7th Dec 2023


A Habsburg look at Putin

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"Of course, communism — like it was under Stalin — is not going to come back. What will return, however, is national socialism. Not Hitler's, but Putin's." Otto von Habsburg, the son of the last Habsburg emperor, said this back in 2002.

At the time, Vladimir Putin had been president of Russia for just two years, establishing cordial relationships with several European leaders.

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A few weeks ago, many West Europeans were totally surprised when Putin launched a full-scale war in Ukraine. But already 20 years ago, Otto von Habsburg warned that Putin was "a great danger".

In old video recordings that the Austrian newspaper Die Presse posted on its website recently, Habsburg bluntly called Russia "the last colonial power after decolonisation".

Those are prophetic words, standing in sharp contrast to the Western European belief until recently that Putin could be accommodated.

How is it possible Putin took us all by surprise? How come so many did not take the omens seriously enough, such as Putin's stories about Nato "encircling Russia", his war in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and so on?

Apparently, it takes one who is intimately familiar with the imperial dynamic to recognise imperial traits in others.

Otto von Habsburg, who died in 2011, was just six years old when the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918. His family went into exile. For decades, he was not welcome anymore in Austria.

From abroad, however, he always remained politically active.

In the late 1930s, he tried to keep Austria out of Hitler's clutches (he even proposed becoming prime minister, which the Austrian government rejected outright).

During the Cold War, Habsburg helped central European countries behind the Iron Curtain with humanitarian and cultural projects, telling them that one day, they would be reunited with the rest of Europe.

He was an MEP for many years — his German passport enabled him to stand as a CSU candidate in Bavaria, where he lived.

As Habsburg often said, he saw the European Union as a modern reincarnation of the multinational Habsburg Empire. He travelled to all the corners of the continent, and had an impressive network of contacts. Partly as a result of this, he had that long view of history that even today, many can learn from.

In Le Nouveau défi Européen (an extensive interview book with the German correspondent of the French newspaper Le Figaro) published in 2007, Otto von Habsburg warns about "the totalitarian tendencies" of Putin's Russia.

Putin, 'cruel' even by KGB standards

In a 40-page chapter, From the Soviet Union to Russia, he talks about the city of Dresden, in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), where he had joined protest marches for political reform before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Former political prisoners told him that, of all the KGB agents active in Dresden, a certain Vladimir Putin stood out by being the most inhumane and the most cruel.

Since then, Otto von Habsburg explains, "I have followed all his actions in detail" — from the reintroduction of the old Soviet national anthem with a different text ("Imagine the emotion provoked in Germany if someone would take the music of the Horst Wessel song in Germany, the Nazis' favourite, and use it as the new anthem of the Federal Republic!") to the unbelievable atrocities of Putin's army during the war in Chechnya.

Otto von Habsburg knew Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev well, who was assassinated by a Russian missile in 1996.

Previously, Dudayev had been the Soviet Air Force commander. In 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, president Mikhail Gorbachev ordered Dudayev by telegram to destroy the three Baltic capitals.

Dudayev, Habsburg says, ignored this telegram and threw it away. Habsburg himself happened to have been in Lithuania that evening, by chance, on a humanitarian mission.

The situation was extremely tense, as if something important was afoot; Russian soldiers were everywhere, who seemed to be on high alert. The building where Habsburg stayed was surrounded by the military. Then, suddenly, all soldiers disappeared.

When he asked Dudayev later what had gone on, Dudayev told him the story of Gorbachev's telegram.

Habsburg was of the opinion that all Russian presidents were cut from imperial cloth, including the much-praised "and seemingly peaceful Gorbachev" — with the possible exception of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who drank too much to be able to put his country on a different track.

In the 1930s, Habsburg lived in Berlin. "I read Mein Kampf. Everything that happened later, was already in that book."

'Europe is still full of Chamberlains'

He alerted European politicians and thinkers, but — as happened with Putin years later — few people initially believed him. Many thought all would be fine. When Hitler simply did what he had announced, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain complained no one had told him.

"Unfortunately," Habsburg tells his interviewer in 2006-2007, "Europe is still full of Chamberlains."

While George W. Bush and Putin were in Rome, in 2002, drinking champagne to celebrate the establishment of the Nato-Russia Council, and everyone thought the Cold War was over for good, Habsburg already warned, literally, that new Russian "colonial wars" and "aggressive national Bolshevism" were ahead.

In 1998 he told fellow members of the European Parliament that they were too optimistic: "The danger is still ahead of us." He called for a strong common, European foreign and security policy before it would be too late.

Otherwise, he warned, "the free countries in Europe will unfortunately pay dearly for this".

Look where we are now. Perhaps the former imperial crown prince was a little obsessed with political patterns of the past. Still, if we had listened a little better to him all those years ago, we would have been less overwhelmed and better prepared today.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist and Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC. This column is an edited version of one of her pieces in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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