Today, we at The Heritage Foundation mourn the loss of Otto von Habsburg, a defender of freedom and friend of liberty in Europe and around the world.
Born as the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary and the oldest son of Austria-Hungary’s last emperor, Otto was next in line to be Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary and thus went into exile with his family following the end of World War I. Otto was well-educated, fluently speaking seven languages and earning his doctoral degree in social and political sciences from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.
In 1938, as an ardent patriot, Otto publicly opposed Adolph Hitler and the Nazi annexation of Austria, to the point that Hitler imposed a death sentence on him if found, and the Nazis planned an invasion of Austria immediately if Otto were to return to power in his home country. Otto spent most of World War II in the United States after escaping Europe with some of his family.
In the 1960s, Otto returned to Austria, renouncing earlier claims to the throne, and focused his life on the betterment of Europe and a fervent opposition to communism. An early supporter of a unified Europe, Otto was president of the International Paneuropean Union from 1973 to 2004 and served as a Senior Member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1999 for the conservative Bavarian CSU party.
Otto organized the Pan-European Picnic, at the Austria-Hungary border. On August 19, 1989, the border gate was opened for three hours, during which more than 600 East Germans fled into the west. Hungarian guards were told to stand down and in fact helped many people flee.
By September 11, Hungary opened its borders for citizens of Eastern European countries, including East Germany, marking the first time a border of its kind behind the Iron Curtain was opened to its citizens. Shortly thereafter, nearly 100,000 people fled to the West through Hungary. The peaceful demonstration was a critical event that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany.
In 2009, on a visit to the site on the 20th anniversary, current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, said of the events: “Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement… and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans’ desire for freedom.”
In an issue of The Intercollegiate Review in 1966, Otto wrote:
The narrowness of the Communist human ideal, the stringent limitation of thought demanded by the ideology, as well as the distortion of emotional life by the party, have led to certain counterproductive effects, especially among intellectuals…The revolt of writers in most of the Eastern European states, their return to the original values of individual sentiment and emotion as well as the primitive drive of the individual with all its positive and negative effects on the goals of the state, and many other related phenomena point in this direction. This, at the same time, reveals the decisive defeat the system has suffered—a defeat which is no longer directly related to economic success or crises, to foreign policy, or to the strategy of domestic politics. The cause of this defeat, rather, must be looked for in the human psyche which, in the long run, will not tolerate shackles.
An occasional visitor to The Heritage Foundation, we will miss Otto’s keen perspective on liberty, and his efforts to free people from the chains of despair that dictators and tyrants continue to impose around the world. There are many unsung heroes of the Cold War, and Otto is certainly one of them. Three countries will take place in honoring him over the next two weeks, which is fitting for a man who dedicated his life to the peaceful unity of all the nations of Europe, and who helped so many cross borders, eventually finding freedom.