Otto von Habsburg died the other day at the age of 98. Otto was the son of Karl I, the last emperor of the now defunct empire of Austria-Hungary.
Otto was more than just another exiled European king, however. He was a hero for peace in Europe - shaking off his family's legacy, standing up to the Nazis and communists and promoting a unified Europe that would never revisit the tragedies that extreme nationalism had unleashed on Europe.
Otto grew up in exile, father-less, being prepared for a life he would never lead. By the time he came of age the misdeeds of his family's empire were fading as to nothing compared with what was then underway in Nazi Germany. Otto argued and pleaded with the Austrian authorities to be allowed to return to lead Austria away from Nazism, to prevent the Anschluss (annexation) with Germany. He was denied and Austria vanished from the map.
After spending most of the war in America, Otto returned to Europe to advocate for a European confederacy. The USSR's 'Iron Curtain' stymied him. He had to be content with a working to unify western Europe, all the while remaining a steadfast supporter of freedom for eastern Europe. He became a writer and then a politician and was eventually elected to the European Parliament.
Otto believed passionately in a unified Europe, as this long article from 1962 on French President Charles de Gaulle makes clear. Otto captures the hopes of a generation of Europeans weary of and wary of war:
Early in September Germany received the head of the French State. Literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women thronged the streets to acclaim the man who for them was France. It was a deep and spontaneous enthusiasm such as is rarely seen.
The older among us could not avoid looking back over the road we have traveled. We had known the Rhine as a chasm separating two deadly enemies. We had seen German troops crushing France, and then the vengeance of the victors ... In the streets of Munich and Stuttgart, on the wharves of Hamburg, Europe has suddenly become alive.
I'm not convinced that a single political entity stretching from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia is necessary to guarantee peace and prosperity in Europe, but Otto believed it was. He was driven by a desire to avoid the calamities that befell Europe in his lifetime.
Otto's experience and vision are relevant in today's Europe because the unified Europe he wanted seems to be falling apart as the financial crisis plays out along nationalist lines. The Greeks, the Portuguese, the Irish and others point the finger at the Germans, French and others and they, in turn, point the finger back at those nations they see as profligate and untrustworthy.
Otto's vision is not being undone by rising nationalism so much as by the failure of those European leaders who opted for back-room deals and veiled threats rather than inclusion, transparency and democracy as they built today's European Union. They didn't build a real "union," one where one region's problems are everyone's.
A prosperous, peaceful Europe requires the type of union where the various nations' people feel as one, where the problems for one nation or region are the problems for the whole union. That Europe is far away today. We're drifting away from Otto's overarching vision.