Blessed Karl and Pope Francis Part 2: Peace

By Fr. Boniface Hicks, O.S.B.

We continue our reflections on the way a Blessed Emperor exemplifies the teaching of Pope Francis by focusing on a theme so dear to both of them: peace. When Pope Francis greeted the Habsburg Family who made pilgrimage to Rome in 2016 he highlighted this characteristic of Blessed Karl: 

Karl of Austria was above all a good father of a family, and as such, a servant of life and peace. He had known war, having been a simple soldier at the beginning of the First World War. Assuming his reign in 1916, and sensitive to the voice of Pope Benedict XV, he did all he could, with all his strength, for peace, at the cost of being misunderstood and derided. In this too he offers us an example as timely as ever, and we can call upon him as an intercessor to obtain from God peace for humanity. (November 5, 2016, translation by Peter Falco)

Emperor Karl Awards Medals to a Soldier on the battlefield, ca. 1916

Emperor Karl Awards Medals to a Soldier on the battlefield, ca. 1916


In his address to students in Bologna, Pope Francis made an appeal for peace, harkening back to the very time of Blessed Karl: “One hundred years ago arose the cry of Benedict XV, ...who called the war a ‘useless slaughter’ (Letter to the Leaders of Belligerent Peoples, 1 August 1917). the face of peace we cannot be indifferent or neutral. ...Not neutral, but deployed for peace!” (October 1, 2017) He continued by invoking a preferential option for peace and repeated the famous cry of Blessed Pope Paul VI at the United Nations: “let us invoke the "ius pacis" (law of peace), as a right of all to settle conflicts without violence. For this reason, let us repeat: war no more, against others no more, without others no longer!” We see how strongly Pope Francis advocates for peace and denounces the evils of war.

Pope Francis’s words for today’s world were lived out by Blessed Karl passionately and in a heartfelt way during that “useless slaughter” we call World War I. On June 28, 1914, he unexpectedly became the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. That assassination ignited the powder keg of Europe and following a chain reaction of war declarations plunged the whole continent into one of history’s bloodiest conflicts. Since he was not a member of the former Emperor’s privy council, Karl had never been consulted and had played no role in starting the war; in fact he had personally opposed it. Despite his personal opposition, however, he was faithful to the Emperor and when he had even been summoned to fight in the war, he carried out his responsibility faithfully and skillfully. He did not insulate himself from the men, but to the contrary risked his life repeatedly to encounter them and encourage them on the front lines. His courageous leadership gave him a personal experience of the evils that war fosters and, when he later took the throne, motivated him to work strenuously to end the madness even at great costs.

Blessed Karl became known for the courageous way that he personally supported the troops on the front lines. Against the fervent concerns of his assistants, he insisted on being close to the men who were risking their lives. He also took opportunities in between military engagements to learn men’s names, to learn about their families, to encourage them in their faith, and to help them reform their moral lives. He traveled broadly during the war, moving from successful military campaigns against Italy in the south to brutal experiences of carnage with Russia in the east. He was an excellent strategist and was always motivated to win battles in a way that would save lives and end the fighting. When he was summoned to the Russian front, Russian forces had just penetrated deeply into Imperial territory and captured 400,000 troops. Though Karl, with German assistance, was able to push them back, the loss of life was tragic. Such personal experiences only magnified Karl’s motivation to work for peace. As an emissary of Emperor Franz Josef to the German Emperor Wilhelm, he gave his best efforts, but met only with the German Emperor’s practical impotence. Wilhelm admitted that his generals had taken control of affairs and barely even informed the Emperor what was happening, let alone consulting him on significant decisions. 

While visiting troops in   Bratislava, Emperor Karl and Empress Zita visited S  aint Martin's Cathedral where they received a blessing from the bishop. ca. 1916

While visiting troops in Bratislava, Emperor Karl and Empress Zita visited Saint Martin's Cathedral where they received a blessing from the bishop. ca. 1916

When Emperor Franz Josef died on November 21, 1916, Karl inherited an Empire that he loved and a war that he hated. Now that he was in power, he immediately put that power into the service of peace. He declared in his accession speech, "I will do all within my power to banish the horrors and sacrifices of war at the earliest possible date and to win back for my peoples the sorely missed blessings of peace..." His first concrete effort was to obtain the signatures of his allies and call for a Peace Conference. It was flatly rejected by the Entente, even though they had at that time been defeated by the Central Powers on every front. Karl had called for this Conference from a position of strength, but the Entente insisted on continued bloodshed instead of taking the opportunity for peaceful negotiation. Eventually the United States’s involvement would turn the tide. Blessed Karl had even foreseen that and had strongly warned Emperor Wilhelm against the use of submarines against American shipping, but he was again unheeded and April 6, 2017, became the beginning of the end when the United States declared war against the Central Powers. 

After the rejection of a Peace Conference, Blessed Karl’s second major effort for peace was in secret. Through his brothers-in-law Sixtus and Xavier he made individual peace proposals to England, France, Belgium and Italy. The Empress Zita’s family of Bourbon-Parma was well positioned with close family members on both sides of the war and Blessed Karl took advantage of those personal relations to work for peace. He was so urgent to end the war that he was even willing to make great sacrifices and yield lands fairly won or long held by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, if only that could bring an end to the bloodshed. His secret proposals also carried great risk, because he negotiated on behalf of Germany without having yet obtained their agreement. He worked on that simultaneously, but without the benefits of the instant communication we enjoy today it ended in disaster. In the end, his efforts turned into a tragic failure due to miscommunication, betrayal from his own minister of foreign affairs and crossed signals.  With secrets half exposed he appeared in the worst possible light, all for the sake of a peace that he desperately desired for his own Empire as well as for all of Europe.

Throughout the remainder of his rule, he continued to support every subsequent proposal for peace, including every point of Pope Benedict XV’s peace proposal as well as the 14 points of President Woodrow Wilson’s proposal. Sadly, these proposals could have ended the war had it not been for further miscommunications along with various Generals’ lust for Total Victory. In summary, the French novelist Anatole France wrote poignantly, “Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost." Blessed Karl’s love for his people and hatred for loss of life shown through even after the war when he refused to put down a student revolt (caused by the betrayal of his closest adviser) on his second effort to regain the throne of Hungary. He preferred to suffer personal embarrassment, exile and separation from his family rather than afflict his people with further bloodshed.

Pope Francis began talking about peace as soon as he became Pope and has made it a repeated antiphon of his papacy. Like his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Saint John Paul II, as well as Pope Benedict XV, who was well loved and trusted by Blessed Karl, Pope Francis has frequently condemned violence and has highlighted the atrocities of war, which, as he has noted, are found all over the world today. “Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction....” (Pope Francis, Homily for the Anniversary of the Outbreak of the First World War, September 13, 2014) This was the occasion when he used that expression for the first time, “A Third World War, fought piecemeal.” Blessed Karl’s efforts to bring a World War to an end, even at great cost and personal embarrassment, provide an important lesson for us as we face the war in our world today. Blessed Karl failed to bring about peace during World War I, not because of his own limitations, but because of the refusals of those around him. Perhaps if we can look to the example of Blessed Karl and invoke his intercession, the powerful leaders of today will heed the teaching of Pope Francis and end this Third World War, fought piecemeal, that causes so much suffering throughout our world. To repeat the words of Pope Francis to Karl’s relatives, Blessed Karl “offers us an example as timely as ever, and we can call upon him as an intercessor to obtain from God peace for humanity.”

Karl Austria