Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (Part Two)

Once upon a trip while traveling in Europe, my wife said to me “there is something of interest in every village”. In this case she was referring to Hungary, but the same could be said of almost any other nation on the continent. That certainly includes Austria. Even the tiniest burgs have played host to many centuries of history and been home to thousands of people all with their own unique stories, some more famous than others. Mayerling was one of those places. I left Vienna behind for a hamlet that was not even the size of a village. At a glance it would seem to be a place of no importance. Such an impression would be patently false, for it was in Mayerling where an “Incident” occurred that would have vast ramifications for the 20th century. The “Incident” had carried me on a journey to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. I hoped to learn more, but the true value of this place would not be found written on any displays or outlined in the exhibits. Its power lay in an opportunity to stand in the footsteps of history.

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Sinister Connotations – The Confines Of History
The reason why anyone visited the Jadgschloss was to see where the scandalous “Mayerling Incident” had taken place. I assumed that visitors like myself had read or been told about it beforehand. Thus, the true value of coming here was to match reality with imagination. To place one of the more infamous historical events within the confines of where it had occurred. Visitors would get to see the actual place where Crown Prince Rudolf forfeited his rights to the Habsburg throne, first by murdering a teenage mistress and then committing suicide. Those actions ensured Mayerling’s place in history. The hunting lodge where this tragedy took place would forever be associated with the death of an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The word Mayerling had taken on a sinister connotation in the wake of what happened in the early morning hours of January 30, 1889. Nothing would ever be the same again for this remote settlement and the hunting lodge that dominated the landscape.

The museum at Mayerling was pretty much what I thought it would be, nothing special. It was small, contained the obligatory information displays and a room set up to look as it did back in the hunting lodge’s 19th century heyday. No one would have paid a single euro to see this stuff. It was in the chapel where intrigue abounded. There was an altar placed in the exact location where the bed had stood that contained the bodies of Rudolf and Mary. The setting for the Mayerling Incident was now surrounded by stained glass windows, Christian symbolism and all the trappings of religion. This was one of the more bizarre re-imaginings of a place marred by tragedy. The fact that an altar with a cross, the most venerated symbol in Christianity, was placed in the same location where adulterers spent their final moments before a murder-suicide pact was carried out managed to shock me. There was something sadistic about placing the altar in such a location. It seemed to mock what had happened. Here was spiritualism in the service of obfuscation. The devil really was in the details of what had happened. The powers that be back then had decided to transform a bloody bedroom into a sanctuary to absolve sin.

An unhappy marriage - Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie

An unhappy marriage – Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie (Credit: Géruzet Frères – Österreichisches Staatsarchiv)

Open To Conjecture – Disputed Details
What happened at Mayerling on a brutally cold winter night in 1889 is still open to conjecture today. The “Mayerling Incident” was said to be a murder-suicide. Since that time, countless journalists along with professional and amateur historians have weighed in with an assortment of articles and books on what might or might not have occurred. The evidence is vague and ambiguous. It is also obscured by cover-ups. A short explanation goes something like this, Crown Prince Rudolf, next in line to lead the Austro-Hungarian Empire, supposedly murdered one of his many mistresses and then committed suicide due to a pre-arranged lover’s pact. Austria-Hungary’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Rudolf’s mistress, the 17-year old Mary Vetsera, was found in the bedroom with flowers folded in her hands as she lay dead from a gunshot wound. It is believed she died during the night, but the Crown Prince was seen that morning by one of his servants before going back to his bedchambers and shooting himself. No one knows what really happened, but by morning two dead bodies were discovered. Rumors and speculation were rife from the outset.

The details of this are still disputed today, complicated by imperial secrecy and conspiratorial politics. Some believe that Rudolf arrived at Mayerling utterly distraught following an argument with his father, the Emperor Franz Josef. Father and son were said to have quarreled badly in the preceding days, though there is no first-hand documentation of this happening. The emperor would most certainly have denied Rudolf the right to divorce his wife, Crown Princess Stephanie. Rudolf had already gone behind his father’s back in writing the Vatican to request an annulment of his unhappy marriage. To further exacerbate matters, it was thought that Rudolf had been in contact with Hungarian opposition figures whom the imperial administration loathed. One prominent theory holds that there was a plot to murder Crown Prince Rudolf. This was done to ensure his liberal ideas to arrest the empire’s continual decline could never be enacted. Franz Josef did likely feel that Rudolf was not worthy to succeed him.

Femme Fatale - Mary Vetsera

Femme Fatale – Mary Vetsera

From Trigger Man To Tragic Figure – Explanatory Evidence
Theories and opinions on the true cause of the Mayerling Incident have been rampant ever since news of it broke. Gossip and hearsay informed opinions as much as truth. This was aided by the suppression of information by the imperial authorities. This vacuum was filled by those with their own theories. Some hypothesized that the incident was really part of a French plot to weaken Austria and the Habsburgs. Then there was the initial conspiracy theory that Mary had poisoned Rudolf or maybe she shot him and then herself. The authorities needed some sort of explanation for what happened. The first “official” version was that Rudolf had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately for the House of Habsburg, Rudolf was almost certainly the trigger man. A trigger man who would soon become a tragic figure.

Coming soon: Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The trigger that started World War One was pulled on a street corner in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The starting gun for that incident went off much earlier, twenty-five years earlier to be exact. At least that is what some scholars believe. That is because on the night of January 29,1889, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide along with his young lover at a royal hunting lodge in the tiny village of Mayerling, just 25 kilometers from Vienna. The death of the Crown Prince, only son of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Queen Elisabeth, meant that the succession passed down to Franz Ferdinand. In effect putting him in the direct line of fire to be murdered in Sarajevo a quarter century later. What has become known as the Mayerling Incident is famous both for the geopolitical outcomes that resulted from it and the endless conjecture about what exactly happened at the hunting lodge on that fateful winter night.

Scene of the crime - Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Scene of the crime – Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Anything But Normal – Lone Passenger, Strange Journey
Sopron was a great place to stay for a day trip to Vienna since it was only an 80 minute train ride away. Thus, I availed myself of the opportunity to visit the city for the second time on this trip. After sightseeing in the city center for a few hours I decided that there was still time to visit Mayerling. It interested me for two reasons. The first was because of what had happened there. Second, it was relatively remote for an attraction in the area. There was a reason I had never met anyone who had been to Mayerling. When all the glitter, sparkle and festive atmospherics of central Vienna are in front of you, traveling out to a wooded hinterland in search of a murder-suicide site is less than appealing to most normal people. Well I never wanted to be normal, thus visiting Mayerling appealed to my ego. I would be the first in my family to visit there, as though that meant something to anyone other than me. In addition, I could come home with a story to tell bored relatives, oblivious friends and legions of coworkers who would care less what some Austrian royal light weight had done to himself and his mistress. I told myself that Mayerling would be worth the bother of getting there.

Mayerling was not that far from Vienna, but it might as well have been in another world. To get there I first had to take the metro, then a tram, followed by a bus. It only takes half an hour to drive to Mayerling from central Vienna, but by public transport it took an hour and a half. The final leg by bus was quite scenic as it winded through rolling, forested countryside. Low mountains began to appear in the distance. In these woods I imagined royal hunting parties in the autumn, everything done according to protocol. Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef was especially fond of hunting, keenly interested in all aspects. It was a sad irony that his only son would come to a tragic end in a lodge that was associated with one of the Emperor’s few passions. The former hunting lodge was to be found in a small mountain valley. I was the lone passenger to get off at Mayerling. As the bus departed I suddenly felt abandoned.

Mayerling - A Strange Journey

Mayerling – A Strange Journey

Pushed Astride – Austrian Manners
The village of Mayerling was more like a settlement or what back home in the States would be called an unincorporated community. There were some scattered residences, a guest house and the centerpiece of this otherwise forgettable hamlet, the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. What had once been an Imperial hunting lodge, then a church and convent of the Discalced Nuns was now a museum. I sensed a feeling of forlorn remoteness about Mayerling. It was a blustery day with a decided bite in the air. It felt like winter had not quite left the area, after what had happened here I wondered if it ever did. Rather than repel, the forlorn nature of the area fascinated me. A fitting prelude to a place touched by tragedy. I quickly made my way toward the museum. There was a handful of others visiting the museum at the same time as me.  An Austrian family nearly ran me over when I was headed into the museum where the “Mayerling Incident” occurred.

This was not the first time I had experienced the pushiness of Austrians. Despite the neat, well ordered world that could be found throughout the country, the Austrians I encountered, while gracious and helpful, were also habitual line jumpers. This came as a complete surprise to me. I assumed, quite wrongly, that since Austrians were ethnic Germans, they would act exactly as Germans do in Germany. I soon learned just how wrong my assumption had been. For instance, while standing in line at Vienna’s central train station waiting to purchase tickets, three older men decided to walk around me and take their place at the head of the line. When I tapped one of them on the shoulder and ordered the group back behind me, the men looked positively shocked. They did not fuss or fight over position, but I could see on their faces a sudden awareness that line breaking was not to everyone’s liking.

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge - Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge – Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Childish Distractions – A Rude Awakening
This was not first time I had noticed that the lines in Austria were not straight and narrow like those in Germany. This was one of several things that separate Austrians from Germans, differences of nuance rather than degree. This was never truer than when that family at Mayerling muscled me out of the way. They were going to be first, no matter what rudeness was involved. Of course, this ended up triggering the same impulse in me. I stepped right in front of them again, then made it quite apparent I was holding my place. This bit of childish chicanery distracted me for a moment. Then I turned my attention to the reason I was visiting Mayerling, to see where Crown Prince Rudolf and his teenage lover spent their final moments.

Click here for: Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (Part Two)

The Wrong & Right Side of the Middle – Hungary & Austria from 1867 to the Present

Fertorakos is a small village on the Hungarian side of the country’s border with Austria. It is hard to get much further west in Hungary than here. It is also a place to contemplate why Hungarians have been the lesser partner in their historic relationship with the Austrians. In one sense this is understandable since the Habsburgs ruled over parts or all of Hungary for over three hundred years. This was mainly due to the cataclysmic one-hundred and sixty year Ottoman Turkish occupation of middle and lower Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries. The relationship between the Hungarians and the Austrians did not begin to change until the latter half of the 19th century. After the Austrians suffered a stinging defeat to Prussia in 1866, they chose to offer the Hungarians an equal partnership. In 1867 the Dual Monarchy was created. Suddenly, the Hungarians were in the ascendant, while the Habsburg led Austrians were just trying to keep the empire afloat.

Austria-Hungary - common coat of arms

Austria-Hungary – common coat of arms

Deals With the Devil – From a Golden Age to World Wars
Over the next 50 years Budapest boomed. It was the fastest growing city in Europe, a hive of economic and cultural activity. Meanwhile, Vienna’s glittering reputation was beginning to fade, beset by the dark forces of radical ideologies and counter-culture. The aristocracy tried to fight off the vicissitudes of mass suffrage, labor movements and democratic socialism. Darker forces lurked on the fringes. There is a reason Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin both spent time in Vienna during 1913. Meanwhile, Hungary became the breadbasket of the Dual-Monarchy, its fertile lands feeding the Empire. Even in smaller, out of the way places, Hungary’s vast natural resources were supporting the Austrians. Vienna, that sparkling showpiece of Central Europe, had two massive construction projects, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the famed Ringstrasse built from stone quarried in Fertorakos.  As Hungary experienced a belle époque (Golden Age) from 1867 up to the outbreak of World War One, the Austrians watched their power dwindle. The end of the Habsburg’s as a ruling dynasty seemed as though it might not be far away.

Nevertheless, World War One put an end to the short, meteoric ascent of Hungary. History turned again. Two-thirds of historic Hungary’s population and people were taken away due to the provisions of the post-war Treaty of Trianon. Oddly, though the Habsburgs were dethroned and Austrian chauvinism had been a main instigator in starting the war, they got off rather lightly. Austria actually gained territory at the expense of their former imperial partner. The Hungarians must have felt this to be one of the unkindest cuts of all in a treaty that left their kingdom drawn and quartered. Both Austria and Hungary were on the wrong side militarily during the Second World War. At first it seemed the Austrians had received the worse end of the deal, annexed as it was by the Nazis, while the Hungarians actually gained lands in Slovakia and Transylvania.

Fertorakos - an unassuming town that witnessed incredible events in 1989 - Credit: Attila Pellinger

Fertorakos – an unassuming town that witnessed incredible events in 1989 – Credit: Attila Pellinger

A Cold Day In Hell – Hungary from 1945 to 1989
The Hungarians though had made a deal with the devil and in the end they paid by losing nearly their entire army on the Eastern Front. The upshot of all this was a heavy handed Soviet occupation. The Austrians got the same, but theirs turned out to be less than long term. By the 1950’s Austria, through an ambiguous bit of neutrality, was left free to prosper. Meanwhile the Hungarians ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. A geographical situation where they were considered part of Eastern Europe and thus under the Soviet sphere of influence would decide Hungary’s fate for decades to come. Hungary became a buffer nation. As part of the Warsaw Pact, like Czechoslovakia and Poland further north, they were used to keep NATO and the west far away from the borders of the Soviet Union.

One might think that Fertorakos would have been all but forgotten during the Cold War. Ideological power struggles and geo-political machinations would seem to have little to do with such a sleepy place. Unfortunately, Fertorakos found itself as a border village in a border nation. It was a place where east met west, both physically and politically. No longer was Fertorakos part of the centuries old drama of Austria versus Hungary or Austria-Hungary. Now the stage had been reset for communist versus capitalist, with Fertorakos stuck on the wrong side of the middle.  Lake Ferto, just a few minutes from the town center, became a playground for communist elites. This new governing class was the only ones allowed exclusive use of the strand. Thus the “representatives of the people” had their own private holiday resort within site of the decadent west.

Pan-European Picnic Monument by Gabriella Von Habsburg - Credit: Tamas Kiss

Pan-European Picnic Monument by Gabriella Von Habsburg – Credit: Tamas Kiss

A Historic Picnic & the Short Walk to Freedom
All that changed in 1989 due to an event so historically sublime, it could have scarcely been imagined. By the middle of 1989 communism was in trouble all across Eastern Europe. Restless populations yearning for freedom were beginning to take matters into their own hands. In Hungary, reformers had gained control of the government. The year before Janos Kadar, who had ruled the country for thirty-two years, was forced into retirement. In June 1989, the barbed wire that for decades had cordoned Hungary off from Austria was severed. Then in the strangest of circumstances the situation really took a quixotic turn. In August, activists in Hungary planned the Pan European Picnic on the Hungarian-Austrian border. This was to symbolize the two peoples coming together. In one of history’s ironic twists, Otto Van Habsburg who was the heir to the defunct Habsburg throne, helped conceive the idea.  Both countries agreed to open the border gate between the two nations for three hours on August 19th. The border post was about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from Fertorakos.

What happened next was nothing less than historic. Hundreds of East Germans, who had learned about the event from flyers, arrived on August 19th not for the picnic, but to cross the border. The Hungarian guards allowed them to pass freely and enter Austria. This was just the start. From that point onward, there was no going back. A little more than three weeks later, on September 11th, the border was opened between Hungary and Austria for good. In the following months, 70,000 people headed west to gain their freedom.

Border breakthrough Memorial - Credit: Fekist

Border breakthrough Memorial – Credit: Fekist

Full Circle – Rulers & Liberators
Today, at the entrance to the Fertorakos cave theater – part of the same quarry complex that provided the stone which helped build Vienna – stand monuments, symbolizing a cross and barbed wire. These were created by Gabriella Von Habsburg, the daughter of Otto. Now the Austrian Habsburg dynasty has come full circle, from ruling over much of Central and Eastern Europe to celebrating its liberation. And it was their old friend and foe the Hungarians who helped make this possible. Hungary is not a lesser partner in its historic relationship with Austria. It is an equal and freedom loving one.

“It Is Nothing”: The Exhibit on the Archduke’s Assassination As Seen In Vienna

In the Landstraße District of Vienna, stands the world’s oldest military history museum, the Heeresgeschichtliches (Museum of Military Museum). The museum’s exhibits focus on Austrian military exploits throughout the centuries. Among the prominent events highlighted are the numerous martial successes of the Habsburgs, one of the great ruling families in European History. Austria and the Habsburgs have a symbiotic relationship, the success and splendor of the latter, influencing that of the former right up to the present day. Yet in the early 20th ,the Habsburgs passed into history. Their fall came in both shocking and sudden fashion. In the space of just four years, the length of World War I, the empire completely disintegrated. First came defeat on the battlefield, followed by unrest and revolt at home. By the end of the war, the Habsburgs and their centuries old monarchy had vanished.

The Heeresgeschichtliches (Museum of Military History) in Vienna

The Heeresgeschichtliches – Museum of Military History in Vienna is located in the city’s former arsenal

The Decline & Fall of the Austrian’s Empire – Revolution, Compromise & Ossification
In truth, decline had been taking place for nearly a century prior to the war. Growing tensions caused by the forces of socialism and nationalism during the 19th century had to be constantly suppressed. Defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was a harbinger of the growing power of a soon to be unified Germany. Fear grew, both rational and reasonable, that Austria would be swallowed up by the German Empire. To stave off oblivion the Austrians created an unwieldy alliance with the Hungarians. The upshot of this was a political entity known as the Dual Monarchy (Austro-Hungarian Empire). This helped to stabilize the situation for almost half a century, but at the same time proved to be a constant source of irritation.

The Hungarians demanded almost complete independence. In areas where the two entities were supposed to coordinate, such as Foreign Affairs, disagreements were rife. There were also justifiable concerns about the growth of nationalism among the millions of minorities spread throughout the empire. The Italians of the Tyrol looked to Italy, the Romanians of Transylvania to Romania, the Serbs to Russia and so on. The empire was riven with internal contradictions. Atop it all sat Emperor Franz Josef, a man who would rule for sixty-eight years of revolution, compromise and ossification. Telling the story of a prolonged period of upheaval and transformation via museum exhibits is difficult at best. Perhaps that is why the essence of the fall of the House of Habsburg, Austria-Hungary and the end of old Europe really comes down to one exhibit at the Heeresgeschichtliches. Known as the Sarajevo exhibit, it showcases the residue from the seminal event which changed Austria, the Habsburgs and Europe forever.

1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile which the Archduke and his wife were travelling in when they were murdered in Sarajevo

1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile which the Archduke and his wife were travelling in when they were murdered in Sarajevo (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)


Assassination – Politics By Other Means
The largest and most noticeable item on display is an automobile. This was the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the Habsburg throne) traveled through Sarajevo with his wife Sophie on Sunday, June 28, 1914. Easily recognizable is the folded back, convertible cover of the 1911 Graf & Stift Double Phaeton automobile. It was at precisely ten minutes past ten o’clock in the morning that a bomb thrown by a would be assassin deflected off the convertible cover. It injured travelers in another vehicle that was part of the Archduke’s entourage. Despite this, the Archduke insisted that the visit continue. He was dutifully taken to the town hall for a reception. Reflecting on this is bound to make the viewer wonder if arrogance, a quality which Franz Ferdinand was known to have in abundance, ended up costing him his life.

Perhaps this not only reflects the arrogance of Franz Ferdinand, but the attitude of the aristocratic order of old Europe as well. The governing elites still had a sense of invulnerability, despite numerous successful assassinations that had occurred across Europe over the past twenty years. Assassination, like war, was politics by another means. The marginalized of the Empire felt that this was the only way real change could be effected. Franz Ferdinand, an elite in every way imaginable, was an extreme example of the will to never change or recognize the obvious, even when it appeared in deadly forms. After the reception, the Archduke and his wife were once again traveling back through Sarajevo, when due to a mix-up, the chauffeur took a wrong turn and ended up stalling the car on a side street. It was then that the assassin, a Bosnian Serb by the name of Gavrilo Princip, pulled out a semi-automatic pistol. From just one and a half meters away he fired two shots. The Archduke was hit in the jugular vein, while his wife was shot in the abdomen.

Pistol used by Gavrilo Princip to murder the Archduke and his wife (Credit: Heeresegeschichtliches)

Fabriue Nationale model 1910 used by Gavrilo Princip to murder the Archduke and his wife (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)

The assassin’s pistol, a Fabrique Nationale model 1910, is on display at the museum. It is incredibly humbling to actually see the real weapon. The gun produced the first two shots of what would become a worldwide conflagration that ended up taking the lives of at least ten million people. The exhibit contains several photos of the assassins (including accomplices) along with their weapons. The contrast between the assassins and the royal family is brought home by the photos in close proximity to one another. Here is the scruffy Princip, eyes gazing back at the camera with a fearful, vacant perplexity. Nearby, an image of the royal family shows them as refined and well to do. There could hardly be a greater contrast. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie only met Princip in that one hair trigger moment, but due to that moment they have inextricably linked, forever.

The uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in Sarajevo

The uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in Sarajevo (Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches)

All & Nothing – Franz Ferdinand’s Famous Last Words
Another display case holds the uniform worn by the archduke on that fateful day. A hole is visible just below the collar where the bullet’s entry occurred. The front of the uniform still displays Franz Ferdinand’s blood stains, which have turned a dirty brown over the years. In a final coup of macabre grace, a chaise lounge is part of the exhibit. It is from the governor’s residence in Sarajevo. On this lounge the Archduke lay, still alive, yet barely breathing. Ten minutes after Sophie died, Franz Ferdinand is said to have uttered, “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children.” Then he repeated “It is nothing” over and over again.

Those were his final words. The exhibit has the power to transport the viewer beyond the museum, to somewhere deep in the historical consciousness. A place where Franz Ferdinand’s final words, “It is nothing” echo across space and time. Those words have turned into a horrific paradox. They turned out to be quite the opposite of what occurred in the aftermath of the assassination. “It is nothing” was really the beginning of a final endgame for the Habsburgs.

There is nothing quite like the Sarajevo exhibit at the Heeresgeschichtliches. Thousands of artifacts and wonderfully informative displays may tell of the story of the Habsburgs and Austria’s military exploits and defeats, but they pale in comparison to the items showcased from that one day in Sarajevo. The artifacts in the Sarajevo exhibit have the ability to transport the visitor beyond walls and words, beyond facts and dates. Indeed, they speak of a final destiny that defeated an empire and a way of life.


Passion, Levity & Treason – Alfred Redl & the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary

“Passion and levity have destroyed me. Pray for me. I pay with my life for my sins. Alfred…” – Suicide Note of Alfred Redl, Chief of Staff Eight Army Corps, Austro-Hungarian Royal Army

In those two sentences and eighteen words, Alfred Redl concisely summed up his own demise. The above words were the last of a man who rose from poverty in that prototypically backward Austria-Hungarian province of Galicia to the very height of power. The brilliant career of a man known for his extraordinary work ethic, innovation and charm was shattered an hour after midnight on May 25, 1913 in Vienna. The end may have been quick, but the demise had been coming on for many years. It had been a matter of if, not when, Redl would be “discovered” as the man who was selling the Austro-Hungarian Royal Army’s most sensitive military secrets to the Russians.

The Price Of Love & Vanity
Redl’s short note was a fabulously tragic explanation of why? His guilt was so vast, his fall so dramatic that it would not have done for him to have given a drawn out explanation. The details of his actions were left to the empire he had betrayed to work out. In that moment before his death, he gave them only what he wanted them to know, just like he always had in life. He could not control what would be known or unknown after his suicide. That was left to his fellow officers. Later they would unearth his secrets, countering his counter-intelligence. Secrets he left behind were to be found in his luxurious apartment in Prague. Pink leather whips, pornographic photos with snakeskin frames showing fellow officers involved in acts considered at the time to be criminal. Why they, including Redl, were even dressed in women’s clothing and wore cosmetics.

These were the secrets he had hidden from his colleagues for over a decade. Yet his vanity and excess had been in full view. How could they not have noticed? Redl had so often been accompanied by his “nephew.” This false relation was a dashing, young, Czech calvary officer, Stefan Hromadka. He had been a mere teenager of fourteen when they first met. Hromadka became Redl’s lover and the man whom he would lavish with affection and most importantly, luxurious gifts. Covering his fingers with diamonds, purchasing for him a mansion in Prague and supplying a Daimler convertible, Redl bought Hromadka’s love. The price for this romance and so many others was treason. He sold the Empire out to the Russians. They had first confronted him and threatened to expose his scandalous behavior unless he secretly worked for them. Redl became their man in Vienna.

Alfred Redl - arch traitor

Alfred Redl – arch traitor

The Deadliest Secrets
As head of first counter-intelligence and then intelligence for the Monarchy, Redl was uniquely positioned to sell out the spies and secrets he managed. His treason, like the payments he received, was enormous. The mobilization plans for the coming war with Serbia were given to the Russians. They passed them on to their allies. When the World War began, the Serbs were prepared. Redl’s influence on the course of the Empire was profound, it outlasted even him. The Empire and its Royal Army retrospectively deplored Redl’s homosexuality, was puzzled by his coarse vanity, sickened by his deadly duplicity. It would all come much too late, after the fact. And what were facts in a man who would betray anyone and everything, including himself. This was Alfred Redl, a man who charmed everyone into trust. He had used his cleverness to carry out the most nefarious of activities.

How could he have done it? They thought they knew him, but he knew them much better. After all, he was the one whose innovative ideas to collect intelligence helped preserve (and destroy) the Empire. He bugged phone and wireless conversations, dusted for fingerprints and recorded visitors, including his closest confidants, by image and audio. He had it all covered. The Empire upheld him as a sterling example of the self-made man. The old Emperor, Franz Josef even awarded Redl a medal for “Expression of Supreme Satisfaction.” In an empire where legacies were almost always born and rarely made, Redl was the ultimate exception to the rules. In fact, it would turn out that he was making his own rules.

Honor, Tradition & Treason
When he was finally “discovered” Redl’s traitorous actions scandalized and weakened the Army. It had been the one institution in a rapidly fading empire that upheld honor and tradition. As the scandal broke, it was not so much Redl who had been exposed, as it was the Army’s and by extension the Empire’s image which was irreparably tarnished. Here was one of its most decorated officers, who had ascended from the ranks of the commoners, to hold an exalted position. Now the word was out, the Army was riven by decadence and corruption, the rot was pervasive, it was no different from the rest of the monarchy. The damage to Redl’s reputation did not much matter since he was already dead. Redl after all was just a man. The Army was an institution, a symbol of the Monarchy, and the Monarchy was everything. Just over five years after Redl’s death it would be nothing.

A Belief Stronger Than Life: Sarajevo’s Failed Assassination of 1910

It was the middle of June, 1910, almost summer time in Sarajevo. Warmer temperatures were only one of the reasons for optimism. Another was the formation of a parliament for the Austro-Hungarian administered Bosnian province known as the Sabor. It was officially opened in mid-month by the provincial Military Governor, General Marijan Varesanin.   The Austro-Hungarians felt that this might be a turning point in the process of integrating the province further into the Dual Monarchy. It was wishful thinking. Despite the parliament’s creation, a peasant revolt had just taken place in the countryside. Bosnia’s heterodox population of Serbs, Croats and Muslims were restless to the point of violence. Just two years earlier, the Dual Monarchy had annexed the province. This had inflamed revolutionary sentiment among the South Slavic people who called this mountainous land home. Their aim was to expunge the Austro-Hungarians and set up a South Slav state.

Postcard of Sarajevo along the Miljacka River in 1900

Postcard of Sarajevo along the Miljacka River in 1900

Warning Shots: Bosnia on the Brink
The Austro-Hungarian hope that the creation of a Sabor would quell some of the populace’s anger was in vain. Political violence was the preferred solution for young Bosnians who felt marginalized and unrepresented. They wanted self-rule, rather than imperial occupation. They were going to change their world and were willing to die for it. The ultimate outcome of this mindset occurred in June of 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That successful act of violence led to the First World War. Strangely, a failed act of violence on the 15th of June, 1910 in Sarajevo was a shocking example of what was to come. It was a pity few failed to heed the warning shots.

On that day, the Austrian Military Governor of Bosnia, General Marijan Varesanin had been given the honor of leading the official opening of the Sabor. After the ceremony ended, his carriage made its way down the Appel Quay, astride the Miljacka River. He was heading back to his home at Konak, the military governor’s mansion. It would be along this same stretch of road four years later where Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade would have a bomb thrown at it. This would also be the same road where the fatal wrong turn by the Archduke’s chauffeur led the royal couple directly into the line of fire from assassin Gavrilo Princip. While General Varesanin knew that any Austrian leader in Bosnia was under threat of attack, he could not have imagined that on such a heretofore successful day, an assassin was lurking along his route home.

Bogdan Zerajic- failed assassin, successful martyr

Bogdan Zerajic- failed assassin, successful martyr

A Turn for the Worst
The carriage turned onto the Kaiser’s Bridge, ironically only one bridge up from the Latin Bridge where the Archduke would meet his fate. Suddenly five gun shots rang out in quick succession. They came within a hair’s breadth of hitting the General. A sixth shot did hit its mark, but in this final case the target happened not to be the General. The would-be assassin had placed the Browning pistol against his head and pulled the trigger. He dropped to the ground, dead in the middle of the road. Varesanin left his carriage to take a closer look. What he found was a young man, in his early 20’s, with blood oozing from his mouth. The entire episode, from first shot to the inspection of the assassin, took place with breathtaking rapidity.

The man lying dead in the road was one, Bogdan Zerajic. He, like so many Balkan assassins around the turn of the 20th century, came from an impoverished peasant family, one which not surprisingly had nine children. He tried to make a career for himself by studying law at university, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. He then found his true calling while reading anarchist literature and joining the burgeoning ranks of those youthful, wayward souls calling for revolution. He initially targeted the Emperor of the Dual Monarchy, Franz Josef for assassination. He got within an arm length of him in the city of Mostar, but could not bring himself to go through with the planned attempt. Only a few weeks later, Zerajic’s attempt on the life of Varesanin failed.

Franz Josef in Mostar - no assassin in sight

Franz Josef in Mostar – no assassin in sight

In Death as in Life – Zerajic & Princip: A Convergence of Souls
In death, Zerajic gained martyrdom. His grave became a pilgrimage site for those who would eventually follow in his footsteps. Among the visitors included Gavrilo Princip, who is said to have placed flowers on his grave. In death as in life these kindred spirits would converge, Princip was buried in the same cemetery a decade later. Interestingly, whereas Zerajic barely missed with his five shots at Varesanin, he was able to commit suicide. Conversely, both of Princip’s shots were hits, yet his own suicide attempt failed. Yet Zerajic despite his failure inspired many a Serb, while the successful Princip’s actions led to defeat and misery for Bosnia and Serbia in the immediate years that followed. The unintended consequences of history work in strange ways.

Answers to what might have been in the aftermath of the attempt on General Varesanin’s life offer any number of fascinating suppositions. What if he had been killed? It would almost certainly not have sparked a World War. On the other hand, if Zerajic had murdered Franz Josef in Mostar, one can pretty much imagine the ramifications. The difference between assassinating a military governor and the emperor are vast. One could lead to martial law, while the other to world war. It is a pity that a mere four years after the assassination attempt on General Varesanin in Sarajevo no one seems to have really considered that the same could happen to the Archduke. Maybe there was an ingrained faith that strokes of luck, rather than strokes of fate would see Austria-Hungary through in Bosnia. If only the Dual Monarchy’s leaders had thought otherwise. If it had happened in Sarajevo once, it could certainly happen in Sarajevo again.

By Force of Fear & Honor – The Final Days of the Siege of Przemysl

Late on the night of March 18th, sleet and wet snow began to fall in eastern Galicia. At the fortress of Przemysl soldiers of the 23rd Honved Infantry Regiment as well as other units were assembling for an attempt to break through an encircling ring of Russian forces. The massive citadel placed strategically on the San River had been under siege four consecutive months. Many of the soldiers were barely able to muster enough energy to walk toward their marshalling point on the eastern edge of the fortress works. Others collapsed before they made it out of the barracks, their reserves of energy all but expended. For the past several months these soldiers had subsisted on a diet that consisted of tea for breakfast, a kilogram of meat and a bit of bread for lunch, followed by a slice of bread and more tea for dinner. An officer’s reports estimated that only 30% of one regiment due to take part in the attack was fit for duty.

General Hermann  Kusmanek von Burgneustadten- Commanding officer of the Austrian-Hungarian forces during the siege of Przemysl

General Hermann Kusmanek von Burgneustadten- Commanding officer of the Austrian-Hungarian forces during the siege of Przemysl

Superhuman Efforts – By Force of Fear & Honor
As the soldiers emerged from a fitful sleep earlier that evening, they were wet, cold and on the verge of exhaustion. It was a miracle they could even attempt such an attack. On that same day they had been rallied by a speech from the fortress commander, General Herman Kusmanek von Burgneustadten who said: “Soldiers, for nearly half a year, in spite of cold and hunger, you have defended the fortress entrusted to you. The eyes of the world are fixed on you. Millions at home are waiting with painful eagerness to hear the news of your success. The honor of the army and our fatherland requires us to make a superhuman effort. Around us lies the iron ring of the enemy. Burst a way through it and join your comrades who have been fighting so bravely for you and are now so near. I have given you the last of our supplies of food. I charge you to go forward and sweep the foe aside. After our many gallant and glorious fights we must not fall into the hands of the Russians like sheep; we must and will break through.”

Soldiers who were not roused by these words may have been motivated by another force, fear. Their commanding officers issued threats that those who returned to the fortress would be charged with cowardice or treason. Whether it was fear or honor, the soldiers found enough courage to mount an attack. General Kusmanek knew the real truth though. Prior to the attack he had sent a message to the Supreme Warlord, Emperor Franz Josef: “Although the troops have lost most of their strength after long ordeals of all kinds, we will begin this attempt so that before our probable downfall we will perhaps render assistance to the field armies.”

From Slim To Impossible
At 5:00 a.m. buffeted by an icy wind, the 23rd Honved led the thrust forward. The Russians had been intercepting radio messages transmitted by the Austro-Hungarian command. This gave them warning of the direction from which the attack would come. The Russian artillery fire was deadly accurate. For the next nine hours the Austro-Hungarian troops made a futile attempt to break the Russian line. In the early afternoon the attack was finally called off. The result was that the 23rd Honved was utterly decimated. Two-thirds of the regiment had been killed or wounded. Kusmanek transmitted another message to Franz Josef trying to put the best face on the failure. “Because of the total exhaustion of the soldiers, any further breakthrough attempt would be completely fruitless. Therefore I will hold the fortress as long as possible; by continuing to pin down the enemy units we can still be of use to the field armies….we will persevere to the end.” The end was not far away.

The possibility of a breakout had been slim before the failed assault, now it was impossible. Now there were only two options left for the 120,000 soldiers surrounded within fortress Przemysl, either starve or surrender. With only a few days of rations left in the fortress, the latter course seemed probable.

One of the Przemysl forts showing damage that occured at the end of the siege

One of the Przemysl forts showing damage that occured at the end of the siege

The End of the World Arrives
On the same day that the breakout attempt failed, the decision was made by the officers to burn at least 600,000 crowns of paper money. In today’s terms this would be the equivalent of $27.5 million. Horses were slaughtered wholesale in the streets. The meat was divided among the starving soldiers. On the 20th and 21st, the garrison encountered yet another problem, they were forced to turn back Russian assaults. Then late on the night of the 21st a series of thunderous explosions began from inside the fortress walls. The artillery that had helped protect Przemysl for so many months was now packed with demolition charges or deliberately overloaded with powder. The Austro-Hungarian forces were not going to allow the Russians to get their hands on these guns. One observer in the Russian ranks was awestruck by what he saw from a distance. “The flash of the shells illuminated the hillsides in patches of blue light, giving the soldiers a ghastly appearance. It looked uncanny – almost like the Last Judgment.”

The spectacle from within the fortress was just as terrifying. A young boy by the name of Yosef Altbauer remembered how: “the policemen spread out through the city, awakened the population from its sleep, and ordered them to leave their houses, leave their windows open and to go out in the field, for they were about to blow up all of the fortifications. This was an unforgettable night of hell. When the bombing of the fortifications, the bridges, and weapons caches began all at once toward morning, we thought that the end of the world had arrived.”

The end of one world had arrived as a new day dawned over the late winter landscape of the smoldering fortress. At 9:00 a.m. on March 22nd the first Russian troops entered the city. The siege of Przemysl was at an end. A fleetingly short rule by the Russians was at its beginning.
Sources: Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 .Volume 2, Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive
Przemysl: Siege and Surrender. Christopher Duffy, Volume 2: The Marshal Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I
Przemysl During the Time of the Siege (1914-1915) by Yosef Altbauer

Empire At The Point Of A Dagger – The Failed Assassination of Emperor Franz Josef

On a late winter’s day, in mid-February of 1853, two men stood near a bastion on the ramparts of Vienna’s old town watching soldier’s exercise in a yard below them. It was just past lunch hour. One of the men, the most powerful in Central Europe at that time, Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, was dressed for the weather in a heavy coat and cap. These were to help shield him from the winter chill. Such unassuming attire was also about to save his life.

A Viennese Lady, Half-Irish Count & A Butcher – The Emperor’s Personal Security
For not far away another man was moving toward the emperor rather quickly. He brandished a knife, which he wanted to plunge into the monarch’s back. Watching this scene unfold was an unsuspecting Viennese woman. Realizing that something quite sinister was about to occur, she suddenly let loose a piercing scream. As the emperor turned around to see what was happening, he inadvertently caused the would be assassin to miss the mark. Instead of plunging the dagger into Franz Josef’s back, it grazed his neck which was semi-protected by a stiff coat collar. The emperor reeled from the blow. His companion, the half-Irish Count Maximilian O’Donnell, used his saber to strike down the assailant. A butcher, Joseph Ettenreich, rushed over and helped further subdue the attacker. Ettenreich would be ennobled for providing assistance. Meanwhile, the emperor was bleeding quite badly.

Portrayal of the assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef

Portrayal of the assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef on February 18, 1853 (Painting by J.J. Renner)

At first glance, it seemed that Franz Josef had not escaped this brush with fate. Blood was pouring forth from the wound and the situation looked dire. Fortunately for Franz Joseph, it turned out to be much more superficial than first thought. Doctors were able to treat the bloody gash. He spent several weeks bedridden, but would recover. Just over a week after the incident, his attacker, an ethnic Hungarian, by the name of Janos Lebenyi was executed. Lebenyi was a supporter of the exiled Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth led the Hungarians in revolt against the Habsburgs in 1848-1849. Franz Josef – along with assistance from Russian forces – had brutally suppressed the revolution. In the years that followed, Hungarian resistance had changed from passive to active resistance, that was until Lebenyi attempted to take matters into his own hand. Like his fellow countrymen, he had come close to success, but in the end the attempt failed. Franz Josef had survived to live another day, for that matter he survived to reign another six decades. As for Janos Lebenyi, his name has been lost to history.

The Course of Empire – Destiny By Luck
Franz Josef’s most notable historical achievement is the fact that he was able to survive for so long. He is well known as one of the longest reigning monarchs in history, in total, he ruled for sixty-eight years. Quite the feat, when one considers that he presided over a multi-ethnic empire challenged by the forces of radical ideologies, nationalism and the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. His reign was longer than the average life expectancy of a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. He escaped the chances of war, of disease, even defying age for the last decade of his reign. It seems that he was destined not for greatness, but survival. Another way of looking at it though, is that he was just lucky.

What really saved Franz Josef’s life that mid-winter’s day? The best explanation is that it was the warning invoked by the full throated scream of an anonymous lady. The difference between her reaction and Lebenyi’s murderous intention, allowed for the moment that saved the emperor’s life and preserved him to preside over the slow, yet precipitate decline of the Habsburg Monarchy. That voice of warning, was the difference between a short reign where he was reviled by the majority of his subjects and a reign of almost seven decades, where his life and personage became inseparable from that of the monarchy’s. The life saving scream and the emperor’s reaction, were all part of that fateful moment, when the future course of an empire was nearly cut asunder by the point of a dagger.

To Be Spared Nothing On This Earth – Franz Josef & The Long Goodbye

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.

Franz Josef in Prayer

Franz Josef in Prayer

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.