‘Hesitant Heir and Reluctant Ruler’: Karl I/IV of Austria-Hungary During the Great War

  • Christopher Brennan
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy book series (PSMM)


When Emperor Karl I of Austria (King Karl IV to the Hungarians) acceded to the Habsburg throne in late November 1916, he was, at 29, the youngest crowned head of state among belligerent nations. In quieter times, this brave, perceptive, modest, multilingual, conciliatory and pious monarch, accompanied by his youthful, photogenic family—the strong-willed and intelligent Empress Zita, the angelic 4-year old Crown Prince Otto and his three siblings—would undoubtedly have made, at the very least, a competent leader. And indeed, official propaganda made much of his obvious qualities. Unfortunately, Karl was woefully unprepared for his role—he had become monarch decades prematurely and had spent most of his heirship fighting the war—while the timing and circumstances of his enthronement brought out his weaker personal characteristics: indecision, impulsiveness, naivety, political clumsiness, lack of vision and poor statesmanship. Within two years, the centuries-old Habsburg Monarchy had ceased to exist. This is not to say, however, that Karl was a mere spectator in the downfall of his empire. Constitutionally, he had virtually unlimited autocratic powers. By early 1918, the prospect of a final victory for the Central Powers was not unlikely. Furthermore, the Allies still had no intention of dismantling Austria-Hungary. Overall, none of this fits with the narrative of an outdated empire on its last legs by 1914, swept away by the war and the associated tides of democratisation, liberalisation, republicanism, nationalism and self-determination. Today, Karl is almost completely forgotten, not least in the many lands over which he once ruled (although the Vatican is hard at work on his canonisation). This chapter therefore aims to give Karl his due, for better and for worse, by replacing him and the Habsburg monarchical institution, at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian war effort.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher Brennan
    • 1
  1. 1.London School of EconomicsLondonUK

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