Born in 1866, Prince Sixte was one of the many children of Duke Roberto I of Bourbon-Parma, the last duke of Parma before the unification of Italy in 1860. In fact, he wasn't the sixth child at all, but royalty are evidently allowed to be illogical.

Sixte himself was the unwitting protagonist of one of the more bizarre intrigues of World War I, an aspect of the period which is little known beside the more familiar images of the conflict.

Sixte was related through his younger sister Zita to the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Karl, the heir to the throne after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, which had triggered the war.

Succeeding the octogenarian Emperor Franz Joseph, supposed to be a symbol of the Monarchy's unity, on November 29, 1916, Karl attempted to take the opportunity to revitalise the country by following up his brother's idea of turning it into a federation and satisfying Austria's plethora of ethnic groups. As if this wasn't ambitious enough for a leader struggling against Russia, Italy and - for a week or two more - Romania, he also schemed throughout 1917 to make peace with the Allies.

Karl's negotiations, conducted through intermediaries both obvious (trusted Austro-Hungarian counts) and less so (a Copenhagen industrialist or two) required the strictest secrecy so as not to offend Germany, his far stronger ally, or the domestic hawks who were already suspicious of Zita's loyalty for her links to the old Italian enemy. (Zita can't have had Marie Antoinette far from her mind.)

The overture through Sixte, then serving as an officer in the Belgian army, aroused most interest from the Allied leaders, arriving in the spring of 1917 when the Nivelle Offensive on the Western Front had collapsed and French troops along the Chemin des Dames were disobeying orders rather than be sent to their deaths.

Karl and Zita entrusted Sixte with a letter to the French president, Raymond Poincaré, in which Austria undermined German war aims by pledging her support to France's effort to regain Alsace-Lorraine, annexed by Prussia in 1870 as the last stage of German unification.

The British prime minister David Lloyd George, more open than were many of his colleagues to novel ways to prosecute or conclude the war, was clued in by his French counterpart Alexandre Ribot and handled the talks without even informing his own Foreign Office. However, as with the other Austrian peace feelers, discussions eventually foundered on the question of whether the peace would be separate or, as Karl preferred, general.

With hindsight, Karl might have been better advised to leave his brother-in-law alone; the damning 'Sixtus letter' resurfaced twelve months later when Kaiser Wilhelm II heard rumours of the offer to France and forced the Austrian foreign minister Ottokar Czernin, who had never been informed of the letter, to deny it.

Ribot's replacement, Georges Clémenceau, published the documents in April 1918; the outraged Kaiser summoned Karl to Germany and made him sign the Spa Agreements which subordinated Austrian foreign policy to German aims. In the light of Spa, Britain and France were finally persuaded that it would serve the war effort better to encourage Austria-Hungary's various nationalists and provoke her collapse and disintegration, which was complete by the end of the year.

With an admirable sense of family loyalty, if not quite as much political realism, the deposed Emperor and Empress relied on Sixte to sound out the successor states and France about their attitude to a Habsburg restoration. There seemed most chance in Hungary, where Karl was helicoptered into Budapest in October 1921, only to be fought back by right-wing students and packed off to Madeira.

Sixte wisely left dynastic politics alone after the Hungarian débacle, and died in 1934 after writing a book on the Etrurian Kingdom, a short-lived satellite statelet created by Napoleon for the Dukes of Parma in an era of palace diplomacy that would have been much more the Prince's style.

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