Michael von Habsburg-Lothringen
Ambassador of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to Hungary
We met Archduke Michael von Habsburg-Lothringen, Ambassador of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in Vienna, in the café of Hotel Bristol and had an interview with him on the occasion that he was appointed as ambassador exactly one year ago, on 1st October 2013.
Your Excellency, when did you first get into contact with the Military Order of Malta?
The first relationship was exactly fifty years ago, because I was admitted to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, as a knight. So I have been a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta for 50 years. I joined the Order when I was very young, at the age of 22, and I have been a member of it ever since. As many others, I was a knight at the time. The role I have always wanted to take could only be taken now. I was a businessman for several decades; that was my job as I had to keep up my family and my three children. To be a member of the Military Order of Malta and a diplomat in the Order of the Knights are voluntary jobs. I am also a voluntary ambassador. I could not afford this earlier, only now that I am retired. I retired a few years ago, so finally I have free time, and I have the opportunity to fill this role. I have been continuously working since May 2013, but I only received my letter of credence, that is my official appointment, on 1st October 2013.
You have been representing the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in Hungary for a year, that is since last October. How do you assess the past one year; what tasks did you manage to realize?
First of all, I took over a very well-functioning embassy as my predecessor was a very hard-working and good ambassador. He had been a diplomat earlier as well, as he had been the Austrian Ambassador to Hungary for four years. After his retirement, he was the Ambassador of the Order of Malta for eight years and I took over a perfect embassy from him. Diplomacy was a completely new area for me. I tried to fully meet requirements that are expected from a diplomat. One of my first duties included visiting the President of the Republic, the ecclesiastical dignitaries, then the government ministers and key state secretaries.
I did saluting visits at all the ambassadors in my country. I tried to learn this “profession”, and it was not too difficult for me, as I had lived in many countries as a refugee, and learned a lot of languages for this reason. I already spoke seven languages at the age of 16. This helped me a lot in my new role. The Grand Master, the head of the Military Order of Malta from Rome also visited Hungary, as there was a regional conference with the neighbouring countries at the beginning of October. It was very interesting for me to hear about the news of the neighbouring countries.
As for me the greatest joy is that the Military Order of Malta, the Maltese Charity Service in Hungary, is actively involved in the circulation of the country and plays a very important role in the life of the country from humanitarian aspects. I only have nice tasks! After all, I am received and welcome everywhere and I do not need to re-start too many things as the organization has been operating in Hungary for 25 years. The Hungarian Maltese Charity Service is an outstanding organization. I started to pay attention to them 25 years ago, when they began to operate in Hungary. Today both the order and the charity organization have measurable impacts. Just think about the help and assistance they provided with handling floods. Currently I cannot report about great tasks but I represent the Grand Master in Hungary which is a great honour for me. One of my important responsibilities is to maintain a good relationship with the state and the government. There is an agreement between the Military Order of Malta and the Hungarian Government. I also represent the Grand Master at the meetings of joint parliamentary committees.
In addition to the ambassadorial position what other social functions do you occupy?
As a diplomat of the Military Order of Malta, I do not deal with politics. We have humanitarian tasks. What is particularly good, that there has not been a similar order to this for 900 years. We celebrated our 900-year-anniversary in Rome in 2013. It is a very uplifting feeling to belong to an organization which has been working perfectly for 900 years. It is true, however, that there were a lot of fights for the organization during the past centuries. Our tasks included the protection of the Christian faith and the caring and helping of the poor and sick. The Order now has outstanding role in patients’ care, charity and social aid activities. Providing help for the victims of the more and more frequent natural disasters and wartime devastation also belong to our major tasks.
We are not active politically, but the goal is –as it is the goal of all ambassadors – to maintain a good relationship with the government and politics. Of course it is important to develop good relationships with all other embassies as well. I actively participate all national holidays which I get invitation to of course. I established really nice and friendly relationships with my colleagues during the past year. Some of them have been called back in the meantime, however, there are new colleagues instead of them and it is also important to develop a relationship with them. I take part in some very interesting discussions and negotiations. Of course, you always help wherever you can. There are smaller or greater tasks within the church as well. I try to do my best related to all my duties and perform them according to my position. There are no major political decisions here, but there are constant tasks, which require me to intercede on behalf of the Grand Master. We maintain a good relationship with the neighbouring countries as well. For example, at the end of next week there is a conference in Prague, where the Ambassadors and charity organizations of the neighbouring countries will be present. It is important to develop good national and international relationships. Humanitarian relationship is partly a kind of relationship that also helps to achieve goals which have been set cross the borders.
You are a descendant of the Hungarian branch of the Habsburg family. The name of your family is deeply engraved in history. What was your life like when at the age of two your family had to flee Hungary due to the Second World War?
As small children we did not understand and feel it so much but for the parents it was very difficult to leave the country. From József Nádor, that is from 1793, our family lived in Hungary: we were Hungarians, we became Hungarians and we are Hungarians. My older brothers could experience everything from the years before the war. It was also difficult for them but the parents and grandparents were in the hardest situation. Our grandparents fled to Germany, and we fled to the far away Portugal. My father wanted to get possibly the farthest away from the danger. Communism had another serious danger. Communists were not just behind the Iron Curtain, but turned up everywhere; they were watching and writing reports. During the years of the war we grew up in Portugal. It was beautiful for us, children. Excellent climate, the southern Mediterranean atmosphere, so we really liked it. However, we began to feel that the parents speak very little about the past. They always told us to look into the future instead. My father was always very sad. It was very difficult for him to accept that he had to be away from his home for so long. We were hoping that maybe one day we can return. He knew that this would happen at some point. He always reminded us and encouraged us not to forget the language. It was not just a recommendation, we strictly had to keep to it and it was our luck. We always spoke in Hungarian in the house and I am very grateful for that. We did not go to a Hungarian school, we did not learn the grammar, we did not learn to read or write in Hungarian. In Portugal, I first started to learn in Portuguese then I went to an English school and I immediately spoke three languages at the age of 5-6. Then we continued learning further languages. Of course, I can read and write in Hungarian as well, and since we have been living home, my Hungarian has improved.
During your flight you have been to almost everywhere in Western Europe. Which country has become the closest to your heart?
I did not know Hungary at the time. I grew up in Portugal, and I was all along influenced by the strong impressions I had there. We arrived in Portugal in 1948 and left for England already in 1955 with a profession. I went to a textile vocational school after getting married in Zurich. I learned the textile profession –in the meantime we moved to England – and dealt with textile all my life. In England, I met a Hungarian gentleman who originally dealt with music; however, also had textile factories built and employed many people from Europe. I travelled a lot on business. I was sent to Germany and then to Russia due to the textile business. So it was never really an issue whether I am a Duke or Archduke, this was the only choice because there was nobody in the background. The only things remained from it were tradition and things we inherited spiritually. Everything else was gone. During our flight we took nothing from Hungary apart from what we were wearing. My grandfather told me that we would come back. We locked the one of my siblings where we lived for 3 years. My father died in 1957 in Portugal. In 1958 we were heading to Switzerland and we lived in Ireland too but we always returned to Portugal. All together, I lived in Portugal for 7 years, but have very strong bonding.
So was Portugal „the HOME with capital letters” then?
Deep-deep inside, I have always known that I am Hungarian. I have known where I belong to, and that my true homeland is Hungary. We only speak in Hungarian with my siblings even up to the present day. We have always known where we belong to, but back at the time there was no hope, and we had no prospect to be able to return.
What did it feel like to Archduke to choose a civil profession?
We were aware that we were Hungarian royal princes, but we did not talk much about it. In those years we could only make our living from benefits, because my mother was already ill at the time. We received help from everyone in the family and we are still very grateful for that. I went to college for a short time, but then I started to work so as to keep up myself and my mother. My father was ill at that time. I did not want to be in a vulnerable situation in which we can only rely on benefits. Therefore, I left college early, and learned castles and only took the keys with us. It is interesting that one of the keys was now found in Alcsút (now called Alcsútdoboz) which was our home. I just made a joke that at the age of two I put them under the doormat at our front door and the mayor of Alcsút gave the original key back to me because the one we took with us at that time was not the original. Strange as it sounds, but „despite our noble names” we grew up just like any other people. We went to school and learned a profession just like them.
When did you come back to Hungary again?
We settled down in 1995. My first experience goes back to 1980 when I first visited here. It was not easy at the time, as it was communism. First I went to Dresden, as my grandfather, my mother’s father, was the Saxon king. I wanted to visit his grave. I had had several attempts before that as well, but we had never received a visa. Then at last, me and one of my cousins finally managed to get one. This was in 1979. And when we finally managed to get to Dresden, we thought that we would try to visit Hungary too. I asked the embassy to help me get the permission to be able to visit Hungary with my wife and kids. I wanted to show them my home country and where our ancestors lived. At that time the Hungarian Embassy was in Bonn. We did not get any response for 9-10 weeks, and then suddenly we got the passports so we could leave for home. Several pictures were taken of us and we were escorted and being observed for about a week. But eventually they realized that I am an innocent citizen, so they left me alone. I first came in the 80s and then more and more frequently and I began to get involved in the charity life of Hungary.
How did you feel when you first entered the Hungarian land again after so many years?
It was very exciting. I brought my wife, three children and the dog too. I brought all I had because I did not know what our reception would be like. Fortunately, everything was fine, they could see that I did not want to do anything that is contrary to their principles. We visited everyone all around, and then after that we kept coming every year. I started to develop relationships and take on more and more tasks.
What kind of tasks were they?
I met the President of the Military Order of Malta: it happened 25 years ago. We started to deal with schools. We built a school in Budapest, where 600 students go to. It was about 13-14 years ago, and the school is the Szent Benedek Primary and Secondary Schoolwhich was earlier in Fő Street. By now, my son has taken over the management of the school as he is a monk and the school is operated by his order – the Legion of Christ Catholic order- since they had intended to take over and run a school like this anyway.The year before last year, the school moved because the local government provided us a new place in Óbuda and now we have over 600 children. It is the greatest joy for us and our wives! We have been to all over the world to find sponsors and be able to establish all this. It was not easy because the crisis was present everywhere, but eventually we managed to get help to achieve our goals from my Transylvanian Hungarian friend – who is a very successful businessman – and who I have known for 40 years. I can say that the entire school was funded by him, including the full reconstruction and development. This friend of mine is now 85 years old. It is almost unbelievable that people like him exist! Well, the Order of Malta, which can realize its purposes from smaller or larger donations, is also supported by such people with good intentions. There is an incredible shortage in many parts of the world, just listen to the news. The Order of Malta has a very good reputation all over the world. We work in many countries, and we are always present also at places where the most horrible things happen, such as the persecution of Christians, natural disasters, spread of the Ebola virus, and civil wars.
What was your first stop when you came home to Hungary?
The first stop was Piliscsaba, where I had a really nice experience: I met my father’s favourite forester, Uncle Tony, there. My father did not use to be a great hunter, but my grandfather did. He even used to write books about hunting. Perhaps this was the reason why our first stop was here. I wanted to meet someone who knew our family well. He told me a lot about my own family and the old days. I just found out that Tony and my grandfather were sitting together for hours on the high stand waiting for game and they discussed a lot of things there. The forester was like a confessor for my grandfather. My grandfather knew that the forester would not pass on any information he heard during the long hours on the high stand.He shared all these experiences with me now. I am happy that finally I could come back home. I have always lived my life and prepared to be able to come back home one day.
Do you keep in touch with the European nobility?
Of course, I do. Our own family is very large in itself already. It is 250 of us family members. Although not too often, but we do keep seeing each other. Last time we met at the beatification of King Charles IV. – which I helped to organize- in Rome. There were a lot of us there from the Habsburg family. All together there were nearly 300 people there. Within the family, there are smaller and larger gatherings, especially at family weddings, christenings and other celebrations. There are also hunting events when also a lot of us gather, as I am a hunter as well. This year I was invited for hunting by the Danish queen. You can also meet the relatives on such occasions. A lot of relationships have been established during the years. A lot of royal families fled to Portugal at the time. It was the president then-President António de Oliveira Salazar- who provided shelter to these families. The last king of Italy after the war, Umberto II. – who had to leave his country in his youth- also fled here. The French royal family was in Portugal too. They were the first in North Africa and they came to Portugal from there. The Spanish royal family also took refuge here. When I meet the King of Spain today, he just looks at me first and then just starts speaking Portuguese. The Romanian King Karl was also there. I remember it well, when I was a child, I used to sit in his lap. He used to have a beautiful stamp catalogue. Miklós Horthy was also among the refugees. I used to go to the same class with his grandson, István. The Bulgarian queen was also there. When I was a child she used to come to us a lot, but they were a bit smarter than us, because they took a lot more of their values with them which we had not done. But after all I understand my grandpa very well. He did not want to pack anything as Hungary was our home country, and we were going to come back here. This is the reason why my ancestors left all their values behind.
His Excellence, could you share one of your nice memories from the Portuguese times, please?
I remember when I was a child, my father used to love grilling chicken. Quite simply we were sitting at the back garden, three or four kings were sitting there with us and were waiting for my father to get ready with the chicken. It will always be a very nice memory for me. We kept in touch with a lot of families later on as well and we often meet them now too.
What is the message of the sprout of the former imperial family, the great-great grandson of Joseph Palatine to the present-day Europe?
As the relatives of Otto von Habsburg, we had the hope and saw the future in Europe once becoming Europe without borders. Otto von Habsburg has done a lot for this. Borders were rather very cruel. At the time of the Iron Curtain, nobody would have dared to hope that someday things will be differently. Well, the situation has improved a lot by now, even if things are not quite as such as our fathers hoped to be. I think that the only way we can be strong is if we are united. But we must do something about it, we must act. Brussels is very strong but Hungary is doing its job as a Christian country as well and acts for its own objectives. The past, the roots and the Christian values are all very important. Without these values we cannot be successful and there is no future without them either. I am happy to finally be able to live in my home country, in Hungary, and although we have different circumstances now, I am eventually home!