President Bill Clinton once lamented that his time in high office denied him the opportunity for greatness, having governed during America’s holiday from history between the end of the Cold War and before the rise of Islamist jihad as a global force. A great president needs to be tested by great events.
The mere existence of war does not make leaders great. The parade of European leaders in the first decades of the 20th century could be judged failures precisely because they permitted the two world wars to arise. It is only after World War II that we look back with admiration at FDR and Churchill and, even then, avert our eyes from the indispensable role of Stalin’s Red Army in overcoming the Axis.
Roosevelt and Churchill met several times in Canada to plot war strategy. Their first meeting was 75 years ago, in August 1941 in the harbour of Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, which at that time had not yet become part of Canada. In Quebec City, there are monuments at La Citadelle to the two wartime Anglo-American summits held there. On my last visit, standing before the statue of FDR and Churchill, it was impossible not to conclude that it was a long way down to Barack Obama and David Cameron.
This Remembrance Day we might recall that the Armistice of 1918 also marked the end of a reign that was marked by Christian greatness and noble statesmanship. On November 11, 1918, Emperor Charles of Austria, the last of the centuries-old Habsburg dynasty, relinquished all further involvement in affairs of state. The liquidation of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the abolition of its royal house were part of the terms of peace which ended the Great War.
Charles became the heir presumptive to the Habsburg throne upon the assassination of his uncle, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914, which lit the fuse that led to the explosion of the war. He began that war continuing his service in the imperial armed forces. Upon the death of the old emperor Franz Joseph, Charles acceded to the throne of the dual monarchy 100 years ago, on November 21, 1916.
By the time of his accession, the Great War was more than two years into its bloody slaughter, and Europe’s royal families and parliaments seemed unable to find a path towards peace. Charles was praised for his far-sighted vision, rooted in Catholic social teaching, and his unstinting efforts to achieve peace. He was alone among the leaders of Europe in seriously engaging with the peace proposals of Pope Benedict XV.
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