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Swellboy on… the death of a prince

An encounter with a human bridge to the distant age of the absolute monarch

Swellboy on… the death of a prince

Image: Brijesh Patel

July 15 2011
Nick Foulkes

I was sorry to learn of the death of Otto von Habsburg, the man who would have been emperor of Austria Hungary and who was, I believe, crowned prince of Hungary. Oddly enough, I have been dipping in and out of the dual monarchy lately, reading The Transylvanian Trilogy of Miklós Bánffy.

Anyway, I met Otto once or twice at the Marbella Club, of course. It was a remarkable experience, not least because I had seen Rod Stewart earlier the same day and I cherish the juxtaposition as it is typical of the unexpectedness of life on the southern tip of Europe. It was certainly a long way from Vienna’s Hofburg to Marbella’s beach club, but Otto had adjusted well, rather than living out his epic life in some faded Ruritanian pantomime of a quondam king sans throne.

I met him again on his last visit to Marbella a couple of years ago and was once again very struck by the strange turns his life had taken. He told me that he could remember the 1916 funeral of his grandfather, Kaiser Franz Josef, a remarkable man who ruled over what remained of the Holy Roman Empire for almost 68 years; how he had met Joseph Roth, whose novel The Radetzky March is a masterpiece; how he had dodged meeting Hitler, who had been uncommonly keen to get hold of him; and how he had lived to see the Pope hold a beatification ceremony in Rome that set his father Karl, the last emperor, on the road to sainthood. In many ways he was a human bridge to the distant age of the absolute monarch, when the two global superpowers had been Bourbon France and the Habsburg realm of the Holy Roman Empire.

Intelligent and articulate, he threw himself into post-imperial life and entered the European Parliament, giving rise to the memorable remark made one evening when in an almost deserted bar. He asked where everyone was, to be told that they had gone to watch the Austria-Hungary match, whereupon he replied, “Who are we playing?”

Alas, when I asked him if this was true, he told me that it was utterly apocryphal, although I am sure I saw a twinkle enter his eye.