The Last Empress: The Life and Times of Zita of Austria-Hungary 
by Gordon Brook-Shepherd.
HarperCollins, 364 pp., £20, November 1991, 0 00 215861 2
Show More
Show More

Queen consorts usually have their lives written by the Barbara Cartlands of biography, romantics like Joan Haslip whose life of the famous fascinator Elizabeth of Austria, the last empress but one, was as spirited as its subject. Gordon Brook-Shepherd is not that kind of writer at all (nor was his empress that kind of empress). A former foreign correspondent and deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, he is a specialist in modern Central European history who munches informatively through the events on his plate. No dramatics for him, and no psychologising either.

All the same, his book is a labour of love. He met the ex-empress Zita 25 years ago, and loves her as only a royalist can love a royal lady. He is to her what Christian of Brunswick was to the deposed Queen of Bohemia: a champion wearing her glove in his helmet. He can also turn into a royal corgi and snap at ankles belonging to critical or disrespectful persons. He has already written a life of Zita’s husband, The Last Habsburg, who died in exile in 1922. Zita lived on for another 67 years, and they can’t have tempted many annalists.

She was born in 1892, the 17th of the deposed Duke of Parma’s 24 children. They were brought up to be very devout, and throughout her life Zita liked to have a private chapel attached to her residence. The young princesses were also taught to practise charity, which meant taking food parcels to peasants; afterwards they had to change their clothes and wash their hair in white spirit. The Duchess was keen for one of them to marry the Archduke Charles. Zita was ‘all the more attractive for just missing classical beauty’ – a description that might have come from Cecil Beaton’s transvestite spoof autobiography My Royal Past. ‘It would be idle to pretend that the young man’s position played no role in [her] feelings. Archduke Charles, a good-looking and mild-mannered man, was, quite simply, the greatest “catch” in Catholic Europe.’

She caught him in 1911. In 1914 his uncle was assassinated at Sarajevo and he became heir to the throne. He succeeded on the Emperor’s death in 1916. He was 29 and Zita 24, and they had already produced four of the eight children they were to have at yearly intervals. From between the lines Charles emerges as a well-intentioned wimp (a member of their entourage spoke of ‘the Empress as the real head of the family’); he was prepared to consider liberal measures, but never until it was too late. She was less conciliatory, though she showed an interest in social conditions and reform. Still, most royal and other first ladies feel it necessary to do that; sincere or not, it is part of their public relations. Zita comes across as zealous, managing, interfering, and alarmingly persistent. Brook-Shepherd does his best to soften her image by frequent use of the word ‘young’: ‘the young empress’, ‘the young couple’, and later ‘the young widow’, sound quite appealing. The Austrians called her ‘the Italian’ (she was half-French and half-Portuguese) and thought her a schemer.

And so she was, though not as much as her brother Sixtus. Brook-Shepherd’s adjective for him is ‘hyperactive’. He seems to have been eaten up with dynastic ambition for the dethroned Bourbons and vicariously for the Habsburgs. Early on in 1917 when he was serving as a subaltern in the Belgian Army and the Austrian Empire began to show signs of falling apart, he plotted with the Empress and Emperor to make a separate peace with the Entente behind their German ally’s back. Among the results he hoped for was an independent Poland with a Bourbon on the throne. Lavish use was made of naively primitive secret codes, and there was a lot of clandestine scurrying to and fro across the Austrian-Swiss border: even Zita’s mother was roped in to carry messages. Nothing came of the plot; but in the following year it leaked, and the disgrace helped to finish off the Habsburgs.

On the day of the Armistice Charles was forced to renounce ‘his power but not his throne’ – not the same thing as abdicating. Brook-Shepherd never fails to draw attention to such nuances. The Imperial family retired to one of their properties in Lower Austria, but four months later they began to feel dangerously unpopular and decided to seek refuge in Switzerland. From there Charles made two bungled attempts to reinstall himself as King of Hungary. Brook-Shepherd’s accounts of them, and especially of the earlier ‘Sixtus Affair’, are the high spots of the book. He never allows one to lose the thread of these complicated manoeuvres, which were absurdly punctuated with changes of uniform and the handing out of honours and medals. Better still, he has been able to use new material to throw light on them, because ‘the brightest and jolliest’ of the Empress’s 33 grandchildren helped him to dig out her diaries of the period; they were among stacks of unexplored archives at the Swiss convent of Zizers where Zita spent her last years and where he would visit her on his way to ski at Klosters.

After Charles’s second descent on Hungary, the Allies bundled the whole family off to Madeira, where the poor ex-Emperor died at the age of 35. The rest of Zita’s life was spent in exile, first in Spain, then in Belgium, the US, Canada and finally Switzerland. She never stopped badgering royals and heads of state, from Queen Mary to Roosevelt, to do something about the Habsburgs, and ‘she trained her children to operate as a team’ to do the same. They did not all comply. Otto, the eldest, to whom she referred as ‘the Emperor’, never had a moment’s respite from her guidance – it was a terrible blow to her when, in 1961, he renounced his ‘membership of his own House’ in order to become a Euro-MP. Lauding in New York in 1940 in flight from the German invasion of Belgium and France, she issued a ‘ringing communiqué: “The Empress, who holds firmly to the cause of democracy in Europe, is convinced that freedom and Christianity will triumph over barbaric totalitarianism.” ’ This must have cheered the Allies. She also laid about her within the family: in 1933 she got the disreputable Archduke Leopold ‘expelled’ (over Otto’s signature) from the Order of the Golden Fleece for wearing it in a nightclub; and in 1934 she ejected the Archduke Albrecht from the family for making an unauthorised morganatic marriage. Later on, she embarrassed her relatives by declaring publicly that the Archduke Rudolf and Mary Vetsera had not committed suicide at Mayerling in 1889, but had been murdered by foreign agents. Brook-Shepherd thinks she may have done this to bolster the efforts of a loony monarchist group who wanted the Pope to canonise her late husband. By this time she was in her nineties, though, and hardly to be blamed.

Naturally frugal, she enjoyed imposing frugality on others. Her devoted life-long lady-in-waiting was never allowed cigarettes or sherry. ‘Always known as “Korff”, she was called Countess Thérèse Korff-Schmising-Kerssenbroek – so she was probably Cecil Beaton’s invention in the first place. When the family was living penuriously in Canada during the war, they picked dandelions to make into salad. Only once did they collect enough for the servants to have some too. When they declined to try the stuff, the ex-empress commented: ‘Isn’t that just typical? It was obviously too vulgar for them.’ No amount of pleading by Brook-Shepherd can make this lady lovable, though one can’t help admiring her determination and assurance.

Brook-Shepherd is more successful as a political analyst than as a biographer, and has interesting things to say about the interwar years in Central Europe. His bêtes noires stick out like giraffes from the steppe. They are: 1. anyone left of Centre Right; 2. Italians (greedy); 3. Hungarians (fanatical) and 4. Germans (German).

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences