You might have thought that being the commander in chief of a failing empire waging all out war, including the use of chemical weapons and the brutalization of occupied civilian populations, might just stop someone becoming a saint, but you’d be wrong. The Pope has just beatified – that’s the penultimate stage in the saint-making process – Karl I, the last Habsburg emperor.
Describing Karl as a “friend of peace” John Paul II commented that he had lived an “exemplary Christian life”. But this was a life lived by an autocratic ruler who permitted the use of poison gas against Italian soldiers in Slovenia in 1917 and who took his own people to the brink of starvation.
Karl took over the Habsburg throne in 1916 and for the next two years he prosecuted total war in the Balkans and south central Europe. The disparate races that made up his increasingly bankrupt and starving empire were forced to carry on an ever more hopeless struggle, while Karl and his politicians denied them the chance to make peace and attain their freedom. It was only with the final defeat of the Central Powers, and after the deaths of millions of his subjects, that Karl was forced to accept defeat.
Whatever your views on organised religion and Catholicism in particular, one thing is certain: beatifying Karl at this time sends the wrong signal to Bush and Blair, both of whom have used their religious beliefs to justify their actions in going to war. It also shows that the Vatican still has much to learn in the PR stakes.
© David N Hyatt, 2004
David N Hyatt