. Take the Kennedys,” he observes.
How about the clan of the current President Bush and his father? “Too,” says Von Habsburg. “It isn’t bad for a country to have people with a certain tradition, where the father gives the son the same outlook and training.”
But he has cautions for the U.S. as well. “It should be a little less preaching, especially to the Muslim world,” says Von Habsburg.
He then notes the return of former royals to Bulgaria and Romania, and how many of the other 400 members of the Von Habsburg clan have staked claims to properties previously confiscated by the Communists. Neither he nor any of his immediate family plans to do so, he says, since in his 22-year career in the European Parliament, “I wanted to serve as a representative of all the nations which were under Soviet occupation,” he explains.
For, in the end, Von Habsburg indicates, politics can’t be simply boiled down to whether a government is a monarchy or a democracy, conservative or liberal. “We all need to concentrate not so much on the form of the government but on the content, and not insist that one nation’s way is the only way to salvation.”