April 1st – a significant date for both the last emperor and the last empress of Austria

1 Apr

I always check the ORF headlines on my phone at breakfast. This morning I saw that today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Karl I of Austria — the Habsburg who had the thankless task of assuming the throne after the almost 68-year reign of Franz Josef I. He was ill-prepared, not really having expected to ascend to the throne (Crown Prince Rudolf shot himself, Franz Ferdinand made a morganatic marriage and was, of course, later assassinated in Sarajevo, and Karl’s father died young) and took on the role in the middle of a war he had mixed feelings about. One could say that at least he only had to do the job for two years, from 1916 to 1918 when Austria became a republic, but I suspect he didn’t see it that way.

Reading this reminded me that I was a part of the crowd at Stephansplatz that gathered to see Empress Zita’s funeral procession. What I had forgotten was that this was on 1 April 1989. What I still remember is that I got a very good place to stand because there was an incredible downpour just as I was walking to Stephansplatz, which, I suspect, sent the people who were already gathered there scurrying for cover. I sheltered in the doorway of a shop until the worst was over and then made my way to the square and took up a spot near the doors to St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the front row.

What particularly overwhelmed me as the procession went by was the weight of history summed up in this last imperial funeral in Austria. The funeral coach had already become a museum piece and I had seen it in the Wagenburg (Imperial Carriage Museum) at Schönbrunn. The enormous black horses with their stiff black plumes were like something out of Victorian England, as were the uniforms worn by the staff members of the City of Vienna undertakers. The crowd stretched away from Stephansplatz up Kärntner Straße and off along the Graben, where people hoped to catch a glimpse of the procession as Zita was conveyed from the Cathedral to the Kapuzinergruft, where the Habsburgs are interred in their family vault. The Habsburgs are laid out chronologically and so it happens that Zita’s coffin stands on a pedestal next to that of Franz Josef I. Because of history and human frailty, her husband’s grave is still (and probably now will remain) at Funchal in Madeira, although in the manner of the Habsburgs his heart lies elsewhere (in Switzerland).

What a privilege it was to be able to see that bit of history. Something I will never forget.

If you would like more information, here are two pages from the ORF website, with videos.

About Karl I: https://orf.at/stories/3256669/

On Zita’s funeral: https://tvthek.orf.at/history/Persoenlichkeiten/9501729/Begraebnis-von-Kaiserin-Zita/9573009

2 Responses to “April 1st – a significant date for both the last emperor and the last empress of Austria”

  1. esauboeck April 1, 2022 at 10:27 pm #

    Fascinating! I have no memory of this event, probably because I was in Wisconsin at the time! Have you read my story of Alexander Spitzmüller, Franz Josef’s last finance minister and aide to Karl? I’ll see if I can send you a link to that part of my Three German Women book

    • ecbinvienna April 3, 2022 at 6:24 am #

      That would be great. I can also see if the (university) library here has it.

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