Debunking myths of the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his lover

You know the story – or, you think you know it. With the scenery collapsing around the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two lovers – Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Mary Vetsera – take their own lives at a remote hunting lodge deep in the Vienna Woods on a midwinter morning in 1889. Spun out in movies, musicals – even a ballet – the Mayerling incident has become a romantic tragedy for the ages, a saga swirling with passion and politics, obligation and guilt.

The legend of Mayerling is a swirl of rumors and conspiracies, whispered in coffeehouses and printed with lurid embellishments in Parisian newspapers, which floated around fin de siècle Vienna. Where the truth about Mayerling ends and the legends begin is the subject of Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs. Authors Greg King and Penny Wilson use historians’ tools and writers’ air to deconstruct the myths and then engagingly rebuild the story surrounding Rudolf and Mary’s murder-suicide.

Greg King and Penny Wilson
Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs
St. Martin’s Press, hardcover November 2017
pp 352, €22.99
© Cover Courtesy of the Publisher

If Twilight of Empire does one thing very well, it is the systematic elimination of the various theories around the deaths of Rudolf and Mary, including that the Crown Prince was the victim of a political assassination. As for Rudolf and Mary’s romance, King and Wilson show that only Mary felt any passionate intensity. Rudolf was a notorious womanizer who contracted sexually transmitted diseases for his transgressions, including gonorrhea and possibly syphilis. Rudolf in turn infected his wife, Princess Stephanie of Belgium, leaving her barren and the Habsburg dynasty without a male heir.

Romanticism and Speculation

Though Mary harbored delusions that he would one day leave Stephanie and make her his consort, in reality she was but another conquest, another notch on his pearl-handled cane. In fact, the authors argue that Rudolf wanted to break o his liaison with her almost right up until the moment he pulled the trigger. His relationship with Baroness Vetsera had become an “inconvenience,” as members of the royal court observed. “There is no doubt that in the last months of his life Rudolf was slowly pulling away from Mary,” King and Wilson write.

“A strong sentimental romanticism still surrounds the Habsburgs in modern Austria,” allowing romantic myths and bogus theories to thrive “in the quest for more morally palatable” explanations. Stripping away this overgrowth, the authors focus solely on Rudolf and Mary as the “only two people responsible for events at Mayer- ling.” In doing so, however, Twilight of Empire commits the very sin they argue previous chroniclers were guilty of: that of spinning stories around real-life events.

Rudolf, they believe, was psychologically fragile and obsessed with death – bipolar, prone to manic and depressive episodes. His plot to become king of an independent Hungary had failed, leaving him vulnerable. News that he had requested an annulment to his marriage with Stephanie had leaked. Mary, meanwhile, believed she was pregnant, unwelcome news for Rudolf, particularly as Mary’s father was rumored to be Kaiser Franz Joseph himself. Rudolf ’s world collapsed and suicide became his escape. Though he did not want Mary to go out with him, she would not have it any other way.

King and Wilson give the most plausible accounting for Rudolf and Mary’s deaths to date, yet, perhaps inevitably, it still relies upon assumption and speculation as much as historical record. “Some evidence suggests” Rudolfwas bipolar. “Definitive proof is lacking” that Mary was pregnant. “If Rudolf was involved” in a conspiracy to take the Hungarian throne, it showed his instability. As the authors write at one point, “history can only speculate about what happened between Rudolf and Mary.”

Twilight of Empire, then, is unlikely to end the debate around Mayerling but rather start it afresh. After all, the reading public’s appetite for royalty, romance, and tragedy shows no signs of abating.