Hungary Today had the opportunity to interview György Habsburg (Georg von Habsburg), the newly appointed Hungarian Ambassador to France – and among other topics, he talked about his family’s past and present, the challenges and good experiences in his new position, coronavirus, politics, his national identity as a member of a multi-national dynasty, and of course, about his relationship with Hungary.
Your grandfather, Charles IV, the last Hungarian king, attempted to reclaim the throne exactly 100 years ago. If it would have worked out, I might not be talking to the Hungarian Ambassador to France right now…have you thought about this in connection with the anniversary?
Not really. I learned from my father to always be realistic. My family never thought about “what ifs” or lamenting what would have been “if it had happened otherwise.” I don’t think it’s very appropriate to think in this way. I’m more happy with the things I have, the present… and I’m so glad to be here in Paris. And well, what if? A lot of things could have happened, there could be a lot worse things going on in history if [the attempt to return] turned out differently. But this “if” is always there.
Have you talked about the attempt to reclaim the throne as a family, have you commemorated it?
Yes, we talked about it. My cousin, Eduard Habsburg, the Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican, prepared a detailed summary of the events and shared it on the internet and he also sent it to the whole family. I was very glad that he gathered all the information he found about this day, the return attempt. So in that way we remembered it. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus crisis, we could not hold a larger commemoration or meeting, we can only keep in touch on the internet.
György Habsburg with the Holy Crown. Photo by Tamás Kovács/MTI
If there was no coronavirus epidemic, would you have held a meeting? As far as I know, you sometimes hold large family meetings where Habsburgs from all over the world gather.
We do tend to have one or two small meetings every year, but the whole family rarely comes together, as there are almost 500 members scattered around the world. This would be especially forbidden now (laughs). Unfortunately, because of the virus, we haven’t had the opportunity to have a family reunion.
Were you surprised by the invitation to represent Hungary as an ambassador in France?
It was a very positive, pleasant surprise. The work of an ambassador itself is not new to me, as back in 1996 I was appointed as a traveling ambassador. I had many diplomatic tasks in this regard. But the invitation for Paris was a very pleasant surprise and I gladly, gladly accepted it.
Wasn’t it surprising that you were invited to Paris? As a Habsburg, wouldn’t it be more accommodating to be the Austrian or Spanish ambassador?
Of course, several countries could have been chosen based on my family’s history, but I have experienced in the short time since I was appointed that France in fact was a great decision.
I was received very positively here, by politicians, journalists, public figures with whom I met within the possibilities of restrictions. I spoke by video conference or by phone to everyone. I also see from this that it was a good decision to come to Paris.
It appeared on Hungarian news portals that there were some who were not happy that a Habsburg was coming to France as an ambassador due to the historical strife between the Habsburg dynasty and France.
I have neither seen nor experienced this. In fact, several people noted how good it was that I arrived. Of course, on the websites, you can see negative opinions in the comment sections. There was an article on Figaro, which received maybe 65 comments, mostly positive and of course one or two critical messages as well. The press picked this up and it was published in Hungary as well. But what I am experiencing is that they are happy and looking forward to what I will do to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. When I handed over my credentials, President Macron was especially kind to me.
So it seems that the memory of competing with the Habsburgs is no longer present in France?
Historical struggles are the past. There are also many positive relationships between my family and France. My father [Otto von Habsburg] was married in France, in the region of Lorraine, and this area is especially close to my family. Later, his work in the European Parliament was related to the country, dealing with Francophone issues, and maintaining close contact with members of the French parliament. My grandmother [Zita von Bourbon-Parma, wife of Charles IV] comes from the Bourbon family, so I have relatives here in France as well. So I think there are many more things that connect me with France than separates us.
There have been conflicts throughout history, but I think the present is more important than the past- this should be addressed more.
What does Habsburg Ambassador’s day look like in Paris?
Because of the coronavirus and the lockdown, my days are very identical now. When I arrived, it was not possible to leave our homes from 6 in the evening to 6 in the morning, now fortunately it has been pushed back to 7. This, of course, limits a bit what fits into the day and the tasks of an ambassador as well. Events, conferences, gatherings on national holidays are not really held now, or only virtually. But there are meetings every day, in parliament, in the National Assembly, in the Senate, or I give interviews to journalists. But anyway, I’m in the office 9-5… There’s a lot of paperwork, someone also has to do that as well. (laughs).
What are your plans as the Ambassador of Hungary?
My plans are not special, I will be here in Paris, and like all ambassadors I will represent Hungary, build diplomatic relationships- this is my job. I try to meet as many people as possible who can ask me about Hungary and I can inquire about the situation in France. I will show French people, politicians, and journalists what is happening in Hungary, and if there are open questions about the country, I will answer them and also send information back home. And, of course, I will help to further build bilateral relations between the two nations.
The policy of the Hungarian government in Western Europe is considered to be quite rebellious, almost like the “kuruc” [back in the 17-18th century, anti-Habsburg movements in the Kingdom of Hungary]. That is why opinions of the government is not very positive either. What is it like to represent Hungarian interests like this?
This is quite simple for me, because I lived in Hungary for a very long time.
As I speak six languages, I also read a lot of foreign press products, so I know very precisely what they write about the country, where the critical points are, and what Hungary is attacked for right now, so I have the opportunity to share my own experiences in response and to show what the real situation is in Hungary.
I can share what is happening in Hungary, for example, right now in connection with the COVID-19 vaccination strategy. And this is so much easier since I came from there. Unfortunately, journalists very often only refer to other journalists rather than the real situation at home. In the same way, people living here in France learn about what happens from newspaper articles. I, in turn, can share with them the things I have experienced for myself.
György Habsburg in the Hungarian parliament, Photo by Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI
In your opinion, how does the reality in Hungary differ from what appears in, let’s say, French newspapers?
Unfortunately, we regularly find that the French press repeatedly brings up issues that have long become obsolete. Such is the case of the Law on the Transparency of Foreign-Supported Organizations, which led the European Commission to refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union where a judgment was handed down, which Hungary fully complied with and then repealed the legislation. Nevertheless, to this day, we see that some newspaper articles refer to this law claiming, among other things, that the rule of law has ceased to exist in Hungary, even though the repeal of the law supports the exact opposite.
On the other hand, the French press mostly obtains information about Hungary unilaterally from the same sources. Of course, there are rare exceptions, but most of them are opposition politicians, analysts, or journalists critical of the Hungarian government who present the current events in Hungary only from their own point of view. There is no problem with these actors appearing in a French newspaper article, but in our opinion it would be luckier if the readers could get the full picture in each case, and besides the critical voices, the position of the government could also appear.
Let’s talk a little bit about Hungary – and I would return to the relationship between the past and the present. You shared a commemorative post on March 15th. Isn’t it weird to commemorate, as a Habsburg, a revolution against your own family?
Well, in fact, I have been commemorating March 15th every year since I moved to Hungary in 1989. I made it very clear back then that I had no problem with the revolution. Here, we are talking about our common history. We have to accept it.
Still, national identity played a significant role in the revolution, the Hungarians did not want a common ruler.
Indeed, but I think without the revolution there would have been no compromise [in 1867], which was an incredibly important point in our history. It was followed by an economic boom, and the millennium, the construction of the most beautiful buildings, the underground, and the whole infrastructure of the city bloomed. All of this, one of the most beautiful parts of our common history, would not have happened without the Revolution of 1848-49. There are positive and negative sides to everything, of course. But I think the relationship between Hungary and the Habsburg family is like a long marriage…and in a marriage there are good moments, but there are also conflicts. And history must be seen as a whole. Ever since my father became an honorary citizen in Gyula on March 15th, we can see that there really is no problem anymore.
György Habsburg with the bust of Franz Joseph I in the background. Photo by Imre Földi/MTI
As you mentioned, you have been living in Hungary for a long time and the family is also very international. What is your national identity? Hungarian? Austrian?
For me, this is quite clear. Now, I have spent more time in my life in Hungary than anywhere else. It is quite visible, where I put the focus in my life. I got married there, my children were born there, they also went to school there. Hungary is the center of my life.
Do you miss it being in France now?
Yes, I miss it very much, of course. My wife stayed in Hungary because she built her equestrian center there – many children ride there and they also help in the therapy of children with disabilities. Unfortunately, the horses could not be loaded on a plane and brought with us. It’s something she built and she didn’t want to leave behind, so she stayed. But Paris is not that far away. Without the coronavirus crisis, there are plenty of opportunities to meet. But I still talk to my wife and son many times on video chat, while one of my daughters is staying here in Paris, and the other is going to university in Spain.
There is a kind of “Habsburg nostalgia” in Hungary. This is perhaps also evident from the fact that we have two Habsburg ambassadors [the other is Eduard Habsburg, Ambassador to the Vatican]. In Austria, on the other hand, even though the dynasty’s center was there, it is less visible, the family was even banned from the country until the 1960s.
Yes, it is very noticeable.
The relationship between the Habsburg family and the Hungarian state is much more normal and closer than with the Austrian state. Cohabitation is somehow easier in Hungary.
Unfortunately, it was very difficult in Austria before, because the Austrian government acted very strongly against the Habsburg family, while this did not happen in Hungary. This is strange, because the Habsburg family is really everywhere in Austria, there is a slice of our history behind every building, this is what their tourism is built on. We used to say that there was never a close relationship with the living members of the family, they were more focused on our history. In Hungary, on the other hand, we have a living relationship, this is why cohabitation is easier – and effective for both parties.
György Habsburg opening the Sissi Exhibition in Gödöllő. Photo by Zsolt Szigetváry/MTI
Let’s play with another thought: President János Áder will soon fill his term as head of state. Have you considered, or have been talking about, that the next position we can see you in will be the President of Hungary? It would be interesting to have a Habsburg once again in a senior position.
Honestly, no, never. And I don’t even think it would be a possibility later on either. Although, by the way, there were talks with my father in the early 1990s about the position of president. He, however, rejected it very clearly, he said that his place is in the European institutions, he would like to work there for Hungary. And he did it very well. And I say again, I don’t think about “what ifs.” I am very happy here now, in this position, and I want nothing else at this moment.
Featured photo illustration by Tibor Illyés/MTI