The last king of Hungary was given little time on the throne as Károly IV took over the estate of Emperor and King Ferenc József in November 1916, and then, just two years later, was forced to relinquish his sovereign rights. Károly IV died in exile, on the Portuguese island of Madeira, on April 1, 1922. He was infected by the Spanish flu, one of the most infamous and most devastating epidemics in modern history. He was only 34 years old when he died. Dr Tamás Révész, historian, talked about the main events of the life of Károly IV – to 24.
He became king out of the blue
When Károly IV was born on August 17, 1887, it seemed unlikely that he would ever become ruler, just as unbelievable as he would become the last king from the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. Archduke Rudolf, the heir to the throne at that time committed suicide in 1889, and the emperor outlived his younger brothers on the throne. Károly IV rose higher and higher among the rank of heirs, and in 1906, after his father’s death, he was only preceded by his uncle, Ferenc Ferdinánd. In 1900, Ferenc Ferdinánd married a low-ranking woman, Zsófia Chotek, with which he excluded his descendants from heirship.
This is how Károly IV could get to second place, although his ascension to the throne seemed very distant until the assassination of Ferenc Ferdinánd in Sarajevo in 1914, said Tamás Révész.
He represented the emperor on the frontline
His upbringing followed tradition as it was high and rigorous, but he was the first heir to the Habsburg throne who attended a public school: the elite high school of the Benedictines in Vienna. His teachers considered him a hard-working, talented young man, and the other students also liked him.
After the death of his father, Ferenc Ferdinánd became the guardian of Károly IV. It was then that the young gentleman was first introduced to the ins and outs of rulership, politics, diplomacy and the army. However, the “quiet school years” ended both suddenly and violently as – after the assassination of Ferenc Ferdinánd and his wife, on June 28, 1914 – Károly IV immediately got placed to the frontlines to represent the Emperor. He was positioned among soldiers and became part of the war effort for years. He had to act like a military officer, Tamás Révész said. He added that this led to severe problems later in his career. His contemporaries thought that his biggest mistake was that Károly IV was closely dependent on his confidants.
After the death of Ferenc József on November 21, 1916, Károly IV took over the leadership of an empire already struggling with many problems and immersed in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.
Socially sensitive ruler
In contrast to the rigid Ferenc József, who ruled for almost seventy years, the 29-year-old Károly IV represented the new generation of rulers with a modern concept. The influence of Ferenc Ferdinánd over his way of thinking was undeniable, but his own convictions were firm, for example, he extended the right to vote to the Hungarian part of his Empire.
The social sensibilities of Károly IV were based on his own war experiences and deep Catholic faith. Through meeting ordinary soldiers he did not only get to know the pain and suffering the war efforts have inflicted, but he got to know the common man of his empire, the life of its workers and peasants. And because he was aware of them, he tried to remedy the problems: he set up a ministry of public welfare and a ministry of public supply to support wounded soldiers and to help the families of heroes in death.
Here is the analytic version of Károl IV’s coronation in 1916:
He aimed to make peace
Károly IV’s main goal was to end the war, but he chose a very outdated solution to negotiate. There was almost no chance of an agreement as the position of the parties was too rigid. Tamás Révész emphasises that at the end of the second decade of the 20th century, the previously well-established secret politics, where rulers bargained among themselves for the fate of countries and its people, no longer worked. Britain, however, might have accepted his negotiations, but with the United States entering the war in April, the Entente was aiming for total victory rather than agreements. The attempt of the Austro-Hungarian ruler in the West was interpreted as a sign of weakness rather than a desire for peace, and the negotiations stopped by May 1917.
Vienna’s political elite feared that the events of Russia, where people exterminated the tsarist Romanov family, could happen in Austria-Hungary. In order to avoid this cruel fate, Károly IV travelled to Switzerland, suspended his right to govern, and waited for the opportunity to return. He tried to occupy the Hungarian throne in March and October 1921, but after his second attempt, he was captured and then exiled to the Portuguese island of Madeira. The great powers by no means wanted a Habsburg restoration.
The only Habsburg who does not rest in Vienna
Although he stayed in exile on an island well isolated from the rest of the world in the Atlantic Ocean, the Spanish flu that devastated the whole world had caught up with him even there. He was healthy and he had no known underlying diseases or conditions. At first, it seemed, he just caught a cold, but his condition deteriorated rapidly, not even a week after the onset of the first symptoms, Károly IV died on April 1, 1922.
His death surprised everyone, and churches in Austria, Hungary and even Czechoslovakia held masses for him, however, his body was not brought home. Since the 16th century, he was the first and still the only Habsburg not to rest in the family crypt. Between the two world wars, bringing his body back was not possible due to political reasons, and after the death of his wife, his son, Otto Habsburg, decided that it is better to let him rest there. He did not want to take his remains home, claiming that his father had been lovingly received in Madeira and it would be dishonourable to take his remains from there.
Because of his deep religiosity, exemplary marriage, patience and saintliness, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004 and his canonisation is in progress.