It’s always an awkward experience for modern conservatives to understand traditionalist conservatives. On one hand, traditionalists espouse a belief in faith, family, and objective virtue, and oppose the encroachments of leftist ideology. On the other hand, they are skeptical of liberalism and Enlightenment ideals, reject most modern institutions, and tend to harbor antiquated prejudices that make little sense in a diverse, pluralistic society.
However, it would be a mistake to relegate traditional conservatives to the fringes, as often happens. Although they’re devoted to the past, they represent the future of the conservative movement. Many of them are highly educated, hardworking, and most importantly, have large families.
Contrary to popular notions, many of them do just fine in the modern world. Unlike most people who are caught up in the amenities, mores, and narratives of the present, traditionalists have the capacity to choose what works for them and become more self-reliant. In many ways, they offer a model of success for people today who want to have happier, healthier, and more fruitful lives.
Perhaps sensing this deep desire among people wanting a way to face the challenges of modernism, writer and diplomat Eduard Habsburg has written The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times. A proud descendent of the Habsburg royal family that ruled over various swaths of Europe for eight centuries, Habsburg explains the secret to his family’s success and offers a practical guide for a better life.
Habsburg organizes his book into seven different rules, yet these rules are really based on two core ideas: family and faith. Family establishes the framework for success while faith ensures consistency and longevity.
Family and Local Governance
As such, he begins his list with the first rule: “Get Married (and Have Lots of Children).” This rule seems so obvious, but it has become counterintuitive today. Rather than being reminded of the joys that come from finding a soulmate and bringing life into the world, single adults in the prime of life are bombarded with the message that spouses and children are intolerable burdens. Taking the opposite view, Habsburg cites the example of his ancestors who show how there is strength in numbers and peace through that strength: “While few modern marriages end up remaking continental map the way the Habsburg marriages did, it is almost a truism that marriages that produce children quite literally form their families’ future.”
Of course, one may object that the times have changed and finding a wife or husband has become impossible. Habsburg answers this excuse with the story of Maximillian, dubbed “the Last Knight,” who was betrothed to Mary of Burgundy, the daughter of Duke Charles the Bold. Well before the couple ever met one another, they communicated through letters. When Mary’s father died, she implored Maximillian to come with an army to save her and her kingdom from the predations of the French king. Clad in golden armor and accompanied by a large army, Maximillian came to the rescue and married his bride the following day.
Despite these circumstances, their marriage was a happy one. Considering it was prearranged, the relationship was long-distance, and “their only common language was Latin,” this makes little sense. The same goes for the 73 Austro-Spanish Habsburg marriages that were also “very happy.” On this point, Habsburg declares that interior values matter far more than external factors: “a successful marriage doesn’t depend on marrying a cousin, but it does require being with someone who shares your values, ideas, faith, and outlook.” This goes against the practice of hookup culture, cohabitation, or having the same political views that so many single adults depend on to determine who might be marriage material.
What follows from a happy marriage blessed with children is a family-oriented vision of oneself and the world. On a cultural level, this comes in the form of Habsburg’s third rule, “Believe in the Empire (and in Subsidiarity)”; on an individual level this comes in the form of his fifth rule, “Know Who You Are (and Live Accordingly).”
As fewer people marry and have families, more of them depend on big government and big business to fill the material and spiritual void that results. By contrast, when people grow up in the context of a family, they form long-term relationships, partake in myriad rituals and traditions, and live by an established set of standards and expectations — all of which contribute to their sense of self. Even if the Habsburgs were somehow not a royal dynasty, they were a family that was steadfast throughout the centuries: “The Habsburgs were slow to change, stood for continuity and traditional values, and (with the exception of Joseph II) stand for the values of their fathers as a matter of honor.”
In conjunction with the commitment to family identity is taking a decentralized, localized approach to governance. Most children in a stable family environment will learn to solve their own problems before asking their parents, and most parents will learn to rule their households without the interventions of institutions outside the family. This idea extends to the political realm, where most social problems are best resolved at the local level.
Thus, like the parents of so many children, the Habsburg emperors rarely interfered in the business of their constituent kingdoms and always sought to preserve the welfare of their household through diplomacy and peaceful coexistence. For this reason, their empire worked more like one big happy family loosely leading other big happy families than a republic with a centralized government enforcing laws created by an elite class of politicians.
Along with the foundation of family, there is the foundation of the Catholic faith. Habsburg accordingly devotes two whole chapters on the second rule, “Be Catholic (and Practice Your Faith).” Beginning with the family’s great patriarch Rudolf, a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, the Habsburgs both preserved and were preserved by their Catholic faith throughout the centuries. Despite periodic threats from the Muslims Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries, rebellious Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, secular humanists in the 18th and 19th centuries, and fascists and Marxists in the 20th, the Habsburgs kept the faith more or less intact.
While Blessed Karl, the last Habsburg emperor who lived a saintly life in exile two years after his uncle Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, was a model of Habsburg piety, the counterexample of Emperor Joseph II (the emperor known for patronizing Mozart) better illustrates how faith tends to work in a large family. Ruling during the 18th century, Joseph was “consumed with Enlightenment ideas” and “read, secretly and behind his mother’s [Maria Theresia’s] back, Voltaire and other writers critical of the Catholic Church.” Upon becoming emperor, Joseph closed down the monasteries of the contemplative orders, introduced civil marriage, eliminated a number of feast days, and kept a mistress.
Nevertheless, Joseph’s family pulled him away from embracing more radical policies of the Enlightenment. He never became a Freemason, he established parishes within an hour’s walking distance, and he enacted his Patent of Toleration granting religious freedom to his citizens. And he continued going to Mass and Confession and regularly attended to the needs of the poor.
Law and Justice
The family’s faith resulted in Habsburg’s two other rules: Stand for law and justice, and have courage. While most liberal governments are predicated on the Hobbesian idea that human beings are naturally evil and require constitutions with countless restraints and regulations, Habsburg considers the possibility of virtuous leaders who are trained from birth to do the right thing. Whatever criticisms have been made on aristocracies and monarchies, he contends that in practice, they are often more responsive to the will of the people and less prone to corruption.
After all, the life of a royal was one of sacrifice and service. As a member of the Habsburg family, “your preference for one region or for another couldn’t be indulged. You were a symbol of unity and had to show respect to all regions and all people.” All throughout the Habsburgs’ reigns, they were under enormous pressure to be examples to their people, govern fairly, and defend them from outside threats — which is why there is the rule for courage. Without the bravery of Maximilian I, his son Don Juan, Leopold I, or Archduke Charles of Austria, not only would the empire be conquered, but modern Europe itself would likely not exist.
Besides presenting a readable, concise history of his family in fewer than 200 pages, the great feat that Habsburg achieves in The Habsburg Way is making that history practical and relatable for modern readers who could desperately use the advice. They are more than consumers, voters, workers, or other cogs in the great machine of modernity. They are noble and have the power to elevate their lives and create a legacy. There is little to lose, and much to be gained in following Habsburg’s rules.
The same applies to conservatives who dismiss Habsburg’s traditionalism as anachronistic and incompatible with the world today. This is clearly not the case, as many families (including Habsburg’s) have found joy and prosperity in living by the Habsburg way. People may debate the merits of applying these rules to modern governments (Habsburg’s home country of Hungary comes closest to this ideal), but it’s nevertheless helpful to have this alternative approach in mind. It may very well save a civilization in decline by helping all people of all backgrounds find their inner royal.