Karl Franz Joseph Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Marie was born on 17 August 1887. The last ruler of the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary, the last Emperor of Austria, the last King of Hungary (as Charles IV), the last monarch belonging to the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and the last king of Bohemia.
Karl was born in the Castle of Persenbeug in Lower Austria. His father was Archduke Otto Franz of Austria and his mother, Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony. His granduncle was Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and his uncle Franz Ferdinand became the heir presumptive of the House of Habsburg Lorraine in 1889.
Karl spent his early years travelling, as the family followed his father’s regimental postings. As a young man he joined the army, spending the years from 1906 to 1908 as an officer chiefly in Prague, where he studied law and political science concurrently with his military duties.
Otto Franz died on 1 November 1906 and in 1907, Karl was declared of age. Despite being a member of the imperial family. Karl’s relations with his granduncle Franz Joseph and uncle Franz Ferdinand were not cordial. As a young man he was divorced from the politics of the Dual monarchy.
In 1911, Karl married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma. Due to the morganatic nature of Franz Ferdinand’s marriage, his children were excluded from the succession. Princess Zita, however, was of royal lineage and as a result, the Emperor promoted the marriage to ensure the continuation of the house of Habsburg Lorraine.
After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, Karl became the heir presumptive. Emperor Franz Joseph, then initiated the heir-presumptive in affairs of state, urgently required by the outbreak of the Great War. Karl became a Generalfeldmarschall in the Austro-Hungarian Army. In the spring of 1916, in connection with the offensive against Italy, he was entrusted with the command of the XX. Corps and also served on the eastern front as commander of an army operating against the Russians and Romanians.
In November 1916, Emperor Franz Joseph died and Karl succeeded to the various thrones of the Habsburgs. On the 2 December 1916, Karl assumed the title of Supreme Commander of the whole army. His coronation as King of Hungary occurred on 30 December.
Having been a serving army officer Karl had been sickened by the bloodshed he had seen. In 1917, he secretly entered into peace negotiations with France. He employed his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, an officer in the Belgian Army, as intermediary. news of Karl’s negotiations soon leaked out. Karl initially denied the reports but the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau published letters signed by him. This undermined Austria-Hungary’s authority forcing them into an even more dependent position with respect to Germany.
In the final years of the great War the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary was riven with tension between its various ethnic groups. As one of the conditions of his Fourteen Points, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson demanded that the Empire allow for the autonomy and self-determination of its peoples. Karl reconvened the Imperial Parliament and proposed the creation of a confederation with each national group exercising self-governance. However, most of the ethnic groups demanded full autonomy as separate nations, completely independent from Vienna.
Foreign minister Baron Istvan Burián requested an armistice in October based on the Fourteen Points, and two days later Karl issued a proclamation, radically changing the nature of the Austrian state. The Poles were granted full independence. The rest of the Austrian lands were transformed into a federal union composed of four parts: German, Czech, South Slav, and Ukrainian. Each of the four parts was to be governed by a federal council, with Trieste acquiring special status. However, the U.S. Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, then stated that the Allies were now committed to the causes of the Czechs, Slovaks and South Slavs. Autonomy for the nationalities was no longer enough and full independence had to be granted. A provisional Czechoslovakian government had joined the Allies 14 October, and the South Slav national council had declared an independent South Slav state 29 October 1918.
Previously, Karl had been in favour of a third Croatian political entity, and in his Croatian Coronation oath in 1916 he had recognised the union of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia with Rijeka. However, this support had been vetoed by the Hungarians, for domestic political reasons, as they were against increasing power to any of the Dual Monarchy’s Slavic peoples. On 14 October 1918, Karl proposed his manifesto for the new Croatian state which was rejected by the declaration of the National Council in Zagreb. On the 21 October after a personal visit from President of the Croatian pro-monarchy political party Pure Party of Rights, Dr. Aleksandar Horvat, Karl agreed and signed the trialist manifest. The delegation then travelled to Budapest where it presented the manifest to the Hungarian parliament who signed the manifest and releasing Karl from his oath, created a third Croatian political entity. On 29 October 1918, the Croatian Sabor (parliament) ended the union and all ties with Hungary and Austria, proclaimed the unification of all Croatian lands and entered the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs.
Under pressure from domestic and international politics, on 11 November 1918, Karl issued the proclamation in which he recognised the Austrian people’s right to determine the form of the state and ‘relinquish(ed) every participation in the administration of the State.’. On the 13 November, following a visit of Hungarian magnates, Karl issued a similar proclamation for Hungary. Karl did not formally abdicate, hoping that the common people of either Austria or Hungary would recall him.
On the 12 November, the independent Republic of German-Austria was proclaimed, followed by the proclamation of the Hungarian Democratic Republic on 16 November. On 24 March 1919, Karl left for Switzerland. His final proclamation stated ‘whatever the national assembly of German Austria has resolved with respect to these matters since 11 November is null and void for me and my House.’ In reply to what they considered Karl’s continuing assertion of his right to rule, the Austrian Government passed the Habsburg Law on 3 April 1919, which permanently barred Charles and Zita from returning to Austria; barred all other Habsburgs from Austrian territory unless they renounced all intentions of reclaiming the throne and accepted the status of ordinary citizens and abolished all nobility in Austria.
Early in 1921, encouraged by Hungarian royalists, known as ‘legitimists’ Karl sought to reclaim the throne of Hungary. The attempt failed, largely because Hungary’s regent, Miklós Horthy, refused to support him. Due partly to the threats from neighbouring countries to invade Hungary if Karl regained the throne. In the Autumn of 1921, Karl made a second abortive attempt at the throne. Karl and Zita were quarantined at Tihany Abbey and on 1 November 1921 were taken to the Hungarian Danube harbour city of Baja, where they set sail for the Black Sea and finally exile in Madeira. In late 1921, the Hungarian parliament formally nullified the Pragmatic Sanction, an act that effectively dethroned the Habsburgs.
On 9 March 1922 Karl developed severe pneumonia. Having previously suffered two heart attacks, he died of respiratory failure on April 1 aged only 34.