||The death of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary (1858-1889)
remains the mystery of a scandalous and tragic double death. Archduke Rudolf of Habsburg, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, and his mistress Baroness Marie Vetsera were found dead at the Crown Prince's hunting lodge, Mayerling. The death of his only son devastated the Austrian emperor, since he had no other male heirs. The Austro-Hungarian crown would therefore pass to the Emperor's brother, Karl-Ludwig, and eventually to this archduke's descendants.
Crown Prince Rudolf was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth, one of Europe's most beautiful princesses. Rudolf was born on August 21, 1858. He married Princess Stephanie of Belgium in 1881. Their marriage, as it happened frequently in the house of Habsburg, was arranged and involved little love between the young couple. Rudolf needed a wife with a more interesting than that of his child-bride. Stephanie was not even seventeen years of age at the time of her wedding and she failed to keep her husband from wandering the streets of Vienna in search of licentious enjoyments. The couple had only one daughter, Archduchess Elisabeth, born in 1883.
Since that fateful winter day in 1889, more than a century ago, much has been said, speculated and written about the deaths at Mayerling. Speculation has pointed to political intrigues, unspeakable love affairs, and international conspiracies. Yet the great mystery surrounding the death of Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Marie Vetsera still remains after more than a century. The last Austrian Empress, Zita, who died in 1989, once said she believed Rudolf had been the victim of an international political conspiracy engineered by Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister. Zita did not believe that with such a promising life ahead of him, Crown Prince Rudolf would have chosen suicide under any circumstances. Zita alleged that Clemenceau was conspiring to overthrow Franz Joseph and place germanophobe Rudolf on the throne. This would allow Austria to break away from her allegiance to Germany and sign an alliance with France. Rudolf, Zita believed, refused to partake in the conspiracy and was killed to secure his silence.
Several historians believe that the key to unlock the events at Mayerling will most likely never be found. Many argue that the Austrian police's cover-up of the deaths of Rudolf and Marie Vetsera, his young and foolish lover, shrouded Mayerling in mystery. Furthermore, the tragic events at Mayerling continue to trouble many people who desperately want the mystery revealed. For example, just days before Christmas 1992 it was discovered that the mortal remains of Marie Vetsera had been mysteriously removed from the cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, where they had laid in deadly silence for more than a century. After initial consternation, the local police was able to track down the coffin and recover Vetsera's remains. To verify that the remains were those of young Marie, the police asked the Viennese Medical Institute to examine the remains and identify if indeed they were those of Mayerling victim.
Upon inspection of the human remains recovered by the police, medical examiners discovered that the head of the young woman lacked any traces of a perforating bullet. The cranial cavity was not destroyed by the suspected bullet that Crown Prince Rudolf had fired into his lover's head. On the contrary, the cranial cavity showed signs of trauma. These lacerations could have been caused by a heavy object or some gardening equipment, but not by a bullet. And if in fact this was the Vetsera's body, then the official version of a double suicide at Mayerling had been a hoax all along. Zita's version of the Mayerling tragedy seemed to hold ground.
The old Empress Zita's observations on Mayerling were founded on several disturbing facts. These were also an echo of the many speculations freely roaming around Viennese court circles after the death of Rudolf. On February 9, 1889, the German Ambassador in Vienna sent a missive to Berlin in which he reported a conversation with the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Luigi Galimberti, and the Habsburg Court Chaplain, Monsignor Lorenz Mayer. During this conversation, the officious ambassador reported, the two well-informed prelates expressed their serious doubts concerning the official version of the events at Mayerling.
Half a century later, in 1946, the tomb of Marie Vetsera was desecrated by the occupying Soviet forces. Possibly looking for jewels, Soviet troops looted Marie Vetsera's remains. This profanity was not discovered until 1955 when the Red Army abandoned Austria. In 1959 specialists in funereal preservation, accompanied by a doctor and a member of the Vetsera family, examined the remains. They were all shocked to discover that the body of the young woman in the vault did not present any traces of death by firearm. What they did observe was a large trauma on the crown of the head. This fact supported the version which alleged that the mistress of the Austrian Crown Prince had not been killed by Rudolf, but had fallen foul to Rudolf's assassins. Yet in 1955, this macabre discovery was curiously ignored by all concerned.
The German note, as well as the forensic evidence found in Vetsera's body, are just many of the proofs challenging the official version of Rudolf and Marie's death. Many have alleged that Rudolf's body showed signs of a violent confrontation before death. Lacerations were discovered in several parts of the body. His hands showed signs of struggle, which might demonstrate that the poor Crown Prince tried desperately to fight off his would-be assassins. It also seems that the revolver used to kill both Rudolf and Vetsera was not the one owned by the Crown Prince, and that all six bullets were fired. In this case, Marie Vetsera was not the foul victim of a tragic love affair, but the unwilling witness of one of the most daring political assassinations ever achieved.
Rudolf's death brought ruin to his parents' marriage, uncertainty over the imperial succession, and ultimately the end of the ancient house of Habsburg. If he had not met with an untimely demise, Europe's history would have been tremendously different. Mayerling not only meant the death of two love struck people, it also robbed the Habsburgs of the one person who seemed most capable of keeping the tattered multinational monarchy from its eventual disintegration and collapse.