It was one thing for a person to live for sixty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century, it was quite another for a monarch to reign that long. Any reign that covers three generations is worthy of note. Longevity becomes an achievement in and of itself. Yet it is also a curse, imposing penalties, fortune as well as misfortunes.
It seems almost unfathomable in retrospect, but the Habsburg Monarch Franz Josef ruled over much of central and eastern Europe from 1848 until 1916. This time period spans several historic eras; beginning with the Revolutions of 1848 and ending in that epically tragic quagmire, World War I. In between there was industrialization, urbanization and stutter steps towards democracy. Each of these movements occurred in concert with a slow, inexorable slide into mediocrity and decline.
Suffering the Fates
To enjoy such a long reign at the very pinnacle of power, Franz Josef had a considerable amount of luck. His empire weathered losses in multiple wars while its power dwindled in the face of German unification. Nevertheless, Franz Josef and his imperial state were able to outlast, outsmart or just plain out luck all comers when it came to survival. Yet the luck aspect of his time at the helm was a proverbial double edged sword. For all the fortune he enjoyed in keeping the Habsburg Monarchy together on a political level, he suffered an inverse degree of misfortune on a personal level.
Astonishingly, Franz Josef endured the suicide of his son, the Crown Prince Rudolf; the fatal stabbing of his wife, the beloved Queen Elisabeth; and a final tragic act which would eventually lead to the dissolution of the empire, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Franz Josef’s throne. Franz Josef may have had time on his side, but those most intimately connected to him were to suffer the fates.
More Than A Death
In 1889 Crown Prince Rudolf, the lone son of Franz Josef and his wife Elisabeth and heir to the throne, murdered one of his many lovers, Mary Vetsera and then committed suicide. Though Franz Josef loved his son and the Crown Prince revered his father, they had long been at odds over Rudolf’s dalliances with liberalism. There was love between them, but the relationship had always been fragile. Now with Rudolf’s suicide it turned tragic. The emperor was called to the empress’s boudoir where she delivered the news. They were the only ones present in the room at that horrible moment. We can only guess at the emperor’s first reaction. Perhaps he did not say anything. This was not just a death, it was a murder of one’s self, an escape by Rudolf from the strictures of the Monarchy, the role of heir apparent and a role in life for which he was ill suited. One clue to the emperor’s state of mind after learning the news, is that after leaving the boudoir, Elisabeth’s attendants noticed that though he still walked upright, he seemed to be staggering as if in a drunken stupor.
The gravity of what occurred weighed long after the event itself. Elisabeth would only be seen dressed in black when in the public view for the rest of her life. As for Franz Josef, after Rudolf’s funeral when his coffin was taken into the crypt by monks, the emperor followed, one of the few times Franz Josef broke with traditional protocol. He is said to have kissed the coffin before it was finally placed in the crypt. Here was truly an instance where actions spoke much louder than words.
To Be Spared Nothing On This Earth
Less than a decade later, in 1898, tragedy once again paid an intimate and unwanted visit to the Emperor. While working in his study at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the Emperor was brought the news that the Empress Elisabeth had been assassinated in Geneva by a deranged Italian anarchist, Luigi Luchini. The murderer had stabbed her through the breast with a stilleto, penetrating 85 mm, all the way into the left ventricle of her heart. She was dead within a half hour of sustaining the wound. A telegram announcing the tragic news was brought to the emperor by Count Eduard Graf von Paar.
Franz Josef is said to have been frozen for a moment in shock, than as he slumped into his armchair said, “I shall then be spared nothing on this earth.” These words were likely a reference to what he had already experienced with the suicide of Rudolf. Sentimentally his next words were, “Nobody knows how much we loved each other.” The news was the completion of a tragedy, losing both son and wife. The stoicism of the emperor sustained him in the years to come, but it is doubtful that he ever overcame the deep sorrow which consumed him.
A Higher Power At Work
In a final coda to both his life and the empire he led, Franz Josef was to experience the tragedy of death at the family level, one last time. At the beginning of the summer in 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent as well as the emperor’s nephew, was assassinated in Sarajevo.
The old emperor’s reaction to the assassination was much different than his reactions to the deaths of Rudolf and Elisabeth. Franz Josef did not care for the Archduke. When learning the news, he is said to have muttered, “It is terrible, the All-Powerful cannot be defied, A higher power has re-established the order which I had not managed to maintain.”
What Franz Josef seemed to be saying was that God had intervened to ensure that the next occupant of the throne would be someone who followed the traditional order of the Habsburg dynasty. For Franz Ferdinand had committed an unforgivable sin in the eyes of the emperor, he had married below his station in life. In this case, Sophie Chotek, who came from lesser nobility. This would have polluted the blood of the Habsburg royal line. That is why, as a condition of agreeing to the marriage, Franz Josef extracted a promise that none of Franz Ferdinand’s children would ever be in line to the throne. In the end, it did not matter since the hand of fate had carried off the Archduke.
Franz Josef would not live to see it, but the hand of fate that had taken the Archduke away would also bring about the dissolution of the monarchy. For it was the assassination of the archduke which set in motion the Great War, which swept all before it. In the winter of 1916, Franz Josef finally died after nearly seven decades on the throne. The empire was on the verge of implosion, it was just a matter of time. And time itself, was something that Franz Josef in his life, his long reign and his empire had been able to overcome, but finally it had even defeated him.