Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria/Hungary must have had tremendous self-discipline: his brother Maximilian was invited to become King of Mexico, accepted, and was later shot as a traitor (to Mexico one supposes) by order of the Liberals under Juárez at Querataro; his wife Elizabeth was murdered by another liberal, this time an Anarchist, at Geneva; his nephew Franz-Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated at Sarejevo in 1914, setting the world on course for world war; to cap it all his son (and heir) the Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide along with his mistress in Franz-Joseph’s hunting lodge at Mayerling. Or did he?
Mayerling was the name of the hunting-box built by the Emperor in the romantic Vienna Woods. It was a semi-luxurious, sparsely-furnished but definitely royal house built mostly of mountain stone and wood from felled trees of the forest. Animal furs covered most of the couches and beds. A small group of decidedly loyal servants were there to look after the royal masters’ needs and comforts.
It was here that the bodies of Rudolf and a girl still under twenty, the Baroness Marie Vetsera (in some versions Maria von Vetsera) were found on 30 January, 1839. The first thing organised by the servants, and the policemen summoned, was what is now called a ‘cover-up’ to puzzle the press, first national, then international. It must be remembered that young Rudolf (31) was Heir to the Emperor of Austro-Hungary, with a bullet in his head and a dead mistress at his side.
Naturally, attempts made by the Hapsburgs to conceal the truth only fed the flames of horror and wild surmise. In fact, though many books, articles have been written, and not a few unmemorable films and TV programmes made about ‘Mayerling’ Charles Boyer, Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn, Omar Sharif and other illustrious celluloid names have starred as the Criown Prince or the BaronessThe truth about the tragedy (if tragedy it was) has never been known.
Rudolf was of pronounced Liberal political sympathies; he did not get on well with his father; many of his friends were Jews (we are dealing with the very late nineteenth century when official anti-Semitism was rife); he showed his sympathy with nationally-unpopular small minorities; he was unhappy with his wife, Stephanie, a daughter of King of the Belgians Leopold II. Rudy had had several well-publicised ‘romances’ with pretty women before meeting the socially ambitious Marie Vetsera who was married with two children.
Above all Rudolf was eccentric. He was almost as eccentric as another Rudolf the King of Bavaria, who built huge gothick castles to show his admiration for the composer Wagner. One of the conclusions reached by the local head of police is that Rudolf and Marie concluded a suicide pact, killing each other at the same time, perhaps with pistols. This seems doubtful, in fact it is a hole-ridden theory. It is more likely that Rudolf shot his mistress first, then turned the pistol on himself.
One of the juicier ingredients in the story is that Rudolf himself was involved in a plot with some leading bmembers of the Government to dethrone, perhaps kill the Emperor. It was supposed that the joint ‘suicide’ had been planned by loyal members of the government, without bothering to inform Franz-Joseph – ‘to save the Monarchy’. This does not seem likely either: Rudolf never counted intelligence, or the ability to concentrate, or remember agreed plans, among his few virtues. No-one would have relied on him to play a planned part in a conspiracy.
Whatever lay behind the double death, the Emperor decided to continue the cover-up. He ordered the destruction of the hunting lodge (and thus of evidence). A new chapel was built on the site. The body of the Crown Prince was hurried off for burial in private in Vienna. The body of Vetsera was propped up between two of her uncles in a closed carriage at dead of night. She was buried by torchlight at Heiligenkreuz, only three miles from Mayerling.
Was it a romantic suicide pact, planned by two lovers who felt their ideas of marriage would be thwarted by (one) Rudolf’s wife, and (two) the Emperor, (three) the Government of Austro-Hungary or (four Marie’s husband? Were they murdered at the order of (a) Franz-Joseph? (b) the Prime Minister? (c) the Secret Service? We shall never know, because important evidence and clues were destroyed.
Cover-ups, except perhaps in the United States, never change and will always be with us. In Spain, for instance, the real truth behind the multiple bomb explosions at the Atocha railway stations on 11 March, 2004 will never be known, for the same reasons as Mayerling; vital clues and material evidence were providentially destroyed, or papers hidden away somewhere (who knows where?) under lock and key. In the ‘investigating tribunal’ that followed (just as in Vienna in 1889) the leading judge disallowed essential evidence.