About Time I Read It: Twilight of Empire by Greg King and Penny Wilson

When I noticed Greg King and Penny Wilson ‘s 2017 book Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs in new the books section of the public library a few years ago it struck me as the kind of book I’d possibly read. Thanks to one of my late night ventures down the Wikipedia rabbit hole I was already somewhat familiar with the Mayerling Incident, in which the middle-aged heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne killed himself along with the 17 year old mistress at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889. I also saw a fictionalized version of the tragic murder-suicide in the 2006 film The Illusionist and read of another in Elisabeth de Waal’s 2014 novel The Exiles Return. Then, a few weeks ago feeling the need to read something set in, or about Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured an ebook edition through Overdrive.

Even though he was the Crown Prince of one of Europe’s grandest royal families by late 1888 Rudolf’s life was a mess. Open to progressive political ideas and willing to grant greater freedom to the empire’s diverse population of subjects his pleas for political liberalization were repeatedly dismissed by his father Emperor Franz Joseph, a reactionary autocrat. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, after a brief happy beginning had long since turned sour with Stéphanie spending most her time living abroad while Rudolf frequented Vienna’s taverns and brothels. His body ravaged by gonorrhea as the result of his wayward behavior, he drowned himself in a sea of alcohol and morphine. Lamenting his largely estranged wife would never give him the son he desperately wanted Rudolf had no one to blame but himself. (He’d infected  Stéphanie with gonorrhea rendering her infertile.) Thanks to years of childhood trauma at the hands of his domineering father, or poor Hapsburg genetics or both, Rudolf was a troubled man, emotionally unstable and in all likelihood bipolar.

Enter Baroness Mary Vetsera, the young daughter of an Austrian diplomat. With the total blessing of her social-climbing mother Mary pursed the Crown Prince with reckless abandon. For the better part of a year their ongoing affair was an open secret  to both his parents and the kingdom’s insular aristocracy. Even to this day some speculate Rudolf, in a move to escape the overbearing shadow of his father, entertained thoughts of divorcing Stéphanie, marrying Mary and proclaiming himself King of Hungary. (At this time Austro-Hungary was a dual monarchy.) But as the months went by and the affair lost momentum, Rudolf’s depression worsened. Finally, in late January of 1889 Rudolf and Mary slipped away to the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. Leaving specific instructions for those in attendance not to open his bedroom door “not even for the Emperor” Rudolf along with Mary retired for the evening. Early the next morning two gunshots rang out. After breaking down the door  Rudolf’s assistants discovered the blood-soaked  bodies of the two lovers sprawled on the bed.

The brutal royal murder-suicide scandalized polite Austrian society. Conspiracy theories abounded for decades with some pointing their fingers at Germany, accusing the Kaiser’s agents of assassinating Rudolf since he was seen by some as an impediment to closer German-Austrian military ties. Bad enough the future Emperor lay dead and without ever siring a male heir but to be found lying next to his dead mistress magnified the tragedy. Suicide, as well as murder considered mortal sins according to Catholic teaching Rudolf could be denied a Christian burial. (Interestingly, according to the book’s authors Vienna was already in the grips of a suicide epidemic with the newspapers filled with lurid accounts of the city’s residents killing themselves.) In the end the Crown Prince was ruled to have been in a state of “mental imbalance” at the time and was thus granted the proper royal funeral rites, much to the relief of his devout Catholic parents.

For the most part I enjoyed Twilight of Empire with my only complaint being I thought the authors might have spent a bit too much time discussing conspiracy theories. However, I can see how many Austrians, when confronted with the uncomfortable truth the Crown Prince murdered himself and his mistress might take solace in rumors that Rudolf was a victim and not a perpetrator. Ironically though, Rudolf’s actions prefigured that of his father’s. When the Emperor decided to invade Serbia in 1914 and in doing so launch the First World War, his actions would lead to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another act of murder-suicide, but on a much larger scale.

3 thoughts on “About Time I Read It: Twilight of Empire by Greg King and Penny Wilson

  1. I haven’t read this one yet and wasn’t sure if I should – got a bit burnt out on Austrian history after living there for many years. But I’ve been to Mayerling and the little museum that’s there. Mary Vetsera’s coffin is on display, with huge cracks along the sides where it was broken into by grave robbers at the end of WWII. Very eerie all around there. Great review, it’s making me reconsider, maybe I need to pick this one up!

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