Austrian Crown Prince Fears Georgia May Fall to Russians (First published July 31)
Charleston Mercury by Will Cathcart Published: Tuesday, August 12, 2008 4:26 PM EDT Link to original
MUNICH, Germany — You’d be pretty angry as a reader of a newspaper that sent two 25-year-olds with a video camera halfway around the world on a midnight plane to a little country on the Black Sea bordering Russia, less than 300 miles from the Iraqi border and 150 miles from Iran, if they returned spouting the mantra, “What happens in Georgia, stays in Georgia,” wouldn’t you? As indeed would the owner of that newspaper. My cohort tends to agree, as it is hard to be notorious if no one tells your story. Thus we have settled on the mantra, “What the FSB [former KGB] doesn’t know, won’t kill you.”
Our Georgia story begins in Munich with His Imperial and Royal Highness Dr. Otto von Habsburg, Archduke and Crown Prince of Austria, Crown Prince of Hungary and Bohemia:Something incredible happened. It did not happen while Elliott Merck was filming this correspondent’s interview with Dr. von Habsburg — likely the single most important man we will ever know, although he does not consider himself important, just hard working. It happened several days after when we returned from Tbilisi, Georgia, and arrived at his daughter Gabriela’s house in Starnberg, outside of Munich, for a barbecue. Having just been spit out of German airport bureaucracy, delirious, sleep-deprived, we were given the choice of beds or of walking down to Lake Starnberg to drink Bavarian beer before the picnic. Obviously we chose the latter and found ourselves paddling about on the Habsburgs’ vintage windsurf boards (without the sails) amid a regatta, doing our best pirate imitation, screaming what little we knew in German with standard Ahhrrrr! Astonished skippers and their wives zipped by us as we surveyed the glacial fairytale-green valley’s horizon with the Alps at our backs and an azure-clad universe towering above us, somehow that day feeling miraculously within reach.
And reach we did, paddling into that cold heaven-reflecting blue, scratching the surface of several hundred feet of pure lake carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago. Somehow we had learned that German dogs do not say “BowWow” the right American way, but instead BowVow, VowVow — hilarious after days of filming in a place where young men look you in the eye with cold grey sincerity and say slowly, “If Putin invades my country [Georgia], we will fight to the death.”
West of that place, across the Black Sea, cozily tucked a few countries deep in the European Union is Bavaria, where guard dogs bark with bureaucratic conviction BowVow, ya! It’s not funny to the sailboats’ skippers, inhabitants of the richest city per capita in Germany who probably now think we are either “special,” or more likely Americans. But that’s all the better because as we paddle back to the shore, the Alps are in our periphery, and we bark echoes — Ya! — valley-wide and feel like heroes. Sunning on the beach are princesses, the daughter and granddaughter of a deposed emperor, and they want to celebrate also. “It will never be like this again, not in this life,” I whisper to myself as a bikini-clad Archduchess Gabriela von Habsburg beheads a champagne bottle Napoleonic style with the sword she was presented along with Georgian citizenship by President Saakashvili, the man who just yesterday took us to an off-the-record dinner with Russian diplomats, Israeli defense ministers and Iranian specialists after granting us a 30-minute interview wherein we discussed Georgian sovereignty — how high the stakes really were. The most recently arrived American special forces unit waiting outside Tbilisi airport in civilian clothes didn’t have to tell us that the stakes were as high as they get. Nor did His Imperial Highness Dr. Otto von Habsburg, who would be arriving soon for the barbecue and the incredible thing that happened, not for him but for us.
The Amazing Thing That Happened
As the meat cooked and a selection of Dr. von Habsburg’s 23 grandchildren whom he shares with his wife Crown Princess Regina, ran about chasing the peacocks that flutter every morning into sculptress Gabriela von Habsburg’s modern-design always-open windows, proclaiming the day in full color and radiant naivety, we stood talking to the man. He assured us he was only that. “Call me whatever you like, I’ve had so many names, so many passports. Doctor is also fine,” he joked, “just so they know at least I can read and write.”
A few more things you should know: Dr. Otto von Habsburg does not live in a castle. He wears shoes just like anyone else, normal people shoes. When he looks at you there is a tingling brightness — simple warm good light, the kind that for centuries held Europe together and battled the darkness of barbarianism. There is a giddy modesty to his knowing smile, ready all the time; it will outlive Otto the man. This smile has no enemy and causes men subconsciously to take fingers off triggers and let muzzles’ aim fall to shake the hand of its proprietor. All of this is achieved by absolute modesty with simple words that the future’s version of kings and presidents will quote if they are lucky enough to remain so. There is something holy and sacred, even saintly about him.
You are allowed to say this, though not to him, because he is 96 years old; because his father was emperor of Austria, king of Hungary and Bohemia; because his family was driven out of power and their homeland with only the clothes on their backs; and because his father died of pneumonia on the island of Madeira because they could not afford firewood. You can say “saintly” because Dr. von Habsburg’s father was beatified by Pope John Paul II, and soon he will be a saint — because Otto von Habsburg gave up any claim he had as king and instead became a leader of his own devices, earning a doctorate in agriculture. “KEEP THE PEOPLE ALIVE,” he explains, “is what we should always put first.”
He emphasizes the obvious but overlooked importance of food: “I believe very strongly that we are going to live through a phase of immense agricultural problems.” This founding father of the Pan European Union inherited nothing, but when he walks down the streets of Budapest people cheer. In Hungary he is a hero, in Nazi Germany he was sentenced to death, in Austria he was exiled, then strategically ignored; for the Pan European Council, he is president; in much of the world he is forgotten.
Five days after the interview, from Munich to Istanbul to Tbilisi and back, Otto von Habsburg’s words were still sinking in; like the deep blue Lake Starnberg their wisdom’s bottom is untold. To put his imperial highness’s take on the conflict between Russia and Georgia in Star Wars vernacular, for all those tragically out-of-place Americans Bow-Vow-ing at the edge of delirium: Darth Vader is Vladimir Putin, the “dark side” is tyranny fueled by oil, Germany is cooperating (who would have thought?), Merkel a robotic droid, the “force” is democracy, Ronald Reagan is Obi-Wan Kenobi. There is Princess Gabriela von Leia, and Otto is of course Master Yoda — his advice unheeded. Luke Skywalker is MIA — perhaps a pothead in Copenhagen hiding in angst only from himself in Denmark’s heavenless grey fog.
The amazing thing is that five days after the interview, not only are we still trying to put his words together, but Dr. von Habsburg is still thinking about our talk as well. We shake his hand amid the peacocks (fluent only in feathers) and grandchildren (fluent in English and God knows what else) and he takes us aside, guiding us along the edge of the Bavarian forest. Somewhere in the distance a hund Bow Vows, and the crown prince draws us in: “All morning I have been writing about what we spoke of.” His excitement is contagious: Not since Aristotle has a greater history teacher walked this continent. “I am writing a treatise comparing the situation surrounding the Munich Agreement in 1938 to the most recent NATO Summit in Bucharest [in which Germany and France caved to Putin’s demands and denied Georgia and the Ukraine NATO membership] and the events that have followed.”
“History is repeating itself,” one of us suggests.
“Europe is once again settling for appeasement.”
“It was a sort of an explosion,” he describes the flash of the camera which captured a young Otto with his godfather and great-granduncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, in one of his memories of Austria before World War I. In 1916 he became crown prince upon Franz Joseph’s death. If there is a theme to his message, it is faith. He also repeats, “If you make a bad policy, you have no future.”
“Up to now the United States has played a very fine role in the world, let’s not forget that. I know they criticize you now, but you know what the people do not realize is that it is quite certain that everybody criticizes the house on the hill. And the United States has been for a long time the house on the hill.”
Otto von Habsburg’s favorite president is Ronald Reagan: “You have been very lucky, you’ve had many good ones, but I was deeply impressed by Ronald Reagan. He was one of the greatest men of our times. Then you have some people who have been doing a good job, but they are not of that altitude as was Ronald Reagan.”
And our villain? What does he think of Russia’s new prime minister? Dr. von Habsburg is at first frank in his tone, he looks straight into the camera, as if to say I am not afraid. His voice deepens and slows as he elaborates. “Vladimir Putin is the typical very intelligent, very aggressive bureaucrat — at the bottom of his heart, a totalitarian person … who is not a democrat.” By coincidence, Otto von Habsburg has been interested in Vladimir Putin longer than most. During the last phase of communist rule, Dr. von Habsburg and a group of leaders involved in the election campaign were able to visit East Germany after a series of rebellions “which generally started on Fridays with a church service, thank God, and then they would go out into the streets and demonstrate.” One particular Friday Otto was tipped off that Soviet troops were going to open fire on that day’s demonstration, so of course he attended. The demonstration never happened and he found himself in the company of a large group from East Berlin, some of whom had recently escaped from a Soviet concentration camp. He interviewed them about their imprisonment and asked how the wardens were behaving. Otto remembers that one individual spoke up: “‘There is a young Russian officer who is the worst of the lot, and his name is Vladimir Putin.’ I had never heard of him before, but I made a note of him.”
According to Dr. von Habsburg the Putin of today “wants to take over the whole Caucasus area … that is a frightening thing. Many years ago they once said to me that I was sort of a prophet. I wasn’t; I just had chances, because I was retaining the idea. That is why I was first interested in Putin; because a prisoner told me not only how horrible he was … but that he was starting to be the leader. Although at that time, outside people
didn’t know that he had this first organization. You see the Soviet system was not accepted by the technocrats of the Russian side. Putin’s [organization] was a community that was and still is built up on the basis of the organization of the mafia. There were others who were above him because he was still a little bit too young, but that changed very soon.” Dr. von Habsburg explains that this is the system that became the first Silowiki (intelligence) clan, “and it is still running Russia today.”
What does Otto von Habsburg think of his daughter’s involvement in Georgia? He gets excited, and the light gets brighter. Later, toward the end of dinner, we will see that light nearly flicker out from sheer exhaustion, but now it is brighter than ever, “Ohh! I am so enthusiastic that [Archduchess Gabriela von Habsburg] is involved, because Georgia is worth our while. You know it is one of those countries that has a tremendous historical heritage, and a European heritage. For instance, the most important order in Europe, the Golden Fleece, stems from Georgia. It was there that it started.”
Gabriela follows in her father’s humanitarian footsteps; Dr. von Habsburg was responsible for saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during WWII: “You see in the end it becomes a passion. When you see the happiness in people when you get them out of such a terrible situation, you are as happy as [they are] … Consequently I am still interested in such issues. I [have] never asked whether they were Jews, whether they were Gentiles … I saw the sufferings of these people and consequently, logically I was very happy that I was in a position that I could help them … I was looking after the fate of the Austrians, but of course there were others, and you couldn’t leave them [behind].”
Remembering Blessed Charles
He tears up at this question. At 96 time travel is involuntary. He can tell you how that first camera flash smelled, the sound it made, the texture of the uniform of his godfather, Emperor Franz Joseph, when he held young Otto close, the collar’s hard material that saved the old emperor’s life during an assassination attempt in which he was stabbed in the back of his neck. Yet it is Blessed Charles, his beatified father, Charles I of Austria, whom he remembers most affectionately: “He had a very strong personality … In the First World War he was the only head of state who was out at the battling line. And he knew what war was, that is why he was working for peace because he realized how horrible it was on the people and on the soldiers — what he had to see. Therefore … he had an impression on me because he was usually very mild, very quiet, but sometimes he exploded. And that is for instance why I was sometimes asked how did it come that I went to help the troops? Well my father gave it to me.”
His Imperial Highness pauses briefly, wipes his nose. Behind that cleverly radiant smile is a tenderness and vulnerability that weren’t there before. He continues, “We were in a place … near Vienna, and an officer came in, and since at that time the left-wing government was very Jewish-dominated, [the officer] started attacking the Jews. My father then interrupted him and said, ‘Stop that, the Jews are our compatriots.’ And that is true. They were among the best fighters for Austria and Hungary, because Austria and Hungary had treated them completely as equals and completely as citizens. You know, when the war in Israel first started, I was one of the people who knew that they would be remarkable [in battle] because I’d seen them in Austria, and they were the most courageous soldiers we had.”
He smiles, “Thank God that you [The United States] have got them on your side!”
Otto on the Georgia Matter
“I have known President Saakashvili for some time, just as I have known his country … Georgia is a part of Europe, but it is a little bit far away. So Saakashvili came at the decisive moment, remarkable in taking up a liberation movement and not making what unfortunately some people did to establish their own personal power. He was never interested really in personal power. He is very honorable, very good and a true democrat also. So he has every value you can have.
“But the attacks against him? They come always from the same center, which is Moscow. When … you cross [the path] of Moscow … you are going to be attacked. I see what is being given to the press … one of the great European newspapers suddenly turned on Saakashvili and on Georgia. Then I found that [they] were given something for behaving like they did. There is a tremendous propaganda machine against Saakashvili because Saakashvili is a tremendously great danger to all those who want to extend again a Russian empire under a dictatorial rule. That is exactly what we have to face today. That is why I am enchanted that the United States has behaved very loyally to its own tradition, to its great tradition.
“Even this morning in the papers there was again this attack against Georgia and an attempt to say that the Georgians because they want to defend themselves are now a public danger for peace.” He nearly chuckles, “Well that is exactly the old propaganda line of the Kremlin. It’s always the same thing.”
Dr. Otto von Habsburg warns of the vast capabilities of Russia’s state oil monopoly: “We are [about] to have a great campaign, which is tremendously financed. And let us not underestimate the enormous financial power that is the Gazprom organization.” Gazprom is the state-owned company that retains a monopoly on all production of Russian oil and natural gas. Dr. von Habsburg continues, fascination and concern in his voice, “[Gazprom] is the center today. When you look at the government of Mr. Putin and of his successor, Mr. Medvedev.”
It is baffling to remember that this man is 96 — his memory is fluid, names like Medvedev and Gazprom come to him effortlessly; there is barely even a pause. The man is a true orator. Perhaps the success of his discussion is derived from the fact that he earnestly cares about these issues and has been a part of this discourse his entire life. He doesn’t panic, even when discussing something so ominous; he still remembers the First World War.
Dr. von Habsburg continues, “They [Putin, Medvedev and friends] are all the same; they come from the Gazprom. That is to say they have these enormous and unlimited financial means …” There is disappointment, not disgust but genuine disappointment, in his voice as he continues, “And there are unfortunately many, I see it especially in the European press, who are being financed by Gazprom … today Georgia is for us the most important area in the world. Because if Georgia falls — you just have to look at the map! That is going to go on. And that is why I am so enchanted that in this morning’s paper once again they wrote that the United States would continue to help the development of the security services of Georgia. I think the United States is the only great power that has understood what it is all about.” He says this proudly looking up at us, as if we have something to do with it. The man truly believes in democracy, and suddenly I realize that perhaps we do; perhaps we can have an effect. Otto reiterates, “You have to look at the map! If Georgia falls it will go all over the place.”
“And what will happen if Georgia falls?” I ask.
“Then the others will start to fall, one after another … there are nations who have stamina and others who have not.”
How Important Is Democracy, the Great Experiment?
He continues: “Democracy is important because you can motivate people to defend their freedom, to defend their way of life … [Reagan was] a man who was simple, close to the people, very intelligent and very brilliant. I am very hopeful that Saakashvili in his own way, in his Georgian way, will follow the same road. That’s why we have to help him to defend himself, to defend his country. Because we know one thing: In defending Georgia, we defend ourselves.”
Otto von Habsburg identifies with the South of the United States. “I like South Carolina, I like its governor … I like somehow also my contact with the people who still at that time remembered something of the War Between the States. It was a very noble war, a very decent war. On the one hand there was of course this opposition in the United States itself for a very long time, which just proves that the War Between the States was always very painful. But on the other hand that when you look at the way those who fight for the United States, it’s the Southerners who are the first to align.”
As for the Southern side of the conflict, “[The South] is always a good place. First of all I like the South because it’s always traditional, it has a sense of history, it has one thing that counts very much: It has beauty. We have to fight for beauty.
“I like so much that in the Polish constitution they call God the patron of beauty. It’s a wonderful combination. Russia, the Soviets, and the reality of all these countries is that the dictators are building and they have lots of money, but they are never able to bring beauty.”
Advice on Democracy for the Future
“I would say, stick together and continue to believe in God, because that is very important. You see the fact that we have a religion, that we have a God is something enormous. And then do not forget the beauty. That is very important because it is a symbol of the right way. And this I want to insist, dictators have never given anything that is beautiful. All their structures are always not beautiful while those that come out of freedom are wonderful; they are pretty, and they are happy.”
He continues, “You can look at Charleston, and there you know what beauty is. The atmosphere in South Carolina in general is something you cannot avoid liking. I hope South Carolina and Charleston keep up their tradition and their beauty, to be proud of what they have and then to enrich the area for the coming generations.”
Otto von Habsburg will go no more gently into that good night than he ever bowed in servitude to any totalitarian regime of Europe, nor even to his own throne — his own ego, which he abdicated in a display of modesty and a parade of uncrowned sovereignty. He is the type of man the world too often takes for granted, until all of a sudden it turns to the 96-year-old and begs him not to die.
Western civilization spent so much time trying to get rid of its monarchies, it never stopped to think what would happen if a king were to grow up in poverty and earn his own way, to ask nothing of his empire, while at the same time demanding, even fighting for, the utmost sovereignty of his people. The world never stopped to wonder what greatness such a person could provide. Otto von Habsburg is still lucid, charming and sharp. He will not be like this forever. Why were we so hell-bent on trading those who were born with the right to rule for those who killed and enslaved for it? The outcome may be something better, perhaps the great experiment of democracy, but we cannot forget how we got here.
Otto von Habsburg has been the most politically active head of an imperial house of his time, after he was forced to abdicate a throne in which he had no personal interest. It was and is his people he continues to serve. When you look into his eyes there is brightness, a torch he has inherited from the 800 years of his lineage. If Christianity was the light that spread education and love across the continent and held it together, then the Habsburgs carry that torch inside them. Otto von Habsburg seems to convert it to something nuclear.