Lessons From the Peace Emperor

A localized conflict becomes violent and soon the whole world is at war. While sadly that sounds like our immediate future, it’s also an apt description of World War I. Due to a number of binding treaties and a tragic under-appreciation of how horrible a modern war could be, a small conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia soon sparked the War to End all Wars. Many lessons can be learned from that bleak time, especially by perceiving a solitary light that shone in the darkness.

Looking at the history of World War I a person can be forgiven for lamenting that there were no adults in the room. Russia’s agreements with Serbia led it to escalate the war. Germany was itching to prove how powerful its military was and so gladly joined the fighting. France and the United Kingdom alike followed their treaties into the rapidly expanding war. Later Italy broke its neutrality when secretly promised land it had long coveted, and the United States, led by wannabe world ruler Woodrow Wilson, only added to the pain and misery. Could no one stand up to say "Enough is enough – we must work for peace?"

Actually, there was one such man – Karl (or Charles) of Austria, who became the Austro-Hungarian Emperor two years into the war. It was his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 lit the fuse of world war (and made Karl the heir to the throne). Yet even though he had a personal stake in this war, he was the only ruler who advocated for peace. Sadly his lone voice was mostly ignored. As French poet Anatole France stated of Karl: "The only honest man to emerge during this war was Karl of Austria; but he was a saint and nobody listened to him."

Karl’s strong desire to end the war led to his moniker, the "Peace Emperor." When he came to the throne in 1916 he immediately stated, "I will do everything to banish in the shortest possible time the horrors and sacrifices of war, to win back for my peoples the sorely-missed blessings of peace." To the warmongers – including his German allies and even many of Karl’s own generals – such talk sounded weak and compromising.

As today, world powers thought negotiations were for losers – victory could only be obtained through the strength of arms and the total defeat of the enemy, no matter how many men were killed and maimed to make it happen. Yet Karl, who unlike most world leaders was a soldier in the army before becoming Emperor, knew the ravages of war and was willing to make sacrifices to see them end.

Soon after becoming Emperor, Karl initiated secret peace talks with the Allied forces. His brother-in-law Sixtus, a member of the French army, served as a conduit to communicate with both the French and English governments. Sadly, although UK Prime Minister Lloyd George was receptive to Karl’s initiative, these talks ultimately came to nothing due to a secret agreement (unknown to Karl) the UK and France had with Italy that would give parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Italy.

These secret negotiations later came back to haunt Karl. When his German allies found out what he was doing (without their approval), they took steps to keep Austro-Hungary locked into the war effort.

What makes Karl stand out in particular is his willingness to achieve peace even if it meant his country had to make concessions. While he loved his Empire and defended its borders, he was also willing to negotiate with enemy forces, including making concessions of land, if it would mean achieving a just peace. In other words, he didn’t equate "just peace" with "getting everything I want" as do so many world leaders then and today.

Karl should be a model for those of us who oppose war today. He was an honorable man (he’s been beatified by the Catholic Church, the final step before being declared a canonized saint), and it was this honorable nature that led him to prioritize peace over lesser interests. In spite of unrelenting pressure from his war-loving German ally and many of his own people, he never once deviated from his work for peace.

Today there are few, if any, leaders who can be compared to Karl. One possible exception is the leader of a land once ruled by him: Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, who recently tweeted, "Today, Europe is divided between advocates of war, and advocates of #peace. I am firmly on the side of an immediate ceasefire, and immediate peace talks." This Karl-like attitude is one we need to hope more world leaders adopt, and soon.

Like Karl of Austria, we must be willing to risk everything for peace. We must demand that our leaders likewise put peace as their primary goal – not furthering their nation-expanding desires or enriching the military-industrial complex. Karl was sadly unsuccessful in his work for peace, a failure which in many ways launched the horrors of the 20th century. We can only pray that a new Karl will rise up today who will be just as committed to peace but more successful in his efforts.

Eric Sammons is the Editor-in-Chief of Crisis Magazine.