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Eduard Habsburg: The Antidote to Globalism and Our Nihilistic World

“There is no life without suffering. There is no love without suffering … You cannot have this perfect hedonistic life. It doesn’t exist, even if advertising, media, and everybody tells you so,” says Eduard Habsburg, the archduke of Austria and Hungary’s ambassador to the Vatican.

He is from the royal line of the Habsburgs and author of “The Habsburg Way: 7 Rules for Turbulent Times.”

In this wide-ranging interview, we take a look at what it means to live a good life, and to die a good death. What is the value of faith, family, and traditional values? Is there something to learn from the ruling philosophy of the Habsburgs? What core principles unite America’s founding and the Habsburg approach?


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek: Ambassador Eduard Habsburg, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Eduard Habsburg: Thank you very much for having me on the show.

Mr. Jekielek: I am really enjoying reading your book, The Habsburg Way. Let’s start with this. In the U.S. and in Canada, and frankly in many places, when you think of aristocracy, you think of the Howard Zinn version of aristocracy. Basically, they are the people that made others suffer while they enjoyed all the luxuries of life. This is certainly not the picture that you get from reading The Habsburg Way, and I want to give you a chance to talk about that at the outset here.

Ambassador Habsburg: First of all, I’m very aware that the United States is built on the idea and on the myth of fighting tyrants and fighting against oppressors. Aristocracy has a bad rap in movies and in books. I try to make a case for seeing the positive sides of royalty in my book. What I’m saying is that I’m in the privileged position of having been able to meet the current kings of Europe, the grand dukes of Europe, and the current rulers when they were rulers in training.

These experiences led me to understand that these people, the ones I’ve met—I haven’t met the English, but I’ve met all the others, the Catholic ones—the people I’ve met were deeply humble servants that from their earliest childhood were taught to serve. They grew up getting to know every important player in their country, all the topics important for the country, all the fault lines, and the dangerous topics.

They were raised all of their childhood and their youth to serve. For instance, if your country has two languages, you try not to prefer one of those two. If your country has Protestants and Catholics, and you’re a Christian ruler, you try not to show your preference too strongly. You try to be balanced. You are acutely aware of which topics threaten the unity in your country.

But the most important topic of all and the great difference to the political leaders of today is that you’re in it for life. You cannot go on and then after a while say, “That’s it. I’m getting out of here and I’m finding a nice plum job where I earn millions and I will never have to bother with this country again.”

That’s a temptation in today’s political world. A monarch doesn’t do that. A monarch is in it for life. They know not only that their life is bound to their country and their responsibilities for the country, but they know that their children, their son or daughter that one day will take over, will have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This gives a totally different frame of mind.

Also, a monarch will have a different approach to a crisis, because a politician will be always tempted to say, “Which headline will help me get reelected in the election in one-and-a-half years, and which headline risks my career?” A monarch does not have this problem. Of course, that’s a danger in a way, but it’s also an advantage. You can really think about what is good for my country, and not what is good for my career. There’s a few strong arguments. No, not all rulers were always like this, but I can really and confidently assess that all current rulers in European monarchies that I have met are exactly like that.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s absolutely fascinating. I lived in Thailand for a while under the king that recently passed who was there for many, many decades. With so many coups and so many changes in government, it was actually the king that provided stability to the country every time. What you’re saying makes sense to me.

Ambassador Habsburg: On the other hand, the current royal families and the current kingdoms and dukedoms are probably only a shadow of what monarchy once was. The king of Belgium, for instance, who is a devout Catholic, signed one of the worst euthanasia laws in Europe, because in his position he has to sign every law presented to him by the parliament. That is not what a monarch is about. If you are a glorified president with a crown, then it’s not really what it used to be.

I repeat once more, they are signs of stability. Their duty is to keep the country together and to not do anything that will hurt the unity and the peace in the country, which is quite a lot. Also, I want to add something. Americans know kings and monarchs mostly from movies. They don’t know how it is to grow up, and to have your grandparents growing up in the same monarchy, seeing the children of the monarch growing up, like in England. Now, everybody’s seeing the future king of England as a little boy.

They will grow up with that. They will see how his parents, Kate and William, serve the country, try to be gentle, try to be helpful, and try to be a symbol of unity. This gives stability, and this gives a country hope. You’ve seen this in the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, when people queued up 10 to 14 hours in order to be in front of a coffin for 5 to 10 seconds, just as a sign of respect. I would say 60 percent of that was perhaps the respect for this woman.

But at least 40 percent of that was simply a sign of respect for the institution of monarchy. We see that with the coronation of King Charles in England. In the United States you never had a monarchy, along with other countries. But if you meet people who live in a monarchy, they will have a very different outlook on monarchy than most people have nowadays.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the origin of America. The founders decided that essentially the monarchy was oppressive to them, and that’s what catalyzed the set of ideas that came into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. A lot of European countries then adopted this as a great model.

Ambassador Habsburg: Absolutely.

Mr. Jekielek: The obvious problem with monarchy is what happens when you get that despotic king or despotic ruler and you can’t get rid of them?

Ambassador Habsburg: Yes, of course.

Mr. Jekielek: There have been plenty in history, and I also certainly believe there have been the benevolent ones.

Ambassador Habsburg: Yes, that’s a problem. I’d like to talk about America. America is a great continent. Just before coming here, I reread deTocqueville’s, Democracy in America. I read this at least once a year, because America is built on a great idea and has a totally different and unique structure of how townships are built, and how counties are built. It’s totally different from what we have in Europe, and it’s great.

America has the seed of really being the land of freedom, the land of the free. One of the things that surprised me writing my book about The Habsburg Way was how close some of the ideas of the Holy Roman Empire, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the United States are, which you wouldn’t think to be the case.

You would think on the one hand, with the despots and tyrants, and on the other hand, with the land of the free, there are few key ideas that are very similar. One of these concepts is the topic of subsidiarity that I talk a lot about in this book. That for me, is one of the key concepts that made the Habsburg Empire great and functioning, and in theory at least, the opposite from an oppressive tyranny.

Mr. Jekielek: I had never heard of this word before, but it’s such a powerful word, this idea that you let the smallest possible unit of government deal with issues that it can deal with. You can clarify beyond what I just said, but it’s a powerful motivating idea and certainly the idea behind America in many ways.

Ambassador Habsburg: Yes. America is built from the bottom up. America is built in the order of homestead, township, county, and state, with states already being very soft and very weak in power. The strongest power is at the base. At the federal level it is very weak with very little power. This is something great. Why is it something great? First of all, because man is local. We are local. Democracy functions best on a local level. The higher up we go, the more abstract it becomes, and the less people feel that they’re really involved in what’s going on in the country.

The Habsburg principle is already visible in one quote in my book. Charles V wrote to his son Philip II when he was king of Spain saying, “If you rule over several nations and countries, you have to respect their languages, their rights, their political institutions, their local habits and their peculiarities, or you’ll be in deep trouble.” The Habsburgs had this from the beginning, even from the 13th century. Let me say this differently.

Our idea of empire is the idea from Star Wars, an evil emperor suppressing everybody with stormtroopers and a glorious band of rebels that stands up against this. The Habsburg empire was far closer to the empire in the Dune novels of Frank Herbert. The emperor had no real power. He had to juggle different houses, different dukedoms, and different princedoms. The Habsburg emperor in the Holy Roman Empire had no great army or lots of money. He only had authority by his sacred rule, and he was supposed to be the judge of all and keep all of this together, which was a complicated diplomatic game.

It only worked with subsidiarity. The moment you didn’t respect one of the parts of this empire, there was trouble, there were revolts, and there were conflicts. You had to respect everybody. I’ll give you an example. The Habsburgs learned this from the relationship between the Habsburgs and Hungary. Hungary was seen as a rebel country, subdued and suppressed by the Habsburgs, always standing up for freedom, which was sometimes unpleasant for the emperors.

The moment the Habsburgs began to respect them, for instance, giving the Hungarians the right to call in their own diet, going to Hungary and let themselves be crowned king of Hungary. These gestures of respect for the local customs, for the local rights, these gestures made the Austro- Hungarian Empire become great.

The United States are really the “united states.” We say this without thinking, but originally, these were states that had sovereignty and could decide things on a local level. We have seen in the last two or three years that some states decided to go different ways than what the federal level wanted. This is still there in the United States. It’s a strong thing.

Subsidiarity is the ultimate antidote and answer to what I see as the menace of globalism, the idea that decisions are being made not on a local level, not even on a national level, but on a supernational level. Single nations don’t even have a choice anymore other than to follow things that have been decided by very different powers. If this happens, people lose faith in democracy. They lose faith in their political leaders, because they say, “I can vote for somebody, but the decisions are being made on a very different level. What does it have to do with me?”

Democracy is supposed to function because the citizen is the sovereign in democracy. Listen to me, a Habsburg saying these things. But you see the similarities between what the Habsburgs in the best moments try to achieve and what the United States stands for and can be. The subtitle of my book is, 7 Rules for Turbulent Times. We live in turbulent times. Funny that the Habsburgs should teach us a lesson in the 21st century.

Mr. Jekielek: My family has a mixed relationship with the Habsburgs, because my family was in Galicia when Poland was under partition prior to the end of World War I. My family was basically in that partition of land. There was Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of course.

Ambassador Habsburg: Yes, exactly.

Mr. Jekielek: But you know what I have to say, we didn’t like being under someone else’s rule.

Ambassador Habsburg: Nobody likes it.

Mr. Jekielek: Nobody likes that. However, if you had to choose between the three, Galicia would definitely be the place where you would go. Essentially, the way I characterize it glibly and simply is that they said, “Just give us the money and do what you want.” Whereas, in the other places, they were actively destroying Polish culture and destroying Polish language. There was active persecution.

Ambassador Habsburg: Can I give you an example?

Mr. Jekielek: Yes.

Ambassador Habsburg: The reason why our last emperor, blessed Emperor Karl, was beatified by Pope John Paul II was because his name was Karol. He was called Karol because his father had served in the monarchy and was a great fan of Karl of Austria, blessed Emperor Karl. For him the monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a positive experience. Therefore, he instilled in his son a great love for this last Habsburg emperor, and he gave him the name of that last Habsburg. Therefore, Karol Wojtyła, as Pope, had the dream to help this Habsburg to the altar. There were good experiences and bad, of course.

For the Hungarians, for instance, being part of the Habsburg empire was up and down. It was traumatic sometimes, and it was beautiful sometimes. It was a long struggle to find a balance where the Hungarians really saw themself being taken seriously. The end result now is that my prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has written the foreword to my book about the Habsburgs. This is incredible, because it’s a step forward in Hungary towards living with the Habsburgs in a positive way.

Mr. Jekielek: You recently had an audience with the Pope, and I want to ask you about that. Before we go there, you are the Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See, and of course, a very devout Catholic. It’s very interesting to see that you associate the Habsburgs with Austria. What I’ve learned is that in Austria it’s illegal to use titles in Austria, and you’re the Hungarian ambassador. How does that work?

Ambassador Habsburg: Okay. I would say Austria has a cramped up relationship with the Habsburgs. They’re not relaxed with the Habsburgs. On the one hand, they take the money because the Habsburgs are the number one product of tourism. All the people coming to Vienna, to Schönbrunn, and to Salzburg, come for the Habsburg heritage. On the other hand, Austria is somehow traumatized by having been the Habsburg Empire, or at least a certain class of intellectuals are traumatized by that.

After the end of the Habsburg Empire, there were very severe laws banning all aristocratic titles, banning the Habsburgs from ever taking a political charge again, and banning members of the Habsburg family for decades from reentering Austria. There was a very, very traumatic situation up until a very short time ago. Just 10 years ago, a law was abolished that forbade members of the Habsburg family to ever run for Austrian president.

For a while that made sense because of the trauma probably, but the reason why the Austrian government abolished that law was that a woman that married a Habsburg told the Austrian President, “Listen, up until five minutes before my marriage with a Habsburg, I could have run for president. The moment I was married, I couldn’t anymore. I see some sort of racism here.” In the end, this law was abolished.

The Austrians have a very tense and complicated relationship, and they still will need at least one more generation to have a relaxed relationship with the Habsburgs. I feel it, especially when I speak about blessed emperor Karl, the last emperor. Normal and calm intellectuals get angry and furious when they speak about him, because he was a very remarkable Catholic and this is unpopular with some people nowadays.

But Hungary that suffered far more under the Habsburgs has now come to embrace its Habsburg heritage. I am the ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See. My cousin, Georg, is the ambassador of Hungary in Paris to the French state. We have two Habsburg ambassadors for Hungary. In Hungary, there’s a joke on the streets which goes, “Austria lives off the Habsburgs and Hungary lives with the Habsburgs.”

I am a Hungarian citizen. My father was born in Hungary as a member of the Habsburg Hungarian branch of our family. Therefore, I’ve always been Hungarian, but I lived outside of Hungary until I became an ambassador. What I’m trying to say here is that it’s a very interesting turnaround of the situation. We’ll hope that Austria will, with time, get relaxed and more at ease with the Habsburg heritage.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about this principle of subsidiarity and Hungary and how it’s placed in the EU. This is the obvious question, and then we’ll talk about your audience with the Pope. I’m very curious to learn about this.

Ambassador Habsburg: Some people have pointed out when they read the foreword of Viktor Orbán in which he speaks about the freedom fight of the Hungarian, the proud Hungarians against the Habsburgs over centuries, the times when the Habsburgs opened up and respected Hungary, and the times when the Habsburg suppressed Hungary. Somebody read that and said, “He writes about his struggles with Brussels.” It’s a very good comparison. There is a topic in my book, “What is the EU compared to the Austro-Hungarian Empire?” This comparison has been made.

The EU is a supernatural union of sovereign nations that have united under certain ideas to work together under certain conditions, under a common idea and under common values. The moment this becomes difficult, like it did in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was when the single nation doesn’t feel respected. One of the things I say in my book is that I believe in the right of nations to their own sovereignty.

Nation is a positive concept and not a negative one like it’s seen nowadays. But the sign of a maturity of a nation is its ability to participate in a supernatural structure if subsidiarity is maintained, the nation remains sovereign, and their sovereign principles are respected. In the European Union right now, you have the impression that a few of the countries in the European Union are not respected in their sovereignty.

Because the moment their ideas are somewhat different than what is lived in Brussels, Brussels clamps down, tries to punish you, and tries to find ways of cutting off financial flows to punish you for having different ideas. They don’t call it that, but that’s what really happens. This is like the Habsburgs clamping down on the sovereign rights of Hungary. There’s so many parallels here. An empire or a supernatural construction of states works if the center is weak and if the federal level respects the single nations. Then, it will work.

One thing missing in the European Union right now that you had in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is you had a symbol above all these countries and nations. You had a symbol that everybody knew when you looked, it was this bearded old emperor, this is it what united us. In the European Union if you ask people on the street, what is the European idea? What unites us Europeans? What do we stand for? You will get very different and confusing answers.

One story that I’d like to tell about this topic is that the Brussels leaders sometimes say that central European countries like Poland and Hungary don’t stand for European values anymore. Orbán, when he came visiting the Pope in Rome, and afterwards gave a talk in the garden of the Hungarian embassy, he said, “We are sometimes accused of not standing for European values anymore. But I ask you if the founders of the European Union; Schuman, De Gasperi, and Adenauer, would come back today, where would they find the European values, in Brussels or in central Europe?

It’s a question, what are our values? What do we stand for? The Pope has just visited Hungary and he said in two of his talks that Hungary is more or less the beating heart of Europe. The way Hungary handles things should be an example for many countries in Europe. That encourages me a lot, I have to say.

Mr. Jekielek: Right. He’s actually been vocal about this and I haven’t covered this on the show. Please tell me the ways that he thinks Hungary has been successful. I could share my opinion too, but I would love to hear that.

Ambassador Habsburg: He sees that we stand for certain basic values. Some of them are very similar to what I write about in my book. We stand for sovereignty. We stand for traditional values like faith and family. Viktor Orbán is not a Catholic, he’s a Calvinist, but faith and religious communities are very visibly present in the Hungarian public space. We are not afraid of showing a crucifix or a cross.

Hungary is probably the only country in Europe where you’re actively encouraged to wear a kippah in public. Our Jewish community is one of the most flourishing in all of Europe. New synagogues are being built, and the government is strongly encouraging this. You could say Hungary is a place where religion is visible in public space. This is something that in the western part of Europe has gone missing. Political leaders don’t show their faith. On the contrary, it’s seen as a positive thing if you’re totally neutral, have no supernatural leanings, have no transcendent aspect, but are totally neutral in your spiritual life.

This is not a good thing, because I believe man is, as Aristotle once said, transcendent. We can’t change that. The states should be a place where religious confession is visible, and Hungary does that. The Pope appreciates the fact that faith is visible. He appreciates that Hungary right now helps refugees. People always say Hungary is against refugees, but that’s not true. Hungary is against illegal migration.

Hungary was against 10,000 migrants crossing their border into Hungary in 2015. That’s why we built a fence in order to control them, because they just came in without passports and entered the Schengen Area and could move freely in all of Europe. The other European countries told us, “You are nasty and evil. You don’t love those migrants.” But at the same time told us, “Make sure that the Schengen border is protected.”

The Pope has thanked us that we have taken 1.1 million Ukrainian refugees across the border into Hungary. Those who want to remain will be taken up, will be put into housing, will be put into schools, and put into the workplace. We encourage employers to take Ukrainian refugees. It’s the greatest humanitarian action that Hungary has ever taken.

The Pope has noticed this and has thanked us for our solidarity. The Pope knows about our help for persecuted Christians all over the world, which is also a part of the effort to help communities remain in their countries and not having to embark with human trafficking into other countries. Pope Francis also speaks about the right to remain and not having to depart as a migrant. The Pope very strongly appreciates our family politics. Hungary, for 12 years, is actively and strongly encouraging families to have more children.

While we don’t enforce an idea of stay-at-home moms, we offer the possibility. With the subsidies that the Hungarian state gives, you can choose to stay at home if you want to or you can work. Most Hungarian women go to work, but we have a system of subsidies, tax help and many other things that encourage a family to say yes to children, to say yes to more than one-and-a-half children, and ideally to say yes to more than three children.

Personally, I have six children. We have been blessed with that. It’s a great gift, because Hungary believes that numerous families are the basis of a good state. A good state is built upon families with many children, because around the dinner table you learn all the virtues you need for a just society. The elder siblings learn to look after the younger siblings.

You learn to not always think about yourself, but to take others into consideration. You learn that you cannot speak about everything, because the youngest might be shocked. I have one son and five daughters, so you can imagine that the talk around the evening table is always very vivid, very loud, and everybody speaks at the top of their voices. The younger siblings try to say something once, twice, and they don’t get through. They cry and they run out. Then, the older siblings bring them back in and they get a voice.

These are all things you learn around the dinner table in a large family. These are virtues that will help these people to engage in a positive way in the state and to stand for a more merciful, more solid state. Pope Francis regularly speaks about the demographic winter in Europe. In Hungary, he said that Europeans don’t have children anymore.

This country does something against the demographic winter. But also another thing that we stand for and that the Pope was very thankful for, is our political leaders show themselves with the family. If you look around Europe, you don’t see leaders with family. They are all singles or unmarried singles, or if married people, then without children.

Orbán shows himself with his children and with his grandchildren. Hungary has posters, “Welcome to Hungary, a family friendly country.” This may seem like political propaganda, but it isn’t. Because if you say, “Okay, we get married, and we want to have several children,” you are a pariah in Western Europe. People look at you and say, “You’re a weirdo. You want to have several children.”

You go and work, and you work more and more. Then, towards the end of your career, you can have one child, to have the child experience. The idea that you would have a big family is very frightening, because nobody else has one. A country that shows that having children is something positive and something that our leaders do, this is a country that can turn around the demographic situation. It’s hard and it’s slow, but we are ahead of all the countries in Europe in this and the Pope has appreciated that.

Mr. Jekielek: This is extremely important, because if you don’t have a positive growth rate in your country, essentially the culture of that country is dying. That’s how I view it anyway.

Ambassador Habsburg: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: You can deal with it with immigration, of course, which is what some people do.

Ambassador Habsburg: That’s the answer that you always hear in Europe, that migration will settle the problem. But Pope Francis has said, “If a country doesn’t feel that they can integrate migrants from another culture in their country, they should think about whether they take them.” Hungary, for instance, has never had a Muslim community. We have a homeopathically small Muslim community. With tens of thousands of Muslim migrants coming into such a country, we have no experience with integrating them. If we observe how integration has worked or not worked in countries like France or Belgium or the Netherlands or other places, we are doubly cautious on this topic.

That’s why Hungary has been very, very cautious in doing things like that, and has been bombarded and attacked aggressively for not being open to others. Pope Francis, of course, always encourages you to be more open, to have a bigger heart, to take in a bit more. We listen to that. We listen to that, but we have our sovereign principles, and that’s how Hungary handles things.

Mr. Jekielek: Talking about family, I wanted to mention that this principle of subsidiarity goes all the way down to the family unit.

Ambassador Habsburg: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: What can you accomplish in the family? Actually, quite a lot. It should be done in the family if it can be. There are debates here in America on whether it is the public school system or the parents that are ultimately responsible for raising the children?

Ambassador Habsburg: Yes. One of my arguments for a numerous family is that you build a little fortress at home. This is frightening for the state sometimes. You build a fortress where you have a secure space where you can teach your children your values. Because out there, let’s be honest, we’re in a world where the media, politics and many forces try to tear families apart.

There is a strong urge to push people into being lonely in front of a screen, glued to the screen, all alone without family, and without roots. We have this bombardment of the wholesome unit of the family from all sides. But if you are a family around the table, then you have a space where those forces can’t put their wires into our brains there. You can talk to each other. You can really learn those values from the bottom up.

Again, this is a place to learn the reality of life, not the social media type of abstract ideas that are bombarded onto you through your phone and through your computer screen. It’s the antidote to the crazy world we’re living in—a family with many children. Therefore, every state should encourage families to have children.

Families will dare to have children if they feel that the state has their back, if they feel that the state cherishes it, and if they feel that the state doesn’t say, “This is your private hobby, like collecting bonsai trees.” No,the state should say, “What you do is raise children, bring them into society, and raise stable children that later will be responsible citizens. We appreciate that. We will help you with this.”

Mr. Jekielek: The face of the emperor, in a way, was the binding factor in the Austro-Hungarian Empire