Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen—Archduke of Austria, Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See and to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, great-great-great-grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph I, author of books on James Bond and double-headed eagles, happy culture warrior, and occasional generator of social-media storms over pronouns—has written the ultimate self-help book on how to win subjects and influence kingdoms.
The Habsburg Way, published in the U.S. by the Sophia Institute Press, presents seven rules to live by during these turbulent times, derived from the ethos of the family that ruled the Holy Roman Empire for centuries and presided over many kingdoms in Europe and beyond, including the short-lived and ill-fated Mexican empire. Can the much-discussed keepers of “the world of yesterday,” as writer Stefan Zweig called it, say something meaningful about modern life?
“Austro-Hungary can teach something to the European Union, like the principle of subsidiarity,” Habsburg-Lothringen told me in his office in Rome, introducing one of the pillars of Habsburg political philosophy. In essence, subsidiarity means that “issues should be addressed by the lowest institutional level that is competent to resolve them,” giving responsibilities to actual people while keeping in check the centralizing instincts of the technocratic elites.
Habsburg-Lothringen defies the cliché of the haughty and cold nobleman trapped in his empty castle. A lively and erudite conversationalist fluent in the language of both medieval metaphysics and Japanese anime, he’s probably the nicest reactionary in town—excluding the Pope.
The Habsburg lesson is certainly not a progressive one. Readers won’t need Viktor Orbán’s foreword or Newt Gingrich’s blurb to realize where the author stands politically. But those who expect a nostalgia-filled elegy for the ancien régime will be disappointed. The book is less about the past than how bygone values can be transposed to the present.
It turns out that the House of Habsburg—comprising wise kings and scoundrels, saints and madmen, warriors and monks, and, most recently, even the race-car driver Ferdinand Habsburg—is equipped with qualities that seem in short supply today, like a pragmatic touch of moderation and a witty sense of humor.
Rule No. 1 is “Get Married (And Have Lots of Children),” which is the deepest and worst-kept secret of a family that ruled Europe for eight centuries without a unified territory, an equipped army, or the financial resources to enforce their power. The word “empire” has a bad reputation today because it reeks of brutal force and the military-industrial complex. But most Habsburg rulers couldn’t afford any of that, so they ruled by marrying.
Ferdinand I, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1556, derived from the principle of matrimonial expansion a feminist statement of a sort: “Princes should greet the birth of a daughter far more happily than the birth of sons; because the latter tears countries apart, while the former creates family ties and friendship.” The personal was political even back then.
In the Habsburg matchmaking fury, things got a bit out of hand. To tie together the Austrian and the Spanish lines, family members married one another, resulting in a significant increase in what the British scientific journal Nature describes as the “mean kinship coefficient.” In other words, marriage between cousins was discovered to be a terrible idea, resulting in increased genetic disorders, lower fertility, and higher child mortality.
Determined to face the matter head-on, the author points out the practice was in place only for a limited time. Still, the inbreeding legacy never fails to rouse trolls in the darkest corners of the Internet. And the same goes for the infamous “Habsburg jaw,” a distinctive trait that is a seemingly endless source of amusement, especially among American conspiracy theorists.
Other rules include “Be Catholic!,” “Stand for Law and Justice (and Your Subjects),” “Be Brave in Battle (or Have a Great General),” and “Believe in the Empire (and in Subsidiarity),” where the author points out, somewhat counter-intuitively, that the empire has for centuries been a counterweight to the “aggressive nationalism” that “sometimes has a tendency to turn against neighboring states.” Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is not mentioned, but it hovers in the air.
Habsburgs used to have an empire, but today they have a massive WhatsApp group to keep in touch, and little appetite for actually restoring the world of yesterday. The rules are not designed to bring about a regime change but, rather, to live a good life and then rest in peace.
Which brings us to the last rule, “Die Well (and Have a Memorable Funeral),” a symbolic ending enshrined in the “knocking ritual.” When prominent Habsburgs die, they are brought to the Capuchins’ Crypt, in Vienna, to be buried. The master of ceremonies knocks three times, and after each the friar inside asks, “Who desires entry?” The first time, the master lists many defunct titles. “We do not know him,” the friar replies. The second time he lists the civic, political, or academic accomplishments the deceased achieved during their lifetime, prompting the same reply.
The final time, the master of ceremonies simply answers, “A mortal and sinful man.” At last, the door of the crypt slowly opens and admits the dead. Habsburgs are allowed in their tombs only when they present themselves as no different from anyone else.
Mattia Ferraresi is the managing editor at the Italian newspaper Domani