The Long Defeat: Christendom and Its Defenders, 1789 to the Present. Part 2: Defenders of Empire

Although we shall look at each Western nation in turn, it is important to remember that from the very beginning of Christendom - which we may date from Christ’s uniting the Davidic Kingship with the nascent Church on the first Maundy Thursday - the Faith has had a temporal as well as spiritual aspect. Armenia, Ethiopia, and Georgia all became Christian Kingdoms before Constantine the Great gave toleration to the Church via the Edict of Milan. Nevertheless, Constantine set in motion a process that would culminate in Theodosius the Great’s Edict of Thessalonica, which made Catholicism the State Religion of the Roman Empire, and Baptism the entrance not only into the Church but Roman Citizenship as well. For that reason, we might well call Constantine both the “Father of Europe” and the “First European,” although those titles are generally given to others. From this time on, Europe, the West, Christendom, and the Empire were seen to be more or less coterminous; I have explored these notions before in another article in these pages.

Of course, the word “Empire” is easily misread. What our ancestors had in mind was not a centralised regime like that of Napoleon. Rather, it could not only encompass two or more co-equal Emperors, but - as the Empire waned in the West - it could also shelter under its theoretical wing separate barbarian kingdoms, such as the Franks and Visigoths. When Odoacer deposed the last Western Emperor in AD 476, he sent the Imperial diadem back to Constantinople, declaring that henceforth there was only one Emperor once more.

The Emperor Justinian attempted unsuccessfully to restore the Empire as a unified state - although he did manage to regain North Africa, Italy, and a small part of Spain. He also had himself crowned Emperor by the Pope, whose position he fixed in his famous law code: “We desire that all peoples subject to Our benign Empire shall live under the same religion that the Divine Peter, the Apostle, gave to the Romans, and which the said religion declares was introduced by himself, and which it is well known that the Pontiff Damasus, and Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, embraced; that is to say, in accordance with the rules of apostolic discipline and the evangelical doctrine, we should believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitute a single Deity, endowed with equal majesty, and united in the Holy Trinity.”

A century after Justinian, the Muslims sheared off Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The Byzantine Emperors became ever more concerned with that threat - and the Iconoclasm of several of them put a definite strain on their relationship with the Papacy and the West. The Franks assumed the role of Papal protector, culminating in Pope St. Leo III renewing the Empire in the West by crowning Bl. Charlemagne. That great Emperor - who certainly deserves the religious, political, and literary veneration he has received from that day to this, as well as, second to Constantine, the title of “Father of Europe” - was, however, the cause of the so-called “two Emperor problem.” Yet, great as that problem was, the view of the Imperial Tradition in both East and West retained far more similarities than differences in East and West, and this would continue despite the Great Schism.

Both the Holy Roman and Byzantine Emperors, as well as the later Austrian and Russian rulers who claimed to succeed them, used the Double-headed Eagle, a powerful symbolic representation of the fact that liturgically and philosophically, they all claimed the same role: successor of the Caesars, temporal leader of all the Christian people throughout the world, and chief lay protector of the Church of Christ — in a word, the role seen for himself by Constantine the Great, and consecrated by Pope St. Sylvester I. Perhaps the poster child for this view was the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III. Descendant of two Saints and a Servant of God (Ss. Matilda and Adelaide, and the Byzantine Empress Theophanu), he tried unsuccessfully in his brief life to revive the Empire completely in line with his two lines of Imperial descent. He was in turn succeeded by his saintly cousin, St. Henry the Emperor, and the latter’s consort, St. Cunigunde. The house was extinguished in a blaze of Sanctity.

The first time that this Res Publica Christiana in East and West would attempt to function actually as a joint body for a common goal was in fact the First Crusade; perhaps the last was the Holy League of 1684. Taken as a whole, the Crusades in the Holy Land, Spain, and elsewhere were at once the high and low point of this ideal. Not too surprisingly, it was among those most deeply concerned with these struggles that many of the attempts to end the Schism between East and West came - the Byzantine Emperors Alexios I, Manuel I, Michael VIII, John V, Manuel II, John VIII, and, of course, the last - Constantine XI, who is a Blessed. But their efforts were from time to time matched by Western Emperors - Conrad III, Frederick I, the ambivalent Frederick II, Charles IV, and most notably Sigismund. This last mentioned, for all that he was unable to end the Schism with the East, regain the Holy Land, or beat back the Turk from Constantinople, nevertheless ended the Great Western Schism. By virtue of calling the Council of Constance, he was able to reduce the number men claiming to be Pope from three to one.

Pope Paul, who had taken the Byzantine heirs under his protection in Rome, negotiated the marriage between Bl. Constantine XI’s niece, Sophia, and the Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow. Ivan’s successors ever after claimed to inherit the place of the Eastern Empire - for them, Moscow was the Third Rome. But if the Russians felt they had the lead in claiming to be the Successors of the Roman Empire, the House of Habsburg would reassert that claim in the West. Due to a series of fortunate marriages, the Habsburg heir to Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Burgundy, Spain and its new American Empire and much else, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1517 as Charles V (beating out the French King, Francis I, and England’s own Henry VIII, thus underlining the claim that the Empire in some sense included all of Western Christendom). His travels in peace and war took him throughout the European portions of his world-wide realms. He was the first of whom it could be said that the sun never set on his domains.

But it did not last long; not only did the French ally with the Turks, but the Protestant Revolt also occurred during his reign - both sundering Northern Europe from the Faith and breaking the spiritual unity of the Empire. The tensions thus unleashed not only resulted in Civils wars and bloodshed in France, the Three Kingdoms of the British Isles, Scandinavia, and elsewhere, it ushered in the incredibly bloody Thirty Years War. The Holy Roman Empire survived the War - but at the price of having its political and spiritual disunity and that of Europe as a whole enshrined in law.

Nevertheless, there were figures who dreamed of restoring that lost unity. Ranging from such advisers of Charles V as Mercurino Cardinal Gattinara to German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (who sought alongside the restoration of political unity religious as well; despite being a Protestant, he claimed to have proved the truth of Transubstantiation via Mathematics). These ideas, alas, came to nothing. Indeed, the Enlightenment corroded belief in all three sectors of the Christian world, and at last, the French Revolution erupted and reduced the Continent to rubble. From those ashes arose Napoleon, who attempted to make himself the new Charlemagne; in this he failed. But to forestall him from claiming the existing crown of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg incumbent, Francis II, abdicated the throne and attempted to dissolve the Empire. Henceforth he would be Francis I, and he and his successors would be “Emperors of Austria.”

But the question immediately arose as to whether this act was legal. Viscount Bryce points out: “Great Britain had refused in 1806 to recognise the dissolution of the Empire. And it may indeed be maintained that in point of law the Empire was never extinguished at all, but lived on as a sort of disembodied spirit. For it is clear that, technically speaking, the abdication of a sovereign destroys only his own rights, and does not dissolve the state over which he presides. Perhaps the Elector of Saxony might, legally, as Imperial Vicar during an interregnum, have summoned the electoral college to meet and choose a new Emperor.” Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire., p. 416, note o.) What made Great Britain’s refusal of recognition of the Emperor’s act so important is that her King, at that time Elector of Hanover, had a voice in the governance of the Empire and a vote in the election of any future Emperor. But much the same case is made by Klaus Epstein:

“While there is no question that Francis was personally entitled to abdicate a crown he was no longer willing to wear, he certainly had no constitutional power to dissolve the fabric of imperial obligation per se. The empire, like all sovereign states, was intended to be perpetual and the emperor had sworn to maintain it to the best of his ability. He broke his coronation oath when he declared it dissolved, and he failed to consult the Stände assembled at Regensburg about his highly irregular procedure. One can argue, therefore, that the imperial death warrant was technically ultra vires and therefore null and void, and that the empire ‘legally’ continued to exist after 1806.” (The Genesis of German Conservatism, p. 668).

Nevertheless, despite the pleas of various parties (including the Papacy and the Prussians), no attempt was made at the Congress of Vienna to revive the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, a Germanic Confederation was created more or less to take its geopolitical place, and a Quintuple Alliance of Austria, Russia, Prussia, France, and Great Britain created to enforce the so-called “Congress System,” which lasted the length of the Restoration - until 1830. It fell to Tsar Alexander I of Russia - heir, as he felt, of Byzantium - to try to find a religious basis to the new Europe. The result was the Holy Alliance. For all that the Sultan, the Pope, and Britain’s Prince Regent refused to join (all three for very different reasons), all of the other European princes did.

Even so, the system faded, thanks to renewed revolutions, the Crimean War, the wars of German and Italian Unification, and so on. What emerged to keep the peace were the two different power blocs - the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. This lasted until 1914 and the First World War. Here the inheritors of the Habsburg Tradition - the Archdukes Franz Ferdinand and Karl - would have played a key role, had the one not been murdered and the other not constricted by factors beyond his control (Karl’s wife, S.G. Zita, herself of Portuguese, French, Spanish, and Italian background, accentuated his westward orientation). Both wanted not only to Federalise Austria-Hungary, but to become allies with such countries as Great Britain and Russia in order to secure the country’s independence from Germany. Their vision would no doubt have secured peace in Europe for a considerable time.

As it was, the war left Europe a shambles; the Woodrow Wilson-dictated-peace replaced the stability of Austria-Hungary with rickety successor states - just as plagued by nationality problems as their predecessor had been, but without the stabilizing effect of the Habsburgs and the Catholic Church. Germany was reduced to the unstable Weimar Republic, and the “victor” nations were bled white. In time, these difficulties would be accentuated by the Great Depression and the rise of the dictators, culminating in World War II. Many European intellectuals of a Conservative bent feared the Mother Continent being divided into spheres by its two largest and most powerful children - the United States and the Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, although such ideas could be found in every country in Europe, many came from Germany and Austria, whose Conservative intellectuals almost instinctively fell back on the Imperial idea as a way of creating a Europe that would be sufficiently untied to remain independent, and sufficiently decentralized to allow its regions to develop own identities. But as we shall see repeatedly in this series, affinity of ideas is often negated by clashes of personality or temperament. In the Interwar period this fractious company included such names as Karl Anton de Rohan, Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, Gonzague de Reynold, Denis de Rougemont, Jean de Pange, Hubertus von Loewenstein-Scharffeneck, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and many others. Some, like von Coudenhove-Kalergi, looked to build a sort of “United States of Europe;” others looked to a more Medievally-inspired “Occident” - as they say in German, Abendland.

Although the Second World War would force these thinkers to choose between collaboration with or resistance to the Nazis, its aftermath brought men influenced by their ideas to positions of power or at least prominence. Of the first variety were Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, and Konrad Adenauer, whose attempts to bring Catholic Social teaching to bear on the changed postwar politics produced what is called “Christian Democracy;” but they were also hoping to infuse a United Europe with such values, and - consciously invoking the memory of Charlemagne - served as the founders of what has become the European Union. Charles de Gaulle - and to a lesser extent, Winston Churchill - shared their views.

Chief of the influential but powerless variety was the Archduke Otto von Habsburg, son of Karl and Zita. Imbued with the Christian and Pan-European scope of his family’s history and ideals, he had come to feel “European” while in exile in the United States during World War II. But, of course, he too saw European Unity in terms of the “Imperial Idea,” as a sort of revived Holy Empire. To that end, during the 1950s, he worked with such groups and publications as the Abendländische Bewegung, their journal, Neues Abendland, and the Centre Européen de Documentation et d’Information. Collaborating with the Archduke in his endeavour to build up a Europe that was Catholic, traditional, and strong enough to repel Communism were an impressive cast of academics, intellectuals, and others drawn from all over the Continent. The first two named succumbed in the late 1950s to what we would call to-day a “cancelling campaign,” led by the left-wing German magazine, Der Spiegel. He also lent support to that legendary American magazine, Triumph. But in 1972, the Archduke became the president of von Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Paneuropa Union. From that pulpit he not only continued to push for his view of Europe, but also to remind his readers - and the European Parliament, after his entrance into that body - of the existence of the nations of the Soviet Bloc, who were still, after all, part of Europe. He was the co-inspirer and co-initiator of the “Pan-European Picnic” in 1989, which had a huge effect on the fall of the Iron Curtain. That feat accomplished, he lent his weight to as rapid an accession of the liberated countries into the European Union as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, as the years went on both the European Union and Christian Democracy underwent radical change - in a nutshell, the Faith was leached out both, and replaced with the bureaucratic hedonism we know only too well in the United States. Since his death in 2012, it has become unrecognisable. Many Right-wing groups that would have agreed with the Archduke in most areas rejected the European Union as a result. But there are there others that while rejecting what the European Union has become, nevertheless want to return it to its original Orientation - or else want to replace it in the name of the real, Christian Europe. So let us look at two of these.

The Paneuropa Union soldiers on, with national sections in most European countries. It makes its stance on the place of the Faith in Europe very clear: “Christianity is the soul of Europe. Our mission is characterized by the Christian image of man and the rule of law. By calling on European community values, the Pan-Europa Union opposes all tendencies which erode the intellectual and moral force of Europe.”

In Italy is the Association “Identita Europea,” which has a similar programme, but also looks further out: “By encouraging an EUROPEAN IDENTITY we do not intend to promote a ‘western culture’ which absorbs and dissolves all diversities in a leveling attempt. On the contrary, our aim is to enlarge this identity beyond the European boundaries, thus recovering that large part of our continent ‘outside Europe’ - from Argentina to Canada and from South Africa to Australia - which looks at the old continent not as a distant ancestor but as a real homeland.” The symbol of the organisation is the Chi Rho or “Chrismon,” whose use is explained: “By adopting the chrismon as its symbol and making it its own, EUROPEAN IDENTITY intends to underline how its vocation is based on the awareness of the close relationship between the ecumenical vocation of the Roman Empire, universalistic Christian culture and the European spirit, and how the third represents medieval and modern continuation of the first two. The chrismon refers to the theme of the Kingship of Christ and to His title as ‘Sun of Justice,’ meaning that there is no peace, no civil order, where there is no Justice in the first place.”

As it stands, both the Catholic roots of Europe and its very identity are severely threatened by several factors to-day. Humanly-speaking, the Mother Continent needs to regain the Faith that made her if she is to survive. The current European Union’s leaders speak of “European values.” But where in the West, that phrase is taken by the leadership to mean Infanticide, Pornography, Gender-Confusion and all the rest - in Central Europe the same phrase means Faith, Family, Country, Heritage, and so forth. If the latter view is to prevail, the nations of Central Europe must pull together - and given, despite their shared ethos, the various mutual antipathies - this shall require the same glue that once held them together before: the Catholic Altar and the Habsburg throne. If Central Europe is able to do so, she shall be both an example and a catalyst for the rest of the Mother Continent to follow. Once Europe regains her senses, surely our daughter nations beyond the seas shall follow. All of which being the case, in our next instalment we shall look at Monarchism to-day in the old Habsburg Empire.

Click here to see all the articles in the series: “The Long Defeat.”