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Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria

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Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia (21 August 1858 - 30 January 1889) was the son and heir of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. His death, apparently through suicide, along with that of his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at his Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889 made international headlines, fueled international conspiracy rumours and ultimately may have sealed the long-term fate of the Habsburg monarchy. The exact cause and circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day.

Background

Crown Prince Rudolf was born on 21 August 1858 in Schloss Laxenburg near Vienna as the son of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Influenced by his tutor Ferdinand von Hochstetter (who later became the first manager of the Imperial Natural History Museum), Rudolf became very interested in natural sciences, starting a mineral collection at a very early age. (After his death, large portions of his mineral collection came into the possession of the University for Agriculture in Vienna.). Crown Prince Rudolf was raised together with his older sister Gisela by their paternal grandmother Archduchess Sophie. His parents' oldest child, a daughter named Sophie, died at age 2 and before Rudolf was born while younger sister Marie-Valerie was born 10 years after Rudolf. Hence, Gisela and Rudolf grew up together and were very close. At age 6, he was separated from his sister as he began his education to become a future Emperor. This did not change their relationship and Gisela remained close to him until she left Vienna upon her marriage to Prince Leopold of Bavaria. The siblings' parting was said to be very emotional.

In contrast with his deeply conservative father, Crown Prince Rudolf held distinctively liberal views that were closer to those of his mother. Nevertheless his relationship with her was strained and contained little warmth. In Vienna on 10 May 1881 he married Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, a daughter of King Leopold II of the Belgians, in The Augustinian's Church in Vienna with all the pomp and splendour of a state wedding. Rudolf appeared to be genuinely in love, but his mother regarded her new daughter-in-law as a "clumsy oaf." By the time their only child, the Archduchess Elisabeth, was born on 2 September 1883, the couple had drifted apart, and he found solace in drink and other female companionship.

In 1887, Rudolf bought Mayerling and transformed it into a hunting lodge. In late 1888, the 30-year-old crown prince met the 17-year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera, known by the more fashionable Anglophile name Mary. From the start, Mary adored him, and was ready to do anything for him. It was almost certainly not the great romance of his life, but Rudolf did have feelings for her, and was touched by her limitless, almost fanatical, love for him.

The Mayerling "Suicide Pact"

According to official reports, their deaths were a result of Franz Josef's demand that the couple end the relationship: the Crown Prince, as part of a suicide pact, shot his mistress in the head, then himself. Rudolf was officially declared to have been in a state of "mental unbalance" in order to enable burial in the Imperial Crypt (Kapuzinergruft) of the Capuchin Church in Vienna. Mary's body was smuggled out of Mayerling in the middle of the night, and secretly buried in the cemetery of Holy Cross Abbey in Heiligenkreuz, and the Emperor had Mayerling converted into a penitential convent of Carmelite nuns. Today prayers are still said daily by the nuns for the repose of Rudolf's soul.

Suicide or murder?

Many people however doubted the truthfulness of the report. Before her death in 1989, Empress Zita, widow of the last Austrian Emperor Charles I (r. 1916–1918), repeated the claim that the young couple had been murdered as part of an attempt to cover up a French plot to overthrow his father, a pro-German conservative, and replace him with Rudolf, a pro-French Liberal. According to Empress Zita, Rudolf had indignantly refused to take part and threatened to inform his father. Empress Zita did not offer any new evidence and her claims, however widely reported, were not given much credence during her lifetime.

In December 1992 the remains of Baroness Vetsera were stolen from the cemetery at Heiligenkreuz. When the missing remains were tracked down, the police, to ensure they were the correct remains, asked the Viennese Medical Institute to examine them. While they did confirm that they were the correct remains, the institution noted how the skull contained no evidence whatsoever of a bullet hole, the supposed means by which Vetsera had been killed by the crown prince. The evidence instead suggested she may have been killed by a series of violent blows to the head. Separately, evidence came to light in the form of a report on the remains of the crown prince, made at the time of the double death. His body showed evidence of a major violent struggle. A report at the time had also noted that all six bullets had been fired from the gun, which it was revealed did not belong to the crown prince.

The official state report of the deaths claimed that the crown prince shot Vetsera before shooting himself with his own gun. It made no mention of the facts subsequently revealed, leading to the conclusion that, for some reason, a cover-up of the actual manner of the deaths had taken place. It is unlikely ever to be clarified as to what really happened. Two theories have been postulated:

* one theory is that the couple had a violent struggle, and that the crown prince murdered his lover by battering her before shooting himself; in other words, a clear case of murder rather than the suggested double suicide; however, that theory fails to explain the ability of the prince to fire the gun six times as he killed himself, or indeed where the gun came from, given that it was not his weapon;
* the other theory is that some third party attacked both, battered Vetsera to death, and shot the crown prince. The latter theory does bear some resemblance to the theory postulated for eighty years by Empress Zita, who as Crown Princess from 1914 to 1916 had been a confidante of Rudolf's father, the aging Emperor Franz Josef, and so may have heard his theories, and those of other members of the Austro-Hungarian court, as to the manner of the death of Crown Prince Rudolf.

It would have been difficult for the devoutly Catholic Emperor to admit that his son and heir had killed the girl and himself in a state of "mental unbalance". If there had been any way to claim that the two had been murdered by a third party, that version would have been infinitely preferable. There would have been no need to accuse someone in particular; it would have avoided the public admission that the Crown Prince was an insane murderer and that he had committed suicide.

Putting forward a third party as the killer though, would have likely led to a public demand that the killer be caught and a thorough investigation of the deaths. It may be that some thought that would be undesirable; in any case, the 'mental unbalance' theory was put forward.

It should be also noted that, according to the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church, a man who committed suicide should not be given Christian Burial. However, after the Emperor's exchange of letters with the Pope, Rudolf was buried according to Catholic Rites. This also suggests that there was unreleased evidence, or maybe even the fact that the murder was ordered by the Emperor himself. There is a theory which suggests that Rudolf had been planning to overthrow the Emperor, or to claim the throne of an independent Hungary, and that his plots were uncovered by the Emperor's inner circle not long before Rudolf was found dead. Of course all this remains a mystery, at least until the Papal Archive decides to release the letter, which may contain the final and decisive proof.

Impact of Rudolf's death

Following Rudolf's death, the marriage of his parents collapsed completely, with his mother spending much of her time abroad.

Next in the line of succession after Rudolf to the Austrian, Bohemian, Croatian and Hungarian thrones was Archduke Karl Ludwig, Franz Josef's younger brother. Karl Ludwig renounced his succession rights a few days after Rudolf’s death, meaning his oldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand became heir presumptive. Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914 led to a chain of events that produced World War I. When Franz Josef died in 1916, the throne passed to his grand-nephew, Archduke Karl, who became the last Austro-Hungarian monarch as Emperor Karl of Austria.

Film and Theatre

  • Crown Prince Rudolph, TV film directed by Robert Dornhelm (2006) in two parts. Historical adviser: Brigitte Hamann. Here, the love story and the conflict between father and son are embedded in the general political situation of the time in Central Europe.
  • Requiem for a Crown Prince, fourth episode of the British documentary/drama series Fall of Eagles (1974), about the collapse of the Romanov, Habsburg and Hohenzollern dynasties. Directed by James Furman and written by David Turner, the 60-minute episode tracks in detail the events of Wednesday January 30th, 1889, at Mayerling as well as the following few days - The discovery of the dead bodies, the breaking of news to Rudolf's family, the desperate attempts to cover up what really happened - even to the Emperor and Empress - and the secret smuggling of Marie Vetsera's body away from Mayerling before scandal can erupt.
  • In The Illusionist (2006), a central character is the fictitious "Crown Prince Leopold," son of the Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria. In the film, "Leopold" commits suicide after a failing in a plot to overthrow his father and (apparently) murdering his fiancé. However, Prince Leopold is portrayed as right-wing and an autocratic absolutist who enjoys beating women and often complains of "mongrels." He bears no resemblance to the actual Prince Rudolf, except for his physical appearance.
  • Mayerling (1936 film), excellent black and white dramatization based on the novel by Claude Anet. Historical fiction in the grand style of the glory days of Hollywood. Directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Charles Boyer as Crown Prince Rudolf and Danielle Darrieux as Maria Vetsera.
  • De Mayerling à Sarajevo (1940 film), director Max Ophuls. The film starts with Rudolf's death.
  • Mayerling (1968 film), starring Omar Sharif as Crown Prince Rudolf, Catherine Deneuve as Maria.
  • Kenneth MacMillan's 1978 ballet, Mayerling
  • The musical Marinka (1945), book by George Marion, Jr., and Karl Farkas, lyrics by George Marion, Jr., music by Emmerich Kalman
  • Frank Wildhorn's new musical Rudolf (musical) centers around Crown Prince Rudolf. It played in Budapest in 2006 with a production in Vienna planned for 2008.
  • Rudolf also appears as a character in the musical Elisabeth.

Ancestors

Further reading

  • Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria. Majestät, ich warne Sie... Geheime und private Schriften. Edited by Brigitte Hamann. Wien: Amalthea, 1979, ISBN 3-85002-110-6 (reprinted München: Piper, 1998, ISBN 3-492-20824-X).
  • Barkeley, Richard. The Road to Mayerling: Life and Death of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria. London: Macmillan, 1958.
  • Franzel, Emil. Crown Prince Rudolph and the Mayerling Tragedy: Fact and Fiction. Vienna : V. Herold, 1974.
  • Hamann, Brigitte. Kronprinz Rudolf: Ein Leben. Wien: Amalthea, 2005, ISBN 3-85002-540-3.
  • Listowel, Judith Márffy-Mantuano Hare, Countess of. A Habsburg Tragedy: Crown Prince Rudolf. London: Ascent Books, 1978.
  • Lonyay, Károly. Rudolph: The Tragedy of Mayerling. New York: Scribner, 1949.
  • Salvendy, John T. Royal Rebel: A Psychological Portrait of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.
  • Morton, Frederic. A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889. Penguin 1979

See also

Notes

External links

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