Sunday, April 17, 2005

The elegance and charm of Old Europe were much in evidence, if only for a few brief hours, at Wednesday night’s benefit for the Hungarian American Coalition.

The Cosmos Club’s windows were ablaze with light and a string quartet played Lehar and Strauss on the marble staircase as formally clad guests queued to pay their respects to Archduke Otto von Habsburg, legendary head of the former Austro-Hungarian imperial house and the evening’s guest of honor.

Could that have been the sound of clicking heels as a trim young diplomat kissed the bejeweled hand of Madame la Vicomtesse d’Amecourt just before she swept into the gilded dining room in a vintage silk brocade gown? (Short dresses and pantsuits were “pas correcte” at a dinner where royalty was present.)

Despite an atmosphere redolent of long-gone empires, talk centered on Archduke Otto’s lifelong quest to build and expand the European Union.

“Ten new states have recently been admitted, and we are waiting for others, especially Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and the Ukraine,” he told a reporter while greeting guests with his wife, Archduchess Regina; his daughter, Archduchess Gabriela; and his son, Archduke Gyorgy.

Archduke Otto, amazingly hale and hearty at 92, readily admitted the EU was “already too big and unwieldy” but said that shouldn’t matter: “The new [member states] will be better Europeans than the old because they know the totalitarian alternative. They will enrich us enormously.”

Later, he praised the Ukrainians for courageously taking to the streets to ensure democratic rule. “Hundreds of thousands of people were willing to sleep outside in snowstorms,” he said, “to bring a victory for their nation.”

The oldest son of Karl I, the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, Archduke Otto was exiled from his homeland after the collapse of the dual monarchy in 1918. He was one of the original architects of the European Union in the postwar era, serving from 1979 to 1999 as a German deputy in the European Parliament. He finally was allowed to return to Austria in 1966 after renouncing his imperial rights.

“He would be the longest-reigning ruler in European history if he had succeeded to the throne when his father died 83 years ago,” said Aniko Gaal Schott, who organized the benefit to provide scholarships for students from new EU countries.

Mrs. Schott was among those paying tribute to Archduke Otto’s humanitarian feats, especially his aid to thousands of European Jews fleeing Nazism before World War II and his later assistance to those escaping communist rule.

“He opposed the two most horrendous threats of the 20th century with the courage of his convictions and brilliance of his intellect,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress.

The guest of honor said he had visited Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia before his American tour and has no plans to slow down.

“I still have so much to look forward to,” he said.

— Kevin Chaffee

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