Blessed Karl: A True Soldier

By Zita Ballinger Fletcher 

While much is known of Blessed Karl’s virtues as a soldier for Christ, equally remarkable were the virtues he displayed during his career as a soldier serving his country. 

To be a soldier was Karl’s vocation. Biographers say Karl was attracted to military life from a very young age. As a boy, he played with model soldiers and was keenly interested in the military careers of some of his older relatives. Karl chose to become a soldier. 

Karl’s decision to pursue a military career was noteworthy. As a royal family member, Karl was not obligated to pursue a profession. Royal family members often held titles and positions for show, but were not committed to working or being dedicated professionals. Karl was a rare exception. 

Spurning the luxuries enjoyed by so many of his relatives, Karl lived a simple soldier’s lifestyle. He dedicated himself to his career and enjoyed marching, drill and cavalry exercises. For much of his life, he lived in military housing—even as a married man, with his wife Zita and their many children. 

Karl identified with his fellow soldiers and was constantly with his frontline troops during World War I. He toured many places along the frontlines and took time to personally speak with and decorate soldiers fighting for the Austrian Empire for the many diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds. This was unprecedented behavior for an Austrian Kaiser—throughout Austria’s history, military leaders of aristocratic blood viewed themselves as too lofty to mingle with common soldiers. But Karl knew no classism.  

Some of the soldiers Karl spent time on the frontlines with included Hungarians, Austrians, Czechs and Poles. During one of these visits, one Polish soldier was so inspired by Karl’s personal example that he later named his son Karol after him—this name-bearer was Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II. 

Karl also took the time to write personal messages to men under his command during World War I. This, also, was rare—Germanic emperors historically usually gave harsh orders, rather than candid personal addresses to fighting troops. In his messages, Karl addressed soldiers under his command as comrades and fellow patriots rather than subordinates. He did not incite them to fight using hostile language or provocation against the enemy. Instead, Karl spoke of his intense awareness of his men’s sufferings and those of their families at home, and constantly promised to do all in his power to work for peace. 

While Kaisers of the past would have scorned calls for peace as weakness, Karl viewed achieving world peace and the wellbeing of his people as the supreme goals of his leadership as a king and as a military commander.

Karl’s sincere devotion to his men and fellowship with them inspired deep loyalty among them—especially among men from the Eastern regions of his territory who had never before been treated warmly by Austrian commanders-in-chief. To this day, Karl’s memory as a just and virtuous soldier lives on as an inspiring example of patriotism, humility and public service.  

Zita Ballinger Fletcher is a journalist for CNS (Catholic News Service) who resides in Washington, D.C. She was named after Empress Zita and took the name Karl as her confirmation patron. She is devotee and member of the Emperor Karl League of Prayer for Peace Among Nations.

Karl Austria