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Guns & Politics: The Shooting At Mayerling Changed The World

Susan Smith Columnist
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It was the war to end all wars, at least until it wasn’t.  Then it was assigned a number when the next such unthinkable worldwide conflagration ensued.

The conflict in Western Europe between 1914 and 1918 cost more than 38 million lives, destroyed forever the social system in England, annihilated the young male population of France, ended the seemingly all-powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire and changed life in the most civilized continent on Earth at that time forever.

Not for the better.

What made this cataclysmic event happen?

It was in fact the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a deranged Bosnian in 1914 that started this worldwide conflict.  The gentleman in question, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was killed along with his wife at that fateful time, though the reputed next Emperor was but the nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph 1.  The Emperor’s only child, his true son and heir, was unavailable, having perpetrated an event just a few years before that changed the course of world history, irrevocably.

Not for the better.

What happened to Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, the only son of the Emperor of what was one of the greatest political and military powers that existed at that epoch, was regarded as a tragic but still remarkably affecting love story at the time.  The handsome young heir to the Hapsburg throne and his beautiful young mistress seemed to have entered into a murder-suicide pact by gunshot which resulted basically in blowing up not only themselves but the western world.

Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, the heir of the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had arranged a tryst with (as it turned out, just one of) his mistress at the time, the beautiful 17-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera, at the imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling in the Vienna Woods in late January of 1889.   On January 30,, 1889, the reportedly bullet-ridden bodies of the 30-year-old Archduke and the 17-year-old baroness were discovered in the residence 15 miles southwest of the Viennese capital.  She had been shot in the head first, according to legend, and after a certain time during which the Prince drank himself into insensibility, he shot himself, also in the brain.

Immediate reports from the royal family of course tried to cover up the disastrous international political, diplomatic and dynastic situation and immediately lied about the whole situation, claiming that the  healthy 30 year old had died from heart problems.  The poor young noblewoman was just wrapped up and sent off, hoping her very existence would just disappear.  Too good a story to keep under wraps, the supposed facts eventually leaked out, saying that that Rudolf shot his beloved and then later turned the gun on himself.  There were supposedly both found the next morning, stiff and full of bullet holes, by a hunting companion of Rudolf’s, who immediately reported it to the Empress.  She then brought the unimaginable news to the Prince’s father, the Emperor.

Neither parent ever recovered from this tragic occurrence.

There are not words that describe how significant this event was in the course of history in the nineteenth century.

Rudolf’s father had always been known for his coldness and his many affairs, and his mother, Elizabeth, for her exquisite beauty (and vanity) and frequent absence from the Emperor’s side.  The Crown Prince was reared primarily by his grandmother, and he became known for his eccentricities and his ”inconveniently liberal politics.”

Rudolf, a nervous and sensitive fellow whose liberal and anticlerical views resembled those of his mother and were antithetical to those of his conservative father, had been excluded from the business of governing by the forbidding and disapproving Emperor.  On top of that, the Crown Prince was miserably unhappy in the marriage that had been arranged for him, and as a result of these and other related factors in his life “fell into despondency.”

The Prince was long known for his womanizing, both before and during his marriage, and at some point, had picked up a nasty venereal disease (most likely syphilis) that he had passed on to his wife, rendering her sterile and leaving the couple incapable of providing a male heir to the throne.  There was a daughter, Elizabeth, from the marriage, before this happened, but the Princess was, of course, not able to inherit the crown.  In a vain attempt to treat his medical condition, Rudolf turned to morphine, and his need for the drug eventually became more and more pronounced, adding to his mental instability.

All these factors seem to point away from the great love that looked to have inspired this extraordinary act, and point to a despondent, drug-addled young man, unhappily married, dealing with an incurable disease and a father with whom he constantly fought about politics and his future as heir, who convinced a lovesick young girl to enter into this pact with him.

Yet another fact that came to light points away from the great, doomed love affair it is reputed to have been:  the night before the murder/suicide at Mayerling, Rudolf had been with another of his mistresses, Mitzi Caspar, a Viennese prostitute, with whom he had attempted to arrange the same murder/suicide pact, which she refused.  Ms. Caspar attempted to report the incident to the Viennese police, who ignored the warning.

An ultimate historical irony is that the Empress Elizabeth, the Crown Prince’s beloved mother, was murdered by an assassin some years later, stabbed in the heart by a knife-wielding Italian anarchist.  It was said that her death was particularly agonizing, having taken many hours to occur due to her very tight leather corset, into which she had been sewn, as was her custom.

Yet another historical irony became known when the body of the Baroness Vetsera was exhumed almost a century later it was found that there were no bullets or entry of such found in or on her body.  This led many to believe that poison was the actual method of death, whether administered to one or both, but there is no way for the facts of this to be finally determined.

Whether the tragedy of Crown Prince Rudolf and the Baroness Mary at Mayerling was due to a doomed love affair, or mental instability due to despondency, or murder, may never be known.

It does seem that transcendental love is in the air, however, at least in the American Presidential race of 2016.  Donald and Melania, Ted and Heidi, Hillary and Bill – given their frequent and passionate defenses of each other’s honor and reputation in the national media, it seems that one great love rivals the other.

Well, maybe not so much – Donald has already blithely stated that the marriage between him and his third wife, Melania, will be over sooner rather than later; Ted is supposedly being outed for having five simultaneous affairs while being married to his current wife, and Bill and Hillary, well, there are no words extreme enough to describe the horror of that relationship.

Antony and Cleopatra they’re not.

For whatever reason, the events of January 30, 1889, at Mayerling changed the world.  This occurrence, along with the results of this event, proved that the greatest of civilizations, no matter how worthy they are, and perpetuated they should be, can dissolve and die, and do so for a myriad of reasons, some seemingly quite trivial.  Sometimes they can disappear for reasons of a great love, sometimes because of neglect, and sometimes, as we see in the case of our current Marxist president and his intended successors, because of contempt for the reasons that made our particular nation great to begin with.

Somehow, I don’t see the ‘great love’ being demonstrated by our prospective leaders today to be the justification for our destruction.


Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects.. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.

Susan Smith