On 29 January 1866, accompanied by a dazzled Emperor Franz-Josef, Elisabeth (Sissi) begins a decisive voyage in what the sulky Viennese call “her new country”. However, the hardest part is yet to be done, for numerous families have not been able to forget the repression of 1848 and 1849. When, on 1 February, Franz-Josef addresses the parliamentarians in delegation, he leads them to understand that he cannot fulfil all their hopes. The reception is rather cold. But when Sissi says to them, in Hungarian, that they must content themselves with “realizable wishes”, which amounts to the same thing, the delegation is impressed. That is Sissi’s magic, to be able to warmly pronounce rather restrictive words; the goodwill that she inspires also carries affection.
Two days later, a request is addressed to the Emperor, clear and audacious; the Hungarians want an independent government for Hungary. He refuses, and disappointment is profound.
Count Andrassy, although a rather offhand collector of feminine hearts, is himself under the daily charm of the young sovereign. Before leaving the royal palace of Ofen, the Empress suddenly says to Andrassy:
“I have confidence in you. So I shall say to you what I would not say to everyone. If the Emperor’s affairs go badly in Italy, it upsets me. But if it is the case in Hungary, it kills me.”
On 5 March, the couple boards the imperial train which will take it back to Vienna. All the Hungarians, starting with Andrassy, notice that the Empress has tears in her eyes. She sighs:
“I hope to be able to come back soon to my beloved Hungary.”
This trip is a decisive step toward an indispensable comprehension, even if Franz-Josef is still deaf to certain requests.
The Emperor’s hesitations can be explained by worries more serious than the Hungarian revendications. In fact, the European crisis that Prussia has been cultivating over the last few months is on the point of exploding. Conscientiously, diabolically, Bismarck has been poisoning Prussia’s relations with Austria. He wants to eliminate Austria from German affairs, and impose Prussian predominance. When Wilhelm I makes demands, Franz-Josef protests and the situation, untenable, is evolving exactly according to Bismarck’s calculations. Bismarck is also carefully neutralizing Italy, at least for three months, by signing a commercial treaty with her which hides a military alliance and will rapidly display its true nature. Twenty-four hours later, Bismarck deposes a motion before the Frankfurt Diet, which aims at constituting an elected German Federal Parliament, without Austria. Vienna refuses. So, Bismarck loudly clamours that this is a flagrant violation of their agreement. Playing the victim, Prussia invades Holstein, which is under Austrian administration. All around Austria, Hanover, Saxe, Wurtemberg and Louis II’s Bavaria prepare to enter into war against Prussia. The King of Bavaria, torn from his dreaming, pertinently notes:
“It’s a civil war.”
The Tsar and Napoleon III have in fact assured Bismarck of their neutrality, leaving the Germans of the North and those of the South to mutually destroy each other. Panicked, Elisabeth returns to Bad Ischl with Gisela and Rudolf, reflecting on the attitude of the Hungarians in this crisis. Kossuth, exiled, negotiates with Bismarck for the creation of an Hungarian Legion which would fight beside Prussia against Austria. Hungary against Austria? It is unthinkable that all her efforts be annihilated.
On 14 June, Austria obtains that the federated States respond to Prussia, by nine votes to six. There is no longer a Confederation, there is only the North against the South. That same night, Bismarck extracts a declaration of war from Wilhelm I and armed conflict begins.
From Bad Ischl where she is staying, Elisabeth decides that her place is beside Franz-Josef.
“I do not want to leave the Emperor alone when war is at the door”,
she had written to her mother, on 1 May. Now, war is here and the Austrian troops are marching. Sissi leaves Gisela and Rudolf at the Kaiservilla. The little boy, very grave at the announcement of these events, says a prayer:
“By your grace, dear Father who is in Heaven, in this hour of trials, let my dear Papa be supported by your love and your supreme power. Preserve him from danger and remove all sadness from his path. Pour joy and consolation into his heart by a happy conclusion to the war.”
Elisabeth has not forgotten that she was once Princess in Bavaria. Her brothers are fighting in Louis II’s army. Very worried, she returns to Vienna. Four days earlier, at Custozza, near Verona, Austrian troops had beaten the Italians. The same day that Sissi arrives at her spouse’s side, the Hanoverian troops are eliminated by Prussia, in Saxe. The Prussians are equipped with modern weapons. They have received the famous breech loader to replace the old guns loaded by the cannon. The multiple ethnicities of the Empire are also a serious handicap. Further, fearing a desertion by the Italian contingents, the Austrian High Command has integrated them into the Hessian and Bavarian troops. But, despite being commanded by Austrian officers, many detachments pass to the enemy.
Elisabeth maintains her role with grandeur. She is “of admirable calm” at her husband’s side and, when he is meeting with his generals, she visits the wounded. A Bohemian who needs his right arm amputated is refusing the operation, which is urgent.
“If Your Majesty stays for the operation, I’ll consent to it…”
Elisabeth, very pale, forces herself to agree. And seated beside his bed, she holds his valid hand. When the wounded man awakes, Elisabeth is there. Sissi never backs away from these dramas.
Bad news keeps accumulating. On 3 July, the decisive battle takes place in Bohemia, less than one hundred kilometres to the North-East of Prague. Forty thousand Austrians are killed, wounded or taken prisoner. It is finished: in seven weeks, Prussia has eliminated Austria from the North of Germany, and the Empire appears to be in danger. The road to Vienna is open… That same day, the Bavarians capitulate at Kissingen. Sissi and her mother-in-law, drawn closer by adversity, let their anger explode against the fantasque Louis II who had been unable to galvanise his army. They estime that their country has abandoned them.
To be continued.