On July 4, 2011 as we celebrated the 235th anniversary of our independence, an extraordinary man passed into history. In some way, I think it would have pleased Dr. Otto von Habsburg to share his date of departure from this earth with two of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. He was an unwavering friend of the United States and a passionate advocate of innumerable causes of freedom and justice throughout the world. I was fortunate to know him and, although I will miss him, mourning has given way to celebration of his amazing life.
His Imperial and Royal Highness The Archduke of Austria and Crown Prince of Hungary, Otto von Habsburg-Lothringen was born into privilege but he lived a life of service. At our first meeting many years ago, I was instantly at ease with this warm and humble man who was the eldest son of Kaiser Karl, the last Austro-Hungarian emperor and one of the last persons beatified by Pope John Paul II. Readers of the Charleston Mercury have been well informed of the significant impact Dr. von Habsburg had on global events so they already know of his stature as a statesman and humanitarian. As we reflect on his remarkable life that spanned nearly a century, I would like to relate some thoughts regarding this inspiring gentleman who was one of the finest people I have ever known.
Dr. Otto von Habsburg was an intellectual citizen of the world. Ever eager to discuss current politics as well as theoretical ideas, our conversations regularly blended topics from politics and philosophy to religion and family as the bedrock of society. His comments were rich with unique insights and very rarely ambiguous. An orator with few equals, he expressed his positions with such logic and enthusiasm that I usually struggled to keep up with him. Transcending the tragic events of his early life and the turmoil of Europe between the World Wars, Dr. Otto von Habsburg became a pioneer of European unity and an esteemed world leader. He was deeply admired and held in great affection by everyone I know who ever met him. An epitaph, borrowed from a Will Rogers saying, would suggest that a stranger is just a friend he had not yet met. I am grateful to have known Otto von Habsburg — the man, the statesman and the head of such a distinguished family. I sadly bid farewell to my friend.
I was honored to attend two of the five requiem masses that were celebrated in Germany, Austria, and Hungary to mark the passing of this great European. On Saturday July 9, two bishops from his local diocese and from Bosnia-Herzegovina were co-celebrants at the service at St. Pius Church in Pocking, his home village for almost 60 years. The mass followed a solemn procession of family with honor guards in traditional uniforms escorting the coffin draped in the imperial yellow-black flag. The day was sunny and the setting was picturesque for this intimate service that was attended by his seven children and their families as well as many neighbors and friends. A small reception was held at a charming old hotel on the shore of Lake Starnberg, one of Bavaria’s most beautiful and tranquil locations.
On Monday July 11, the second requiem at Munich’s St. Kajetan Church was much more formal with tight security since many European royals and political leaders were in attendance. Two cardinals, the current and former Archbishops of Munich, co-celebrated the mass. A condolence message from their predecessor in that position, Pope Benedict XVI, was delivered to Otto von Habsburg’s elder son Karl, now The Archduke of Austria and Head of the Imperial House of Habsburg. Munich’s senior rabbi delivered a Jewish funeral prayer, undoubtedly due in part to Dr. von Habsburg’s courageous efforts to help thousands of Jews escape to safety during the Nazi era. Outside the church, several thousand people gathered to watch the service on big screens while countless others saw the live broadcast on Bavarian television. The final part of the ceremony was held in the public plaza to allow the crowd to participate in closing hymns, culminating with a moving chorus of thousands of voices singing the old Austro-Hungarian imperial anthem. For the first time that day, I was overwhelmed by emotion. A reception followed in the former Bavarian royal palace hosted by the prime minister of Bavaria with speeches by the former chancellor of Austria and the president of the European Parliament.
I was unable to attend the next mass that was held on July 14 in Mariazell in the Austrian Alps or the main funeral held in Vienna on July 16 when the caskets of Otto of Austria and his wife Regina who predeceased him in February 2010 were entombed in the Imperial Crypt under the Capuchin Church. On Sunday 17 July, the final mass was celebrated at St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary and the heart of the late Crown Prince of Hungary was interred with those of his ancestors in the Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey.
Fortunately for the Lowcountry, this is not the end of the story. In the tradition of their father and grandfather who toured Charleston on several occasions, Dr. von Habsburg’s daughter and her children have visited here many times. I am sure that will continue.
Dr. David Shimp is a retired U.S. Naval officer and honorary consul of the Republic of Georgia. He is vice president for program development, Maybank Industries LLC, Charleston, SC.