Otto von Habsburg, the oldest son of Austria-Hungary's last emperor and a champion of united Europe, died Monday in his home in Pöcking, Germany. He was 98.
Habsburg is remembered in Hungary for his support through speeches given around the world of Hungary's failed 1956 revolution against Soviet occupation and for his backing of the country's efforts to join the EU. "His life and fate carried with it the history of the 20th century," parliamentary speaker László Kövér said. After the fall of communism, "he personally did much to strengthen the process of our European integration." Many in Hungary also respected Habsburg because of his ability to speak the famously difficult native language.
"My father was a towering personality," Habsburg's oldest son Karl Habsburg-Lothringen told the Austria Press Agency. "With him we lose a great European who has influenced everything we do today beyond measure."
Habsburg used his influence in a vain struggle to keep the Nazis from annexing Austria before World War II, then campaigned against the Soviet empire in the decades after the war.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and as a member of European Parliament he lobbied for EU expanding to include former Eastern bloc nations.
Born in 1912 in Austria, Habsburg witnessed the family's decline after the empire was dismantled and Austria became a republic following World War I. He became head of the family at his father's death in 1922 and continued to claim the throne until the 1960s.
He was a member of the European Parliament for the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union in southern Germany and also served as president of the Pan-European League from 1979 to 1999. In that role, he was instrumental in helping organize the Pan-European Picnic peace demonstration in 1989 on the border of Austria and Hungary. The border was briefly opened in a symbolic gesture, which created the opportunity for 600 East Germans to flee communism months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the first time an Eastern European nation had opened its borders, and is widely seen as the start of the fall of communism.
"He made a central contribution to the opening of the Iron Curtain and the peaceful reunification of our continent that had been divided for too long," Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission President, said in a statement.
The House of Habsburg rose to power in Europe at the end of the 13th Century and at its height ruled much of the continent.
Born in 1912 in Reichenau, Austria, Otto von Habsburg became crown prince when his father, Charles I, was crowned emperor in 1916, during World War I. However, following Austria's and Germany's defeat in World War I, the Empire was dismantled. Charles and his family had to leave the country for what turned out to be permanent exile in several different countries, including Switzerland, Belgium, and France.
Otto tried to negotiate his return to Austria in 1935 and again in 1938 when he even sought to become chancellor to fight the expected invasion by Hitler's troops, but could not gather enough support. Instead, he found a channel through the U.S. embassy in Paris to contact President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later claimed to have prevented Allied bombings of a number of Austrian cities by pleading with the U.S. military.
From early in World War II in 1940 to after the Allied invasion of France in 1944, Habsburg lived in Washington D.C., before returning to Europe to live in France, and then in Pöcking, Germany after 1954. Still, he was not allowed to return to Austria until 1966, five years after he officially renounced the crown.
Habsburg was criticized for remarks in 2008 in which he insisted Austrians were the victims of Hitler — who was Austrian born — rather than accomplices.
Habsburg's wife, Regina, died last year. The couple had seven children. Their eldest son, Karl, now runs the family's affairs and has been the official head of the House of Habsburg since 2007.
Habsburg will be buried July 16 in the Emperor Tomb in Vienna. Otto Almacht, an aide to Habsburg's son Georg, told the AP that Otto von Habsburg's heart would be buried in the Benedictine Abbey in Pannonhalma, central Hungary.