As historical turning points go, the tragic events at a hunting lodge in the Austrian countryside 150 years ago this week are perhaps not as well known as others. Yet, as CHARLIE CONNELLY explains, the Mayerling Incident was to reverberate through the following century.
The first thing they noticed was the silence. Unable to barge or kick their way through the bedroom door Count Joseph Hoyos suggested the royal valet Loschek use a log to smash a hole in the panelling. After a few grunts and thumps the wood splintered and scattered across the stone floor inside and the men stood still and looked at each other for a moment. They heard nothing but their own hearts beating. Loschek reached through the hole, unlocked the door and the aristocrat and the commoner walked tentatively inside together, their breath quickening in dry mouths from a growing a sense of dread.
Austria-Hungary in 1889 was far from the force it had been at the height of Habsburg power. The Emperor Franz Joseph had ruled since 1848 and at nearly 60 years old was falling short of the fresh and dynamic leadership the nation required if it was to retain a place at Europe’s top table. A stickler for protocol and hierarchy he often seemed more animated by courtly propriety than how the rest of the continent was gradually leaving Austria-Hungary behind.
Defeat by Prussia in the war of 1866 had begun the decline, with Hungary being granted its own parliament the following year in an effort to prevent the empire splitting entirely down the middle. Three years later Vienna’s isolation was exacerbated by first the Franco-Prussian War then the unification of Germany: the terms of the 1879 Austro-German alliance made it plain that Austria-Hungary was very much the junior partner.
The two men battering their way into the bedroom of the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, 15 miles south-west of Vienna, on the morning of January 30, 1889, were hoping to find the man who represented the future of the nation, Crown Prince Rudolf, emerging grumpily from a deep or drunken sleep.
A sensitive, intelligent 30-year-old, Rudolf had known only a diminishing Austria-Hungary and favoured a more liberal political agenda than his father’s to restore its fortunes. Most of all he disapproved of the alliance with Germany and disliked Kaiser Wilhelm II intensely, thinking him boorish and bone-headed.
In the weeks leading up to that fateful morning Rudolf had been far more concerned with affairs of the heart than of the state, hence the joint concern of both Hoyos and the crown prince’s long-serving valet when he couldn’t be roused that chilly morning at the hunting lodge.
Inside the bedroom the shutters were closed, the candles had all burned down and the fire in the grate was ashes, but in the gloom Loschek could make out the outline of Rudolf sitting on the floor with his back against the bed and his head bowed. Maybe he’d had too much wine and fallen asleep there, he thought. Hoyos meanwhile opened a set of shutters and wintry light seeped into the room.
It was then Loschek saw the blood that had run from the prince’s mouth, down his chin and soaked the front of his shirt. Behind Rudolf on the bed lay the body of his mistress of the previous few weeks, 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera, fully clothed and on her back, a rose placed in her hands that were clasped over her stomach, her eyes open and sightless, a blue tinge around her lips.
It was exactly the scene the men had dreaded, the aftermath of a tragedy that would have major ramifications for Austria-Hungary and global reverberations that would affect the destiny of the approaching 20th century itself.
As Rudolf entered his 30s he had not been a particularly happy man; friends had noticed him enduring long periods of what they called ‘apathy’, which could well have been depression. His ascension to the imperial throne seemed a long way off, the duties he was given to perform in the meantime barely interested him and he felt trapped in a marriage that had gone cold within months of the wedding. Stéphanie, the second daughter of King Leopold II of Belgium, had been a good match but the initial enthusiasm that followed their 1881 union soon dissipated and the couple were living increasingly separate lives. This usually suited Rudolf, a committed philanderer who exploited keenly the allure his status allowed him (as a young man he had noted his conquests in a journal with a red star next to the women whose virginity he had taken), but as he turned 30 he felt more alone and melancholy than ever.
Mary Vetsera meanwhile, a teenage Baroness from an ambitious family keen to be received at the Viennese court, had fallen for Rudolf almost a year before she ever met him. The British Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII who knew the Vetsera family, called her ‘a charming young lady and certainly one of the prettiest and most admired in Vienna’, but so intense was her infatuation with Rudolf that in 1888 Mary’s mother took her to London for the summer to cool off. It didn’t work.
As Mary moped her way through an English summer Rudolf was in Vienna beset by an increasing melancholia. His father had rejected out of hand a number of suggestions he had made for more liberal domestic policies and with his marriage reduced to one of dynastic convenience he had never felt more alone.
It was Mary’s friend and Rudolf’s first cousin Marie Larisch who engineered the first clandestine meeting between the couple in Vienna’s Prater Park at the end of October 1888, then the following week she escorted Mary secretly to the prince’s private apartments in the Hofburg Palace on the pretence of taking her shopping.
Rudolf and Mary began a passionate affair and met whenever they could: in December, for example, when her family began attending a cycle of long Wagner operas in Vienna, Mary would engineer excuses to cry off and visit Rudolf. Within a month the prince, revelling in the undiluted adoration of a beautiful young woman, had presented Mary with a ring engraved with the letters ILVBDIT – in Liebe vereint bis in den Tod – meaning, ominously, ‘together in love until death’. Mary told a confidante that should their affair ever be discovered they had agreed on a suicide pact. ‘But he must not die,’ she added, ‘he needs to live for his nation.’
Rudolf, meanwhile, wrote to a friend in Paris of feeling ‘a stillness before the storm’. He’d spoken often of suicide in the past – never quite the taboo in Vienna it was elsewhere – and even in the midst of his affair with Mary he was writing to Mizzi Kaspar, a dancer with whom he’d had a previous extra-marital affair, suggesting they carry out a suicide pact together.
Assuming he was joking Kaspar thought no more of it, but in the months leading up to his death Rudolf had taken several acquaintances aside and asked earnestly whether they were afraid of dying. One of his adjutants would later recall how whenever the Crown Prince was informed of somebody’s death he would sigh, ‘He is fortunate’.
In January, Rudolf petitioned the Pope enquiring about a divorce from Stéphanie. The pontiff immediately contacted Franz Joseph, prompting a blazing argument between father and son in which the former demanded he end the relationship with Mary and reports that at a German embassy reception in Vienna Franz Joseph pointedly turned his back on his son when he tried to greet him on arrival.
Clearly events were building to a climax and on January 28 Rudolf drove his carriage alone from the palace to an inn a dozen miles from Vienna where Mary was already waiting after giving Larisch the slip on an errand in Vienna, leaving a brief note detailing her intention to commit suicide. The couple went on to the hunting lodge Rudolf had bought from a nearby monastery at Mayerling in 1887 – a keen huntsman, Rudolf visited Mayerling as often as he could and that week had invited a couple of friends to join him at the lodge for a couple of days’ shooting.
The next morning, Count Hoyos, along with Stéphanie’s brother-in-law Prince Philipp of Coburg, met Rudolf at the lodge where he emerged in his dressing gown to tell them he was suffering from a cold and wouldn’t be able to join them. The two men rode out until lunchtime when Philipp returned to Vienna ahead of a dinner the emperor was hosting at the palace that evening, taking with him Rudolf’s apologies that his cold prevented him from attending.
Instead the prince dined with Hoyos at the lodge and seemed in good spirits, before announcing at 9pm that he was going to bed in an effort to see off his cold. He arranged to meet Hoyos for breakfast at the lodge ahead of a day’s hunting then retired to the bedroom where Mary had been secreted away from all but his loyal staff.
Rudolf opened some wine and asked his coachman, a man named Bratfisch, to entertain them for a while with some popular Viennese songs. Once Bratfisch had exhausted his repertoire and left the room the couple prepared to carry out their plan. Mary took a candle to the writing desk and commenced her farewell letters.
‘Forgive me for what I have done,’ she implored her mother. To her sister she wrote, ‘We are both going blissfully into the uncertain beyond.’
What happened next is largely speculative but it seems that having written her letters Mary lay on the bed where Rudolf gave her a rose, placed the barrel of his pistol behind her ear and fired. He had probably intended to take his own life immediately but instead he sat with his dead mistress for most of the night until the first shimmers of dawn appeared behind the Alpine foothills to the east. Only then did he pick up a hand mirror to make sure the gun barrel was in the right place and shoot himself.
Hoyos and Loschek sprang immediately into action, the count hurrying to the nearest railway station to flag down a train in the name of the emperor and set off for Vienna. Loschek, probably with the aid of Bratfisch, moved Mary’s body out of the bedroom and laid her in the lodge’s timber store, the minimisation of scandal always more important than the dignity of the dead.
When Hoyos arrived with his grave tidings at the Hofburg Palace there was much discussion of the protocol dictating who should tell the empress, who in turn had to be the one to break the news of their son’s death to her husband. After some urgent whispered debate outside the room where Elisabeth was having a lesson in the Greek language the court marshal was selected as the appropriate messenger, but even then he had to be announced by a lady-in-waiting.
Meanwhile the hunting lodge was sealed off and Mary’s uncles, who lived close to the scene, summoned to take away her body as quickly as possible in a carriage, propped up in a sitting position between her relatives so as not to arouse suspicion. This macabre trio rode quickly to the abbey churchyard at Heiligenkreuz a couple of miles away where Mary was buried hurriedly in an unmarked grave. Such was the haste to avoid scandal she was interred before her mother even knew for sure that she was dead.
Once Franz Joseph and Elisabeth had been informed of the tragedy an announcement was made from the palace that the crown prince had died at Mayerling as the result of that most Viennese of endings, a suicide pact, but one carried out ‘while the balance of his mind was disturbed’.
The sudden and self-inflicted death of Austria-Hungary’s heir apparent caused a sensation across Europe, not to mention fracturing the already brittle security of the Austro-Hungarian empire itself. The legacy of Mayerling would be far-reaching: Rudolf’s death passed the royal succession on to Franz Joseph’s younger brother Karl Ludwig and on his death to his son, Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists in 1914 provided the spark that ignited the First World War.
It’s hard to imagine how different Europe could have been had Rudolf lived to succeed his father. Would he have been in Sarajevo and ended up in front of Gavrilo Princip’s revolver that hot day in June 1914? Wouldn’t the same domino effect have happened anyway even if he wasn’t? If he’d lived Rudolf would have been 58 when his father died, but some have speculated whether Franz Joseph might have abdicated in favour of his son; at the very least he could have had the old man’s ear.
An 1877 visit to London had seen Rudolf impressed by Britain’s political system and Liberal politicians and in turn he impressed both Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, which might conceivably have shifted the future dynamic of European politics. Three years later he even called for supra-national Liberal and Conservative parties across Europe, and while it’s too much of a stretch to chalk that up as a European Union in waiting it does indicate Rudolf’s desire for a more outward-looking and less nationalistic form of politics. Instead his death facilitated an entrenched nationalism at the heart of Europe, one that would have consequences still felt today.
Unlike his paramour, Rudolf was given a funeral of great pomp before being interred in the Habsburg family crypt. Mary meanwhile was reburied by her mother in a different plot at Heiligenkreuz in a small and secret ceremony. The indignities were far from over, however. Her remains were disturbed by Soviet troops in 1945, possibly looking for valuables, and in 1959 a local doctor exhumed Mary’s bones and claimed to have found no bullet wound in her skull, leading him to the wild speculation that she might have died as the result of a crude abortion, causing Rudolf to shoot himself rather than face the inevitable disgrace.
It was another to add to a list of theories about the deaths at Mayerling. One popular book in the 1950s suggested Rupert had secretly arranged to head a new, independent Hungarian state but pulled out just before the planned coup and killed himself out of shame. Another had it that the couple had been murdered by French agents. Another theory posited that Mary had been shot accidentally during a boisterous drunken dinner party by Rudolf or one of his friends, yet another predictably blamed the woman involved who, it was mooted, in a fit of jealousy had murdered Rudolf and killed herself.
In 1991 Mary was violated again when her remains were dug up again, a furniture salesman from Linz attempting another autopsy before trying to sell the bones to a newspaper, and it took until 2015 for Mary’s last letters to be discovered in a Viennese bank vault where they had lain undisturbed with other Vetsera family papers since 1926, proving beyond doubt that Mayerling had been an act of suicide.
It was also a tragedy of old Europe; perhaps even the last great act in the story of old Europe, a tale of princes, counts and baronesses, star-crossed lovers, palaces and hunting lodges, swooning passions, a double tragedy and the ripple effect running through a fading continental ruling elite in its twilight years.
Franz Joseph would live until 1916 having endured Mayerling, the execution of his brother Maximilian by Mexican rebels, the murder of his wife, stabbed by an Italian anarchist as she hurried to catch a steamer on Lake Geneva in 1898, and the assassination of his nephew Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, something he regarded as divine retribution for marrying beneath him. The Habsburg empire would only outlast him by two years.
Often overlooked in the 130 years since the events of that night, however, is Mary Vetsera herself – 17 years old, falling for a man twice her age who had a record of sexual predation and suicidal tendencies, documented evidence that he planned to take someone with him when he killed himself, her dying wish to be buried next to him unfulfilled, her remains treated abysmally from the timber store to repeated exhumation, and carrying a portion of the blame for the political ramifications of an event in which she was the innocent victim.
That’s the real tragedy of Mayerling, where the hunting lodge is now a chapel with an altar placed on the exact spot where, arguably, old Europe itself died along with a prince and a baroness.