In 1986, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis threw a three-day party for her husband’s sixtieth birthday. Guests ate a cake decorated with 60 marzipan penises and were treated to a performance from the princess who, dressed as Marie Antoinette and accompanied by the Munich Opera, sang ‘Happy Birthday’ from astride a gilded cloud.
This week, the now 59-year-old princess is scheduled to speak at a major international gathering of anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights groups. This is the 13th World Congress of Families (WCF) being organised in the Italian city of Verona where, last year, the local council passed a municipal motion to ‘prevent abortion’.
The WCF is an international network of US, Russian and other ultra-conservative activists – and their growing list of political allies – who oppose marriage equality for gay people, sex education and reproductive rights for women. Increasingly, though, they present their campaigns in a positive light: as ‘pro-family’.
This year’s congress, held ahead of the European parliamentary elections in May, is headlined ‘The Wind of Change’. Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini – who once said “if you grow up with parents or a parent who is gay… you start with a handicap” – is among the far-right politicians expected to attend.
While far-right leaders from Italy to Hungary position themselves as siding with the ‘grassroots’ against liberal elites, this is also a VIP-studded network: Princess Gloria – a friend of Steve Bannon, who plans to use her palace in Germany as a summer school for European populists – is not the only aristocrat involved.
openDemocracy reviewed the programmes for each of these events since 2004, and found about 100 politicians among the 700 people listed as speakers over the 15 years – along with an archduchess from Austria, a French prince, and a Portuguese duke.
“On both sides of the Atlantic”, noted Hillary Margolis, a researcher for the NGO Human Rights Watch, increasingly “politicians and lobbying groups misrepresent efforts to improve gender equality – including access to reproductive health and rights – as dangerous to children, families and so-called “traditional values”.
“There is now a real transatlantic movement on these issues”, added Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has designated the WCF an anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ for “pushing for restrictions to LGBT rights under the guise of the defense of the ‘natural family’”.
The WCF is key to this cross-border ultra-conservative organising, Beirich said, “bringing together organisations from predominantly Europe and North America, but also other regions, to strategise and push for their agenda”.
Joseph Grabowski, a WCF spokesperson, told openDemocracy this week that it disputes the SPLC’s ‘hate group’ designation and called it “an unfortunate slight for the countless Americans and the people around the world who hold the same views as we do on marriage, the nature of family and the right to life”.
A former ‘punk princess’
Princess Gloria’s shift from a hard-partying ‘punk princess’ to an ultra-conservative VIP is one thread in a web that binds the Vatican with populist politicians and anti-choice groups that are increasingly visible and vocal across Europe and America.
When she was 20 years old, Princess Gloria married the openly bisexual Prince Johannes, the 11th Prince von Thurn und Taxis, whose family made its historic fortune by controlling the Holy Roman Empire’s postal service.
Christened ‘Princess TNT’ by Vanity Fair, she became a poster-girl for louche 1980s opulence. Teaming Paco Rabanne and Thierry Mugler fashions with a towering, kaleidoscopic mohawk, she rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles, hung out with Andy Warhol and Madonna, and was arrested for possession of marijuana at Munich airport.
In 1990, Prince Johannes died, leaving behind three children and millions in debt. The picture is different today. Managing the family fortune on behalf of her son, Albert, Gloria sold off treasures and opened their 500-room Bavarian castle to the public. In 2014, Forbes estimated Albert’s net worth at $1.6 billion.
The princess has credited her reversal of the family’s misfortunes to the grace of God. After her husband’s death, she became tightly linked to the upper echelons of the Catholic church. She moved to Rome, where she was good friends with the powerful Cardinal Ratzinger, who was elected Pope Benedict XVI soon after.
Today, her network includes the pro-Trump cardinal Raymond Burke, a critic of Pope Francis (and apparently the de facto Thurn und Taxis family priest) and Steve Bannon, who Princess Gloria recently described to The New York Times as “an excellent communicator, political strategist and ‘Hollywood guy’”.
Bannon, the former Breitbart editor and Trump strategist, has publicly trained his focus on Europe with The Movement, a project to support right-wing populist parties. Currently, he is also helping to craft the curriculum for a “gladiator school for cultural warriors” in a monastery outside Rome, run by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI).
Burke is on the advisory board of this ultra-conservative group – which says it strives to “[push] back the tide of radical secularism” – along with Anglo-Scottish aristocrat and former head of the British army Charles Ronald Llewelyn Guthrie. Lord Nicholas Windsor, whose father is Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin, was formerly its chairman.
Princess Gloria denied rumours she is amongst the financial backers of the “gladiator school” in her New York Times interview, which also cited Bannon’s intention to use her 500-room palace in Regensburg, Germany, as a summer school.
openDemocracy tried to contact a spokesperson for the princess, for comment on this article, but did not receive a response.
A VIP-studded network
Another aristocrat expected at this week’s WCF meeting in Verona is Prince Louis Alphonse of Bourbon, duke of Anjou, who is also a great-grandson of General Franco.
He also spoke at last year’s event in Moldova. Describing the “bond which united the French people to each other” as “first and foremost a family tie from the humblest to the king”, he ascribed France’s prominence during the monarchy to the fact it was ruled by “a family, a royal family” and to the “original transmission of power from male to male”.
Dom Duarte Pio, Duke of Braganza, has also attended several of these meetings. He was co-chairman of the very first WCF, in Prague in 1997.
The great-grandson of King Miguel I, and a claimant to the defunct Portuguese throne, he was also on the speakers’ lists in Salt Lake City (2015) and Mexico City (2004). In 2018, he and his wife Dona Isabel co-hosted another WCF event in Lisbon.
His Highness Duke Paul of Oldenburg, Germany, is another regular face in these circles. He was listed as a speaker at WCF meetings in 2013 and 2015.
This duke is the Brussels director of a Christian conservative EU lobby group called Federation Pro Europa Christiana. At the 2017 Rome Life Forum of anti-abortion leaders, he spoke of “the traditional, unchangeable teachings of the Catholic church” and “a crusade we all have to wage and must win for the greater glory of God”.
That same year, delegates congregated in Budapest for the 2017 WCF – entitled ‘“Building Family Friendly Nations, Making Families Strong Again”’ – where speakers included Christiana von Habsburg-Lothringen, archduchess of Austria.
She was part of the Vatican’s now defunct Pontifical Council for the Laity, which stressed the importance of studying “the meaning of feminine identity and vocation” in “times of accelerated change when there is an increase in anthropological confusion”.
Another Austrian aristocrat – Archduke Imre de Habsburg-Lorraine, the great-grandson of Blessed Emperor Karl of Austria – also has ties to the ultra-conservative network Agenda Europe, according to a 2018 report called ‘Restoring the Natural Order’.
Archduke Imre, whose family’s wealth is at up to $206.9 million, reportedly attended a strategic 2013 Agenda Europe retreat in London focused on how to fund its activities.
He and his wife, Archduchess Kathleen “have extended their patronage to a range of [these] initiatives” against sexual and reproductive rights, says the report, published by the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development.
This is now a familiar pattern: as with the populist movements that have reconfigured transatlantic politics in recent years, ‘anti-rights’ activists are packaging their campaigns as radical efforts to restore the ‘traditional values’ they say the people want to focus on.
The constellation of aristocrats, elites and politicians who are converging in Verona this week remind that this movement – gathering scope and velocity – is, at its core, underpinned by those with means, money and power.