Educating her children alone (1922-1940)

       A Single Widow with Eight Orphans
Zita left Madeira soon after Karl’s death for Spain (May 19, 1922). She gave birth to Elizabeth, their third daughter, at the royal palace of El Pardo, on May 31, 1922. How can I now make every decision by myself? Karl ran and managed everything. This admission shows, without doubt, that she was not the man of the household as it had been slandered in order to accuse her spouse of weakness. From now on, she must find the strength to face alone, with God’s help, the task of being a mother and regent for the sake of her son Otto, the titular Emperor. I have a grave political duty, and maybe only this one.  I must raise my children according to the mindset of the Emperor, turning them into good men who fear the Lord, and before everything else I must prepare Otto for his future.  None of us knows the future.  The history of peoples and dynasties – which do not count time by the yardstick of human life, but by much longer measures – must inspire confidence in us.”

       It is in the education of her children that Empress Zita found a new reason to liveShe declined the generous offer of King Alfonso XIII of Spain to take care of Otto’s education at the best secondary school in the kingdom, because she was determined to educate him according to Austrian and Hungarian methods (programs were followed and examination taken in front of Karl’s former ministers). She left the Castile for the Basque county and settled at the villa Uribarren in Lekeitio, thanks to a generous offer to use it for as long as needed before it was to be turned over to a charitable institution. Otto’s education was entrusted to Count Degenfeld, who was assisted by five monks from the Hungarian Benedictine abbey of Pannonhalma, and a few other tutors who helped the younger children. The education that she oversaw was very strict, but her son was always grateful to her for that.

       She set her own daily rhythm very rigorously.  She went to bed at midnight and got up at 5 a.m., to attend Mass with fishermen’s wives at 5:30. Back home by 7 a.m., she woke up the younger children who made their beds and polished their shoes by themselves.  As they got ready, Zita read to them a passage from the life of the saint for the day.  At 7:30, the household assembled in the chapel for mass (the second for the Empress), which was served by the boys. She taught them their catechism herself.  They all made their first communions very young.  She made each of them a prayer book in which she glued holy cards.  She also led them in evening prayer.

      The financial situation improved thanks to the lifting of the confiscation of some of their private properties, as well as donations collected from prominent Austro-Hungarian families by Margrave Pallavicini. She also, as “head of the family,” used these funds to help any Habsburg who also lost their properties, or any of their servants in need. This did not mean that they lived in abundance, far from it:  the household had to spend sparingly.

       A Mother Attentive to the Education of Her Children

       As adulthood was approaching for her oldest child, and because she desired to give her son Otto the best possible education in a Catholic university, Zita chose to move to Belgium where they lived for a little over ten years (September 1929 - May 1940). They settled quickly in the Castle of Ham at Steenokkerzeel, conveniently located halfway between Brussels and Louvain, where he studied until receiving his doctorate in 1935 from the School of Political and Social Science.  All her children would be educated in French-speaking Catholic schools. Zita lived surrounded by a few faithful friends who made up a second family, among whom a Hungarian Benedictine monk became her chaplain, Dom Weber. There, the Empress found a favorable and simple atmosphere to raise her family. Life in Belgium was a mixture of small court life (etiquette was maintained, but nothing is overdone, Her Majesty naturally imposes some, even though her simplicity keeps her close to those who serve her) and country life (she occasionally cared for the animals given to her children: 25 goats and sheep whose straw she changed when the children had extra work, and she cultivated roses). Avoiding worldliness, she led an austere life, because she had suffered so much that she could not help but keep gravity in all things.  Her true source of happiness was her family.

Video showing the archdukes living in Steenokkerzeel and studying at Louvain.


       Thus, November 20, 1930, the day that marked the majority of the titular Emperor, Otto, marked a new roles for them both. She was no longer morally his regent.  Her mission was accomplished.  From then on, even though she still made some decisions, she consulted with her son. Moreover, she supported him in his efforts for the restoration of the monarchy in order to save Austria from Hitler. That little Alpine country had become a mere shadow of the great empire it formerly was. Partitioned in what appeared to some Austrians (especially the Social-Democrats and the Nazis) as a sort of failed state, the pull towards uniting with Germany was strong. During the peace treaties following the Great War, Karl successfully prevented any annexation of Austria to Germany. The only valid force of opposition at the time was the monarchist movement, which was not based on nostalgia or demands for historic rights, but was rather a real alternative wanting to instill in Austrians a patriotic pride that would prevent them from desiring to unite with their more powerful neighbor of the same language. 

       Zita freely gave him advice, as she was always interested in politics. In particular, she made sure to point out the social doctrine of the Church in the publication of the royalist program of Weisner, in July 1930.

Short interview with Archduke Rodolph on the education he received from his mother, the Servant of God Zita.