In Summer 1848, Princess Ludovika, Duchess in Bavaria, accompanied by her daughters Helena and Elisabeth, and two of her sons, had met her sister, Archduchess Sophia of Austria, at Innsbruck.  Franz-Josef and two of his brothers had accompanied their mother.  Sissi and Franzi had seen each other for the first time, but a whole world then separated them.  Firstly, age:  he was almost eighteen, she was only ten.  Then, the preoccupations of a State on the verge of crumbling.  His mother kept telling him that the future reposed on his shoulders, the time for childish games was over.  The boy was grave, and looked without any particular interest at this little cousin with the round cheeks, and her hair done in bands in the Bavarian fashion, not really pretty, but whom everyone adored.  On the other hand, his brother Karl-Louis, who is only fifteen, stops dead in admiration before Sissi.  And any pretext is good to gather a bouquet and choose fruit for her.  The young girl is delighted at receiving all these little attentions.  The separation is made that much sadder.  Karl-Louis grabs his pen and writes to his cousin who has gone back to Possenhofen.  He even sends her a rose and, in a revealing gesture, a ring:  Karl-Louis is in love.  Totally, sincerely, definitively…  On her floral writing paper, she thanks him.  And her kind letter is also accompanied by a ring.  Karl-Louis has no doubt that such a gift represents a vow.  But Sissi is still only a little girl, a forest princess, a rosebud.  Adorable and already adored, but with no constraints.

Five years later, in the middle of August 1853, Sissi has become a young lady obliged to keep quiet and not move, in the family travelling coach which has left Salzburg for Bad Ischl.

Her mother’s project is simple:  she wants to marry her daughter Helena to her nephew Franz-Josef.  And her sister, in Vienna, completely agrees with this idea.  Having already given an emperor to Austria, Sophia is now actively looking for an empress.  European politics are then essentially a family matter, a succession of alliances and rivalities.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria.

His first official portrait shows the young Emperor in his favourite clothes, the uniform.  He had been a soldier, receiving his baptism of fire against the Sardes, at the Battle of Santa Lucia on 6 May 1848;  he will remain a soldier all his life.  With a white tunic embroidered with red and gold cord, red pants with gold bands, gilded belt, he wears the colours of Austria.  His right hand at his waist, the left fist on some battle plan, Franz-Josef wears a sabre.  With his auburn hair, full lips, and long,slim face, he is beautiful.  His body, very slim, is thought fragile and delicate.  However, his energy is astounding.

The liberal varnish has quickly fallen away and national claims have clashed with terrible repression.  Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg, a very firm diplomat at the head of the Government, is very clear:

“We can be clement later.  For the moment we need to go on hanging for a while.”

The Italian uprisings have been put down, but it is in Hungary that the repression has been the worst.  By order of the Tsar, three hundred thousand Russian soldiers have crushed Hungarian resistance.  Nicolas I did not act only out of love for Austria, but out of fear that Poland, in turn, might rise.  The President of the Council had been shot and thirteen generals had died at the end of a cord.

Franz-Josef had asked that the right of grace be used, and prescribed that any capital condemnation firstly be approved by his Cabinet.  Certain Austrian generals having forgotten this procedure, Franz-Josef had the courage to remove them from their functions.

The infernal machine of repression in Italy and Hungary bloody the first months of Franz-Josef’s reign.  Sequestrations, confiscations, executions, imprisonments, no-one escapes the counter-revolution, not even aristocrats who had dared to rise against Vienna.  Schwarzenburg resumes his political  opinions:

“The basis of Government is strength, not ideas.”

The Croatians, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Bohemians, the Lombards, the Piemontais and the Venitians had had too many ideas, or rather they had had only one:  to be free.  But the fragile Viennese monarchy considers these foyers of revolt as too numerous to be spontaneous.

On 4 March 1849, Franz-Josef promulgates a Constitution.  This text recognizes only one State, Austria;  Hungary is integrated as Crown Land, while Lombardy and Venetia become provinces.  The nationalisms are not calmed, they are gagged.

In Vienna, Franz-Josef presides his first Council of Ministers on 17 August 1851.  A sort of unofficial triumvirat directs Austrian affairs:  Franz-Josef reigns, Schwarzenberg governs and old Chancellor Metternich, the “coachman of Europe”, advises the Emperor, who consults him frequently.  The Archduchess rules her precious son’s life.  His marriage has become an obsession.  For there is nothing like the image of happiness for consolidating a monarchy, particularly if it is convalescent.  The Archduchess looks at the great European families.  An Hungarian?  Out of the question!  How could the Austrians forget the insurrection of Budapest?  How could the Hungarians forget the execution of the President of the Council of Ministers?  A little farther North, an alliance with Prussia could give Austria a certain weight against a faraway, but substantial Russia.  Franz-Josef is attracted to Princess Anna, the King’s niece.  She is twenty-two, he likes her, but the tractations come to nothing with the impossibility for Princess Anna to renounce her Protestant religion.  Sophia then looks toward the West, close to Austria, the other side of the Tyrol, toward Bavaria.  She looks at her sister Ludovika.

Politically, Bavaria is sure.  Bavaria is Roman Catholic, like Austria;  Bavaria is threatened by Prussia, like Austria.  An alliance between the Wittelsbachs and the Habsburgs could be very useful in the role that Austria plays at the heart of the Germanic Confederation.  Archduchess Sophia remembers her niece Helena, beautiful and above all reasonable, the perfect young lady.  She would be an ideal empress who would not overshadow the great lady of the family.

The Archduchess is on the point of writing to her sister to ask for news of her daughter Helena, Nene for the family, when an assassination attempt plunges Vienna into stupefaction.  On 18 February 1853, a little after half-past-noon, an Hungarian, armed with a knife, rushes towards Franz-Josef, who is busy watching troop exercises.  A woman’s cry makes the sovereign turn his head, the blade slides between the collar of his uniform and the metal buckle of his tie.  Another few centimetres and the Emperor would have been dead with his throat cut.  In the confusion that follows, Franz-Josef cries out to the brave passer-by who, with his own aide-de-camp, has brought down the struggling aggressor:

“Don’t kill him!”

To be continued.