Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tragedy at Mayerling, 1889

Today is the anniversary of the infamous "Mayerling Incident," the supposed double suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, only son of Emperor Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth, and his young mistress, Marie Vetsera. Although the tragedy, of course, primarily affected the House of Habsburg, the Belgian royal family was also touched by fate on this occasion, as Rudolf had been married to Princess Stephanie, daughter of King Leopold II and Queen Marie-Henriette of the Belgians. According to Slovakia: The Bradt Travel Guide (2007):
The Mayerling mystery concerning the tragic death of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera, has remained unsolved to this day. On January 30, 1889, the couple were discovered dead at the royal hunting lodge in Mayerling...The most widely accepted theory is that there was a lover's pact: Rudolf shot Marie and then killed himself. Franz Joseph had wanted the lovers to separate but they could not bear life without each other. There is another theory that the couple were murdered and they were victims of a political conspiracy, cooked up by the French Prime Minister Clemenceau, who was conspiring to overthrow Franz Joseph and place the Germanophobe Rudolf on the throne. This way Austria could have loosened ties with Germany and signed an alliance with France. Rudolf refused to take part in the conspiracy and was killed to secure his silence. Certain facts point towards this theory. When Marie's remains were examined half a century later, an astonishing discovery was made. There was no sign of the use of firearms: instead, there was a large trauma on her head. Allegedly, Rudolf's body showed signs of a violent confrontation before death. The tragic deaths shocked the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and caused an immediate crisis of succession to the throne. The court did everything possible to cover up the scandalous incident (the official version was that Rudolf died of heart failure, with no mention of his lover), so it is likely the mystery will never be solved.
It is important to note that the last Habsburg empress, Zita, supported the theory that Rudolf and Marie had been murdered. In 1982, she told the Viennese daily Kronen Zeitung that she believed the couple had been assassinated as part of a plot against the imperial family. Some might say this was merely a way of covering up the shame of a suicide in the ranks of the devoutly Catholic House of Austria, but Zita hardly had the reputation of being a liar. On the contrary, she was a woman of high character and I do not think her testimony can be lightly dismissed.

Before his death, Rudolf ostensibly wrote a farewell letter to his wife. The text reads:

Liebe Stephanie! Du bist von meiner Gegenwart und Plage befreit; werde glücklich auf Deine Art. Sei gut für die arme Kleine, die das einzige ist, was von mir übrig bleibt. Allen Bekannten, besonders Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Wowo, Gisela, Leopold, etc. etc. sage meine letzten Grüße. Ich gehe ruhig in den Tod, der allein meinen guten Namen retten kann. Sei herzlichst umarmt. Dein Dich liebender Rudolph.

Dear Stephanie, you are now rid of my presence and annoyance; be happy in your own way. Take care of the poor wee one, she is all that remains of me. To all acquaintances, especially Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Wowo (possibly, a nickname for the Baroness Von Welden, Ruldolf's nanny), Gisela, Leopold, etc., etc., say my last greetings. I go quietly to my death, which alone can save my good name. I embrace you affectionately. Your loving Rudolph.

This farewell letter is invoked in support of the suicide theory. Note, however, that there is no explicit mention of suicide. The words are rather ambiguous. Was Rudolf, for instance, really planning to kill himself, or merely foreseeing he might be murdered? In any case, whatever the truth of the matter, the Mayerling tragedy is singularly disturbing, and one can only hope and pray that the victims may rest in peace.


MadMonarchist said...

I had quite forgotten about this event. A number of things make me inclined to think this was possibly not a simple suicide, not the least of which was Empress Zita's word as I would think she would know better than most and would have no reason to fabricate such a tale.

I also think, on this occasion, that the death of Kronprinz Rudolf would have made the Archduke Maximilian heir to the throne had he not signed away his rights and died in Mexico. With Stephanie and Carlota Belgium lost two opportunities to have one of their own as Empress of Austria.

May said...

Yes, Stephanie even entitled her memoirs "I Should Have Been Empress."

There was talk, at one point, of the future Albert I of Belgium marrying Elisabeth ("Erszi") the daughter of Rudolf and Stephanie. Albert's sister Henriette was horrified at the idea, understandably thinking the prospective bride had too crazy a background for this to be a success.

Jorge said...

Rudolf's death is a very mysterious issue. I have heard the conspiracy theory from two granddaughters of Empress Zita, Alexandra and Catharina (both archduchesses). They have both referred that their grandmother always doubted about the suicide and said that Clemenceau was behind the deaths.
BTW, there is an article in Spanish about Blessed Emperor Karl. It was written in Spanish for a Catholic magazine by Archduchess Alexandra of Austria. If you are able to translate it, I can send it to you if you're interested. I would help, but translation is not one of my strenghts.

May said...

Jorge, did you actually meet Alexandra and Catharina?

Thank you so much for offering to send me the article on the holy Emperor. Is the article available online? If so, you can post the link here if you like. Sadly, I do not know Spanish (although I might be able to understand some of it, based on French and Italian). But perhaps, other readers who read Spanish well might appreciate it. Thanks again.

Jorge said...

No, I don't know them personal, but Alexandra lived in Chile with her family, and her children attended my same school. The article is online. Here's the link:

She signs at the beginning of the article as "Alexandra de Habsburgo".

May said...

Many thanks!

Jorge said...

You're very welcome!

HenryFTP said...

Clemenceau did not become prime minister of France until 1906. It requires a large stretch of the imagination for France to have arranged the murder of the Habsburg heir who was less supportive of the Dual Alliance with Germany.