Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Habsburgs in exile II: 1922-1945

On his early death Karl left seven children. His wife Zita was pregnant with their eighth child. In May 1922 the young widow was allowed to return to Europe.

On the invitation of the Spanish royal family Zita moved to the Basque country with her children. Generous supporters had given her the palatial Villa Uribarren in the northern Spanish fishing port of Lequeitio on the Bay of Biscay.

During the following years the former empress was primarily occupied with ensuring an upbringing and education befitting the family’s rank for her eldest children, in particular Otto. In accordance with Habsburg tradition, the children were to be brought up as strict Catholics and in full awareness of their dynastic descent.

In addition to this Zita also occupied herself with agitating for the Habsburg cause. Politically very gifted, she tried to influence the monarchist movements in the successor states (above all in Austria and Hungary) in order that her eldest son Otto might be recognized as the rightful pretender to the throne.

In October 1929 the family moved to Belgium so that Otto could study at the Catholic university in Leuven, choosing Ham Castle in Steenokkerzeel north-east of Brussels as their new home. The family continued to be the focus of a small court household of aristocratic followers, including Countess Theresa Kerssenbrock, the children’s former governess, Count Heinrich Degenfeld, Baron and Baroness von Gudenus, Countess Mensdorff and Father Weber from the Benedictine monastery of Pannonhalma in Hungary, and Zita’s secretary Anni Posawad. There was also a governess together with a chauffeur and other servants.

During this time Zita received frequent visits from members of the European high nobility, for example the Belgian king and queen and the Grand Duke of Luxemburg. Zita was thus well connected. Money flowed from the Hungarian crown demesne of Ráckeve south of Budapest, the revenue from which had now been placed at the disposal of the former empress by the Horthy regime.

With the outbreak of the Second World War the presence of the exiled Habsburgs in Western Europe became increasingly problematic. On 10 May 1940 the family left Belgium, which had been overrun by the German army. Zita, her eldest son Otto and the younger children only narrowly escaped arrest by the Gestapo. They fled to France, but following its capitulation on 10 June 1940 Zita was forced to flee with her children via Spain and Portugal to the United States.

Otto and the elder children remained in the USA for the rest of the war, while Zita and the younger children moved to Quebec in the French-speaking region of Canada so that the latter could complete their education in French.

After 1945 the children went their separate ways, built up independent lives for themselves and settled in various places around the world. In 1948 Zita took up residence in Tuxedo, New York State. Later she moved to Luxemburg in order to look after her mother. From 1963 until her death in 1989 she lived in a Catholic retirement home in the Swiss town of Zizers.

Translation: Sophie Kidd


Brook-Shepherd, Gordon: Um Krone und Reich. Die Tragödie des letzten Habsburgerkaisers, Wien 1968

Brook-Shepherd, Gordon: Zita. Die letzte Kaiserin, Wien 1993

Broucek, Peter: Karl I. (IV.). Der politische Weg des letzten Herrschers der Donaumonarchie, Wien 1997

Demmerle, Eva: Kaiser Karl I. „Selig, die Frieden stiften ...“. Die Biographie, Wien 2004

Gottsmann Andreas (Hrsg.): Karl I. (IV.), der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Donaumonarchie, Wien 2007

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    After the war

    The First World War marked the end of the “long nineteenth century”. The monarchic empires were replaced by new political players. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy disintegrated into separate nation states. The Republic of German Austria was proclaimed in November 1918, and Austria was established as a federal state in October 1920. The years after the war were highly agitated ­– in a conflicting atmosphere of revolution and defeat, and political, economic, social and cultural achievements and setbacks.


Persons, Objects & Events

  • Person


    The wife of Karl I was regarded as the extremely energetic mastermind of the dynasty.


  • Development

    The Habsburg myth – the dynasty before and after 1918

    The Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty formed the ideological basis for the Habsburg Monarchy, since the existence of the multi-ethnic state was primarily a product of the dynastic history of this ruling house.

    In the latter days of the Habsburg Monarchy, Emperor Franz Joseph personified the imperial idea, although towards the end of his sixty-eight-year reign he was reduced more and more to an abstract symbol, a kind of father figure. His death in November 1916 left a vacuum at the head of the dynasty, which his successor Karl could no longer fill.