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The Last Empress: The Life and Times of Zita of Austria-Hungary, 1892-1989.


1892-1989. Gordon Brook-Shepherd. Harper Collins. 20.00[pounds].

Anyone who had the privilege of attending the funeral of Empress Zita in Vienna in 1989 could not help but be aware of the irony of history. Slowly through the rain swept streets of Vienna came a procession of village bands, middle-aged men dressed in uniforms of a lost world, women in the colourful (and expensive) dress of Tyrolean peasants and a vast swarm of clergy. Behind it came the huge hearse carrying a tiny coffin: the Habsburg funeral wagon had been brought from the carriage museum at the Schonbrunn to carry the last reigning Habsburg to her rest. The tens of thousands of mourners in the narrow streets of the old city, people from every land of the old Empire, took up the words of the noble Imperial anthem written by Haydn. Many Austrians looked slightly ashamed as the cortege passed -- ashamed not only at the long exile imposed on their last Empress but at the sight of her eldest son, Archduke Otto, walking with such dignity behind his mother. Here was one of the most distinguished men in Europe allowed but a brief role in his native land while the head of the Austrian Republic hid himself in a comer of the old Imperial palace, unable to visit any respectable nation.

Seven decades before -- a brief period in the seven hundred year history of the Habsburg dynasty -- the young and beautiful Empress Zita and her young son had walked with her husband, Emperor Karl, behind the same funeral car as the venerable Franz Joseph was carried to his well deserved rest. Perhaps no other monarch in history ever ascended a throne with more problems than Emperor Karl did in 1916. For the next two years he battled to save his Empire and indeed Europe itself from destruction. As a deeply religious man Kart was anxious to end the war, to make territorial sacrifices if necessary and to transform the Empire into a commonwealth. He could not overcome the opposition of his ally, Germany, his own foreign minister and the intrigues of certain Western politicians. Throughout these two tense years, Karl had the constant support of his wife. Indeed the negotiations were carried on by her brothers, who were fighting on the Allied side. At times this sounds like a fairy tale with four young royal champions trying to slay the dragon of war. Yet, unlike a fable, this story ended tragically.

It is a curious feature of European history that revolutions require a Queen to be made into a devil figure. Just as Henriette Maria, Marie Antoinette, Empresses Eugenie and the Tsarina Alexandra were erected into monsters by rabid revolutionaries, so Empress Zita was portrayed as the |Italian intriguer', a spy from Austria's most hated enemy.

When the Habsburg Empire collapsed, the Imperial family were driven into exile. Throughout this period and in the two mishandled attempts at restoration, it was Zita who supported her ill husband. After his early death in 1922, it was she who upheld the monarchist cause. She ensured that her son became the best educated Habsburg in history and a man who has not frittered his life away as an embittered |pretender' but has instead taken up an important role in the European Parliament.

Gordon Brook-Shepherd has long been the most influential English historian of recent Austrian history. For his superb biography of Empress Zita, he was given unrestricted access to Habsburg family archives as well as the assistance of Otto von Habsburg and other members of the family. Mr. Brook-Shepherd had already had the help of the Empress herself when he wrote his distinguished biography of Emperor Karl many years ago. He has unearthed yet more information for this biography that throws new light on many aspects of European history for almost this entire century. Even as a virtually penniless exile in North America, the Empress was consulted by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Mountbatten about the future of Europe after the defeat of Hitler, a man who detested all Habsburgs. Her main concern, as she told President Roosevelt, was to protect |my peoples' from communism. Mr. Brook-Shepherd has provided a worthy memorial to one of the most tragic and noble figures of our century.

The story of the last Austrian Emperor and his consort is attracting increasing attention. With the break-up of that absurd creation Yugoslavia -- a state born of official terrorism in 1914 -- and the encouraging if slow return towards the concept of Central Europe, historians and even journalists are looking with sympathy at the last days of Austria-Hungary. Joanna and James Bogle have written a warm tribute to Emperor Karl and Empress Zita which serves as a good introduction to the life of Austria-Hungary's last Emperor and Empress. This account emphasises their deep religious devotion and appears at a time when the Emperor is being considered for canonisation. This book makes no claim to the years of scholarship of Mr. Brook-Shepherd, but it would provide a well-written introduction to the subject. Indeed, it benefits from Mr. Brook-Shepherd's generous help. Only a biographer as devoted to his subject and as sure of his mastery of it as Mr. Brook-Shepherd would be so generous to other writers.
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Author:Mullen, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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