Ferdinand Behrens (1862-1925), Eugen von Habsburg, 1902. Foto: Wikipedia

The Last Habsburger in Basel

Eugen Ferdinand Pius Bernhard Felix Maria, the Erzherzog Von Habsburg (1863-1954), lived in a suite at Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel from 1919 to 23 May 1934. He was a nephew of Karl von Habsburg (1887-1922), the last emperor of the Habsburg Empire. Both left the new Austrian Republic in 1919 after World War I (1914-1918) and went to neutral Switzerland.

Emperor Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of the German Empire, which was dissolved in November 1918, found refuge in the Netherlands, which was also neutral during World War I.

The German emperor stayed at Huis Doorn until his death and led a reclusive life. However, the last Habsburg emperor undertook two unsuccessful attempts to become king of Hungary again. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was dissolved in 1918. However, the deposed emperor was still formally king of Hungary. The victorious Allies sent him and his wife to Madeira after the second coup attempt, where he died in 1922.

Eugen, called “Der Erzi” in Basler-German, chose a different path. He was not politically active and a popular figure in Basel. He was a prominent member of the conservative Catholic German Order (Deutschritter- Order) and, therefore, a bachelor.

Hotel Les Trois Rois

The choice of Basel stemmed from personal contacts, the neutral status and the German language. Moreover, Basel was in the middle of Europe and was an ideal place for family gatherings for the Habsburg exiles.

Les Trois Rois was the site of many family gatherings, which included Otto von Habsburg (1912-2011), the son of the last emperor couple, and Maria Christina von Österreich (1858-1929), Eugen’s sister and Queen of Spain. The centuries-old hotel ( its original name was Drei Könige) regained a touch of royalty.

Archduke or not, he also had to report to the police:

“Dass er sich speziell in Basel aufhält, erklärt sich daraus, dass er ein grosser Freund der Wissenschaften, namentlich der Geschichte und auch der Musik ist, also von zwei Gebieten, auf welchen Basel viel zu bieten vermag. Er verbringt dann auch einen guten Teil seiner Zeit im Basler Staatsarchiv”.

(Erzherzog Eugen von Habsburg-Lothringen, Begleiterin Zoe Schildenfeld, Kammerdienaar Richard Schönwalder, Aufenthaltsort: Hotel Drei Könige. Grund der Aufenthaltsbewilligung: wissenschaftliche und historische Studien (Fremdenpolizei des Kantons Basel-Stadt, 1920, Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Sig. PD-REG 3a 27649).

He travelled by tram, was approachable to market vendors, workers and other citizens, ate outside his hotel and was a loyal visitor to the Fasnacht and the Morgestraich at 04.00 Monday morning. In Calvinist Basel, the devout Catholic made and had many friends and a rich cultural and social life.

During this period, the celibate also had a faithful companion, the writer Zoe von Schildenfeld (1890-1981). Her book “Erzherzog Eugen, 1863-1963: ein Gedenkbuch“, published in 1963 in Innsbruck, provides information and details about his time in Basel.

The National Socialists came to power in Germany in 1933. The situation in Austria became increasingly unstable. In 1934, Engelbert Dolfuss (1892-1934) seized power and established an authoritarian-Catholic regime. Eugen got permission to return to Austria. On 23 May 1934, his train (he travelled second class!) left for Vienna, escorted by a famous Fasnacht clique with piccolos and tambourines. The highest honour for a foreigner.

Part of the reason for his departure was his concern about rising Nazism. He was an outspoken opponent of the regime in Germany and feared for Austria’s future. As a prominent Austrian citizen, he used his influence, unsuccessfully, to turn the tide.
The Gestapo arrested him after the Anschluss (March 1938) and placed him under house arrest. His status protected him from the worse. After the war, he settled in Merano (Italy’, until 1919, former Austrian South Tyrol).

He had commanded imperial troops as a field marshal during World War I in this region. He regularly visited Basel after 1945. Hotel Les Trois Rois, the “Daig”, and other citizens of Basel always warmly welcomed their ‘Erzi’.

The circle was, therefore, almost complete. In the 13th century, the Habsburgs wanted to make Basel the principal residence of their upcoming empire. However, the Basler bourgeoisie was not looking forward to an imperial and royal residence’s (financial) burden and military presence.

In retrospect, the city was already on its way to becoming a republican canton. There was also resistance to Habsburg rulers in other parts of the (later) Eidgenossenschaft. The Habsburg defeats in 1315, 1386, 1415, 1460 and 1499 are well known.

Basel became a member of the Eidgenossenschaft in 1501. The Reformation drove out the prince-bishop, the chapter and the last aristocrats in 1527. Afterwards, Habsburg and their rulers played no political role in Basel anymore. Der Erzi stayed in the city as a warmly welcome guest.

Source: Zoe von Schildenfeld (1890-1981), Erzherzog Eugen, 1863-1954: ein Gedenkbuch, Innsbruck, 1963