‘C’EST LA PAIX!’ – THE SIXTUS LETTERS AND THE PEACE INITIATIVE OF EMPEROR KARL I

Hungary’s last King Károly IV (Emperor of Austria as Karl I) is mostly associated in Hungary with his failed attempts to reclaim the Hungarian throne in 1921. His early, courageous, albeit abortive peace initiatives have received much less attention, for a variety of reasons. First of all, this peace plan needed to be executed in strict secrecy on account of the alliance with Germany, since Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany was determined to continue to fight until victory, and an acknowledgement of Austria–Hungary’s war fiasco and subsequent pullout would have, in more ways than one, fatally jeopardised the achievement of Germany’s military aims. Almost to the very end, Wilhelm II believed in the practicability of those aims and would not hear of any form of Austro-Hungarian withdrawal, be it a separate peace or total capitulation.

Both the new Emperor-King (1887–1922), thirty years of age when taking the throne after the death of the aged Franz Joseph I on 21 November 1916, and his wife Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma (1892–1989) saw an urgent need to end the war and to conclude a separate peace. The Emperor-King consulted Zita on every matter of importance; in fact, most of his decisions were made jointly with his wife. After his accession to the throne, the Emperor-King tried to set up a government that supported his peace efforts. By 16 December 1916 he had appointed Count Ottokar Czernin (1872–1932) as Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and on 1 March 1917, by dismissing Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852–1925), he took operative control of the armed forces himself. It was on his demand that the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count István Tisza (1861–1918), an opponent of his reform endeavours, handed in his resignation on 23 May 1917. Actively involved in political leadership throughout his reign, the Emperor-King sought ways of negotiating peace from the start.

Attempting to bring about a separate peace required strict secrecy, therefore the imperial-royal couple only involved their closest family, and entrusted the initiative to Empress-Queen Zita’s brother, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma (1886–1934). With good connections to the French government as well as strong ties to the ruling European dynasties, the Prince seemed especially suited for establishing contact between Austria–Hungary and the Entente Powers.(1) The secrets of the Sixtus Affair started to come to light in the early 1920s, shortly after World War I, as more and more documents, memoirs of key participants and scholarly studies of the period appeared in print. Even though several of these sources reflect biased and conflicting opinions, collectively they add up to a significant corpus of the Sixtus Affair and of Emperor-King Karl’s peace initiatives in general.

The key documents appeared as early as 1920 in both the London Daily Telegraph and in the Paris L’Opinion. Journal de la semaine.(2) One of the very first works to be published was the story of Prince Sixtus’ mission which appeared in both French and English, edited by Georges de Manteyer, with the latter version running into at least nine editions by 1920.(3) The years after the war saw the appearance of several memoirs by key players, such as those of Austro-Hungarian ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Count Ottokar Czernin, entitled Im Weltkriege,(4) and published in 1919, as well as those of the chief of the Emperor-King’s personal cabinet, Count Arthur Poltzer-Hoditz, published in 1929, which builds on Czernin’s work mentioned above and also includes numerous documents in its appendix,(5) and finally German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg’s book entitled Betrachtungen zum Weltkrieg.(6) Karl Friedrich Nowak’s recently republished work, Der Sturz der Mittelmächte,(7) is still regarded as a useful source, and even Richard Fester’s strongly biased Die Politik Kaiser Karls und der Wendepunkt des Weltkrieges has considerable informative value.(8) The publication of sources is still an ongoing process, contributing richly to the literature of the field up to the present day.(9) Ferenc Fejtő published his Requiem pour un empire défunt. Histoire de la destruction de l’Autriche–Hongrie in 1988.(10)

The Sixtus Affair was initiated by Emperor-King Karl and Empress-Queen Zita. This strictly clandestine and highly confidential diplomatic attempt involved, as intermediaries, Empress-Queen Zita’s mother, Princess Maria Antonia Braganza, the Dowager Duchess of Parma, as well as Count Tamás Erdődy (1886–1931), the Emperor-King’s childhood playmate and personal friend. Princess Sarsina, a native of France and married to an Italian, became a go-between connecting the Habsburgs, the Duchess of Parma and her sons, the Princes of Bourbon-Parma. A few diplomats were also in the know, such as Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Ottokar Czernin. Guided by his desire to end the war and seeing the disastrous situation at the fronts, the new Emperor-King as well as his Empress decided to embark on a well thought-out policy of peace, and sought contact with France through the medium of the Empress-Queen’s brother Prince Sixtus. Sir Hugh Whittal, a British agent working for the MI6 in Switzerland described Empress Zita “as the driving force” and Princess Sarsina as “the central person of the whole affair”.(11)

By this time Prince Sixtus, just returning from the front, had himself come to envisage the same basic points for a peace treaty with France, and was ready to meet the Emperor-King’s envoy in Switzerland. The meeting took place on 13 February 1917.

According to the Prince’s proposal to Emperor-King Karl and, through him, to the President of the French Republic, peace could be concluded on the basis of the following conditions:

1. Conclusion of a secret peace with Russia in return for Russia’s declaration that it lays no claim to Constantinople;

2. [Restoration of] Alsace-Lorraine;


3. Restoration of Belgium;


4. The establishment of a Southern Slav kingdom including Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania and Montenegro.(12)

From Switzerland Prince Sixtus sent a message to his brother-in-law Karl, saying that “in order to save the Monarchy” the Emperor-King should promulgate an imperial ordinance that confronts Germany with a fait accompli. This ordinance could preserve the semblance of friendship and alliance with Germany, while it would also enable Austria to propose peace to its enemies with the above conditions. Prince Sixtus warned the Emperor-King against trying to broker peace through diplomacy, “since both Germany and Italy have a vested interest in thwarting this kind of mediation”.(13) The Prince was already familiar with the plans of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning Austria, since these had been imparted to him on 11 February 1917, by Secretary of State and ex-Ambassador to Berlin, Jules Cambon. On that occasion the French diplomat pointed out repeatedly that Austria should try to avoid ending up “being at the mercy of Germany”, and added: “If the emperor believes himself strong enough to propose peace openly to the Entente, and thereby declare publicly that, as of now, the Monarchy’s interests of protecting its integrity and sheer survival are clearly distinct from the expansionist, unjust and irrational goals pursued by Germany, he could manifest his will […].”(14)

Prince Sixtus, however, did not only receive his instructions from the imperial- royal couple. In the name of the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Count Ottokar Czernin handed him a document on 18 February 1917, which was to serve him as a kind of political guideline. The document had been worded and dictated to Count Tamás Erdődy by the Minister himself, then it was translated into French by Sixtus’ brother, Prince Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, after which the original German text was destroyed; consequently, only its retranslation into German is available for research today. In this document Czernin emphasised that the alliance of Austria–Hungary, Germany, Turkey and Bulgaria was “absolutely indissoluble”. Austria–Hungary, which, as he alleged, was in no way under the authority of Germany, was engaged in an exclusively defensive war and had no intention of annihilating either Romania or Serbia. He underlined that all nationalities living in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had equal rights; the Germans enjoyed no privileges over the Slavs. Czernin also highlighted that the Monarchy would support Germany’s renouncing of Alsace-Lorraine.(15) The Emperor-King added some secret comments to Count Czernin’s guidelines in his own hand, in which he assured his brother-in-law, and through him the Entente Powers, of his support of France and of his intention to exercise pressure on Germany, as well as of his sympathy for Belgium and readiness to pay war reparations. He emphasised that in his view the Monarchy was not under the control of Germany; the Monarchy, on the other hand, had the impression that France was under the influence of Great Britain. To Czernin’s remark about Austria–Hungary being engaged in a purely defensive war the Emperor-King added: “So is Germany”. He gave special weight to the argument that in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy no nationalities or ethnic groups were discriminated against, and Slavs were treated on a fully equal basis with Germans. “All peoples of the Monarchy live in unity and are loyal to the dynasty”, the Emperor-King pointed out emphatically. The fact that this project was conducted under constant fear of the Germans was not only evident from the Emperor-King’s comment, but also from the fate of the document: the comments written by the Emperor-King himself were read out to Prince Sixtus in Count Erdődy’s presence, then, still in the Count’s presence, they were torn up and burnt. Prince Sixtus reconstructed the text from memory on 23 February 1917. The whole process of the peace attempt was marked by fear of the Germans, and by a resulting need for the highest level of secrecy and by efforts to conceal the Emperor-King’s participation.

In his letter to Emperor-King Karl on 16 March 1917, Prince Sixtus urged the monarch to confirm the already known four points “in a clear and unambiguous fashion”, and he sent his brother-in-law a draft version in order to help him prepare the final formulation. In the Prince’s opinion, the four points below constituted the conditions of the separate peace:

1. Austria–Hungary recognises the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France;

2. Belgium regains its sovereignty;


3. The [Austro-Hungarian] Monarchy abandons all plans of annihilating Serbia;

4. Austria–Hungary proposes negotiations with Russia on the basis of the Monarchy’s willingness to renounce its claim to Constantinople on condition that it regains its own Russian- occupied territories.(16)

On 24 March 1917 the Emperor-King had a message delivered by Prince Sixtus to Raymond Poincaré, President of the French Republic. In the message, which contained the Emperor-King’s comments on the above-mentioned four points of the peace proposal, Karl’s primary objective was to provide a personal guarantee in the question of Alsace-Lorraine, most vital to France’s interests. “I will use all means at my disposal and all my influence over my allies to support France’s justified claim to Alsace-Lorraine”,(17) the monarch declared. He also added a remark on the fate of Belgium: “As far as Belgium is concerned, it should regain its independence and all its South-African colonies without any reduction of the reparations due to the damages it has suffered.”(18)

On the subject of Serbia, the Emperor-King hit a harsher tone. He expressed his intention to restore the country’s sovereignty, and also acknowledged its claim to an outlet to the Adriatic. “As a preliminary and unconditional proviso, Austria–Hungary insists that the Kingdom of Serbia should renounce, once and for all, every tie to groups and societies whose political aim is the destruction of the Monarchy; moreover, it should ban these societies – especially the one called Narodna Odbrana. Furthermore, Serbia should make every effort within its power to prevent all forms of political propaganda, both within and outside its borders, in the matter of which we need its assurance and the guarantee of the Entente Powers.”(19) Prince Sixtus handed the Emperor-King’s letter to the President of the French Republic on 31 March 1917. On hearing about this, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George exclaimed: “C’est la paix!” [This is peace!](20)

On 5 May 1917, Sixtus drafted a letter in French for the Emperor-King, which Karl sent back to him substantially shortened and retailored on 9 May.(21) In this second letter to Prince Sixtus the Emperor-King tried to assure his brother-in- law, and through him the Entente Powers, that Italy was definitely abandoning all its territorial claims except for Southern Tyrol. The Emperor-King was pleased to affirm that “The [Austro-Hungarian] Monarchy, France and England see eye to eye on so many vital issues that, we firmly believe, this will create a basis for removing the last obstacles that stand in the way of concluding a fair peace treaty.”(22) Count Czernin attached a note to the Emperor-King’s letter in which, probably to avoid any misunderstanding of his master’s words, he stressed that the Monarchy was not willing to make any territorial concessions; what is more, it demanded a guarantee of safeguarding its territorial integrity.(23)

What lay behind the Sixtus Affair were Emperor-King Karl’s continued and continually fruitless efforts to win his German ally over to accept and support his aims. The Emperor of Germany, Wilhelm II, however, either openly rejected the proposals of his Austro-Hungarian ally, or else he pretended he had not fully understood them. The personal meeting between the two Emperors at the German headquarters in Homburg on 2 April 1917 was a defeat for the Austro-Hungarian monarch and for his personal diplomacy.(24) All this is even more strikingly evident from a letter sent to Karl by the German Emperor from Kreuznach on 14 April 1917, published in facsimile by Arthur Graf Polzer-Hoditz in his Kaiser Karl. The letter practically brushes away the Austrian monarch’s plans for a peace treaty, and by listing the successes of the German navy, and especially the “achievements” of submarine warfare, it aims to prove the outstanding prospects of the military situation.(25)

The Sixtus Affair ended in failure, and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was unable to leave World War I before it came to a gruesome though expectable end. The Austro-Hungarian monarch’s constant fear of the Germans, and specifically of Emperor Wilhelm II, forced him, his family and closest circle to act with the utmost secrecy. Meetings were held deep inside imperial castles or on castlegrounds which were completely sealed off and under military protection. Prince Sixtus travelled on a false passport, under a false name, and all scripts in the Emperor- King’s handwriting were torn up and burnt after use. Karl’s efforts, however, were counterpointed by Count Czernin, who pursueda foreign policy more in line with the Germans, and who kept “correcting” his monarch’s intentions. On 8 January 1920, that is towards the end of the Paris Peace Conference, Czernin made a statement in the Neue Freie Presse declaring: “The Austro-Hungarian government never had the intention to betray Germany, only to secure more freedom of movement (“Ellbogenfreiheit”) for a general peace.”(26) We may well presume that one of the very people who thwarted the Emperor-King’s plans was his own Minister of Foreign Affairs.(27) Paradoxically, Count Arthur Polzer-Hoditz’s book on Emperor Karl seems to prove this supposition, with its sharp criticism of Czernin both in its overall focus and throughout most of the book. The Count’s text(28) was largely based on a volume of documents entitled Austria’s Peace Offer 1916–1917,(29) published in French in Paris and shortly afterwards in English in London in 1921, a work of propaganda destined to whitewash the Monarchy and to glorify Emperor-King Karl and, by recalling the Sixtus Affair along with some other episodes, attempting to stress the Monarchy’s goodwill towards its neighbours, its balanced and harmonious relations with its nationalities and the injustice of the Paris Peace Treaties.

The source material gives clear evidence of the excessive influence that Empress- Queen Zita and the Bourbon-Parma family at large had on Austro-Hungarian state affairs, particularly on foreign policy, as well as on the Emperor-King himself. At the same time, these sources show King Károly IV (Emperor Karl I of Austria), mostly associated in Hungarian memory with his unfortunate efforts at returning to the throne after World War I in a new light: as a hero embarking on a mission for a separate peace straight after taking the throne, in fact an apostle of peace. Without any doubt, the separate peace attempt was the Emperor-King’s most significant political endeavour, even though it was doomed to failure due to the formidable German pressure, the continuously worsening international and military situation and a lack of agreement within the government. The image we have formed of Emperor-King Karl is, in all probability, unfair: he deserves a better place in Austrian and Hungarian historical memory than the one assigned to him based on his 1921 comeback attempts into Hungary. Had they triumphed, his peace plans might have averted the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the ensuing Treaty of Saint-Germain – and that of Trianon.

Emperor Karl was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 3 October 2004. Already in 1922, at the time of the emperor’s premature death, a movement was launched campaigning for his beatification, led by the Christian-Social Head of the Austrian National Council and later President of Austria, Wilhelm Miklas (1928–1938). From 1925 onwards, the Archdiocese of Vienna engaged in systematic data collection about the Emperor-King’s life in order to justify his beatification. The beatification process was officially started in 1949 in the Vatican. It was supported by a movement called “Kaiser-Karl-Gebetsliga für den Völkerfrieden” [Emperor Karl League of Prayers for the Peace of Peoples], as a result of which in 1995 a 2,650-page (!) documentation, or “positio” about the Emperor-King’s life and exemplary Christian conduct was submitted in Rome. Characteristically, his feast day was set on 21 October, the anniversary of his marriage to the then prospective Empress-Queen Zita in 1911. The Vatican came to the decision that the profoundly religious Emperor-King regarded his political activities as “holy ministry”. His critics, on the other hand, such as the contemporary Austrian historian Brigitte Hamann, consider him an “underling of the Church”.(30) They make him responsible for the death of thousands of soldiers, as after the dismissal of Conrad von Hötzendorf he became commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He is also held responsible, among other things, for the deployment of poison gas in the 12th Battle of Isonzo on 24 October 1917.

The beatification met with a mixed reception in the media for a number of reasons, one of them being the salient role played in it by ultra-conservative Catholic circles (headed, among others, by the highly controversial bishop Kurt Krenn), and also because of the emphatic presence at the Vatican ceremony of an official Austrian state delegation led by Andreas Khol, representative of the Austrian People’s Party and President of the National Council.(31)

Emperor-King Karl’s short reign, his personality and politics strongly divide public opinion and historical research in Austria and abroad, as well as Austrian and Hungarian historical memory. This young monarch, pious to the verge of bigotry, completely inexperienced when taking the throne and hardly able to rid himself of a variety of influences including those of his wife, the Emperor of Germany and the Catholic Church, obviously acted with the best intentions, but was incapable of saving his empire; what is more, his indecisiveness and wrong moves contributed to its undoing. However, his attempt to negotiate a separate peace through the medium of Prince Sixtus, even though it proved a failure, remains an outstanding and most positive episode of his brief life and reign.(32)

Translation by Zsuzsanna Walkó


1 On the activities of Princes Sixtus and Xavier of Bourbon-Parma during World War I see: G[eorges] de MANTEYER (ed.): Austria’s Peace Offer 1916–1917. Constable and Co.,London, 1921. Introduction: 1–31.

2 François FEJTÖ: Requiem pour un empire défunt. Histoire de la destruction de l’Autriche–Hongrie. Lieu

Commun, Paris, 1988. Annexe III, 407.

3 G[eorges] de MANTEYER (éd.): L’offre de paix séparée de l’Autriche (5 décembre 1916 – 12 octobre 1917). Avec deux lettres autographes de l’empereur Charles et une note autographe du comte Czernin. Plon-Nourrit et Cie, Paris, 1920.; MANTEYER (1921). This source also includes the article published in L’Illustration by Jean de PIERREFEU: Une paix séparée avec l’Autriche était-elle possible? La mission secrète du Prince Sixte de Bourbon (6 décembre 1916 – 23 Mai 1917). Une page d’histoire inconnue.

4 Ottokar CZERNIN: Im Weltkriege. Ullstein, Berlin–Wien, 1919.

5 Arthur Graf POLZER-HODITZ: Kaiser Karl. Aus der Geheimmappe seines Kabinettchefs. Amalthea-Verlag, Zürich–Leipzig–Wien, 1929.

6 Theobald von BETHMANN-HOLLWEG: Betrachtungen zum Weltkrieg, 1–2. Teile. Reimar Hobbing, Berlin, 1919–1921.

7 Karl Friedrich NOWAK: Der Sturz der Mittelmächte. G. D. W. Callwey, München, 1921.

8 Richard FESTER: Die Politik Kaiser Karls und der Wendepunkt des Weltkrieges. J. F. Lehmann, München, 1925.


9 Wolfgang STEGLICH: Die Friedenspolitik der Mittelmächte, 1917–1918, I–II. Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden, 1964; Gabriel HANOTAUX: Carnets (1907–1925), publiés par Georges Dethan. A. Pedone, Paris, 1982; Tamara GRIESSER-PECAR: Die Mission Sixtus. Amalthea Verlag, Wien, 1988; Alexander DEMBLIN (Hg.): August Demblin: Minister gegen Kaiser. Aufzeichnungen eines österreichisch- ungarischen Diplomaten über Außenminister Czernin und Kaiser Karl. Böhlau Verlag, Wien, 1997.

10 François FEJTÖ: Requiem pour un empire défunt. See especially Annexes III–VI, 407–418.

11 Karina Urbach: Go-betweens for Hitler. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015. 76–77.

12 Mémorandum du Prince Sixte de Bourbon, 5 March 1917. In FEJTÖ (1988): Annexe III, 408–409.

13 Ibid., in FEJTÖ (1988): Annexe III, 408–409.

14 The Conversation of Prince Sixtus and Jules Cambon, 11 February 1917. In FEJTÖ (1988): Annexe IV, 413.


15 POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 597–598. Anhang VI: Richtlinien des Grafen Czernin vom 18. Februar 1917.

16 POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 599–600. Anhang VIII-IX: Aus dem Brief des Prinzen Sixtus von Bourbon-Parma an Kaiser Karl, Paris, 16. März 1917, Übertragung aus dem Französischen; Entwurf einer Note (Projet de note), beigelegen dem vorstehenden Brief vom 16. März 1917, Übertragung aus dem Französischen.

17 The message of Karl I to Poincaré via Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma. In FEJTÖ (1988): Annexe V, 415.

18 Ibid. and POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 600–601. Anhang X: Erster Brief Kaiser Karls an seinen

Schwager Prinzen Sixtus v. Bourbon-Parma, Laxenburg, 24. März 1917, Übertragung ins Deutsche.


19 Ibid.

20 POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 337.


21 POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 602–603. Anhang XI: Von Prinzen Sixtus von Bourbon-Parma vorgeschlagener Entwurf für den zweiten Brief des Kaisers an ihn, Neuchâtel, 5. Mai 1917, Übertragung aus dem Französischen.

22 Emperor Karl’s second autograph letter, 9 May 1917. In FEJTÖ (1988): Annexe VI, 417; POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 603. Anhang XII: Zweiter Brief Kaiser Karls an seinen Schwager Prinzen Sixtus von Bourbon-Parma, Laxenburg, 9. Mai 1917, Übertragung aus dem Französischen.

23 Count Czernin’s Objections, Vienna, 9 May1917. In FEJTÖ (1988): Annexe VI, 418. POLZER- HODITZ (1929): 604. Anhang XIII: Aide mémoire des Ministers des Äußern Grafen Czernin, dem Prinzen Sixtus zugleich mit dem zweiten Kaiserbrief mitgegeben.

24 POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 339–343.


25 Wilhelm [II] an Karl [I], Kreuznach, 14. April 1917. In POLZER-HODITZ (1929): between pages 344 and 345, and 345–346.

26 POLZER-HODITZ (1929): 604–606. Anhang XIV: Erklärungen des Ministers a. D. Ottokar Czernin, Neue Freie Presse, 17. Jänner 1920.

27 DEMBLIN (1997).

28 POLZER-HODITZ (1929); MANTEYER (1921).


29 MANTEYER (1921). This book, translated from French into English, was one of the most significant Austrian works of foreign propaganda and partly a response to the Peace of Saint- Germain; cf. MANTEYER (1920). For similar Austrian propaganda in English published earlier, see Tibor FRANK: Picturing Austria–Hungary. The British Perception of the Habsburg Monarchy 1865–1870. Columbia University Press, New York, 2005. 40–54.

30 Brigitte HAMANN: Österreich. Ein historisches Portrait. C. H. Beck, München, 2009, 131.

31 www.habsburger.net/de/kapitel/die-seligsprechung-kaiser-karls-iés www.profil.at/articles/0401/560/72207/der-kaiser – 2014. 12. 10.


32 For further reading consult: Eva DEMMERLE: Kaiser Karl I. “Selig, die Frieden stiften …”. Die Biographie, Amalthea, Wien, 2004; Erich FEIGL: Kaiser Karl I. Ein Leben für den Frieden seiner Völker, Amalthea-Verlag, Wien, 1990; Tamara GRIESSER-PECAR: Die Mission Sixtus, Amalthea Verlag, Wien, 1988; Robert A. KANN: Die Sixtusaffäre und die geheimen Friedensverhandlungen Österreich– Ungarns im ersten Weltkrieg, Verlag für Geschichte und Politik, Wien, 1966; Reinhold LORENZ: Kaiser Karl und der Untergang der Donaumonarchie, Verlag Styria, Graz, 1959; Jan MIKRUT (Hg.): Kaiser Karl I. (IV.) als Christ, Staatsmann, Ehemann und Familienvater, Internationales Forschungsinstitut zur Förderung der Kirchengeschichte in Mitteleuropa, Wien, 2004; Wolfgang STEGLICH: Die Friedenspolitik der Mittelmächte, 1917–1918, I–II, Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden, 1964.

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