Johann Orth: Habsburg (ret’d)

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The lake castle of Orth in Upper Austria is well known in the German-speaking world as the location for the television series Schlosshotel Orth. But nothing the scriptwriters have ever thought up for their viewers can be quite as spectacular as the following episode from the Habsburg family chronicles.

Born in Florence in 1852, Archduke Johann Salvator of the Tuscan line was soon regarded as the family’s black sheep. He initially embarked upon a military career but decided to leave the army at the age of 35. With his critical writings on the Austrian educational system and the military, his urgent call for reforms and his liberal way of thinking, he soon met with disapproval, particularly from Franz Joseph.

The lake castle of Orth was given by Grand Duke Leopold II to his youngest son Johann Salvator to be his residence. Built in the tenth century, it stands on a rocky island in Lake Traun and with its three-cornered courtyard featuring arcades over two storeys on two of its sides is a building of considerable architectural note. A wooden bridge leads from the castle to the shore. Johann had the castle remodelled in accordance with his own wishes, setting particular store by the restoration of the original building. But he was not to live there long.

Shortly after the suicide of his cousin and close friend the crown prince Rudolf, another liberal who foundered on the rocks of the imperial house, Johann chose his own way of turning his back on the aristocracy – he requested permission to resign his membership of the imperial house, laid down his title and took the name of his castle as his own – Johann Orth. So it was that in 1889, in London, Johann was able marry his beloved Ludmilla (‘Milli’) Stubel, who as a dancer from the Vienna court opera was far below his station. In the following year, the young man felt drawn to the sea. In Hamburg, Johann Orth obtained a captain’s commission, bought the large cargo steamer St. Margret and departed with his wife on a spectacular journey to South America.

‘May life spare him bitter disappointments’, runs a commemorative publication issued by the house of Habsburg-Lorraine in the year 1891. By this time, Johann Orth was probably already dead, his steamer having apparently gone down in a storm off Cape Horn in the previous year. Johann Orth, formerly Johann Salvator of Austria-Tuscany, was last heard of at Cape Tres Puntas on 12 July 1890 and finally declared dead in 1911, his possessions being sold at auction in Berlin in 1912/13. Rumours have claimed that he lived on in Norway until as late as 1945 under the name Alexander Hugo Köhler. Alleged heirs of the Habsburg renegade have as yet had no success in laying claim to Schloss Orth.

Sonja Schmöckel