Research Notes – The Great War (5) The Suicide Pact That Changed History

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

Nearly 120 years after his death, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, son of Franz Josef and Elisabeth (of Bavaria), heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is a mere asterisk in the history of the Great War. Nevertheless, his short but eventful life changed the face of the ruling Habsburg Dynasty and altered the path which led to the dreadful conflict 15 years after his tragic demise.

Rudolf Franz Karl Josef was born on August 21, 1858 and with his early education, began his grooming to lead the empire. Unlike his conservative father, Rudolf developed more liberal views and was intensely interested in the natural sciences, especially mineralogy. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium was initially a happy match, but the royal couple grew distant after the birth of their only child, Elisabeth. Rudolf, a passionate man, began drinking and embarking on a number of love affairs. At one point, he considered trying to have his marriage to Stéphanie annulled, but was prevented by his father, the emperor.

In 1888, the 30 year old Crown Prince met the 17 year old Baroness Marie Vetsera and began a doomed affair. Although, by all accounts, Marie was devoted to her married lover, Rudolf carried on liaisons with other women during the 3 months he and Marie were involved. At Rudolf’s hunting lodge in Mayerling, on January 30, 1889, the lovers committed murder suicide –the act confirmed by letters of Marie’s which recorded that she was preparing to take her own life for the sake of ‘love’. Prior to the events at Mayerling, however, the ‘unbalanced’ Crown Prince had proposed a similar suicide pact to another of his mistresses, the actress, Mizzi Kaspar, who regarded the suggestion as a joke. Alas, in Vetsera he found a gullible and willing partner.

Rudolf’s death left Emperor Franz Josef without a direct heir. Franz Josef’s younger brother, Karl Ludwig became first in line to the throne, until his death of typhus in 1896. Karl Ludwig’s son Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, now became the heir presumptive. That is until he was assassinated in June 1914 in Sarajevo –the spark that lit the fire of The Great War.

Header image credit: Fototeca Storica Nazionale; Crown Prince Rudolf image and Mary Vetsera image credits: WikiCommons.