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Europe

Historians Question the Beatification of Blessed Charles

The last emperor of the Habsburg dynasty, Charles the First of Austria, is to be beatified by the Pope. News that the deceased monarch will become Blessed Charles has prompted many to question the pontiff’s choice.

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A man of peace or a blundering buffoon? The Catholic Church thinks Charles was a miracle worker.

Controversy is brewing over reports that the Pope is to beatify Charles I of Austria, the last Habsburg emperor who came to the throne during World War I and ended his days in exile on the island of Madeira in 1922 at the age of 35.

Some, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, a leading campaigner among the admirers calling for the monarch’s beatification, consider Charles to have been "a man of peace," a gentle person surrounded and overwhelmed by the backstabbing diplomats, ministers, and generals who conspired to bring about the end of his reign and the end of his empire.

A final failure on the Habsburg throne?

But others consider the Kaiser to have been an incompetent leader who brought about his own demise, consigned his lineage to the annals of history and instigated the fall of the Habsburg Empire.

These same critics believe that Charles was the man responsible for ordering the use of poison gas by his troops during the war; the man whose leadership led to hundreds of thousands of Austrian soldiers being captured during the closing days of the conflict and a man with such an ability to spin great untruths that his claims to Christian grace are considered a mockery.

Sole wartime leader in pursuit of peace?

However, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Charles I of Austria was a devout man, a worker of miracles, a man whose actions proved that politicians could be good Christians and man deemed to be worthy of being set on the road to becoming a religious icon.

These conflicting views are accepted by the Church which maintains that the decision to beatify is a suitable one. "The figure of the Kaiser is viewed differently," admitted Erich Leitenberger, the church's spokesman in Vienna in an interview with the British daily broadsheet The Guardian. "But he led a very religious life, especially in his latter stages."

Experts confirmation

In December, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints -- the Vatican commission responsible for examining claims to sainthood -- officially declared that Charles was to be credited with a miracle that occurred in 1960, backed up with the requisite evidence of three expert medical opinions needed to pursue the case for beatification.

The alleged miracle was experienced by a nun in a Brazilian convent who prayed for the late emperor's beatification and woke up the next morning able to walk for the first time in years. Since this event has been certified by the Catholic Church, Charles is now well on his way to his imminent beatification, the intermediate stage to canonisation, which will be formally acknowledged in September.

Sainthood just a miracle away

Despite this fast track to piety, his supporters will have to wait a while if they hope to see the soon-to-be Blessed Charles reach sainthood. One more miracle has to be attributed to him before that step can be taken.

The ascension to beatified status is unlikely, however, to alter the views of those historians who have plotted the career of Charles and have recorded less than Christian behaviour in their accounts.

Helmut Rumpler, a history professor who heads the Habsburg commission of the Austrian Academy of Sciences told The Guardian, “He was a dilettante, far too weak for the challenges facing him. Out of his depth, not really a politician. I don't know why he is being beatified.”

Ridiculed by staff and entourage

Coming to the throne on the death of Emperor Franz Josef in 1916 mid-way through “The Great War” and with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in tatters, many within the royal entourage viewed the new Kaiser with contempt. "He can't even write properly," complained his chief of staff while one of his prime ministers quipped: "He is 30 years old, looks 20, and thinks like a 10-year-old."

In 1917, with the war still raging, Charles made a secret plea for peace with France assisted by his French brother-in-law. The proposed agreement would have seen the Austrian emperor deserting his German ally at a critical stage of the conflict.

Denial leads to widespread mockery

When news of the proposal leaked, Charles denied having ever entertained such an idea. The furious French then published letters signed by him, infuriating the Germans and making him a comic figure on both sides.

A year later when the war was over, Charles fled to Switzerland, leaving his empire to collapse without him, and yet he refused to abdicate the throne. After two failed, and embarrassing, attempts at reclaiming the throne in Budapest, Charles was taken by the British and forced into exile on the island of Madeira where he eventually died of pneumonia.

If Charles does eventually make it to sainthood, the Austrian weekly Profil already has a section of the population earmarked for his patronage. The magazine believes that Charles should be nominated as the patron saint of losers.