An Austrian mystery, 150 years later

22nd August 2008, Comments 0 comments

Gunshots still drown out Hapsburg Crown Prince Rudolf's tragic life

Vienna - - Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf will forever be remembered for his tragic suicide in Mayerling, rather than for his short but promising life, which began 150 years ago Thursday.

After the prince killed his 17-year-old lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera and himself with a gun in January 1889, the Habsburg imperial family deliberately shrouded his death in mystery, fuelling other theories as to Rudolf's death.

Alternative versions of Rudolf's last night in his hunting lodge -- ranging from an accident to political assassination plots – still overshadow the fact that Rudolf was an intellectual who tried to fight nationalism, anti-Semitism and the Habsburg alliance with Germany in the decades before the Austro-Hungarian empire fell in 1918.

"It is a unique historical event that an emperor's son and future ruler kills a young woman and then commits suicide," said Georg Markus, author of another Rudolf biography, explaining the lingering Austrian fascination with Rudolf.

‘He was a wreck’

Rudolf was born on August 21, 1858, son of Elisabeth, known as Sissi, and Emperor Francis Joseph I, who ruled from 1848 to 1916. The monarch made sure that his only male heir received a strict military education from early childhood.

"At the age of 7, he was a wreck," said Brigitte Hamann, a Vienna- based historian who has written a biography of Rudolf.

Concerned about her son's health, Elisabeth demanded that civilian experts, not military officers, should teach him. Through these educators, Rudolf befriended leading liberal intellectuals, politicians and journalists.

As the crown prince had no political power while his father still ruled, he tried to influence politics by lobbying liberal publishers and by writing articles under false names.

Rudolf was opposed to nationalism, which he saw as a danger to the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire. The prince also tried to fight rising anti-Semitism within the empire. In 1883, he asked the publisher of the liberal daily Neues Wiener Tagblatt to write a story about young aristocrats who had demolished windows in Prague's Jewish district.

Rudolf's political efforts peaked in a pamphlet, published under a pseudonym in 1888, in which he appealed for Francis Joseph I to end Austria's alliance with militaristic Germany and to move closer to Russia and France.

"Break away, Majesty, before it is too late!" Rudolf wrote 26 years before the start of World War I, which Austria lost at the side of Germany, leading to the end of the Habsburg Empire.

A dramatic tale

But all these political machinations fade before the dramatic tale of the young Habsburg's death. In an exhibition by the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna, opening on Aug. 21, Rudolf's deathbed is likely to attract more attention than other display items.

Other exhibitions to commemorate Rudolf are being organized in the Schoenbrunn palace in Vienna and in Godollo, Hungary, where his mother, Sissi, often stayed.

Books, musicals, a ballet and films have depicted the tragic Habsburg, including the 1968 movie, Mayerling, with Omar Sharif as Rudolf and Catherine Deneuve as Mary Vetsera.

Death pact

For all his progressive politics, Rudolf was no saint. He cheated on his Belgian wife, Princess Stephanie, and infected her with syphilis.

As his disease progressed, he sought and found an admiring lover like 17-year-old Mary Vetsera, who agreed to join him in death.

Markus and Hamann say that evidence including an autopsy performed on Vetsera's remains in the 1990s proved that Rudolf shot her in the head before killing himself.

But monarchists and some experts are still not sure.

"I don't think this theory is fully backed up by evidence," said Alexander Simec, spokesman of the obscure Black-Yellow Alliance, which seeks to restore a democratic monarchy in Austria.

But the lingering mystery also keeps Rudolf in the spotlight.

German journalist Lars Friedrich, who specializes in the Mayerling incident, admitted that all the experts would be out of a job if the case were solved:"Naturally, all the exhibitions would become obsolete."

-- Albert Otti/Expatica

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