In political terms, the life of Zita of Bourbon-Parma was one of the great, if noble, failures in European history. To date the last Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, the young consort’s career did not begin until her husband’s succession to the throne in November 1916, but it continued as her son’s regent-in-exile in the inter-war years. Her influence could still be felt on Austrian monarchism and anti-Communism right the way down to her death in 1989. In almost everything she did, or tried to do, Zita failed. Her attempts to pull Austria-Hungary out of the war and break her alliance with Imperial Germany precipitated a constitutional crisis, which I discuss in chapter 10 of my book The Emperors. Her plans to save, and then restore, the Hapsburg monarchy did not succeed; her tenacious and determined opposition to Nazism, which she pursued at great personal risk both to herself and her family, did not halt either the Anschluss of 1938 or the Nazi regime’s grinding and bloody disapproval of Austrian monarchism. Only in her valiant decades-long quest to keep the flame of the dynasty alive did Zita achieve one of her goals. Although the pro-monarchy groups in the former Hapsburg Empire are small in 2015, particularly outside of Austria, the dynasty itself remains united within a clear command structure beneath the uncontested head of the clan, Zita’s grandson the Archduke Karl. When compared to the internecine, self-immolating mess of disagreements that have swamped, and probably capsized, the deposed ruling families of France and Russia, the Hapsburg achievement, which owes so much to Zita’s emphasis on self-sacrifice in the name of duty, remains commendable.

'One of the three great royal women of the war': Karl's wife, the Empress Zita, was a devout Catholic who caused a crisis with her attempts to secretly end the war. (The Emperors Amberley Publishing)

When Zita died in 1989, she was a dowager queen-empress of six decades. To Austrian conservatives, she had acquired a role not too dissimilar to her near-contemporary Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon who, as British Queen Mother from 1952 to 2002, had become both flesh and blood personality and totemic custodian of the legacy – a bridge to the certainties of the past. However, when she first married into the Hapsburg dynasty in October 1911, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma had far more in common with Catherine Middleton when she joined the British royal house a century later. The previous Empress, Elisabeth of Bavaria, had been a beautiful and charismatic woman with a wide public following thanks to her star quality and charitable works. Her violent death on holiday in 1898, at the hands of an anti-monarchist assassin, had provoked scenes of widespread mourning, despite the fact that within ‘the establishment’ Elisabeth had been regarded as a loose cannon, determined to go it alone when it came to the public, rather than follow protocol. The old and conservative Emperor, whose longevity and conspicuous devotion to duty had already turned him into the focus of respectful affection, despaired when his heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, insisted on entering into a morganatic marriage with a non-royal, Countess Sophie Chotek.

Compared to these recent upsets, Zita of Bourbon-Parma stepped as a vision of reassuring perfection. She was Catholic, she was conservative, she was charming without the flash of the emerging buzzword of celebrity and, even by Hapsburg standards, her background was impeccable. On her mother’s side, Zita was the granddaughter of King Miguel I of Portugal and on her father’s she was descended from the last Bourbon King of France, Charles X. In public, Zita moved with grace and elegance, but never outshone her husband or attempted to steal focus from the Emperor. She was effusively and unfailing polite to everyone she met, but capable of casting a regal air of chill if she felt she, or the Imperial Family, had been insulted. Her marriage to the Archduke Karl, who was second in line to the throne after his uncle Franz Ferdinand, produced a son, the future Crown Prince Otto in 1912, and then a small tribe of siblings after him.

'Almost inhumanly slender': Franz Josef's wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria. (The Emperors Amberley Publishing)

In The Emperors, I argued that Zita’s ancestry was of great importance in explaining both her political outlook and the actions she undertook between 1916 and 1989. She did not exactly spring from a pluralist pedigree. Charles X had lost the French throne in 1830 in the face of opposition to his attempts to increase the monarchy’s powers and her grandfather, Miguel of Portugal, was known by the telling posthumous sobriquet of King Miguel the Absolutist. For Zita, throne and altar were vitally important parts of her world view. Indeed, they were central. Everything beyond them, she regarded as irrelevant detritus.

The other component in explaining her extraordinary political activities was her upbringing, which in many ways mirrored that of any Edwardian upper-class girl. Born into a wealthy family in northern Italy, with a tribe of servants, the years of her childhood were framed by the signposts of the social calendar. She and her siblings were moved about on their father’s private train from villa to schloss to château depending on what animal was in season to hunt, which ball would be held where and how the weather might change. She and her sisters were sent to an all-girls Catholic boarding school on the Isle of Wight. They learned to speak several languages, all with the drawl and rhythm of the upper-classes – Received Pronunciation for English, Schönbrunner Deutsch for German. Noblesse oblige was drilled into the Bourbon-Parma siblings, particularly the girls. Zita herself was named after the patron saint of servants and with her sisters she was regularly sent to help in soup kitchens or homeless charities.

Combined, the links to the ancien régime, the narrow world of her upbringing and the intense Catholicism with its ideas of a royal vocation explain Zita’s near-total belief in the system she had grown up with. It always astonishes me that the Empress’s life has not received more academic or popular attention. Her career, particularly that crucial phase between 1916 and 1919, illuminated a plethora of important points about diplomacy and government at the end of the First World War. The fate of her husband’s empire of course shows that the ‘golden age of monarchies’ came crashing to an end, but the pervasive idea that the class system itself imploded because of the tribulations of the Great War is utterly incorrect. It was weakened, certainly, but neither it nor trust in it was destroyed entirely.

The Sixtus Affair, Zita’s plot to free Austria-Hungary from the war, saw a level of intrigue in the drawing rooms, embassies and ballrooms of Europe that would not have been out of place in a Dumas novel. Her brothers, Prince Sixtus and Prince Xavier, met privately with Pope Benedict XV at the Vatican and then with King George V at Buckingham Palace to discuss the feasibility of a separate peace for Austria-Hungary. Sixtus, who was fighting in the Belgian army, was reached in a Swiss safe house through incognito trips by the Empress’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Parma, and by the Emperor’s childhood friend, Count Erdödy. When the affair’s secrecy was rumbled, it was because its cover had been blown by a French socialist, Georges Clemenceau, who took great delight in publishing the entire correspondence, embarrassing his predecessor and dealing a death blow to the Hapsburg monarchy’s attempts to extricate itself from the war effort.

The Emperor Karl, who acceded to the throne at the age of twenty-nine. (The Emperors Amberley Publishing)

When the monarchy collapsed in November 1918 and the family were trapped in Austria, fears that they might meet the same fate as the Romanovs prompted Prince Sixtus to return to Buckingham Palace, where he used his audience with King George V and Queen Mary to beg for help for his sister, his brother-in-law and their children. Despite Karl’s role as the head of state for a recently-defeated power, King George was able to intervene to dispel any possible objections. As I detailed in The Emperors, George V’s role was crucial and a Catholic lieutenant from a gentry family who had once gone skiing with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was sent to persuade the Emperor and Empress that they must flee, something which Zita was emphatically opposed to. At the time of her husband’s deposition, she had impressed or frightened everyone around her with her announcement, made in a moment of sincere temper, that emperors and empresses may be killed, but they never abdicated.

Lieutenant-Colonel Strutt was able to persuade the Empress to take her family to Switzerland. It was not an easy task. Zita, who he described as ‘one of the three great royal women of the war’ (the others, in his opinion, were the queens consort of Belgium and Romania), was earnest in regarding death as preferable to humiliation. It took awhile to win her over. The butchering of the Tsar’s children may have shaken her resolve – after all, it is one thing to chose martyrdom for one’s self, but another thing entirely to thrust it on to the heads of infants. Strutt finally persuaded the Empress by evoking the ghosts of her French ancestors – ‘A dead Hapsburg is no good to anyone,’ he advised, ‘whereas a live one, with a family, may yet be’. Charles X had escaped the French Revolution in 1789 and lived to see his family restored in 1814. The family, evacuated in part in 1830 and in full in 1848, had come tantalisingly close to regaining their throne on several occasions since and it was by no means certain in 1918 that France would remain a republic forever. On 25 March 1919, the Austrian Imperial Family were evacuated with British, Swiss and Danish help into Switzerland. At that stage, it still seemed as if Strutt’s cryptic comment that their monarchy ‘may yet be’ was a prediction, not a forlorn hope, as Austria was described as ‘a republic without republicans’. The determination of the Allies to block a restoration of the old system and, above all, the rise of fascism in the next decade helped bury any possibility of a Hapsburg revival, but in 1919 all that lay in the unknown future.

Zita of Bourbon-Parma’s political activities during her time as Empress consort were deftly executed by a consummate mistress in the art of decorous self-effacement. Tracing her role requires reading between the lines and relying on the accounts of those who met her and were, almost unfailingly, impressed by her ‘extraordinary strength of character, softened by her own remarkable charm.’ Her actions as empress are as important and compelling as the woman herself, whose story I found so rewarding to write about in The Emperors. They showcased continued trust in the royal system, even as it collapsed, the importance that was still placed on doing things ‘properly’, the enormous soft power retained by the British monarchy and the influence that individuals continued to influence at the heart of the world’s most important institutions.


Gareth Russell's The Emperors is available for purchase now.