In 1855 Empress Elisabeth, the woman who would become Queen of Hungary, made her first trip to that land. Traveling from Vienna to Buda, she left behind her two year old daughter, Sophie. This, her first child, had been taken from her right after birth. This was done by Elisabeth’s mother in law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, who decided that the child would be named after herself. She did not think that Elisabeth, at the tender age of 18 could properly rear the child. In the ensuing two years Elisabeth was only allowed to see the child infrequently and always in the presence of her mother-in-law. One of the young Empress’s emotional outlets was to travel far away from the suffocating court protocol of Vienna to the wilder east of the empire, Hungary. It was here where she would to come feel most at ease and gain a degree of privacy otherwise lacking at the stuffy court in Vienna.
Yet it was on this trip to Hungary that she soon received news that young Sophie had suddenly fallen ill. The sickness turned life threatening. She hurried back to Vienna only to have the child die in her arms. Always known to be psychologically fragile, Elisabeth fell completely apart. Bed ridden for weeks, guilt stricken and in the throes of a bitter depression we can only guess what must have gone through her mind. If only she had not gone away, perhaps the child would have survived. One might suppose that Elisabeth would never go anywhere near Hungary again.
Incredibly though, this did not break the link between them. She grew closer to Hungary over the ensuing decade. One personal, the other national, these two souls had much in common. They were spiritual partners, rebellious outsiders known for unconventional behavior and ferocious independence. Hungary, the state which had rebelled against the Habsburgs in 1848, was a land also beset by bitter depression. The independent state had much like Elisabeth’s daughter been snuffed out before it was allowed to blossom into full flower. The newly formed, freedom loving Magyar nation was brought to its knees in 1849 on the battlefield. The Habsburgs were not strong enough to do it alone, so they enlisted the help of “allies” whose collective weight broke the back of the Hungarian Revolution. Its greatest leaders were exiled or executed. The people went into prolonged mourning and many still passively resisted. This national trauma paralleled with Elisabeth’s personal trauma. In each other they must have taken solace. From the depths of despair a symbiotic relationship was consummated.
Of all Hungarians, Elisabeth was most fascinated by Count Gyula Andrassy. The Count was a man who had once been sentenced to death by Elisabeth’s husband, the Emperor Franz Josef. Now Elisabeth and Andrassy became the closest of confidantes. This was a relationship that was much more than platonic. Andrassy impressed upon Elisabeth the Hungarian cause, she in turn worked wonders in melting the iron heart of her husband the Emperor Franz Josef. His transformation was due to more than personal reasons. The geopolitical situation for Austria had become fraught with danger. After losing the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Habsburg’s were forced by necessity to take on a partner in order to bolster their waning Great Power status and save the Monarchy from disintegration.
This situation gave birth to the Dual Monarchy in 1867. Franz Josef was crowned King of Hungary and Elisabeth – or as she became so affectionately known, Sisi – a most beloved Queen of the people she had adopted. Veritable equality followed for the Hungarians. They were not just part of a monarchy, they were now part of an empire. And Franz Josef was also said to have been given another reward from Elisabeth. Not long after the coronation she became pregnant with the couple’s fourth and final child. It had been ten years since Elisabeth had given birth to a son. The court in Vienna was awash with rumors that the pregnancy was the product of Elisabeth’s relationship with Andrassy. Subsequent research by historians has proven this rumor untrue, the product of the kind of malicious gossip that had turned Elisabeth against the imperial court. In 1868, a third daughter, Marie Valerie was born in Buda. She was ten years younger than her next closest sibling. She was soon dubbed “The Hungarian Child.” This was an inference to misgivings concerning both who her father might be as well as looking down on where she had been born. The fact that Elisabeth had chosen to give birth to the child in Hungary, furthered boosted the Queen’s popularity among the Magyars. From this point forward (and continuing into the present), she would be held in the highest reverence by Hungarians.
Yet as always with Elisabeth’s life another layer of complexity complicated the situation. For the daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie would grow up with an aversion to Hungary. She knew of the rumors concerning who her father might be. She also did not like the fact that her mother would only speak with her in Hungarian. Valerie grew to love speaking her native ethnic tongue, German. Though she loved her mother, she was constantly suffocated by Elisabeth’s overbearing nurture. Valerie was the first and only one of her children Elisabeth would rear. She threw herself into mothering with an obsessiveness that she had heretofore, put into recreational and cultural pursuits. The upshot was that Valerie never felt for Hungary or her mother the natural adoration that she reserved for her father and Austria. Elisabeth was the connection between Austria and Hungary, but just like her personal marriage, this political one was troubled as well. Both would last for many years, not in harmony, but in a state of perpetual unease.
In 1898 on a quayside in Geneva, Switzerland, Elisabeth was assassinated by an Italian anarchist who stabbed her with a stiletto. All of Hungary mourned. A cult of Elisabeth developed that extolled her virtuous manner almost to the point of deification. This cult lives on in present times. Magnificent statues of Elizabeth can be found throughout Hungary, one of the main bridges over the Danube connecting Buda with Pest is named for her. The royal palace at Godollo, 20 miles east of the city center, is a monument to her memory. As for Franz Josef you will not find much honoring his legacy, nor of Marie Valerie. Andrassy of course is well represented.
All were involved in a grand drama, one that centered around Elisabeth. In a sense, Hungary which does not have a long list of female heroines, has adopted Elisabeth in the same manner that she adopted Hungary, as its mother. But she was not just its spiritual mother, like her youngest daughter she was also a “Hungarian Child.” Even though she was already twenty years old when she first arrived there, emotionally and psychologically she was immature, lacking in self-confidence and looking for her role in the empire. She soon began to find herself in that wild, alien land. It led her first on a journey that plumbed the depths of despair, an emotion it knew all too well and was willing to share. From this though, she and the incipient Hungarian state began a dual ascension by utilizing traits that had been previously held against them as forces to reshape the tottering empire. Rebellion became fortitude, melancholy transformed into stoic persistence and a frenetic restlessness was reconstituted in an unswerving focus. From this pathological energy, someone and something new was born. The course of history was changed by a great personage and a great people. One was the mother and the other the child, but who can say which?