Elisabeth of Austria

Franco-Prussian relations are degrading.  Napoleon III turns to Austria.  Franz-Josef weighs the pros and cons of military engagement beside France.  The idea of revenge on Prussia is still attractive, but Franz-Josef wants peace.  He writes again to Napoleon III that he will remain neutral.  It should be said that the Tsar has made it known, through his Ambassador to Paris:

“If Austria leaves its neutrality, we will too.”

As for Bavaria, Louis II, from the depths of his immense blue silk bed, reluctantly mobilises against France.  He is convinced that Prussia will be victorious, and it is better to respect the treaties of alliance.  This sensible decision again leads to a rupture in the Bavarian family:  Sissi’s brothers and brothers-in-law will be fighting while Austria waits.

After the Battle of Sarrebruck, a French victory, Elisabeth says:

“It’s a good start for France.  If this continues, it won’t be long before the Prussians return to Berlin.”

But, little by little, the Prussians progress towards the French interior, beating them at Wissemburg, Forbach and Gravelotte.  Franz-Josef is floored by this “insolent” Prussian victory.  But after Sedan and the proclamation of the Republic, Archduchess Sophia of Austria is perhaps the person at Court who is the most affected by the collapse of the French Empire.  She is thinking of the future of the Monarchy that she had had so much trouble saving twenty-four years before.  The future is called Rudolf.  The Prince has just turned twelve, and war has again diminished Austria’s role opposite Prussia…

During Summer 1871, Franz-Josef and Wilhelm I of Prussia meet.  The Emperor of Austria is not enthusiastic about this interview, but Bismarck absolutely wants to make it known that, if Austria and Prussia become allies, they will fear no other enemy.  The meeting ends in burlesque fashion.  Some chairs, freshly painted, leave appalling criss-crossing on the guests’ uniforms.  In fact, Franz-Josef’s thoughts are more absorbed by interior politics than by foreign affairs resulting from the war.  The Czech exigencies are becoming clearer, and Andrassy is displaying at least as much determination to counter them as Franz-Josef.  On 9 November, Count Andrassy is named Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Public opinion, to which Franz-Josef always listens, is very divided after this decision, which is widely discussed.  It is true that Andrassy is clever, stubborn, attractive.  Because he had wanted – and obtained – that the Czechs not be favourised, he has Bismarck’s estime.  The Iron Chancellor is wary of the broadening of the Habsburg’s zone of influence and secretly opposes any transformation of the double monarchy and triple kingdom.  In Vienna, official milieux bitterly note that Austrian external politics have been entrusted to an Hungarian.  Barely veiled emotion spreads around the Hofburg.  And, the responsibility for this decision is immediately imputed to the Empress.  Upon hearing the news in a villa she had rented in Maran, the former capital of the Tyrol, Sissi can consider that it is a personal victory after four years of effort.

Franz-Josef asks her what she would like for her birthday.  The answer is astounding:

“You ask me what would give me pleasure?  Well!  I would like either a young royal tiger (there are three in the Berlin Zoological Garden) or a medallion.  But what I would prefer to any other thing, is a mental asylum.  Now, you have a choice…”

The Emperor will choose the medallion…

Sissi, who at last returns to Vienna, learns something completely unexpected:  her daughter Gisela is engaged.  She is sixteen.

“It is much too soon,”

says her mother, remembering her own wedding which was just as unexpected as it was premature.

The fiance is Prince Leopold of Bavaria, cousin to Sissi and King Louis II of Bavaria.  Franz-Josef justifies this marriage:

“The idea of marrying Gisela so early comes from the fact that there are at the moment so few Catholic princes that we looked to assure ourselves of the only one among them to whom we could give Gisela with peace of mind.”

At the beginning of May, while Sissi is in the Tyrol, a message recalls her urgently to Vienna, without her having any way of pretexting the impossiblity of her return:  since 10 May, the Archduchess has been confined to her bed at Schonbrunn.  After a performance at the Court theatre, the Emperor’s mother had caught cold.  Since then, her strength has been declining.  She is a resistant woman and she is only sixty-seven-years-old, but her will to survive has gone.  The death of her son Maximilien has weakened her inside, although, as usual, she has suffered her pain with exemplary dignity.

Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria.

Her daughter-in-law hastily returns to Vienna.  It had taken five days to realise the gravity of her condition:  it is pneumonia.  Very worried, Franz-Josef has straw spread on the square under his mother’s windows to muffle the sound of horses and carriages.  She whom the Palace personnel still calls “our Empress” asks that all the family be gathered.  She gives a bit of advice to each of them and wants to say goodbye.  Lucid, she knows that death awaits her and that her agony is imminent.

At half-past-eleven in the evening of 26 May 1872, Sissi, who has spent the day beside the dying woman’s bed at Schonbrunn, returns to the Hofburg to rest a little.  She has scarcely arrived than a breathless lackey tells her that Franz-Josef is calling her urgently.  The coachman whips the horses and Sissi rushes back.  The Archduchess is unconscious.

At seven o’clock in the morning, breakfast is served for the family and the members of the Imperial Household.  Sissi does not want to absent herself for even an instant.  She has been fasting for around ten hours, but doesn’t care.  In these ultimate moments, she feels the irresistible need to be near the woman who had made her suffer so much.  It is a pathetic, desperate tete-a-tete, where Sissi can only ask herself questions which will remain unanswered.  Her tears are more of contrition than affection.  Why so many affrontments?  Why so much hate?  Why did this woman, who was estimed throughout Austria by a whole people, constantly place herself between the two spouses, forcing her son to choose between his mother and his wife?  And she, Elisabeth, who had never ceased to provoke protocol and shake convenances, why this permanent revolt?  Perhaps to give herself the impression of existing…

To be continued.

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