July 1866. The Prussians are marching on Vienna. The population is wondering whether they are going to occupy the city. Is flight necessary? In the middle of these interrogations and the beginning panic, a miracle occurs: Archduchess Sophia of Austria pays homage to her daughter-in-law. In the catastrophe that is sweeping away all her political hopes, the Archduchess clings to the strength of Elisabeth, who is pale, exhausted, but still there, still standing, active, with a poor, forced smile, in the middle of the tears and consternation. On this subject, the letter that Sophia writes from Schonbrunn, on 5 July, to her grandson Rudolf, is quite a document:
“I send you these few words in haste, my dear child, to tell you, as a consolation, that, thank God, your poor Papa is in good health and that your dear Mama is supporting him like his good angel, that she is always beside him and only leaves him to go to one hospital or another and carries aid and consolation everywhere.”
The good angel… It has taken a war, thousands of victims and the crumbling of Austrian predominance for Sophia to recognize Sissi’s loving qualities.
It is Hungary which is going to play a surprising supporting role in the unravelling of the Austrian Empire. In light of the Prussian progression, Franz-Josef judges it prudent to send his wife to Buda-Pest, on 9 July. The official pretext for Sissi’s visit is the hospital installed in the royal palace of Ofen. But the real reason for this voyage has not escaped Andrassy who is also looking to come to an understanding with the Habsburgs. In contrast with the harsh tendencies put forward by Kossuth, who wants to profit from Vienna’s weakening to make Magyar nationalism triumphant, his language is that of a man of heart.
Sissi judges that Andrassy is the strong man who can still conserve Hungary under Austrian domination. Her idea is clear: Franz-Josef must name Andrassy Minister for Foreign Affairs. In this way, a veritable dialogue can begin, for Austria cannot allow itself to be isolated, and its present isolation is total. The emissary sent by Franz-Josef to Napoleon III to ask him to save Austria from the Prussians has failed. The French Emperor had promised to remain neutral and the size of the Austrian disaster is making him think twice about intervening. Further, his Italian dream is now coming true: it is evident that Venetia can no longer remain Austrian…
Three days later, Sissi is in Vienna. She begs Franz-Josef to listen to her. Only Andrassy can protect the Empire’s rear. The Emperor hesitates, the decision is delicate.
The next day, 13 July, Elisabeth, joined by Gisela and Rudolf who have arrived from Bad Ischl, sets off again for Ofen. Panic is overtaking the inhabitants of Vienna who are watching the Prussian progression from the heights of the magnificent forest surrounding the city. Before boarding her train, Sissi suddenly takes the Emperor’s hand and kisses it with feverish tenderness. The convoy is precious in every way: piled inside and hidden is the Hofburg treasure, the Crown jewels, the gold- and silverware. Parures, necklaces and relics of the Holy Empire take the road to exile.
Barely arrived in the villa that she has rented on the Buda hills, since the palace is only a hospital now, Sissi receives Andrassy. She is certain that he can save the monarchy. He tells her that he accepts. She sends a letter to Franz-Josef which is an ultimate appeal.
“I beg you, telegraph me immediately if Andrassy must go to Vienna by this evening’s train.”
Two days later, the Emperor announces to Sissi that he awaits Andrassy. The interview takes place on 17 July, at midday. It lasts an hour-and-a-half. Franz-Josef has estimated the Hungarian to be
“neither strong enough nor seconded enough in the country to succeed in the task which he imposes on himself”.
Why is he hesitating so much? Firstly, because he is a bit wary of Sissi’s exaltation, of Andrassy’s talent for seducing women, and of his excellence in presenting himself as a saviour. Then, because he finds that Sissi is very tired and fears that her health might be distorting her judgement. Finally – and above all – he does not want to give the impression of giving in to the Hungarians. He admits that the Hungarian situation needs changes, but refuses to make them hurriedly.
Franz-Josef’s calm and his determination not to be totally overwhelmed are surprising, for Wilhelm I is only fifty-five kilometres from Vienna. On 20 July, the Austrian fleet beats the Italian fleet at Lissa, saving Vienna’s honour, but too late… Peace preliminaries are already engaged. Bismarck and Wilhelm I play delicately, avoiding humiliating Austria too much and accepting that Napoleon III intervene as mediator. But the territory administered by the Habsburgs is firstly amputated of Schleswig, annexed, like Holstein, to Prussia, then, which is more serious, of Venetia. By losing his last Italian province and losing all influence in Northern Germany, the Austrian Empire sees the benefits of half a century of efforts annihilated. Prussia will reorganize the northern German States and Italy will reinforce its growing influence. The Austrian defeat allows the two most affirmed nationalisms in Europe to advance on the road to unity.
Sissi is truly exhausted by the Empire’s defeat and her own failure to succeed with her supplications. She asks Doctor Fischer to come to examine her. He advises calm and a stay in the mountains. At this epoch, the correspondence between the two spouses takes on a very affectionate tone. She writes to him every day, and Franz-Josef begins all his harassing days with a letter to Elisabeth. His favourite names, at this time, are “My Adored Sissi” and “My dear little angel”. He signs “Your little man”, “Your poor little one”.
“If you could come to see me, it would give me so much pleasure…”
Between Sissi and her husband, the ultimate question which could seal their relations is that of Hungary. Elisabeth is a little vexed at not having been heeded. However, the idea is progressing, and Andrassy is again received ny Franz-Josef. The Emperor is more amiable, but he is still weighing the pros and cons of the Hungarian’s nomination. Sissi, thinking that the moment has come to act, returns to Schonbrunn. A discussion on the subject explodes between the two spouses, although they are happy to see each other again. Sissi sighs:
“I nourish very little hope of seeing my efforts crowned with success.”
To be continued.