Around noon on 30 January 1889 Austria’s official newspaper Wiener Zeitung in Vienna reported that 30-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the fraying and fractious Austro-Hungarian Empire, husband of Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, had died that morning of a stroke. It was a lie.
The following day, the court issued a clarification: Rudolf had died of heart failure. That also was a lie.
It was true Rudolf had died around 7am on the 30th at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, some 16 miles from Vienna. The first news of it had reached the court towards the end of the morning, with a report that he had been poisoned. Remarkably, that wasn’t true either.
The truth – almost certainly – is that Rudolf and his new 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera (pictured) had died in a suicide pact. He shot her in the early hours of the morning. It seems she cried a little beforehand; she held a handkerchief as she lay on the bed waiting. Rudolf was still alive at 6.30am because he instructed his factotum, Loschek, to prepare breakfast for an hour later. When the bedroom door was broken down around 8am, they were both found dead.
Into the void where a clear, official account might be, all sorts of rumour flooded in. He was shot by poachers, it was reported; or in a hunting accident, or killed by a misfiring gun. But that was before people knew about Marie. The press pieced together something like the true story within a week. Books promising salacious revelations were on publishers’ lists within a fortnight in Dresden, then in Zurich and Leipzig.
As to motive, we are still in the dark. They both left multiple suicide notes: his speak vaguely of honour, hers blithely of love. But even when he was alive people gossiped that Rudolf had inherited a little mental instability from his mother’s side; it was called den Bayrishen Zwickel, the Bavarian kink. He always drank heavily and complained of chronic fatigue; moreover, a fall from his horse on November 19 might have “brought his brains into disorder”, Prince Philipp of Coborg wrote to Queen Victoria. That winter, Rudolf asked at least five friends if they were afraid of death.
The idea is one thing, the action is another. Was there a trigger? Is it possible that Rudolf had become too deeply involved in opposition politics in Hungary – perhaps contemplating the crown – and got himself too deeply embroiled? He was a careless talker, it was said, “by no means particular as to the exactness of his statements so long as they are effective”. Was he too opposed to his father’s autocratic policies? Or was he too vocal in his fears about Germany’s growing militarism?
These are questions to which there are never likely to be clear answers. Rudolf personally destroyed most of his recent personal papers before he went to Mayerling. The rest were burnt on his instructions after his death. But of course the questions are tantalising all the same. How different would 20th-century history be without the 1914 assassination at Sarajevo of his cousin, Franz Ferdinand, who became heir on Rudolf’s death?
Might Rudolf and Marie have been murdered? There were plenty of people who thought so. It was a drunken row with Archduke Johann Salvator of Tuscany, people said. Or an outraged member of Marie’s family. Or was it an assassination by some Hungarian faction or other?
There are undoubtedly gaps and discrepancies in the record. But surely Ockham’s razor applies to a possible murder on the very night two people plan to kill themselves. Likewise, while the imperial family certainly kept information private, what could possibly have brought them more shame than the story that finally came out?
Rudolf and Marie had not known each other long. They had met in the autumn; two accounts both point the finger at Bertie, the Prince of Wales, for the introduction, made either at the theatre or the race track. They didn’t meet alone until 5 November; it was difficult, given Marie’s youth, for her to be out on her own. A go-between, Countess Marie Larisch, sometimes escorted Marie to Rudolf’s apartment in the imperial palace, telling Marie’s mother the two were going shopping.
On 11 December, a new season opened at the Viennese opera. Marie feigned headaches, or washed her hair, to avoid attending with her mother and sister. It was a Wagner season; hours of free time opened up for the lovers to meet. They consummated their relationship on 13 January.
But what future could such a relationship have when he was married, a Catholic, and heir to the throne? And what kind of relationship was it? For Rudolf, it can hardly have been love exactly. He spent his last night in Vienna with another mistress, Mizzi Kaspar, the recipient of one of his four posthumous letters. A month or two earlier he had suggested a suicide pact to her too. She had laughed.