The Prince With No Throne
VIENNA — Ferdinand Habsburg-Lothringen sometimes goes for runs around the 1,441-room Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Habsburg rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
He loves taking in the manicured gardens, the mazes, one of the world’s oldest zoos still in existence, and one of the largest Baroque orangeries in the world. “I go there to wander around the beauty,” he said, as do the tourists who can visit for an entrance fee of $22 and up.
But once in a while things can feel a little weird in a way that is unique to Mr. Habsburg.
“There is a bedroom inside the palace that would have been mine if I was crown prince,” he said, noting that he knows which one it is. “The first time I visited this place on a class trip when I was 14, I just thought, ‘I would never arrange my room like that.’”
Mr. Habsburg is the 25-year-old heir apparent to the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. His great-grandfather was Charles I, the last emperor of Austria and the king of Hungary. Before him, other ancestors ruled for more than 600 years, presiding over a vast global empire.
In 1918, at the end of World War I, Austria became a republic, and the Habsburgs (often rendered as “Hapsburg” in English) were dethroned and sent into exile. Charles I died on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1922. The Habsburgs were allowed back into Austria if they renounced their claims to rule, which Mr. Habsburg’s grandfather Otto did in 1961. In 1966, he returned for only a few hours, by car from Bavaria.
Today Austria is a democratic republic with a president, chancellor and Parliament, and while some members of the former ruling family, like Mr. Habsburg himself, are living in Austria again, they still have no power or privilege. Instead, he is an ordinary citizen — one who races cars in the FIA World Endurance Championshipand lives in an apartment in Vienna with his 22-year-old sister, Gloria Habsburg-Lothringen.
When he visits the Capuchin crypt in Vienna, the place his grandparents lay and where he and his father, Karl von Habsburg, will most likely be laid to rest, he sometimes has to pay the nearly $10 entrance fee like other tourists.
“It’s a little crazy,” he said, laughing. “It’s my lying place, but I still have to pay to visit.”
What is Monarchy Today, Anyway?
Of course, royalty is in the air this weekend, with the coronation of King Charles III of England on Saturday. But the coronation is happening at a time when people are questioning exactly what a monarch of any country actually does.
In King Charles’s case, “yes, there is a throne,” said Rachel Burchfield, contributing royal editor to Marie Claire, “but are the monarchs puppets or puppet masters?” All the British working royals have causes they care about — Charles is famous for his work on climate change; William, Prince of Wales, has the Earthshot Prize; and Catherine, Princess of Wales, focuses on early childhood development — but much of what they still do is walkabouts, tours and ribbon cuttings.
“They may not be able to make political change, but they have influence,” Ms. Burchfeld said.
“Kate even has enormous influence even by the clothes she wears,” she added.
The Habsburgs aren’t close to the British royals, said Robert Seydel, an Austrian historian and royal expert, which is perhaps why they were not invited to the coronation. “The Catholic monarchies kind of stick together, and the other monarchies stick together,” Mr. Seydel said. The British royal family oversees the Church of England; Charles is now the supreme governor. Mr. Habsburg is a Catholic — a progressive one, he said — so devout that he carries a rosary with him at all times.
There are other royal families who no longer have thrones. For example, there is still a queen of Greece, Queen Anne-Marie, even though the monarchy was abolished in 1973 and she holds no power. (Her husband, King Constantine II of Greece, died in January. They both lived in exile for decades, only moving back to Greece in 2013.)
“There are many cases of people who were born into a royal family and are technically a prince or princess, but their family isn’t on the throne,” Ms. Burchfield said. With no official role, their situations — what work they do, what titles they have — vary. Some royal experts call them “royal adjacent.”
The Life of a Royal (Adjacent)
Mr. Habsburg has a name fit for a king — Ferdinand Zvonimir Maria Balthus Keith Michael Otto Antal Bahnam Leonhard von Habsburg-Lothringen — but no palaces, no crown and no golden carriages to go with it.
He also has a title: archduke of Austria, royal prince of Hungary, and would be addressed as Imperial and Royal Highness … if only Austrian law didn’t make it illegal for him to use it in the country. (The admirers who slide into his DMs and address him as “Imperial and Royal Highness” don’t seem to care.)
Mr. Habsburg has no role in government and no diplomatic power. Yet he sometimes meets with the pope and represents the family at Vatican gatherings where he is given a seat of honor. (Eduard Habsburg, a relative, is Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See.)
Mr. Habsburg will oversee one thing when his father dies: the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of chivalry founded in 1430 (all members are males and Christian). Members, including multiple heads of states, meet once a year to discuss the important issues of the world. “It’s like a think tank,” Mr. von Habsburg, the father, said.
Mr. Habsburg runs in some royal circles — “I know the royal family in Bulgaria quite well, because my sister went to school with some” — but feels uncomfortable being part of others.
“I have my friends,” he said, and these friends include the owner of a natural wine bar, a painter and a puppeteer for the opera.
‘I Get to Live a Different Life’
There is, of course, the complex reality that the most traumatic event to happen to his family — losing the empire — is what gave him something he cherishes: his freedom.
“My grandfather, he was the last crown prince — he had to grow up with his dad as emperor and his mom empress,” Mr. Habsburg said. “As a kid he had to have all the training and learn 10 languages, and it’s hard work being a royal. It’s all events and openings and hospital visits.”
“I’m so proud of my family and what they’ve done,” he said. “But I get to live a different life.”
Mr. Habsburg was born in Salzburg, Austria, to Mr. von Habsburg, a politician, and Francesca von Thyssen-Bornemisza, an art collector and curator. His parents are divorced; his father, 62, lives in Vienna and Porto, Portugal, and his mother, 64, lives in Madrid. Besides his roommate Gloria, a documentary film producer, Mr. Habsburg has one other sister: Eleonore Habsburg D’Ambrosio, 29, a jewelry designer who lives in Oxford, England, with her husband Jérôme D’Ambrosio, a former Formula E driver.
The Habsburgs — there are about 600 of them living today, he said — try to keep in touch. “We have a WhatsApp group,” Mr. Habsburg said. “I can travel anywhere in the world, and I text the group and say where I’m going and when, and there is a house I can stay at.” He added with a laugh, “It’s like a free Airbnb for us Habsburgs.”
The freedom is something that might make certain other royals jealous. “Ferdinand doesn’t have a throne, but he has individualized power,” Ms. Burchfield said. “For these other royals where the throne is active, they don’t have a ton of power, they are very much boxed in.”
There is one person who is delighted Mr. Habsburg gets to pursue his passions: Kathleen Schurmans, the co-chief executive of his racing team, WRT: “If there was an empire he wouldn’t be able to race cars.”
Indeed, on a recent weekend morning, Mr. Habsburg was at the track at Portimao, in the Algarve region of Portugal, working his way around the garage before a race. There were some 60 mechanics and engineers, many of whom he greeted by name, pulling one into a hug.
Mr. Habsburg is so magnanimous and upbeat around the racetrack he once got publicly called out by the Formula One driver Nyck de Vries for not acting serious enough. “I dealt with it by trying to outperform him,” Ferdinand said, laughing. (He said they now have a good relationship.)
Ever since he got into a go-kart at the age of 7, Mr. Habsburg has been addicted to motor sports. “I was like, every single day asking the nanny to drive me to go karting,” he said. He got good enough grades at the Danube International School, his private high school, to get by so he could spend more time on the tracks. He skipped university to move to London and join an F3 team, one of the starting points for those with F1 aspirations.
He got into endurance racing instead, whose races last six to 24 hours. (Drivers work as a team, taking turns making hundreds of laps.) In 2021 he won Le Mans, a 24-hour race in northwestern France that is widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious sports-car race.
Before drivers are salaried they have to raise a hefty amount of money — six or even seven figures — to join a team. Many have independent funds or relentlessly court sponsors who dictate their whereabouts.
When Mr. Habsburg first started, he was funded by his mother. Ms. von Thyssen-Bornemisza’s family had made a fortune in steel and energy. Now he has all the sponsors he needs, he said: “I won’t have to ask my mom for money again.”
Like Father, Sort of Like Son
Karl von Habsburg is warm. In Portimao, he was beaming at his son when he was racing and gave him a huge hug after he came in a devastating seventh place. But he’s also a serious person, having been born in exile in Bavaria. “When I was growing up, I was an Austrian citizen and had an Austrian passport,” he said, “but it came with the remark that it was valid for all countries in the world except Austria.”
His grandfather, Charles I, tried twice to regain the Hungarian crown in 1921 without success. Some staff members still referred to his father, Otto, as Imperial Highness.
Both Mr. von Habsburg and Otto found solace serving in the European Parliament. “Otto and Karl have worked very, very hard on the process of bringing these former eastern European communist countries back to Europe again to work together,” said Mario Christian Ortner, an Austrian military historian. “This was also one of the main missions of the Habsburg empire, to get these different nations to work together.”
In the interwar period and during World War II, the House of Habsburg “was a vehement opponent of the Nazis,” Mr. Seydel said. Otto, in particular, campaigned against the Nazis in France and the United States so much so that the Nazis ordered an arrest warrant against him. He also used his connections to help tens of thousands of Austrians, including 15,000 Jews, escape. Mr. von Habsburg is currently working to rally Europe to help Ukraine.
Overall, Mr. von Habsburg feels a strong responsibility to serve people, whether it’s his family or Europeans, however he can. “What I want to instill in all the members of the family is that if you are suddenly in the position where you have to take responsibility for your society, you should be taking it,” he said.
His son has gotten the message. Mr. Habsburg has a campaign, Drive Fast, Act Faster, that encourages racing teams to reduce and offset their carbon emissions. His current team, WRT, switched to green energy at its factory and uses fuel made from waste products of the wine industry.
In Vienna Mr. Habsburg is part of a Catholic community, Center John-Paul II, who are trying to make holy places approachable for young people. He prides himself on being open to those who may not be accepted in more traditional Catholic circles. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a criminal record or been divorced or had an abortion or are gay,” Mr. Habsburg said. “It’s just about loving each other.”
He does not second-guess his family’s circumstance.
“I’ve had the privilege to grow up without that feeling of loss,” he said. “My dad kind of gave me permission to enjoy it, all the history.”
When his mind does wonder what it would be like if the empire still existed, it’s more of a casual curiosity.
“It’s like, ‘Hmm, that would have been interesting,’” he said. “Then I go back to living my life.”
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