They Will Stay Forever – Ilona Zrinyi & Ferenc Rakoczi II: Like Mother, Like Son (Part 1)

Vaja Castle is located in the eastern portion of Hungary, in a town of the same name. Vaja is a dusty, somnolent settlement that sees few tourists. The history of this area is dominated by Ferenc Rakoczi II, the famed nobleman who led rebel troops from 1703 – 1711 in what has become known as Rakoczi’s War of Independence. This war was one of the first serious attempts by Hungarians to break away from the suffocating rule of the House of Habsburg. The rebellion failed, but that failure has been greatly romanticized in Hungarian historiography. It became part and parcel of a Hungarian psychosis that fate will always be against them.

Vaja Castle

Vaja Castle – home to a marvelous Ferenc Rakoczi II exhibition

Hope, Sorrow & Tragedy – The Story Of A Family, The Story Of A Nation
This fatalistic mindset can best be described as the Hungarians look to be on the verge of a magnificent victory, only to experience defeat at the hands of forces beyond their control. Whether this is true or not, does not matter so much as the belief in it. That belief has had a dramatic influence on how Hungarians view their own history. I visited Vaja Castle with few preconceived notions, other than that I would probably learn more about Ferenc Rakoczi. It was in this castle that Rakoczi met with Adam Vay (a leading generals during the war) to make the decision to pursue rebellion. What I did not expect to learn at Vaja was about Rakoczi’s mother, Ilona Zrinyi (Jelena Zrinska in Croatian). She would prove to be an even more fascinating figure than her son. The life of Ilona Zrinyi fits the pattern of Hungarian history, one of hope, followed by sorrow and tragedy.

There are first class exhibits at Vaja castle on all things Rakoczi. The one detail that caught my eye and stayed with me long afterward was text from a letter written to Rakoczi by his mother Ilona. It said There is nothing more laudable than an honorable name and good reputation in this world. These two things will never cease, and they will stay forever. It means nothing, to lose your goods, but the person who loses his honor, loses everything. Respect your fellow men…because the one who respects other people respects himself…”  These words of wisdom were spoken from the heart. As important as these words must have been to Ferenc Rakoczi, it was his mother’s actions that spoke even more powerfully. Ilona Zrinyi led both a romantic and tragic life. She will never be romanticized the way her son has been, but she should be honored, for both what she did and what she stood for.

Ilona Zrinyi

Ilona Zrinyi – beautiful and defiant – painting by Karoly Jakobey

Noble Warrior, Noble Woman, Noble Family
There are countless statues of Ferenc Rakoczi throughout Hungary. The most famous of which is on the grounds of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest. This equestrian statue shows him larger than life, all flowing hair and swirling mustaches, looking the very image of a noble warrior. Outside Vaja Castle there is a regal looking bust of Rakoczi, one of hundreds placed across historic Hungary. By comparison, there are very few statues of Rakoczi’s mother Ilona. One of the most famous stands inside the walls of Palanok Castle (Munkacs Vara in Hungarian) in Mukachevo, Ukraine, it shows Ilona with her hand on young Ferenc’s shoulder. He is leaning on a sword while gazing defiantly into the distance. Ilona gazes down at him, with a watchful expression. What makes the scene portrayed on this statue so poignant is that such a scene likely occurred in close to the same spot. For it was at Palanok Castle that for three solid years (1685 – 1688) Ilona held out with a small force under siege by the Habsburg forces.

These years were the longest and last that Ilona would spend with Ferenc. Her stalwart resistance must have made a deep impression on the young boy. That resistance had been stirred in Ilona by a lifetime of humiliation at the hands of the Habsburgs. There was no part of the famous Zrinyi family (Croatian nobles who were part of the Hungarian Kingdom) that had been left unscathed by the Habsburgs. Ilona’s father Petar had been one of the main conspirators in a failed Croatian-Hungarian rebellion to break free of Habsburg rule. His death sentence read, “he committed the greater sin than the others in aspiring to obtain the same station as his Majesty, that is, to be an independent Croatian ruler, and therefore he indeed deserves to be crowned not with a crown, but with a bloody sword.” Petar Zrinyi was beheaded in the spring of 1671.

Statue of Ilona Zrinyi and a young Ferenc Rakoczi II

Statue of Ilona Zrinyi and a young Ferenc Rakoczi II at Palanok Castle

The Tragedy Of A Family
Ilona’s mother, Katarina was shunted off to a convent in Graz, Austria. She would die just a couple of years later. Ilona’s two younger sisters were also sent to convents where they stayed for the rest of their lives in virtual confinement. The worst fate was reserved for her brother Ivan. Though an officer in the Austrian army, he was arrested on charges of high treason. He would spend the last two decades of his life in prison where he was severely tortured and slowly went insane. Ilona was just able to narrowly avoid the fate of her parents and siblings.

Click Here To Read: They Will Stay Forever – Ilona Zrinyi & Ferenc Rakoczi II: Like Mother, Like Son (Part 2)

When The World Will Not Leave You Alone – Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg

It did not happen very often that a member of the House of Habsburg was reduced to cleaning latrines, but that is precisely what happened to Maximilian Duke of Hohenberg. There is probably no greater anecdotal evidence of the massive changes wrought upon European society in the first half of the 20th century than the fact that the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the man who was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne until his assassination sparked World War I – ended up orphaned, banished from his home and later from his homeland and was lucky to survive imprisonment at a concentration camp.

The Young Maximilian

The Young Maximilian

Heir To The Fates – Maximilian, Duke Of Hohenburg
The man who would become Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg was born in 1902, the second child and oldest son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek. The marriage was extremely controversial due to the fact that Sophie was of a lower aristocratic order than Franz Ferdinand and as such was not considered a suitable candidate to marry an heir to the throne. Nonetheless, the couple married and gave birth to three children. Maximilian, being the eldest son would have been in the direct line of succession for the Habsburg Throne, but even before he was born the arrangements of his parent’s marriage made it impossible. Some might say it was fate, others tradition, but one of the conditions of Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie was that his sons were not allowed in the direct line of succession to the throne. Thus from the very start Maximilian had no hope of gaining the throne. Furthermore, he was not allowed to inherit any titles, incomes or property from his father. Inheritance was only allowed from his mother’s side. This seems quite bizarre, but the aristocratic world of Austria-Hungary, especially the loftiest ranks was wedded to tradition and protocol.

Tradition in the House of Habsburg was often stronger than people. Yet tradition could only go so far in keeping Austria-Hungary together in a 20th century of mass movements and great technological change. Maximillian was unlucky enough to be born into this era. His own father, Franz Ferdinand, had flirted with changing tradition and his offspring ended up paying the price. On June 28, 1914 Maximilian’s parents were both murdered in the streets of Sarajevo by a Bosnian-Serb assassin. This of course was the great spark that ignited World War I, a conflict that would change the order of Europe and the world forever. On a more personal level, the war upset millions of people’s lives. Maximilian’s life was one of these. He and his siblings were now orphans. Their lives were thrown into a state of uncertainty. The war was bad enough, but the aftermath even worse from an aristocratic perspective.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie with their three children

Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie with their three children, Maximilian is at the far right

Normality & Domesticity, Imprisonment & Humiliation
The monarchy collapsed and the Habsburg’s lost all power. Being part of the family was no longer a privilege, but now a curse. The newborn nation states of Central and Eastern Europe were led by men who had abhorred Austria-Hungary. They now set about vanquishing the Habsburg legacy. Maximilian had been brought up at the family residence in Konopiste. His life there had continued even after his parents were killed, but in 1919 the new nation of Czechoslovakia expropriated the property. The three siblings now became displaced persons, albeit very unique ones. They moved to another family home, Artstetten Castle, in lower Austria. Possibly the strangest aspect regarding the first half of Maximilian’s life was how normal it was turning out to be. He attended to University of Graz where he acquired a law degree. He was doing a fine job managing the family estates prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. It seemed that his life just might turn out normal.

Millions of others could probably have said the same thing before Nazism changed everything. For Austria, the rise of the Nazis resulted in the Anschluss of 1938 whereby it was absorbed into the greater German Reich. Maximilian, along with his brother Ernst, vehemently opposed this infringement upon Austrian sovereignty. The Nazis would not stand for any opposition. Both brothers were arrested and imprisoned in the Dachau Concentration Camp. In comparison to others who suffered in the camps, there punishment was mild. They were not murdered, but instead forced to perform humiliating duties which included cleaning toilets. In the space of just twenty-five years Maximilian had gone from the exalted heights of royalty to literal servitude at the beck and whim of a depraved ideology. The old Europe was not just a thing of the past it was on the verge of perishing in the camps. And yet Maximilian survived. After only six months inside Dachau he was released. Lucky to be alive, he managed to survive the war. Soon thereafter he was elected mayor of Artstetten. The final period of his life was one of peaceful domesticity.

 Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg later in life

The survivor – Maximilian, Duke of Hohenburg later in life

A Life of Unequal Measures
There is a precarious balance to the life of Maximilian. His fate often swung from the depths of despair to surreal domesticity. An awful event was often followed by a pleasant surprise. When the worst could be expected, events turned out for the better. The examples of this pattern are numerous. Even though he was orphaned, he was also raised in a castle. After losing every royal title and many ancestral possessions, he lived a relatively carefree life managing the family estates. Thrown into a concentration camp, he spent the time more in servitude than slavery. He avoided murder, likely because of his lineage, but also suffered imprisonment because of it. His life was star crossed, filled with despondencies and satisfactions of unequal measure. It must have all been a bit maddening. Often at the mercy of world historical events far beyond his control, Maximilian made the best of a quixotic situation. Life for him was unique, dreadful and normal. He may have been born different, but in one key respect he was just the same as everyone else who lived through the multiple cataclysms in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. He was a survivor.