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Karl I (Karl Franz Joseph Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Maria; August 17, 1887 – April 1, 1922) was the last Emperor of Austria, the last King of Hungary (as Karl IV), last King of Bohemia (as Karl III), and the last monarch belonging to the House of Habsburg-Lorraine before the dissolution of Austria-Hungary.

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Karl, Emperor of Austria and King of Bohemia

Karl was born August 17, 1887 in the Castle of Persenbeug in Lower Austria. His parents were Archduke Otto Franz of Austria and Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony. At the time, his granduncle Franz Joseph reigned as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Upon the death of Crown Prince Rudolph in 1889, the Emperor’s brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig, was next in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne. However, his death in 1896 from typhoid made his eldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the new heir presumptive.

Marriage

In 1911, Archduke Karl of Austria-Este married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the seventeenth child of the dispossessed Robert I, Duke of Parma, and his second wife, Infanta Maria Antonia of Portugal. Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, Zita’s maternal aunt, was the stepmother of Archduke Otto, who died in 1906, and the step-grandmother of Archduke Charles of Austria-Este, at that time second-in-line to the Austrian throne. The two daughters of Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria were Zita’s first cousins and Karl half-aunts.

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Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma

Karl and Zita met as children but did not see one another for almost ten years, as each pursued their education. In 1909, his Dragoon regiment was stationed at Brandeis an der Elbe (Brandýs on the Elbe), from where he visited his aunt. It was during one of these visits that Karl and Zita became reacquainted. Karl was under pressure to marry (Franz Ferdinand, his uncle and first-in-line, had married morganatically, and his children were excluded from the throne) and Zita had a suitably royal genealogy.

At this time in their marriage Archduke Karl was in his twenties and did not expect to become emperor for some time, especially while Archduke Franz Ferdinand remained in good health. This changed on June 28, 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb nationalists, Gavrilo Princep. Karl and Zita received the news by telegram that day. She said of her husband, “Though it was a beautiful day, I saw his face go white in the sun.”

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Emperor Franz Joseph died in the Schönbrunn Palace on the evening of November 21, 1916, at the age of 86 in the midst of World War I. His death was a result of developing pneumonia of the right lung several days after catching a cold while walking in Schönbrunn Park with the King Ludwig III of Bavaria. He was succeeded by his grandnephew as Emperor Karl I

End of the Habsburg Monarchy

On the day of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Karl issued a carefully worded proclamation in which he recognized the Austrian people’s right to determine the form of the state and “relinquish[ed] every participation in the administration of the State.” He also released his officials from their oath of loyalty to him. On the same day, the Imperial Family left Schönbrunn Palace and moved to Castle Eckartsau, east of Vienna. On 13 November, following a visit with Hungarian magnates, Karl issued a similar proclamation—the Eckartsau Proclamation—for Hungary.

Although it has widely been cited as an “abdication”, the word itself was never used in either proclamation. Indeed, he deliberately avoided using the word abdication in the hope that the people of either Austria or Hungary would vote to recall him. Privately, Karl left no doubt that he believed himself to be the rightful emperor. He wrote to Friedrich Gustav Piffl, the Archbishop of Vienna: “I did not abdicate, and never will […] I see my manifesto of November 11 as the equivalent to a cheque which a street thug has forced me to issue at gunpoint […] I do not feel bound by it in any way whatsoever.”

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Instead, on 12 November, the day after he issued his proclamation, the independent Republic of German-Austria was proclaimed, followed by the proclamation of the First Hungarian Republic on 16 November. An uneasy truce-like situation ensued and persisted until 23 to 24 March 1919, when Karl left for Switzerland, escorted by the commander of the small British guard detachment at Eckartsau, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Lisle Strutt.

As the imperial train left Austria on 24 March, Karl issued another proclamation in which he confirmed his claim of sovereignty, declaring that “whatever the national assembly of German Austria has resolved with respect to these matters since November 11 is null and void for me and my House.” The newly established republican government of Austria was not aware of this “Manifesto of Feldkirch” at this time—it had been dispatched only to King Alfonso XIII of Spain and to Pope Benedict XV through diplomatic channels—and politicians in power were irritated by the Emperor’s departure without explicit abdication.

The Austrian Parliament responded on April 3, 1919 with the Habsburg Law, which dethroned and banished the Habsburgs. Karl was barred from ever returning to Austria. Other male Habsburgs could only return if they renounced all intentions of reclaiming the throne and accepted the status of ordinary citizens. Another law passed on the same day abolished all nobility in Austria. In Switzerland, Karl and his family briefly took residence at Castle Wartegg near Rorschach at Lake Constance, and later moved to Château de Prangins at Lake Geneva on May 20.