VIENNA — On Saturday, July 16, central Vienna assumed the bearing of a costume drama, as Austria's democratically elected leaders, members of the European aristocracy, church representatives and military regiments in historic dress assembled in St. Stephen's Cathedral to pay their respects to the House of Habsburg -- or, more specifically, to Otto Habsburg -- Lothringen, son of Austria's last emperor, who died two weeks ago at 98. He was born in Vienna on the cusp of World War I -- the conflict which put an end to his family's long-lived empire.
Pictures from the funeral of the last heir to the Habsburg throne.
But the nation still focused its undivided attention on his funeral: indeed, the public broadcaster ORF covered the funeral for nine straight hours. The viewers at home, and the 1,000 guests invited to St. Stephens -- including the Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Chancellor Werner Faymann -- bore witness to formal funeral rites that may never be practiced again. They listened intently as representatives from the Vatican offered their condolences on behalf of Pope Benedict, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn pronounced a solemn homage to the Habsburg family. A part of the audience then marched through the city center, past a cordon of tourists -- some bewildered, others in awe - toward the Imperial Crypt. There, the Master of Ceremonies knocked three times on the door before the monks inside opened it to make way for the coffin.
All this ceremonial pomp, however, was not a mere exercise in nostalgia; it was a tribute to a past that never really died. Yes, Vienna is no longer a world capital -- the ubiquitous portraits of the emperors have all been packed away, but Habsburg political culture (including some of its pernicious aspects) is still very much alive.
From the moment of its establishment in 1438, the House of Habsburg was never a modern centralized nation-state, but rather a multi-national empire that left its mark not only on Austria, but across the continent. The most concrete reminders of its rule -- in cities from Lviv to Warsaw, Prague to Sarajevo -- are the many remnants of Habsburg architecture in the form of train stations, schools, and government buildings.
But it is the Habsburg's animating political philosophy -- informed as it was both by hierarchy, and tolerance; authority, and plurality -- that is its most significant legacy. The nations subject to Habsburg rule earned the privileges of law, but were also forced to learn the caprice of imperialism, most prominently in the form of special privileges for a German-speaking minority, and the strict, unquestioned, power of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Habsburg indulgence of the Catholic Church, and its anti-Enlightenment and anti-Protestant fervor, led to cruelty across the continent. Protestant aristocrats were routinely beheaded, their heads and hands displayed in public as warnings to others. (In Prague in 1621, for instance, after the Habsburg regime quelled an incipient reformation, the Catholic rulers ordered that a Protestant city official be nailed to the gallows by his tongue and left to hang there for twelve hours.) Subjects of the Habsburg crown who practiced the wrong denomination of Christianity were often summarily disowned of their property. (Indeed, most of the opulent baroque palaces in Vienna that today attract tourists were built with the fortunes the Catholic aristocracy stole from Protestants.)