Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs

Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs

by Greg King, Penny Wilson

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On a snowy January morning in 1889, a worried servant hacked open a locked door at the remote hunting lodge deep in the Vienna Woods. Inside, he found two bodies sprawled on an ornate bed, blood oozing from their mouths. Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary appeared to have shot his seventeen-year-old mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera as she slept, sat with the corpse for hours and, when dawn broke, turned the pistol on himself.

A century has transformed this bloody scene into romantic tragedy: star-crossed lovers who preferred death together than to be parted by a cold, unfeeling Viennese Court. But Mayerling is also the story of family secrets: incestuous relationships and mental instability; blackmail, venereal disease, and political treason; and a disillusioned, morphine-addicted Crown Prince and a naïve schoolgirl caught up in a dangerous and deadly waltz inside a decaying empire. What happened in that locked room remains one of history’s most evocative mysteries: What led Rudolf and mistress to this desperate act? Was it really a suicide pact? Or did something far more disturbing take place at that remote hunting lodge and result in murder?

Drawing interviews with members of the Habsburg family and archival sources in Vienna, Greg King and Penny Wilson reconstruct this historical mystery, laying out evidence and information long ignored that conclusively refutes the romantic myth and the conspiracy stories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250083036
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/14/2017
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 12,440
File size: 17 MB
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About the Author

GREG KING is the author of several internationally published works of history, including The Assassination of the Archduke. He serves as Editor-in-Chief of the European Royal History Journal, and his work has appeared in Majesty Magazine, Royalty Magazine, Royalty Digest, and Atlantis Magazine.

PENNY WILSON is the coauthor (with Greg King) of such histories on late Imperial Russia as The Fate of the Romanovs and The Resurrection of the Romanovs. Her historical work has appeared in Majesty Magazine, Atlantis Magazine, and Royalty Digest.

Greg King is the author of more than a dozen internationally published works of history, including Lusitania and Twilight of Empire. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Majesty Magazine, Royalty Magazine and Royalty Digest. He lives in the Seattle area.
Penny Wilson is the author of Lusitania with Greg King and several internationally published works of history on late Imperial Russia. Her historical work has appeared in Majesty Magazine, Atlantis Magazine, and Royalty Digest. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three Huskies.

Read an Excerpt


Forty years on the throne: Even as he marked the occasion in December 1888, Franz Josef must have worried about the future. He had held his disparate empire together; Viribus Unitis — With United Strength — went the formula he used to describe his rule. That unity was illusory, its complaisant peace constantly threatened by growing nationalism among Franz Josef's Hungarian, Bohemian, and Slav subjects. How much longer could the old order live on?

Living up to — and preserving — Habsburg tradition ruled Franz Josef's life. Habsburgs had reigned as Europe's preeminent Catholic dynasty since the thirteenth century. Military conquest wasn't really their forte: Instead their influence spread across the continent through propitious marriages — "Let others make war. You, Happy Austria, Marry!" — went the popular saying. At the height of their power Habsburgs and Habsburg relations served as Holy Roman Emperors and occupied the thrones of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Spain, Naples, Milan, France, and the Netherlands. They could boast great rulers — Emperor Charles V and Empress Maria Theresa — as well as some of history's most pathetic figures, including Maria Theresa's unfortunate daughter Marie Antoinette. But one by one most of these kingdoms, provinces, and territories had severed ties with Vienna. The fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 left the Habsburgs as emperors of Austria and kings of Hungary, Lombardy, and Venice, a motley collection of lands artificially united beneath the yellow-and-black imperial banner and held together by the most fragile of political threads.

Franz Josef didn't have a Machiavellian bone in his body, but his resolute mother, Archduchess Sophie, proved that she was made of sterner stuff. One of the daughters of King Maximilian I Josef of neighboring Bavaria, Sophie had arrived in Austria as the bride of Archduke Franz Karl, heir to the unfortunate epileptic and imbecilic Ferdinand I. Armed with a belief in her intellectual superiority, Sophie soon dominated her agreeable, unambitious husband. In 1848, when revolution swept across Europe, drove the kings of France and Bavaria from their thrones, and violent demonstrations in Vienna and Budapest forced Ferdinand's abdication, it was Sophie who most clearly recognized the danger. Thinking that her weak-willed husband couldn't stomach suppressing the rebels, she persuaded Franz Karl to sign away his rights in favor of their eighteen-year-old son Franz Josef.

Sophie passed up her only chance to be empress, but she was merely exchanging one form of power for another. "The only man" at the imperial court, officials called her, as she quickly dominated her son and became his indispensable adviser in all things. Believing that his mother's foresight had saved the throne, Franz Josef blindly followed her dictates — to disastrous effect. A bigoted reactionary, Sophie urged her son to fight growing Hungarian nationalism by subverting the kingdom's constitution and supporting ethnic minorities to rebel against the dominant Magyars. The parliament in Budapest replied by refusing to recognize Franz Josef as king and in April 1849 named Lajos Kossuth as head of a new Hungarian republic. With his empire on the brink of civil war, Franz Josef relied on Russian soldiers sent by Tsar Nicholas I to ruthlessly crush the revolt. When the rebellion was subdued, Franz Josef treated Hungary like a conquered country: In the first five years of his reign the young emperor ordered thousands executed, in keeping with his dictum that "Those who disobey, be they prince or clergy, must relentlessly be pursued and punished." In February 1853 a Hungarian tailor named János Libényi attacked Franz Josef while the emperor was taking his regular afternoon promenade. Libényi's aim was bad, and the emperor escaped without serious injury. But Franz Josef used the incident to send a clear message to Magyar nationalists: Libényi was publicly hanged as a traitor in Vienna.

Urged on by his mother, Franz Josef inaugurated his second decade on the throne with an ill-advised war in Austria's Italian provinces. One by one Lombardy, Naples, Tuscany, Modena, Sicily, and Parma were all lost as a humiliated emperor slunk back to Vienna in disgrace. Protesters mobbed the streets, demanding that Franz Josef abdicate in favor of his younger brother Maximilian; Franz Josef managed to save his throne only by granting his subjects a new constitution in 1861. Still, he retained enormous power: He could write and impose laws when parliament was not in session, could dissolve the body at will, and could fire officials without cause. Even with the constitution, Franz Josef never abandoned his conviction that God had placed him on his throne and charged him with the onerous duty of maintaining order.

The peace won was temporary. The emperor's attempts to promote himself as head of the thirty-nine-state German Confederation brought him into conflict with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who insisted on Prussian supremacy. The Seven Weeks' War of 1866 pitted Vienna against Berlin. Hungary openly rebelled, siding with Prussia, and Austria suffered a humiliating defeat at Königgrätz; sensing weakness, Venice — the last Italian province still under Habsburg rule — broke away from Vienna. Hungary, too, took advantage of the chaos after the Seven Weeks' War to force Vienna's hand. Franz Josef barely managed to keep his remaining possessions together by signing the Ausgleich in 1867, a compromise between Austria and Hungary that granted the Magyars considerable autonomy and created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, known as the Dual Monarchy.

More bad news came from Mexico, where Franz Josef's brother Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte, had unwisely assumed a French-backed throne to rule the new empire in 1864. The misadventure lasted a mere three years before French emperor Napoleon III withdrew his support. Mexican rebels overthrew their emperor: On June 19, 1867, they stood Maximilian against a wall in Querétaro and executed him by firing squad. The tragedy left Charlotte unhinged. Declared insane, she spent the rest of her life locked away in a Belgian castle, a tinsel crown atop her head as she held court for the phantoms of her past.

Humiliating military defeats, loss of territory, repression followed by forced concessions, and personal tragedies — these became the hallmarks of Franz Josef's reign. "The Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, of Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, and Illyria; King of Jerusalem; Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, of Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, and Bukovina; Grand Prince of Transylvania ...," went only half of his string of titles. His was a curious empire encompassing some forty-five million Austrian Germans, Magyars, Czechs, Rumanians, Moravians, Poles, and, after 1878, the South Slavs — Slovenians, Croats, and Serbs — and Muslims in the occupied Balkan provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A Babel of languages, ethnic identities, warring nationalist sentiments, and conflicting faiths, the Habsburg Empire faltered on out of habit, bound together only by the monarch in Vienna, even as Great Britain, imperial Germany, and even backward Russia modernized and grew in industrial, economic, and military strength.

"You see in me," Franz Josef once told American president Theodore Roosevelt, "the last monarch of the old school." The dashingly handsome young man who had come to the throne at eighteen was now fifty-eight, the "chosen guardian of the fame and reputation of his House," as one of his aides-de-camp, Flügeladjutant Lieutenant General Baron Albert von Margutti, explained. Franz Josef used "ceremonial politeness" to create "a sense of distance between himself and others." He was agreeable but remote, ever conscious of his rank. The emperor, Margutti recalled, even thought "that for him to shake hands was an altogether exceptional mark of esteem, and that he must not be too free with it."

Although everyone agreed that the emperor was charming and polite, the polished veneer concealed the soul of an autocrat. "Everything about him," recalled a courtier, "including his memory, had to be unchallenged, unchallengeable." Franz Josef prided himself on his self-control, and only rarely did he stray from his usual soft, conversational tones. But while he occasionally gave voice to his frustrations, the emperor made no such allowances for others. "Unseemly expressions," "gesticulations," or even impulsive laughter were deemed a "discourtesy to his Imperial dignity." Slights against Habsburg dignity — real or perceived — in fact consumed much of Franz Josef's attention. He once greeted a proposal that guards should no longer present arms to baby Habsburgs in their carriages as an insult to the imperial house. An officer who dared appear before him with a medal out of place, a button undone, or a sash askew set Franz Josef "quivering with rage." There is a story that perfectly encapsulates this obsession with outward propriety: One night, in the midst of a severe cold, Franz Josef awoke with a cough so violent that he could not catch his breath. Alerted to the dire emergency, the physician in attendance rushed to the emperor's bed; although gasping for air, Franz Josef still managed to berate the poor man for not having changed into the customary frock coat demanded by court etiquette.

Franz Josef lived in self-imposed isolation. Aside from shooting he had no real interests, dismissing most art, music, and literature as wastes of time. "Our Emperor," his only son scathingly wrote, "has not one friend; his character and temperament do not permit it. He stands isolated on his pinnacle. With his servants he discusses the official business of each, but he anxiously avoids any other subject, hence he knows very little about the thoughts and feelings of the people, of the ideas and opinions of the nation. ... He believes we are now in one of the happiest epochs of Austria's history; this is what he is told officially." Officials played their part in this intellectual isolation, assuring Franz Josef that his people were happy. Withholding contradictory information, they even printed special editions of the daily newspapers, editions that carefully eliminated hints of unrest or potentially troublesome developments.

In contrast to Vienna's burgeoning intellectual reputation, the emperor prided himself on the simplicity of his views. "For him," asserted one courtier, "only primitive concepts exist. Beautiful, ugly, dead, living, healthy, young, old, clever, stupid — these are all separate notions to him and he is unable to form a bridge leading from one to the other. ... His ideas know no nuances." This black–and-white approach dominated. To Franz Josef "the people" fell into one of two categories: a loyal but nameless citizenry whose faces blurred one into another as they cheered imperial rule, or the equally intangible crowd of rebels and revolutionaries he had fought in 1848, in Hungary, in Italy, and now in the fragile empire. Antiquated conceptions of duty drove Franz Josef relentlessly onward as he confronted one disaster after another, providing a rigidly ordered refuge from a hostile modern world.

Filling his days with routine paperwork helped Franz Josef escape his unhappy marriage. In his first years on the throne the handsome young emperor had freely bestowed his sexual favors on a specially selected succession of "hygienic" young aristocratic women, forming a kind of Viennese harem. But soon enough his mother insisted that he marry — and Sophie had just the right candidate, someone who was not only a good Catholic but whom she could also easily control: Princess Helene, one of the ten children born to Sophie's sister Ludovika and her husband, Max, who carried the junior title Duke in Bavaria to distinguish him from the more regal Dukes of Bavaria. This was dipping a bit too perilously into an already thin gene pool: Not only was Helene — called "Nené" in the family — Franz Josef's first cousin, but her aunt Karolina Augusta had married Emperor Franz I of Austria. Aunt Sophie, of course, had married Archduke Franz Karl — and in doing so had become her own sister's daughter-in-law. The Bavarian Wittelsbachs boasted more than their fair share of eccentrics, and frequently incestuous marriages — including twenty-one previous unions with the Habsburgs — had resulted in fragile temperaments and mental instability.

Sophie and Ludovika, though, gave little thought to such concerns, and brought their children together at the alpine resort of Bad Ischl in the summer of 1853. Here their careful plans dissipated as soon as Franz Josef saw Helene's fifteen-year-old sister, Elisabeth. Called "Sisi" within the family, the young girl was stunningly beautiful, with light brown eyes and long chestnut hair. Brought up in relative simplicity at her father's little Gothic revival castle of Possenhofen on the shore of Lake Starnberg outside Munich — a place where cows wandered through the rose garden and the furniture was threadbare — she seemed an ebullient, refreshing change from the sophisticated young ladies in Franz Josef's orbit. Accustomed to a son who always gave way to her wishes, Sophie was horrified when Franz Josef announced that he wanted to marry Elisabeth: The young girl was too immature, too uneducated, too emotional, and too high-strung, she asserted, to become empress of Austria. But the more Sophie argued, the more Franz Josef insisted. When he finally proposed to his startled cousin, Elisabeth accepted, but, in a hint of things to come, soon collapsed in tears, sobbing, "If only he were not an emperor!"

When, on the evening of April 24, 1854, Franz Josef led his bride to the altar of Vienna's Augustinerkirche, Elisabeth was terrified and briefly fled the reception that followed in tears. She dreaded her wedding night and tried to hide herself behind a bank of pillows: Franz Josef humored her insecurities for two nights, but on the third he took possession of his wife. Passionate about everything but sex, Elisabeth felt humiliated that everyone knew of her deflowering; indeed, her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, apparently made a point of openly questioning her son about the details.

Sophie quickly became Elisabeth's bête noire. The two proud women, fighting for Franz Josef's attention and jostling for emotional dominance, soon came to resent each other. Sophie, said one of the empress's ladies-in-waiting, tried to "come between the two married people, always forcing a decision between mother and wife, and it is only by God's grace that an open break did not occur. She wanted to break the influence of the Empress over the Emperor." Accustomed to the freedom of her former life at Possenhofen, the new empress felt trapped in a gilded cage. The Habsburgs lived and died by the infamous Spanish etiquette of their court, a sixteenth-century remnant from their Iberian rule. Accustomed to being deferred to, the punctilious Sophie insisted that her daughter-in-law learn, respect, and obey every archaic rite without question. When Elisabeth resisted, Sophie chastised: "Your Majesty," she once snapped, "evidently thinks you are still in the Bavarian mountains."

Elisabeth rebelled at attempts to instruct her in her duties and court ceremony, earning her lectures on removing her gloves at dinner, on riding too much, and on her overt shyness. Sophie filled her daughter-in-law's household with a contingent of aristocrat ladies whose principal duties were to spy on Elisabeth and spread word of her mistakes in Viennese society. The more Sophie insisted, the deeper Elisabeth dug in her heels, sulking, treating her duties with contempt, and refusing to make even minor concessions to her "nasty" mother-in-law. And Franz Josef was caught in the uncomfortable middle, as wife and mother each besieged him with complaints about the other.

However reluctant she was, Elisabeth fulfilled her principal duty by providing her husband with four children, though the imperial nursery soon became yet another battleground in her war with Archduchess Sophie. As soon as they were born, the children were whisked from their mother's arms to a nursery where Sophie reigned supreme. Elisabeth was allowed no say in their upbringing and, as a consequence, developed little maternal instinct. Instead she vainly viewed her children as a "curse," saying, "When they come, they drive away beauty."


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Copyright © 2017 Greg King and Penny Wilson.
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Customer Reviews

Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not knowing anything about the Hapsburg's this book appealed to me as I try to learn more about history that school didn't teach me. This appears to be well researched, and the author managed to make it interesting. I have always had a hard time reading non fiction as it tends to be dry, however, this book was easy to read, understand and follow. The people were fascinating, I can't imagine living in that time and having that much wealth, and pressure. Books like this are the best way to learn history and make it real. I am already seeking out other works by this author to read and learn from.