Ferdinand’s second life was the sweetest

  • Themes: History

How did the deposed and once despised Habsburg monarch manage the perfect political retirement?

Ferdinand I of Austria (1793-1875).
Ferdinand I of Austria (1793-1875). Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

Prague is the perfect place for hiding things. The golem was hidden there, by Rabbi Loew, in the rafters of the Old-New Synagogue, a place whose nomenclature is an act of camouflage. It was in the winding back streets of Malá Strana that the English magician Edward Kelley hid his unnatural experiments from the world, chasing, on behalf of the emperor himself, the dream of matter turned into gold.

Because it is so good at it, the city has taken concealment into its very streetplan. The not-Irish bars clustered like ugly neon ducklings under the wings of the great church at Týn, generally hide not only their true ownership but their true prices as well. Even on Wenceslas Square, Prague’s face to the world, façades conceal passageways, which conceal half empty marble shopping arcades where it is forever 1968. Nothing is as it seems.

To this day the mother of cities and her environs provide plenty of boltholes, where roubles can hide until they turn, magically, into Euros, or where men can hide until they have a new identity altogether. Here is the genius at the heart of Prague’s gift for concealment: something that is hidden can be forgotten. And something that has been forgotten can be made anew.

No surprise then that the Habsburgs, themselves the geniuses of Europe’s governing dynasties, turned to Prague’s particular talents when they had something – or rather, someone – to hide. In 1848, revolutions shook Europe. The Emperor of Austria, the hydrocephalous Ferdinand I and V was not considered up to the challenges posed by nascent nationalisms across the Empire. The true extent of Ferdinand’s disabilities remains unknown. It benefitted the new regime of Franz Jozef to portray him as a dribbling imbecile incapable of rule, but his talent for languages and detailed diary suggest a figure not defined by what the world thought wrong with him. Still, the image of the Childlike King – who asked the spidery Metternich, when he told Ferdinand of mobs in the streets of Vienna, whether ‘they were allowed to do that’ – gained traction. He was a mistake. A failure. He would abdicate. And he would be hidden in Prague.

Prague was perfect for Ferdinand’s long political retirement, and not only because of her shroud-like quality. She still had her palaces and gilded halls, a place for playing at imperial prestige while far away from the centre of real power. Her people grumbled and mocked, but rarely could they muster the passion for open rebellion or violence, and certainly not on behalf of a simpleton chewed up by Vienna. So Ferdinand took Prague to heart, and Prague did the same in return. He lived in the Hrad, like a sort of anti-Napoleon, obsessing over everything except politics, from his toy trains to his trips to visit his fruit trees at his summer house.

A strange, stooped figure, weighed down by his own head, he would make shuffling progresses along Prague’s Narodní Třida. The boulevard was being slowly transformed into a great boulevard of Czech national icons, a highway of Bohemia’s distinctly non-Austrian life. Yet along it would wander the one-time Emperor and hand out sweets to children and money, bearing the austere face of his usurping nephew, to beggars. For their parts, the Czechs showed him deference and affection. As his political career was forgotten, his retirement became who Ferdinand was and is remembered as to this day.

True, this reconciliation was perhaps helped by the fact that the only substantive command Ferdinand ever gave when he did have power was a demand for apricot dumplings. When told that the necessary fruit was not in season, the Kaiser of the Austrian Reich put his foot down: ‘I am the emperor!’ he bellowed, ‘and I want dumplings.’ But plenty of essentially harmless monarchs still ended up headless. It is a peril of a political system with symbol at its heart.

When it came to symbol, there was a slight element of expediency and classically Czech subversion to the Praguers’ treatment of Ferdinand. Their bows and scrapes to him made first and foremost in defiance of his successor. But as with any good joke, the affection became real. In Prague he became ‘Ferdinand Dobrotivy’ or ‘Ferdinand der Gutige’: ‘Ferdinand the Benign’. In Vienna this name was mocked, less kindly, as ‘Gutinand der Fertige’: ‘Benignand the Finished’.

The very fact that he was there, in Prague, was testament to, daily evidence of, his political failure. Yet, ironically it was the time in Prague that caused that failure to be hidden and, once hidden, forgotten and once forgotten, subsumed into a new myth of the benign ex-king. The art of political retirement, especially when it has been enforced, is a complex one. Perhaps even more so than the art of politics itself. In the hidden parts of Prague, the supposed simpleton proved himself a master at it.

How did he manage the perfect political retirement? Well, not making mistakes of one’s own, not constantly plotting, helped. Playing with toy trains is a much better retirement activity than playing politics. In contrast, it also helps if your successors do make mistakes: ‘even I could have managed that’, Ferdinand is said to have exclaimed in response to the pathetic Austrian capitulation to the might of Prussia at Königgrätz.

Time is generally friendly to the political retiree as well. It is especially so when it moves in great sweeps and hurricanes. The collapse of Europe less than half a century after Ferdinand’s death gave further succour in some quarters to the idea that his had been a good retirement: those who get out of the way of history’s furies get the privilege of being looked upon, like he was, as benign. Or, in terms more in keeping with realpolitik, the rest of the century would show that the existential issues facing the Austrian Hungarian state were not simply solvable by putting someone who looked the part in charge.

That particular issue leads us inevitably to today, as similar mistakes are repeated. Leaders of the West, as they face similar tides of history, might look profitably to Ferdinand. As cycles of re-election and the threat of forced retirement loom, many will be wanting to mark out the things for which history might deign to remember them. They all think this is best done by continued active engagement with political life. After all, political retirement is a concept alien to American political culture, as its current gerontocratic leadership shows. In the UK as well, spectres of PMs past loom in both parties, determined that history will not yet have the final word on their legacies just yet.

Legacy, however, which is the obsession of any leader, whether they admit it or not, is more to do with what happens next and how things end than any high point of policy success. A good retirement is worth twenty successes in office. The creation of a ‘good retirement’ itself necessarily involves the construction of myth, which can only happen when part of the past is hidden away, forgotten. As Ferdinand showed, in those forgotten streets of Prague: sometimes to become ‘the Benign’ you must first embrace being ‘the Finished’.


Fergus Butler-Gallie