19th Century Austria, 19th Century Europe, BBC, Elisabeth of Austria, Fall of Eagles, Franz Joseph I, Mary Vetsera, Mayerling Incident, Rachey Gurney, Rudolph of Austria
I swear I’m not intending to do an episode-by-episode breakdown of Fall of Eagles. It’s just worked out that way, because after looking at the first three posts, I’m going to discuss the fourth episode, “Requiem for a Crown Prince,” which deals with the Mayerling Incident.
Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary
When last we left Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, they had gotten themselves into a marriage that left Elisabeth rather unhappy. They had three daughters and one son, Rudolph, who thereby became the heir to the throne. Rudolph was quite different from his rather cold, conservative father. He was very interested in natural science and ornithology. Politically he was a Liberal, and so got along rather poorly with his father, but made him closer to his mother (so that he was sort of the opposite of his cousin Wilhelm II of Germany). Rudolph also had quite the eye for ladies, and had a string of mistresses and brief affairs with prostitutes, both before and after he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium, a very conservative woman.
It was not a happy marriage. After having a daughter, Elisabeth, Rudolph reportedly passed his wife the gonorrhea he had acquired from prostitutes, rendering her infertile. The couple became quite cold to each other and both took other partners. Viennese society in this period has been characterized as frivolous and dissipated, as the Austrian nobility sought to distract themselves from the humiliation that Bismarck and the Prussian army had inflicted on them at the battle of Sadowa, and there was considerable social room for the Crown Prince to dally with women. Minor Austrian nobles frequently paraded their young daughters through society, hoping to snag husbands who could elevate the family’s fortunes.
One such young woman was Baroness Marie Vetsera (usually referred to as Mary). She was a 17-year old girl whose mother Helene was grooming her to find a husband in upper society. Mary was reportedly a striking young woman noted for her dark eyes, her profile, and her elegant neck, as well as her self-confidence. Rudolph began a relationship with her that lasted either 3 months (assuming it began in Nov of 1888, as most accounts seem to think, although some say it lasted about 3 years). She seems to have imaged that the unhappy Rudolph would divorce Stephanie and marry her, despite several people making it clear to her that the pope would never permit the divorce. Her mother wanted her to move on to find a more suitable prospect, but she resisted, perhaps because she resented her mother’s intention to pimp her out for an advantageous marriage. Rudolph for his part was not deeply smitten with her, since he was simultaneously carrying on a relationship with a Viennese actress, Mizzi Kaspar.
Rudolph appears to have been a rather unhappy man, perhaps even mentally ill. He was taking a good deal of morphine for medical problems and dealing with the effects of gonorrhea and perhaps alcoholism as well. About three months before meeting Mary Vetsera, he asked Mizzi to join him in a suicide pact. She turned down the offer and actually reported it to the police, but they ignored it. He also quarreled with his father about his relationship with Mary, as well as politics.
The Mayerling Incident
On the 29th of January, 1891, Rudolph and Mary traveled to his hunting lodge at Mayerling. The next morning, Rudolph’s valet, Loschek tried to wake him, but found the door to his room locked. When he and the count’s hunting companion, Count Hoyos, finally chopped the door down with an axe, they found two bodies. Rudolph was sitting motionless beside the bed, bleeding from the mouth. Mary was found lying on the bed, cold and motionless, and appeared to have been dead longer than Rudolph. Loschek mistakenly assumed from the blood on Rudolph’s mouth that he had drunk strychnine, an assumption that caused much confusion later on.
Hoyos caught the next train to Vienna. It was decided, based on court protocol, that only the Empress could tell the Emperor what had happened. This required them to interrupt the Empress’ Greek lesson, which proved challenging because they did not want to tell her why they needed to speak with her and she did not want to be distracted from the lesson. Eventually, though, the Empress received the news and broke down weeping. The Emperor was summoned, but had to wait until the Empress could compose herself, while the rest of the court, who mostly already knew the news, had to try not to cry. When Empress Elisabeth finally told him what had happened, he was deeply affected; some say the news broke him permanently.
The Austrian Prime Minister, Eduard Taaffe, issued a statement that Rudolph had died of an “aneurism of the heart.” The court, following Loschek, initially thought that Mary had poisoned Rudolph; even her mother Helene believed that. The next day, a doctor finally examined the bodies and declared that Mary had been shot in the temple and Rudolph had also been shot. It appeared that Rudolph had shot Mary and then, several hours later, shot himself.
Complicating all of this was the decision to smuggle Mary’s corpse out of Mayerling. In an attempt to avoid the press, the body was dressed in clothing and seated (very awkwardly, because rigor mortis had set in) between two men in a carriage. It was taken to a nearby graveyard and hastily buried.
Franz Joseph ordered an investigation by the police, but then quickly pressured them to close it and ordered Taaffe to hide the results. It seemed clear that Rudolph had committed suicide, and by Catholic Church law, suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground, which meant he could not be buried in the Imperial Crypt. Eventually, though, the Vatican issued a dispensation declaring that Rudolph had been in a state of mental imbalance, which meant that he could be buried in the Imperial Crypt.
Since 1889, all sorts of wild speculation has circulated about what really happened. Had Mary bled to death after a botched abortion? Had her uncles broken into Mayerling and killed him in a drunken brawl? Did he kill her in a drug-fueled rage? Were they murdered by assassins, such as Hungarian Nationalists? Had Franz Joseph orchestrated the murder after his son refused to break up with Mary? Had a Freemason vow forced Rudolph to commit suicide?
Although the full story cannot be easily reconstructed, new evidence turned up in the 20th century. After WWII, Soviet troops broken into Mary’s grave, hoping to loot it of jewels. In 1959, a young local physician, prompted by the Vetsera family, conducted an investigation into Mary’s body and found no evidence of a bullet hole in her remains. He proposed that she had died in a botched abortion. In 1989, the last Austrian Empress, Zita, claimed that the couple had been murdered because Rudolph refused to support a French plan to depose Franz Joseph in favor of the more Liberal (and potentially pro-French) Rudolph. But she offered no evidence, Given that she was born three years after the Mayerling Incident, she cannot have had any first-hand knowledge of the events.
Then in 1991, a man obsessed with the story actually stole Vetsera’s remains and kept them for two years before being discovered. He paid for a forensic examination, which found inconclusive evidence that Mary might have been hit on the head several times, raising the spectre that a deranged Rudolph might have violently assaulted her because she refused to die with him, or that assailants had somehow broken in and attacked the couple. A report from the time of the police investigation also surfaced indicating that all six bullets in the gun had been fired, and that the gun did not belong to Rudolph. Presumably Rudolph could not have shot himself six times. However, theories that a killer had murdered the couple probably would have been preferable to admitting that the Rudolph had gone mad and shot his mistress and then himself. So it is unlikely that the Emperor orchestrated a cover-up with the humiliating story that Rudolph had become deranged.
Then just two years ago, crucial evidence turned up. An Austrian bank discovered a deposit box unused since 1926 which turned out to contain a leather folio containing three suicide letters written by Mary the night of her death. Although it is not possible to determine who deposited the letters, the Austrian National Library authenticated the letters. Rudolph himself left behind no fewer than six suicide letters, all but one of which he wrote before departing for Mayerling. Thus it appears that the couple intended to commit suicide, although exactly how it happened is not clear.
What Rudolph’s motives were for his suicide are unclear. The letters he wrote all emphasize that his honor was at stake in some way. He was profoundly in debt; he owed one member of the court a sum equal to a quarter of his entire estate. He also seems to have gotten deeply entangled in a plot by Hungarian Nationalists to make him King of Hungary; the Nationalist Istvan Karolyi may have been trying to blackmail him in some fashion. He does not seem to have killed himself because he loved Mary and was unable to wed her; he spent his last night in Vienna with Mizzi. Instead, he seems to have needed someone else to help him go through with the deed; at one point he asked a male secretary to join him.
What Impact Did Rudolph’s Death Have?
What If is a great historical game, although by definition counter-factual scenarios are impossible to prove. Rudolph’s office of Crown Prince and heir passed to Joseph’s younger brother Karl Ludwig, who is often incorrectly reported to have abdicated immediately in favor of his son, Franz Ferdinand; in fact, he held the title until his death in 1896, when his son became the heir. Franz Ferdinand, of course, was famously assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering the Great War that ultimately pulled down the three empires that Fall of Eagles focuses on. So, as many people have pointed out, if Rudolph had not killed himself, Franz Ferdinand would never have become the Crown Prince and the assassination at Sarajevo would not have happened, and thus the Great War would not have happened.
That’s true, but also wrong. There is no way to know whether Rudolph might have decided to go to Sarajevo in 1914 and been shot there instead of Franz Ferdinand. Perhaps Rudolph might have gotten assassinated somewhere else. Or more likely, something else might have sparked the Great War. Franz Ferdinand’s murder was the spark that triggered the war but it was hardly the cause of the whole conflagration.
Franz Joseph held onto his office of Empire for 68 years, a remarkably long reign. He got along poorly with Franz Ferdinand, who insisted on marrying a woman of the low nobility; the emperor considered her inappropriate because she had no royal blood. Although he finally relented, he insisted that the children of the marriage be excluded from the line of succession. The two men clashed repeatedly on political issues. Although both were hostile to Hungarian Nationalism, Franz Ferdinand wanted to grant greater autonomy to other ethnic minorities, and felt that Austria should act more boldly on the European stage. So it’s been suggested that Franz Joseph held onto his crown for so long because he did not want to pass it on to Franz Ferdinand. If Rudolph had been alive, perhaps Franz Joseph would have abdicated, in which case a much more Liberal man would have taken charge of the Empire and might have guided it in a direction that would have prevented the Great War.
Or maybe the fact that Rudolph was far more Liberal than his father meant that Franz Joseph would never have abdicated under any circumstances. Like Frederick III of Germany, he had been excluded from any role in government by his father and the Prime Minister. The idea that Franz Joseph would have abdicated in favor of his son seems implausible to me.
In the long run, it’s impossible to say whether Rudolph’s suicide truly matters in the lead-up to the Great War or not. Given that a quarter century passed between his death and the events at Sarajevo, I’m inclined to think that it is a mistake to see his suicide as being a cause of the War.
“Requiem for a Crown Prince”
The episode differs from others in the series by having a first-person narrator (Prime Minister Count Taaffe, played by Emrys James) and by the scenes being time-stamped, presumably to help the audience keep track of the complex events.
After a brief introduction, the story starts with Loschek (Michael Sheard) being unable to get into Rudolph’s room. After discovering what appears to be a suicide note written by Mary on a bowl outside his room, Prince Philip of Coburg (Anthony Newland) shows up because Helene Vetsera has gotten the police to declare her daughter missing, so that everyone is searching for her and there are suspicions she is at Mayerling. They chop down the door but barely go in, and initially suspect that the Crown Prince has overdosed on morphia. Hoyos is dispatched to Vienna to inform the emperor while the other man stays to guard the body.
The emphasis in the episode is split between efforts to deal with the crisis and Empress Elisabeth’s response. Dramatically, the heart of the episode is Rachel Gurney as Elisabeth, who alternates between grief and fury, excoriating Helene Vetsera (Irene Hamilton) for parading her daughter before Rudolph. The empress accuses Helene of having seduced Rudolph years ago and then when Rudolph tired of her, of offering him her daughter instead. Helene is simultaneously grief-stricken and struggling to preserve her family’s prospects at court. The empress weaves a story that Mary poisoned Rudolph after he told her that he could not divorce his wife. But Crown Princess Stephanie immediately concludes that it was a suicide pact, since Rudolph had asked her to die with him the previous year.
The episode emphasizes that the court’s reaction was a mixture of incompetence and cover-up. Hoyos initially tells the empress that Mary Vetsera poisoned Rudolph. The empress however declares that heart failure will be the cover story. When Dr Widerhofer (Kenneth Benda) explains to Prince Philip at Mayerling that Mary must have died first and that Rudolph died from a bullet to the head, Philip immediately tries to twist the evidence to implicate Mary. But Widerhofer insists that Mary died hours before Rudolph. He suggests temporary insanity as a possible excuse.
Back in Vienna, the police get news that there was a hunting accident at Mayerling, but Taaffe says it was poison. He says that the police need to find a way to get Mary’s corpse away from Mayerling without scandal. The police commissioner (Frank Wylie) tries to take charge of the crime scene, but Prince Philip insists that the lodge is imperial ground and outside police jurisdiction. An official of the criminal court shows up to investigate, as does Count Stookau, Helene’s brother, who discovers from a servant that Rudolph died by gunshot, not poison. So he concludes that Rudolph shot Mary, and demands her body.
By this point, Rudolph’s suicide letters have been found, entirely exploding the original story, but the royal family remains unaware. It’s only when Widerhofer tells the emperor that Rudolph shot himself that they discover the truth. It comes out that Rudolph left his money to Mizzi Kaspar, and the empress begins to think that her son might have murdered the unsuspecting Mary.
The police commissioner tries to get a local abbot to take Mary’s body, telling him that she committed suicide on her own on the grounds of the Mayerling estate. But the abbot refuses to receive the body if she killed herself, eventually agreeing to perform a service. The body is given over to Mary’s uncles, who have trouble getting the body to sit in a carriage because of rigor mortis. The police commissioner callously orders Loschek to fetch an axe, presumably to chop off Mary’s legs, but the furious uncles intervene. Stookau threatens to go to the reporters waiting outside the gates to tell them the truth, even if the police try to shoot him, at which point they are allowed to sit beside the corpse in the carriage and hold it up. Helene is forbidden to attend the burial.
The episode ends with Taaffe’s thoughts about the situation. He says that Rudolph’s bad character had already destroyed the Liberal cause in Austria. The show takes the viewpoint that Rudolph’s suicide ensured the continuation of Conservatism in Austrian politics and suggests that Franz Joseph might have considered abdicating in favor of his son, but now felt it was his duty to continue on despite his age. He adds that Empress Elisabeth was murdered a decade later by an Italian anarchist just as Franz Joseph was preparing for the 50 year jubilee for his reign.
I am inclined to call this the best episode of the series. The story holds together both as a human drama and as a look inside a political crisis. To my mind, Rachel Gurney’s scenes are the best in the whole series, conveying a complex mix of grief, anger, the search of an explanation, and decades of court etiquette that constrain her. The barely-contained fury with which she treats Helene Vetsera is simultanously cruel and sympathizable. If you only watch one episode of this series, “Requiem for a Crown Prince” would be a good choice.
This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.
Want to Know More?
Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.
If you would like to know more about the Mayerling Incident, Greg King and Penny Wilson have written Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Hapsburgs. I haven’t read the book, and the authors are popuar rather than professional historians, but they do seem to have done some serious research for the book.
Matt Oldham said:
A completely fictionalized version of the “Mayerling Incident” provided crux of the plot of the Edward Norton film THE ILLUSIONIST. Pretty much the details the movie gets right from the historical incident is that the Crown Prince (here called Leopold and played Rufus Sewell) shoots himself in the head while at his hunting lodge.
Yeah, I saw it when it came out. Decent film. There have actually been several movies about the Mayerling Incident, including a 1968 one with Omar Sharif as Rudolph and Catherine Deneuve as Mary.
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Matt Oldham said:
You know I’ve often wondered if Rudolf was the inspiration for Anthony Hope’s novel “The Prisoner of Zenda”. He shares the same name with both the book’s hero Rudolf Rassendyll and his lookalike cousin the Prince. The drunken antics of Prince Rudolf would be in line with the historical prince. Never been able to find anything that corroborates my thought on it though.
Interesting thought. I have no idea.
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