Politics of the Crypt Facing the Future with the Habsburg Dead

Many tourists take an underground detour to the Imperial Crypt, an internationally famed heritage site beneath the city of Vienna. But the final resting place of what was once Europe's most powerful dynasty is being largely overlooked by the Austrian state.

Painstaking work: Restoring the tombs of the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.
Michael Appelt

Painstaking work: Restoring the tombs of the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.


When night falls, loneliness sweeps in around Leopold I. The deceased emperor lies inside his coffin, propped up in the Imperial Crypt's deserted workshop. The restorer left work hours ago, and only Father Gottfried, the father superior, passes through with his rattling keys to check up on the vault.

The neon light reveals the decorations that embellish the former Habsburg ruler's massive, baroque tin coffin -- lions' paws, snakes, and eagles with formidable wingspans. A death's head made of lead, unfastened from the coffin, lies on the workbench amid toothbrushes and soapsuds. Layers of wax and dust accumulated over more than 300 years need to be scrubbed away.

The man who lies buried beneath this dusty splendor was once the continent's most powerful monarch. Leopold I reigned over the Holy Roman Empire for nearly half a century, beginning in 1658. He drove Turkish forces back from Vienna, defied King Louis XIV of France, and paved the way for an empire that stretched as far as the Netherlands, the Carpathian Mountains, Silesia, and Sardinia.

Of the 146 Habsburg relatives to Leopold I who are interred in that part of the crypt open to the public, only Emperor Franz Joseph I reigned longer. But resting in his robust copper coffin since 1916, Franz Joseph I hasn't yet needed to visit the workshop. Time has had more of an impact on those who died earlier and were encased in tin coffins. For centuries, the crypt was too cool and too damp. The cheeks of the sumptuous putti with their plaster cores are cracking while the tin lids and base plates on the tombs are corroding. Some of the tombs threaten to fall apart completely.

"When everything starts hanging out underneath, people from the Vienna Funeral Service come with protective masks and a storage coffin. The remains are placed in the storage coffin and stored temporarily while the old coffin is restored. Then they're put back in the original coffin and reconsecrated if necessary," says a long-serving employee, explaining the delicate tasks that make up daily work in the mausoleum of Europe's one-time most powerful family. The process of transferring remains from one coffin to another offers the occasional glimpse of the coffins' occupants. "Most of them are still in pretty good shape," the employee relates in his Viennese drawl. "Skeletonized, but still with hair, brocade clothing, high-heeled shoes, hands folded over a rosary. Just one of them, a prince, really looked pretty bad."

Warmongers, Murder Victims and Suicides

The crypt provides one of the prime attractions within Vienna's historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Capuchin monks who supervise it wave aside mention of old horror stories. Not one former emperor has ever come tumbling out of his coffin, they point out, and in any case everything in the crypt has been changed since 2003. The most vulnerable tin decorations have been restored and a climate control unit keeps the temperature and humidity constant.

In the evening, when the tourists have gone, an otherworldly silence reigns in the vault, 10 meters (33 feet) beneath Vienna. Nearly 400 years' worth of coffins and heart urns are collected here. Reform-inclined emperors lie alongside crowned warmongers, murder victims like Empress Elisabeth -- better known by her nickname "Sisi" -- lie alongside suicides like her son Rudolf, who was the heir apparent. The remains of blue-blooded relatives from the houses of Bourbon, Parma, Burgundy and Aragon also rest here. The Habsburgs became a major power through their strategy of nonviolent annexation through marriage.

Today, though, aside from the monks and the city of Vienna, only a "Society for the Preservation of the Imperial Crypt," with around a thousand members, sees to it that the deposed Habsburgs' Valhalla, at least, still reflects the family's former splendor. "We were dispossessed, so we didn't even have funds available for restoration," complains Karl Habsburg, loyal grandson of the last emperor and now himself head of the House of Habsburg. "The Imperial Crypt is a world-class monument," he says, "and really the government should be involved."

The Austrian government, however, isn't answering the call. Even 90 years after it enacted the Habsburg Law, the Republic of Austria still greets requests from the former dynasty with "limited enthusiasm," in the words of the president of Austria's Federal Monument Office. The decision from April 3, 1919, still holds. The Habsburgs were dispossessed of private property held in family funds, denied the right to run for election, and forbidden to remain in Austria, unless they renounced in writing their claims to the throne and their affiliation with the deposed dynasty.

Fallen Dynasty as Tourist Magnet

Carl Ludwig, son of the last Habsburg emperor, was interred in the family crypt in January 2008. He refused his entire life to meet the full demands of the Habsburg Law, and paid for it with more than half a century of being denied entry to the country. Carl Ludwig was the younger brother of the heir to the throne, Otto von Habsburg, and took part in the Allied landing at Normandy in 1944 in an American uniform. He felt he had sufficiently proved his republican sentiments.

Using the relics of the fallen dynasty as a tourist attraction but ostracizing the family's heirs is typically Austrian, living descendents of the family argue. Michael Salvator Habsburg, a great-grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph I from the Tuscany line, has the same complaint. His ancestors, the historian says, relinquished their claim to the throne and remained in the country, yet still have not been rehabilitated. Austria must face up to its past in order to find its identity, he adds. "Otherwise, nothing is left but a gelatinous blob."

To this day, Vienna continues to supplement individual EU laws at the national level with conditions concerning the Habsburgs, as if a return to the throne remained a constant threat. Any remaining concerns that the republic is in danger of collapse, though, should be dispelled by the appearance of the elderly gentlemen who make up the Teutonic Master Guard Corps. They come every year on November 20, the anniversary of Franz Joseph's death, to sing "God Save the Emperor" in the Capuchin Church above the vault and then gather to pray in the crypt chapel below, within view of the vault's last three empty marble plinths.

It "doesn't take much of a stretch of imagination" to guess who is meant to take these last places of honor, Karl Habsburg commented shortly before his mother's death two weeks ago. Karl's father Otto, 97, has joked that the Capuchin monks seem to eye him with particular attentiveness during his visits to the crypt -- "to take measurements for later."

Empty Coffin

There are still a few things to take care of, though, before the last Habsburg relative claims a spot in the crypt. No one knows this better than architect Karl Schleritzko from the Vienna-based architectural firm Brenner. Along with the Capuchin monks, Schleritzko serves as a hidden master of ceremonies here underground. He oversaw the renovations over the last several years, and he is familiar with the vault's unanswered questions.

What should be done, for example, with the monstrous copper coffin standing around uselessly at Vienna's Central Cemetery? It was originally meant for Emperor Charles I, but he was buried in Madeira, where he was forced into exile. Since his beatification in 2004, the emperor's resting place on the island has drawn more tourists than ever before. The autonomous Portuguese archipelago declines to transfer the tomb to the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.

The enormous coffin prepared for Charles I should be "melted down, so that some old monarchist doesn't steal it and have themselves buried in it," the keepers of the crypt suggest. That would raise a political issue, though -- it would be an irrevocable act, a declaration that Charles' remains will never be brought home.

Father Gottfried, one of the nine remaining monks at the Capuchin Church on Vienna's New Market Square, faces such questions with equanimity. "If the emperor does come, it's not a problem either," he says, "then we'll just shift a few tombs. People are always asking me anyway, whether he's on his way here from Madeira yet. I always say: As of this morning, he was still there."

Between the dead and the living, the nobles and the commoners, the close quarters in the crypt breed familiarity. "How long have you had him?" the top preservationist calls over the coffin of Emperor Leopold I to the restorer who is mending the coffin lid, accompanied by the sound of old hit music from his transistor radio. "Since June," the restorer replies. "He'll be done soon."

Europe's Cultural History

The nonchalant tone and typically Viennese light-heartedness down in the Imperial Crypt conceal the fervor of art-minded souls who have made it their life's work to preserve a piece of world heritage. The man at the coffin, for example, is Leonhard Stramitz, a highly trained metal restorer who has worked in the crypt for 33 years. Stramitz is one of the best in his field and though few in Vienna know of his talents, he has been in demand in places as far away as Nepal, where he helped to restore the Golden Gate at the old Royal Palace in Patan.

Crypt architect Schleritzko, meanwhile, is sought out by the owners of the most elegant palaces in Vienna's city center. The work in the crypt, Schleritzko says, is a personal mission for him. "I want to help preserve a place of European cultural interest and preserve the dignity of the place."

Father Gottfried, the father superior, acts as the living memory of the crypt. He keeps the keys to the Habsburgers' tombs in a wooden box containing neatly labeled envelopes from nearly four centuries. And for nearly every one of them, he has a tidbit of European history to offer.

But Gottfried is now 77, and master metalworker Stramitz down in the workshop is 64. The presumed claimants of the last available tomb sites in the crypt are all between 85 and 97 years old. What will happen to the mausoleum when, one day in the not too distant future, the royal hearse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire pulls up in front of the Capuchin Church for the last time?

He will continue to pray for all those in the crypt once it's full, says Father Gottfried, with the imperturbability of someone for whom this world is only a stop along the way. One gets a clearer sense of the ephemeral nature of things down here, adds Michael Salvator Habsburg. "The Christian Western world speaks out of the depths of the crypt," he says. "You can sense continuity and legitimation here."

But things are different above ground, amid the daily life of the republic, Habsburg comments: "A government thinks first and foremost about its pension rights."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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waclaw 02/19/2010
1. Politics of the Crypt -or bedtime children's stories
Leopold I reigned over the Holy Roman Empire for nearly half a century, beginning in 1658. He drove Turkish forces back from Vienna ?!!!! This and other bedtime stories or Kindermaerchen are told to Austrian children. Truth is that brave Leopold scarpered off to hide from the Turks.His crown, Die schoene Stadt Wien and the Empire was was saved by King Sobieski of Poland who defeated the Turks first and then some small time German count ( Wittenberg?) came in for the final kill I believe. grand Leopold refused to meet King Sobieski in the city but met him well away from the city, near todays Wien Flughafen. Not far from the airport, on a crossroads, amongst weeds and overgrown bracken, you might just find a small memorial to King Sobieski. In the city somewhere far away is a small street named after him too. That is Austrian gratitude. Pass the strudel and schaps Hans. Long live our glorious leopold
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