Franz Joseph, the iconic (also “apostolic”) emperor-king of Austria-Hungary, passed away in November 1916 and because of a war, a terrible war was going on full tilt, the empire had to have an emperor as soon as possible.
Franz Joseph didn’t have much luck when it came to successors. His only son, Rudolf, committed suicide in 1899. He died without an issue. Franz Joseph’s younger brother Maximilian was murdered earlier in 1867 as self-declared Emperor of Mexico. His second younger brother, Karl Ludwig, was already dead by 1899 but he had several sons, the oldest of whom was Franz Ferdinand whose sons couldn’t inherit the throne because of their father morganatic marriage.
Next in line, therefore, was the son of Franz Ferdinand’s younger brother, Otto Franz (1865-1906), Karl or Károly in Hungarian. After his father’s death in 1906, he was next-in-line to Franz Ferdinand, his uncle, and was treated accordingly.
After the death of Franz Joseph, his great uncle, he ruled in Austria as Emperor Karl I and in Hungary as Karl IV or as a contemporary document called him “the forth by this name.” He had very little experience in statecraft because Franz Joseph didn’t share his knowledge of the politics of his realm with either Franz Ferdinand or after his death, with Karl. Like his father, he became a military officer who spent most of his military duties in Vienna and Prague where he also studied law and political science.
He was crowned king of Hungary on the 30th day of December 1916. One hundred years ago today!
This anniversary has been noted officially to such an extent by the Hungarian government that the National Museum of Hungary organized an exhibition in remembrance of the times and of the event.
I also wanted to commemorate it, so I went to the Museum to see what has been left to us from that day. Those were highly unusual times. Not only because of the rampaging war but because it was the accelerated dawn of the technological age. The coronation cortege and its horses provided a copious supply of horse manure for the streets of the Castle District, where the event took place, but at the same time, the royal couple arrived from Vienna to Budapest by train. They were chauffeured around in automobiles and journalists were standing on street corners with telephone hand pieces that could be plugged into any public phone station and were reporting practically every minute of the royals to their newspapers. Often, a new special issue of some newspaper was released just half an hour after the event, as the royal couple was completing their daily program, and the newspapers were mounting a murderously fierce competition to report the fullest and the fastest account of the royals’ doings.
When I arrived at the exhibition, I was stunned to find that making photographs is strictly forbidden. I tried to bargain about that but failed. I have no picture of my own making to offer.
The royal couple arrived by train; at the station, enormous hoopla and a lot of horse-drawn carriages waited and then ferried them to the royal castle to stay. The timing of the coronation was only a short month after the burial of the emperor, and there was very little time to decorate and prepare the district for the momentous event. However, the very able intendant of the Opera, Count Bánffy, did a splendid job of it, decorating the coronation church as well as part of the streets where the procession went. The ceremony itself was not going to be too elaborate, they surmised, because of the war and because of the economy drive that was in effect in the country. Nevertheless, the march from the castle to the coronation temple (the distance could hardly be more than 700-800 meters) took a good couple of hours as the horse-drawn carriages, filled with the courtiers, aristocrats and assorted hangers-on, with their spouses, all decked out in their historical costumes, dripping with jewels, furs and exotic feathers, made the stately possession amidst the corps of hussar units, guards of the personnel and the crown jewels, and, of course, there were the members of Parliament (upper and lower house, naturally), members of the aristocracy, the military brass; Austrian and Hungarian, all represented in brotherly unison, former, present and future members of cabinets, and not to forget the mayor and entire council of the city of Budapest. Everyone dressed in the historical, ceremonial finery. Karl IV, the “coronatus,” was riding a horse in the middle of the procession, so it took some time until his turn came to arrive and enter the Coronation Church. But enter he did, with his queen and son. The medieval church was splendidly draped inside with dark red velvet, embroidered with the double cross of the Lothringian House, tightly connected to the Habsburgs on several counts going back almost to the twelfth century. (Later the crowd ripped off and took home these crosses for souvenirs.) The coronation ceremony was open only to the invited lucky few; only by invitation. So much so, that even the prince-primate of the Catholic Church, who actually conducted the ceremony, received a written invitation.
The ceremony was relatively simple: after some prayers and propitiations, the coronandus rose from his throne, kneeled at the top step leading to the altar, and there the prince-primate and the prime minister (István Tisza) jointly placed the crown on the head of the new king. At this moment, rang out the joyful cry: long live the king! Then came the summary crowning of the queen too, her separate crown used, but her shoulder was ceremonially touched with the “holy” crown too to make the association clear.
After some more, but short prayers, the royal party exited the cathedral to the middle of the square, where a trinity statue has stood since the 1720s and there, standing on the base of the statue, four of the highest catholic priests of the country administered to him the royal oath, swearing loyalty to the Hungarian nation. The king recited the oath and on he went to the next station. For that, he mounted a lovely horse and in the middle of the procession he started back towards the castle. But just before reaching it, there was a large mound of earth, an artificial hill, paths leading to its top from four directions. The king on his horse charged and mounted this hill. Having arrived at the top, he drew his sword and made a cut towards each of the four directions of the compass, symbolizing his commitment defending the nation against any threat whatever direction it may come from.
Off the mound, he came, onto the next station. The spectators rushed in and collected the artificial flowers that decorated the mound on this wintry day as souvenirs, of course. The king then took off to the state luncheon. This was the most bizarre part of the ceremony. His majesties were sitting at a “u” shaped table, two bishops on their right and the prime minister with another political notability on their left. Now the top echelon of the nobility came forward with large vessels of exquisite dishes, eighteen courses in all, plus garnishing and the pickles; but none of that was served to be eaten. Oh no. It was only meant to show off the riches of the land and the prowess of the kitchen staff. Then it was taken out to be distributed amongst the worthy. At the same time, large quantities of gulyás soup were also distributed amongst the poor at several points in the city. With this last act, the coronation came to its conclusion; Hungary had a king again.
The exhibition presented a rich selection of drawings, paintings, and photographs. No other than hand-made depictions are available of the coronation from the interior of the church; because of the lighting conditions photographs could not be made. But at the same, time two enterprising newsreel companies filmed all the events outdoors; and a more than half hour long, restored newsreel is available for anyone to see.
Looking at the pageantry and the incredible profligacy and waste, it is hard to think of anything else but the reckoning that these are the death throes of this empire, these people, and these institutions altogether. Perhaps this is why it is so fascinating to see in the last hall of the exhibition the fate and the afterlife of all the participants and the artifacts. All the cheaply produced coins, the ersatz porcelain souvenirs, post cards and countless paraphernalia that survived well into the fifties, here and there. The people who participated, many of whom survived the Second World War, fell victim to the Communist government’s atrocities, and interestingly, some of the descendants of those people were identified as the makers, curators, and creators of this very exhibition I was watching.
Karl and his large family left Austria in May 1919 and settled in Switzerland. During 1921 he twice returned to Hungary in order to regain the throne but first time Horthy and the Hungarian politicians persuaded him to leave. The second time around he was forcibly moved later to the Portuguese island of Madeira. During one evening caught a cold that developed into pneumonia, and he died in 1922. Queen Zita, his wife, outlived him by an astounding 67 years.
But the most storied fate was accorded the little charming four-year-old boy, Otto, who became an ardent, conservative European politician, living to 98 years of age; and by the time he died, having seen the change of regime had resuscitated his Hungarian citizenship, and became a highly respected elder statesman. When he died in 2011, he was the last and only remaining witness of the coronation.