Elisabeth and Franz-Josef at Cap Martin in 1894.

What happened at Mayerling in the night of Tuesday 29 to Wednesday 30 January 1889?  What happened exactly?  The most fantastic historical enigma of the XIXth Century, the most poignant drama of old Europe, still suscitates the most diverse interpretations.  Mayerling is the drama of a man, a family, a world.  What tragedy unfolded in a pretty pavillion in the heart of a peaceful valley?  A ravishing, romantic place.  A nightmare in the Viennese forest.

What was the official version?  Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, intelligent but depressive, brilliant but unstable, was very unhappy in his private life.  Married for State reasons to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, he felt only lassitude at his spouse’s side.  The birth of their daughter Erszi had, for a while, permitted the hope of a reasonable, if not idyllic, understanding within the couple.  Unfortunately, Stephanie’s delivery had been difficult, and the doctors had warned her that she could not have any more children.  Rudolf, deeply saddened by the impossibility of giving a son to the dynasty, is supposed to have detached himself definitively from his spouse, judged to be ungracious, nasty and jealous.

Crown Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria.

In his public life, Rudolf nourished ambitions greater than those offered by the functions which he exercised.  His clandestine contacts with progressist and liberal milieux were many…  His writings, published under pseudonyms, criticised the line followed by Vienna.

In 1888, he had fallen in love with one of the daughters of the enterprising Baroness Helena Vetsera, the very young Maria – she is seventeen.  Rudolf is so taken with her that he addresses a marriage annulment request to Pope Leon XIII.  The request is refused and provokes, it is said, a violent scene between Franz-Josef and his son.  The Emperor is said to have ordered the Archduke to cease this scandalous liaison.  At the German Embassy reception on 27 January, Maria Vetsera is said to have ostensibly refused to curtsy to Stephanie.

Doubly disappointed, Rudolf is supposed to have decided to kill himself and asked Maria Vetsera to follow him in death.  Mayerling was the lovers’ last rendez-vous.

The official enquiry will attempt to establish the circumstances of the double death, carefully omitting to mention Maria Vetsera’s body.  Officially, the young girl was not at Mayerling…  Maria is buried very rapidly, during a clandestine ceremony which is particularly macabre:  her body, held upright by a stick, had been transported, seated, by carriage, to the forest cemetery of Heiligenkreuz, a few kilometres from Mayerling.

A series of confused and contradictory communiques will cast doubt – and discredit – on the Archduke.  There will be talk of Rudolf being poisoned by Maria Vetsera, who then killed herself.  After that, it was said that the Prince suffered from an embolism and that his mistress killed herself in despair.  Then, the version of a hunting accident is retained, founded on Rudolf’s passion for firearms.  But the “definitive” version is that of murder-suicide.  Maria Vetsera is killed by Rudolf, who then kills himself.  However, this official explanation comes too late, after too many others, to be accepted without question.

An evident reason for these hesitations is the shame felt by Franz-Josef, whose son is presented as a murderer and a suicide.  The only way to obtain the authorisation for a religious funeral from the Vatican is to prove a state of dementia.

According to this version, Rudolf, involved in sentimental failure, would have had no other issue but death.  By retaining this version, two essential variations can be added.  Firstly, Maria Vetsera, Rudolf’s mistress since 13 January [that is to say, for sixteen days], is pregnant and the rupture ordered by Franz-Josef comes too late.  Secondly, they are half-sister and half-brother, Franz-Josef having had a kindness for Helena Vetsera.  These two variations are not incompatible.


On Friday 11 March 1983, another version becomes public.  Austria’s last Empress and Hungary’s last Queen, Zita, was exiled from Austria from 1919 to 1982.  After the death of her husband, Emperor Karl, in 1922, she had lived some difficult times and raised her eight children.  While she was exiled in Switzerland, no historian nor journalist had ever officially asked her her opinion on the Mayerling tragedy.  The question was asked for the first time by the Special Correspondent of the Kronen Zeitung who published his enquiry in this Vienna newspaper in March 1983.

Born in 1892, three years after the tragedy, the former Empress was the only witness left of this imperial epoch who had very well known the contemporaries of the drama, in particular Franz-Josef and his two daughters Gisela and Maria-Valeria.  It is therefore natural to think that Empress Zita was better placed than historians to know what is hidden behind this State secret which is, after all, a family secret.

The Empress decided to speak so as to accomplish the mission entrusted to her by her husband Emperor Karl, who succeeded Franz-Josef, his great-uncle, in 1916, and who had received the task of rehabilitating Rudolf’s memory by producing the proof that he had been assassinated for political reasons.  War and death had prevented this.

Various remarks can be made about this new version.

Firstly, it is true that Franz-Josef made all those who knew about the drama swear to keep silent about it.  If Rudolf had really committed suicide after having killed Maria Vetsera, why continue to keep it secret once this official version had been given by the Court?  If Franz-Josef and Sissi had been very rapidly informed that their son had been assassinated and had accredited the suicide version for the public, it is because the political stakes were too high and high-ranking people in the Empire would have been compromised.  According to Empress Zita, Franz-Josef had said:

“I couldn’t do otherwise.  The monarchy’s existence was in danger.”

In this case, Mayerling would have been the first act in an enterprise of “destabilisation”, the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 being the second act.  The aim was achieved:  The Austro-Hungarian Empire, shaken by Mayerling, was dismantled at Sarajevo.

Secondly, after the first telegramme sent by the Emperor to the Pope to obtain the right to inhume Rudolf religiously, the Vatican had refused.  At this time, suicide excluded all indulgence by the Holy See.  Franz-Josef sent a second, coded telegramme to Rome, around two thousand words long, and the Pope immediately accorded the authorisation for a religious funeral.  The first telegramme has been found but the second has mysteriously disappeared.  It is in neither the Vatican’s archives nor those of Austria.  Why?  Countess Helena Esterhazy reported that her grandfather, who was Ambassador of Austria-Hungary to the Holy See and had received and decoded the famous second telegramme, told her later that its contents explained that it had been a political assassination.

To be continued.