The Incident at Mayerling

My interest in the subject of Crown Prince Rudolf stems from the summers I spent teaching at the AIMS program in Graz, Austria. Imagining alternative history is great fun. The story was published in the journal Historical Feathers in 2018.




In 1889 Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy of Austria–Hungary, formed a suicide pact with his lover, the young Marie Vetsera. His death shook the Empire and altered the course of European history. But what if things had happened otherwise at the hunting lodge?



The gentle hills of the Vienna Woods sported a fresh coat of snow and the landscape glistened in the faint January moonlight. It was bitterly cold. Marie, alone in the carriage, pulled her fur wrap tighter around her shoulders. To take her mind off the cold she turned her thoughts to the prospect of spending the coming night alone with her lover, the Crown Prince. The recollection of the oath they had sworn to each other just a few days before both thrilled and frightened her.
As usual, precautions had been taken to avoid detection by the secret police. The Emperor Franz Josef, Rudolph’s father, had created a vast network of spies to keep tabs on the many disgruntled subjects in his vast realm. But they also spied on Rudolf, something which irked the young prince to no end. It was necessary to use the services of one of Marie’s friends to relay messages and coordinate their assignations. They had to communicate in code and to have Marie picked up and dropped off at inconspicuous places. Sometimes she had been brought to the summer palace at Schönbrunn so that they could walk together in the gardens in the dead of night. She would not have been invited inside, and certainly would not have appeared anywhere with Rudolf by the light of day.
On this occasion it had been arranged that Marie would arrive first at a certain inn outside of town, now closed for the season, and that Rudolf would shake the police who were tailing his phaeton, joining her in the carriage she occupied. All this transpired according to plan. As the phaeton was traveling through a heavily wooded area it slowed down just enough for Rudolf to jump out. He then made his way to the inn and quickly got into Marie’s waiting carriage. The Crown Prince resented having to act like a criminal on the lam. They kissed briefly but did not exchange a single word.
It was impossible to keep secrets in Imperial Vienna. Franz Josef and the Empress Elizabeth had been informed by His Majesty’s spies that Rudolf was having an affair with Marie Vetsera. Others in the Imperial circle knew about it as well, but it was not spoken of openly. Their Imperial Majesties did not approve. Heated arguments had taken place between Franz Josef and his son. Invariably, Rudolf felt himself humiliated in these exchanges. He was treated like a child, like a mere subject. He did not dare stand up to his father too strongly but he did continue to lead a double life and carry on his illicit affairs. It was the only thing that gave him any relief from the grinding boredom and emptiness of his official life at court.
Although Baroness Marie Vetsera could count herself among the aristocratic elite, she was only seventeen – nearly half of Rudolf’s age. She was considered a great beauty. Rudolf had been attracted to her and they had been intimate at first but the nature of their relationship soon changed. Marie became a confidant, one of the few individuals with whom the Prince could share his most private feelings. With Marie Vetsera he could relax completely.

* * *

The major complication in any relationship of the Crown Prince was the fact that he was married. His union with the Crown Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold of Belgium, had been loveless from the beginning: it had been a matter of political expediency. After the birth of their daughter they drifted apart and Rudolf took to seeking comfort elsewhere. To make matters worse, Rudolf had left Stéphanie with the most dreaded of afflictions – syphilis. She would never forgive him for that.
To call Rudolf handsome would have been a bit of a stretch but he did cut a fine figure in a military uniform. He possessed two dozen of them; each appropriate for a special occasion. He often felt that his life consisted of little more than standing around in uniforms, festooned with golden epaulets and braids, looking charming and regal. If power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, Rudolf, as Crown Prince, possessed the ultimate dosage. Women found him irresistible. Among the ladies of Vienna, married and unmarried alike, it was whispered about that the young Prince was a passionate lover and that he wielded a big sword. They would titter and blush behind their fans when he passed by.
While he enjoyed the attentions of these women, and slept with a good many of them, he was not a roué at heart. He was a quiet, thoughtful and sensitive man. He knew that he deserved something better and that he would never find it in the life he led as heir to the throne. Most of the citizens of the vast empire could only dream of the luxury and privilege that was his at court but he thoroughly hated the whole charade of being Crown Prince. He detested being powerless and ignored, doomed to waiting for his turn to come.
Unlike his father, the Crown Prince harbored progressive ideas. As he saw it, the Empire was crumbling from within and in desperate need of reform. Franz Josef would have none of it. He obdurately refused to entertain any ideas that would change the present arrangement. He had run the Empire already for over forty years – why change anything now?

* * *

The hunting lodge at Mayerling was only an hour’s drive from the center of the city. Rudolf had arranged for himself and Marie to be there alone. But there was no such thing as being completely alone; the lodge was staffed by the inevitable entourage of groundskeepers, servants and bodyguards. They could be trusted by Rudolf to keep things to themselves. There would also be two other guests at Mayerling. They had been invited in order to maintain the appearance of a legitimate hunting party. Conveniently, they would be housed in another wing of the lodge.
When Marie and Rudolf arrived at Mayerling they immediately retired to the Prince’s rooms. Officially, he was alone; no one but his personal valet would know otherwise. He gave orders that he not be disturbed, that no one be permitted entry into his room. The lovers ordered a dinner and a few bottles of wine. It was discretely served by the valet who entered and left by a secret door that led to the downstairs kitchen. After that there was coffee and a bottle of Rudolf’s favorite cognac. A fire blazed in the fireplace and all was gemütlich. They talked until way past midnight then retired to the royal bed. Marie changed into a silk dressing gown, the one in pink she always wore when with Rudolf. He remarked to himself how fetching she looked in it. He himself did not change clothes; a Crown Prince must look his best at all times.
There was no thought of carnal pleasures. Although they had known each other barely a year, their relationship was a deep and complex one based on mutual dissatisfaction with their current existences and an understanding that they would leave this world together. They regarded each other as soul mates, their destinies intertwined. A pact had been formed between them and the logistics worked out in every detail. This was the night.
The plan was for Rudolf to shoot Marie first, then turn the weapon on himself. This seemed to Marie the most appropriate way to end things. They said their goodbyes and kissed tenderly one last time. She smiled at Rudolf as she stretched herself out on her side of the bed, blew him one last kiss, and closed her eyes. Rudolf took the pistol and fired one single shot to her forehead. She died instantly.
Although he was an officer in the Imperial Army, he had never participated in a battle and had never killed another human being. He had seen the wounded and dying before but still he was horrified at the sight of the lovely girl whose blood was now streaming onto the pillow. He covered her head with a napkin and put a single rose in her crossed hands. Then he sat down to write a few letters – to his wife Stéphanie, to his mother, and to his loyal valet. But there would be no letter to his father. Not one word.
By the time he had finished with the letters it was already half past three in the morning. He reclined himself on the bed, next to Marie whose body was already growing cold, and placed the pistol within reach. He needed to compose himself before committing the final act of his life. Weariness settled upon him, the effects of the wine and cognac overpowered him. Without wanting to, he dozed off.
When he came to, with a heavy head and barely coherent, the first light of day was already visible through the heavy laced curtains. He wondered where he was. Who was this lying next to him? Then it came crashing down upon him: he had shot his dear Marie Vetsera and had intended to make his own exit from this life. But things seemed different now. The poetic expression bei klarem Tageslicht (by the clear light of day) repeated itself over and over in his head and he realized that he could not go through with the plan.

There were other options for solving his existential predicament. He had let himself get caught up in some romantic notion and had pushed the more sensible solutions aside. He resolved to stand up to his father and fight for what he believed in. His pact with Marie seemed now to be utter folly. What to do? He nearly panicked. The situation was extremely delicate. How to discretely dispose of a corpse; how to break the news to her family – to his own family! He had killed another person – there were no two ways about that. He briefly sank into a morass of regret and remorse. He had truly loved the pretty, foolish girl. But the episode of self-pity soon passed. What was done, was done.
Rudolf was a practical man and a problem solver. By the time his valet, Loshek, knocked on the door, he had mentally sketched out a course of action. He would instruct Loshek to enlist the assistance of one of the trusted groundskeepers and they would personally bring the body over to the nearby cemetery of Heiligenkreuz Monastery. It could be buried there in an unmarked grave. The abbot would have to accede to the wishes of the royal family, likewise the local bureaucrats. All this would have to be done after nightfall to avoid detection. He would return to the Hofburg Palace immediately and inform the Emperor and his mother of what had transpired. He would have to figure out some way to make it seem like the gunshot was an accident. Perhaps he was showing Marie his new pistol and it inadvertently discharged? The carriage ride would give him time to think of something.
The court would be horrified, but at the same time would do everything possible to cover up the events that had taken place at Mayerling. Scandal was to be avoided at all costs. Franz Josef would be furious, his mother extremely distraught, but with time they would get over it and life would go on. He would also need to pay a personal visit to the Baroness Helene, Marie’s mother, to offer an explanation and his personal consolation. That would be the trickiest part. How would he explain the death of her daughter? As he was the Crown Prince, the Baroness was not in a position to challenge his explanations. She would have to accept whatever story he gave her. But first Rudolf needed to burn the letters, the ones he had written and the ones Marie had left. He asked Loshek to stoke the fire.


News of Marie Vetsera’s death had caused minor shock waves in Vienna but that was to be expected. Many questioned the official version given out by the Hofburg, especially the press. They were always sniffing about for a scandal of some sort. The secret police were avid in their efforts to squelch any speculation that might damage the venerable institution of the monarchy. Within a short time the story became stale. The city gave itself over to the festivities of the pre-Lenten Fasching season. Who wanted to dwell on such unpleasantries when there were glittering balls to attend, sumptuous food to eat, champagne to drink, and spirited waltzes to dance to?
After a brief interval of withdrawal from the social scene Rudolf resumed his place in Viennese society as the dashing Crown Prince. He was biding his time, making plans, weighing various options. He was wildly popular not only in Vienna but in Budapest as well. His mother, the Empress Elizabeth, had always had a warm spot in her heart for the Hungarians. She had made the effort to acquaint herself with the language, as had her son. They used to play word games in Hungarian when Rudolf was a child. This familiarity with their language endeared them greatly to the Magyars who were the second largest ethnic group within the Empire.
Rudolf was well aware of the dynamics of the current state of the Empire. He was more finely attuned to the signs of unrest in the provinces; a smoldering fire that was about to flare up into a destructive conflagration. His father dismissed these mutterings as the work of extremists. Was he, Franz Josef, not the model of a benevolent ruler? Had the Empire not provided order, stability and a sense of pride to all its citizens? Demonstrations had erupted in Prague, in Kiev, Lemberg, Sarajevo and Milan over the attempt to implement German as the official language. Local newspapers in the provinces expressed outrage. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the agents of the government to suppress all of them.
While Vienna partied on during the late winter, Rudolf began constructing a plan, a course of action that would, he was convinced, diffuse the causes of unrest and change the situation for the better. It would require bold action, even an act of treason: a coup d’état was the only viable option.
Assassination of the Emperor was out of the question. While he despised his father, he could not bring himself to order an act of such crude violence. Besides, the brutal and sudden removal of the reigning monarch could easily backfire and make Franz Josef into a martyr. Rudolf needed to count on the good will of the people. He had many allies. The Empress Elizabeth was sympathetic to her son’s desire for reform but she could only go so far in offering support. She was rarely in Vienna anyway, removing herself from the capital for months at a time, traveling around Europe. Life at court didn’t suit her either.
With all due dispatch and the greatest secrecy, Rudolf contacted his prospective allies. These were mostly Hungarians who would be only too happy to see things turned on their heads. But he also had supporters in Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia. The plan was for Rudolf to secretly slip out of Vienna, to show up in Budapest with much pomp and circumstance, at which time he would be offered the Apostolic Crown of Saint Stephen by the Hungarian nobility (the Emperor was also King of Hungary), thereby making him a rival ruler of the Empire. The nobilities of the other minorities would line up behind him. If all went according to plan, public sympathy would lean his way too. Franz Josef would see himself cornered and voluntarily relinquish the imperial crown in favor of the Crown Prince. Rudolf would become Emperor. Although it was an act of treason, it was a necessary evil through which the Empire would be saved and necessary reforms instituted. In the end all would be well.

* * *

It just so happened that Helene Vetsera had a lover, a Hungarian count by the name of Istvan Andrássy. He was filthy rich and lived in the Palais Obizzi when in Vienna. He was also a kind man. Helene knew that she could rely on him in times of need. The recent tragedy concerning her daughter Marie was one of those times and the Count was able to offer much appreciated consolation and advice. As a member of the ruling nobility in Hungary, Count Andrássy knew of all the intrigues swirling around the Imperial capital. He was aware of the plan to install Crown Prince Rudolf as the King of Hungary and mentioned this in confidence to Helene. After her recent treatment by the Habsburg household she nursed a burning hatred for Franz Josef. The Emperor’s aides had blatantly and repeatedly lied to her about the events at Mayerling and had secretly buried her daughter without even letting her view her child’s body. Then, to compound the outrage, she was forbidden to visit the cemetery for two months, until the public had lost interest in the matter. Maintaining the prestige of the royal family was always of primary importance.
For Rudolf she also felt a hatred – he had all but murdered her daughter (she never learned that it was a deliberate act). But, in light of Marie’s infatuation with him, she could perhaps forgive the Crown Prince. At any rate, Helene was eager to throw oil on the flames. She had made no promise of secrecy and immediately started spreading the rumor that there was soon to be a coup d’état. Let Franz Josef and his cronies in the Hofburg quake in their boots and let Rudolf’s plans be confounded – it was all the same to her.


Rudolf had no idea that his conspiracy was now common knowledge. The plan was set for March the fifteenth. The Crown Prince boarded a train incognito in Vienna. His usual entourage dressed inconspicuously to deflect attention from the operation. They occupied three adjoining compartments in a first class rail carriage on the overnight train to Budapest. Rudolf hardly slept at all as he was tremendously excited, and a bit apprehensive, about what was to happen the following day.
By the time the train pulled into the Keleti Railway Station Rudolf had already changed into one of his ceremonial uniforms. He expected to be greeted by a delegation of the Hungarian nobility, a military guard in smart uniforms, and a jubilant crowd. A military band would have been nice too, he mused. But, to his amazement, the station was nearly empty. There was no official delegation and he was not permitted to even alight from the train. Instead, some government officials, anonymous and pallid men, boarded the carriage and informed Rudolf unceremoniously – no polite address, none of the usual bowing – that he was persona non grata in the Kingdom and was to leave Hungarian territory by the next departing train. Rudolf and his entourage were stunned by the news. Obviously, word had preceded their arrival, giving the Imperial secret police the opportunity to thwart the coup before it even got underway. Half of Rudolf’s entourage deserted on the spot and melted away.
The next train leaving Keleti was headed south, to the Adriatic coast. After a meagre breakfast of coffee and rolls in the station café, which they ate under the eyes of an armed guard, the Austrians were escorted to that train. Not a word was spoken between Rudolf’s party and their guards. The Crown Prince and his advisors sat in glum silence for a long while after the train left the station. The flat Hungarian countryside slipped by. They had not expected this at all. When they finally managed to gather their wits about them again it was decided not to stray too far from Imperial borders, and to throw themselves at the mercy of the Croatians as the Austrian Emperor was also nominal King of Slovenia and Croatia. The Croats had also been making noises for autonomy. As a Habsburg, Rudolf would not be beloved but the Croats would be only too happy to use him to undermine Franz Josef.
The train stopped briefly in Laibach. The party clambered down and headed for the station exit with utmost dispatch. If they traveled by road they just might throw the authorities off the trail. Zagreb could be reached by nightfall.
Meanwhile, in Vienna, the Emperor Franz Josef took the news badly. Although he had been warned that his son was planning a coup against him, he did not want to believe it. He employed his usual tactic of dismissing whatever he didn’t want to know. But the news was undeniable. And it was bad. Rudolf would have to be exiled forever. It would be nearly impossible to disown him. Therefore, by legal right, Rudolf was still the heir apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary. It was a terrible dilemma. A dispatch was personally delivered to Rudolf in Zagreb informing him that he was banned in perpetuity from the entire Empire and that his continued presence in Croatia would be taken as a further act of hostility.
The news of the intended coup spread like wildfire to the far corners of the Empire. The various minorities within its borders lost no time in recognizing that the moment for agitation had arrived. The mighty edifice of Imperial rule was showing cracks in its foundation. The truth that remained unspoken by the ruling elite was that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had no raison-d’être at all. The Empire was united by history and the unshakeable belief of the House of Habsburg that it was destined to rule. The Empire was held together by habit, the inertia of centuries. Everyone was aware that habits could be broken.
Soon there was unrest all over. The Ruthenians, Croats, Slovenians, Poles, Ukrainians and Slovaks all took to the streets. But the worst trouble was in Serbia where a ragtag group of insurrectionists (probably instigated by the local government) attacked government offices and declared an independent republic. This put the Hofburg in an uproar. Franz Josef firmly believed that military might was the only way to reestablish order and bolster respect for the monarchy in Vienna.


After Rudolf and his party finally arrived in Zagreb the Croatian government give him sanctuary. This was in itself an act of defiance. It was Serbia that declared war on Austria-Hungary first. The Austrians lost no time in mobilizing and sending troops into Serbian territory. The first battle took place just across the Serbian border, outside the town of Sombor. The Battle of Sombor on April 27th, 1889 would be forever celebrated by Serbia as one of the greatest victories in their history. The Austrian forces were routed and fled back across the border in disarray. The news of the defeat was a stunning blow to the Austrians. The military had flouted its strength for decades and presented itself as nearly invincible. That they should be defeated in their first battle (and by the Serbs!) was unthinkable. A second attempt of the Austrians to enter Serbia was also repulsed. By now public opinion in Vienna had soured. Many citizens wore black armbands in public, and officers in military uniform were taunted in the streets. The validity of the monarchy was questioned. There were demonstrations in Vienna itself.

* * *

The two imperial powers of Prussia and Austria-Hungary didn’t trust each other at all. The Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a masterful adept at political machinations, decided that Prussia should bide its time. His nation would wait to see how the political winds were blowing before taking sides. The Prussian military and the armaments industry, both itching for a conflict, would have to be kept in check for a while.
The senior officers of the army of Tsar Alexander III were also clamoring for action, but the Tsar himself was a cautious man. He had to weigh the benefits of engaging in a conflict or staying out of it. While waging a war might offer a means of displaying military might, and thereby bolstering the Tsar’s own standing with his people, the other side of the coin was a Pandora’s Box of unforeseen consequences that might be opened. In the end, Russia opted for a halfhearted intervention as a means of grabbing some territory on its western flank. Under the pretext of coming to the aid of their fellow Slavs, Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, marching into Galicia at the beginning of June. Bulgaria likewise declared war on Serbia, hoping to regain lost territories.
The Western European powers, most importantly Great Britain and France, had no treaties with the nations involved in the ever-widening conflict and wished to stay out of it. What happened in Bessarabia or the Banat was of no interest to them.
And so the struggle of nationalities began. It would be tedious to recount here the details of the conflict which was to become known as The Great Central European War. It raged on, and by 1891 there was a military stalemate. Austria could not sustain a war on multiple fronts and the army was unable to achieve a decisive victory anywhere. The various nationalist forces were determined to succeed. Prussia ultimately stayed out of the conflict, but its armaments industry made a brisk business in supplying all sides with weapons. With increasing international pressure to resolve the conflict, Austria was forced to swallow a bitter pill.
* * *
The Empress Elizabeth was abroad when Rudolf undertook his ill-fated journey to Budapest. She had been apprised of his stratagem and thought it best to stay out of the way. The Empress could not be seen to take sides in the struggle between her son and her husband. She and Rudolf were in regular contact by way of coded messages. As war became a grim reality, with no end in sight, the precariousness of Rudolf’s situation grew increasingly apparent. After their initial poor showing, the Austrian forces rallied a bit and began to occupy more of Croatia and Serbia. It was no longer possible for Rudolf to remain in Zagreb. His mother urged him to join her in Switzerland, a neutral country. She was staying at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Lausanne. To reach Switzerland, the Prince was forced to make a lengthy detour in order to avoid Austrian territory. By now he had only three trusted companions left. It became clear to the rest of them that they had bet on the wrong horse. One by one they had left Zagreb to return to Vienna with their tails between their legs. They wanted to salvage what they could of their careers.
Emperor Franz Josef I was despondent over the situation. He never would have imagined that his own son could betray him; that his realm, at relative peace throughout his forty plus years on the throne, could begin to disintegrate so quickly. Moreover, his consort Elizabeth had all but abandoned him, only rarely returning to Vienna. He was a shattered man. Although barely over sixty, Franz Josef died in 1892, some say of a broken heart. There was a state funeral – the Emperor had been truly loved by his subjects – but even that was marred by ugly incidents in which the monarchy was insulted. With Franz Josef’s passing the very institution of the monarchy was in crisis, its survival at risk.
Rudolf’s attempt to usurp the throne was now seen as the beginning of the whole disaster and sentiment ran strongly against him. Although he was the legal heir to the throne, he could not be invited to come to Vienna to be crowned. That was out of the question. The aristocracy and the military were likewise held in contempt. They had shown themselves to be inept and corrupt. During this interregnum the country was ruled by a coalition of the leading members of parliament. The main cities of Austria – Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck – saw continued unrest. Civil War was imminent. The ministers of His Majesty’s former government were called together. They were handed an ultimatum by the parliamentary leaders: they had to sign on to the dissolution of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. Some were reluctant to do so at first but were gradually brought around by the sobering reality of impending anarchy. A delegation was sent to the Empress Elizabeth. Rudolf had no choice but to abdicate and renounce any future claim to the Imperial throne by his progeny.
The French and British, motivated by a wish to see the continent restored to peace, instigated the creation of a European Council. It was made up of the leading nations of Europe, excluding Austria-Hungary. The Council met in Baden-Baden late in 1892. The dissolution of the Dual Monarchy and establishment of an Austrian Republic was agreed to by all. It was further decided that the various nationalities that had comprised the former Empire should receive some measure of autonomy or independence. There was much wrangling and diplomatic arm-twisting behind the scenes. Eventually, the more powerful nations got their way and the map of Europe was drastically altered. The Habsburg Empire that had existed since 1526 was wiped off the map. In its place, the Austrian First Republic was established and the monarchy abolished.
In the Treaty of Baden-Baden the biggest winners were Prussia, whose territory remained virtually intact while it managed to strengthen its own economy, Russia which gained some territory, Bulgaria which gained some territory from Serbia, and Hungary which kept its territorial integrity. Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia each became sovereign states. Small republics were carved out for the Rumanians and the Poles. Northern Italy was returned to the Italians. Austria was reduced to the small area where German was the predominant language. The Ottoman Empire, which had also stayed on the sidelines during hostilities, was itself hovering on the brink of dissolution. That situation would later be resolved in what was to become known as the Third Balkan War.

The end

With no power, no kingdom, and no hopes of ever having one, Rudolf’s situation was truly hopeless. After a few years the terms of his exile were relaxed and he was permitted to return to Austria but he had no desire to do so. With no occupation or real aim in life he slid into dissipation. He ate and drank too much and could be seen waddling about the casino in Monaco or whiling away the hours in the cafés of St. Moritz and the South of France. He made no effort to see his wife again, or even his daughter. He never set foot in his homeland again.

In late June of 1914, during a visit to Sarajevo, Rudolf was struck and killed by a tram while crossing a street. His passing received only limited attention in the press, the world having moved on to other concerns by then. He had requested burial in the Heiligenkreuz cemetery as it was not permitted that he be interred in the Habsburg royal crypt in Vienna. He was laid to rest next to Marie Vetsera. Their graves are overgrown and rarely visited these days.


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