Eldest son of emperor championed a united, democratic Europe

Otto von Habsburg, the oldest son of Austria-Hungary’s last emperor who saw the end of his family’s centuries-long rule and emerged to become a champion of a Europe united by democracy, died Monday.

A condolence book is placed next to the coffin of Archduke Otto von Habsburg in the St. Ulrich chapel Poecking near Starnberg

A condolence book is placed next to the coffin of Archduke Otto von Habsburg in the St. Ulrich chapel Poecking near Starnberg

BERLIN — Otto von Habsburg, the oldest son of Austria-Hungary’s last emperor who saw the end of his family’s centuries-long rule and emerged to become a champion of a Europe united by democracy, died Monday.

He was 98.

Habsburg died in his sleep at his home in Poecking in southern Germany, where he had lived since the 1950s, with his seven children nearby, spokeswoman Eva Demmerle told The Associated Press.

Habsburg used his influence in a vain struggle to keep the Nazis from annexing Austria before the Second World War then campaigned against the Soviet empire in the decades after the war.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, he used his seat in European Parliament to lobby for expanding the European Union to include former Eastern bloc nations.

“My father was a towering personality,” Habsburg’s oldest son Karl Habsburg-Lothringen told the Austria Press Agency. “With him we lose a great European who has influenced everything we do today beyond measure.”

Born in 1912 in Austria, Habsburg witnessed the family’s decline after the empire was dismantled and Austria became a republic following the First World War.

He became head of the family at his father’s death in 1922 and continued to claim the throne until the 1960s.

He was a member of the European Parliament for the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union in southern Germany and also served as president of the Pan-European League from 1979 to 1999.

In that role, he was instrumental in helping organize the Pan-European Picnic peace demonstration in 1989 on the border of Austria and Hungary.

The border was briefly opened in a symbolic gesture, which created the opportunity for 600 East Germans to flee communism months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was the first time an Eastern European nation had opened its borders, and is widely seen as the start of the fall of communism.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso mourned the passing of “a great European . . . who gave an important impetus to the European project throughout his rich life”.