Descendants of last Habsburg emperor climb ladder to power Hungary looks to its empire of the past for a new beginning

Ancient dynasty stages a surprise comeback in lands it ruled for centuries, reports Adrian Bridge
Budapest - In what must rank as one of the most unlikely political comebacks of the century, the descendants of the last Habsburg emperor are once again making their mark in the Central European territories that their family ruled for hundreds of years.

Not surprisingly, the comeback revolves around the cities of Vienna and Budapest, the twin centres of power in the latter years of the Austro- Hungarian empire, which at its peak stretched from the Adriatic to what is now Ukraine.

The most striking example of the trend is the appointment this week of Georg von Habsburg, the 32-year-old grandson of Emperor Karl I, to the position of Hungary's ambassador for European Integration.

In neighbouring Austria, the traditional heart of Habsburg power, Georg's brother, Karl, 35, was recently elected to represent the country in the European parliament. In addition to this, he serves as the president of the Austrian branch of the Pan-European movement.

The appointment in Budapest, where Karl I and his more famous predecessor, Franz Josef I, both held the title King of Hungary, marks the first time that a Habsburg has been given any official post in that country since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 following defeat in the First World War.

In addition to coming as a surprise, the move is full of historical irony. While Georg von Habsburg's predecessors did all that they could to keep the clock turned back to an imperial past, he is now being asked to help propel the country into the future through integration with Western Europe.

And while Mr von Habsburg himself was born an archduke and remains related to many of Europe's royal families, he was formally sworn into his new post by Hungary's Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn, a man who spent most of his political life in the Hungarian Communist Party.

"Having a Habsburg in the position [of ambassador] will help to enhance the reputation and image of Hungary," said Mr Horn, who has made membership of the European Union and Nato Hungary's key foreign policy goals.

The new ambassador, who holds Hungarian citizenship and has worked as director of a film company in Budapest since 1993, was quick to deny that he saw his new job as a stepping stone to the restoration of the monarchy.

"Let's forget about all that," he told The Independent. "We have got much more important things to do now - such as bringing Hungary back into Europe. We Habsburgs are a political family. We have been in the past, and why not again in the future?"

Otto von Habsburg, 83, himself a keen advocate of the Hungarian cause, has long since renounced any claim to his father's throne.

But the same is not true of all the members of the family. Before his election to the European parliament in October, Georg von Habsburg's older brother, Karl, refused to be drawn when he was quizzed on the issue.

When he was asked if he believed the Habsburg monarchy could return, his circumspect reply was: "Never say never again."