Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs, Greg King and Penny Wilson, St Martin’s Press, 273 pages

At approximately ten past six on the snowy morning of January 30, 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary emerged from his bedroom in the remote hunting lodge at Mayerling, deep in the Vienna Woods. Dressed in his usual hunting clothes, the 30-year-old prince entered the small anteroom, closing the bedroom door behind him. He was met by his valet, Loschek, who was given meticulous instructions to prepare the horse and carriages needed for the day’s hunt. The prince made it clear, though, that he was not to be disturbed until half past seven and that under no circumstances was anybody to come near his room.

Within a couple of minutes two gunshots were fired.

Adhering to his instructions, Loschek refused to approach the room for 90 minutes. But when he finally did, the valet needed an axe and blade to chop through the bolted door.

Entering the room, Loschek saw Baroness Mary Vetsera, Prince Rudolf’s mistress, lying slumped on the right side of the bed. A single bullet had entered the 17-year-old’s left temple, traversing her skull at roughly a 33-degree downward trajectory, passing from the upper left temple to the brain. Not far away lay Rudolf, also dead.

The imperial physician, Dr. Hermann Widerhofer, arrived from Vienna a little after midday to inspect the bloodbath: “I hope I may never see such a sight again,” he remarked. “There was blood everywhere. It stained the pillows, it bespattered the walls and it had flowed in a sluggish stream from the bed to the floor [making] a horrible pool.”

Mary was in full rigor mortis, while Rudolf was only in the primary stages. It appeared he shot his lover approximately six hours before he turned the gun on himself, meaning the baroness already was dead when Rudolf issued his instructions to Loschek. Rudolf’s head was so badly damaged that a mortician spent many hours reconstructing the prince’s head and face with wax and paint. He completed the job just in time for the royal funeral in Vienna, which was attended by more than 100,000 people.

The prince and his mistress both left suicide notes. Mary’s farewell words were addressed to her mother, Helene Vetsera, no stranger herself to promiscuous love affairs in high Viennese society. “Dear Mother!” the note began. “Forgive me for what I have done; I could not resist in love. In agreement with [Rudolf] I wish to be buried by his side in the cemetery at Alland. I am happier in death than in life. Your Mary.” Rudolf wrote four separate farewell notes, including one to his valet, the last man to see him alive: “Dear Loschek,” he wrote: “Fetch a priest and have [Mary and me] buried together in a grave at Heiligenkreuz.”

The lovers’ final wishes—romantic and Shakespearean, as they appeared in prose—were blithely ignored by Emperor Franz Josef I and his wife, Empress Elisabeth, who viewed their son’s final act as a great source of shame. Maintaining some semblance of dignity became their central concern. Publicly, of course, the emperor grieved for his son. Privately, he may have been relieved in some ways, as Rudolf’s erratic behavior had become a source of embarrassment at court. As heir to the Habsburg throne, the 30-year-old prince once had held great promise, hope, and initiative. But now, with so much controversy and potential criminality connected to the Mayerling tragedy, a cover up by the Habsburg family was quickly set in motion.

The autopsy report from Mayerling remains missing to this day. What little is known of its findings comes from excerpts released by the imperial court three days after the deaths, but given their obvious bias the excerpts can hardly be seen as reliable evidence. It was noted, for instance, that the prince ended his own life in a “state of mental derangement.” The Habsburgs initially sought to cover up the suicide as a heart attack. But such lies and changing narratives raised prospects that the prince could be denied a Catholic burial. Thus suicide was reluctantly declared as the cause of death, along with revelations of an unsound mind. Under strict Catholic doctrine, suicide under normal circumstances was considered a terrible sin.

But that left the need to keep the murder of the prince’s mistress, and the affair itself, a secret. Remarkably, there was no mention in any public statements at the time about Mary Vetsera. Based on instructions from the imperial court, she was buried in secret in an unmarked grave. Indeed, within hours of Mary’s death, the Habsburgs had instructed her mother, Helene Vetsera, to leave Vienna, lest she blow the lid on the coverup. On the day of her daughter’s funeral, Helene Vetsera complained that she had been “treated like a criminal.” A short obituary, documenting Mary’s death, was published in a provincial Austrian newspaper by Helene Vetsera. Written by the Habsburgs, it reported falsely that Mary had died while travelling to Venice.

She had been the mistress of Prince Rudolf for almost a year and had become a regular feature of gossip in the salons and coffee houses of Vienna, even gaining a reputation as a promiscuous young social climber with a penchant for connecting with red-blooded high rollers from the Austrian aristocracy. The veil of secrecy that followed Mary’s death was so clinical, however, that her name would not appear in any Viennese newspaper for 29 years, until the curtain finally fell on the Habsburg monarchy in 1918.

More than a century later, many mysteries still surround that gruesome episode. What set of events led Rudolf and his mistress to meet such a cataclysmic end? Was it a suicide pact of lovers…or a cold-blooded murder…or did something far more disturbing take place inside that bedroom in 1889? Finding answers, at today’s remove, is rendered all the more difficult by the gossip, rumor, conspiracy theorizing, hearsay, and loaded emotion that emerged in the wake of those bloody events.

Still, Greg King and Penny Wilson, two esteemed authors on European imperial history, doggedly pursue answers to such questions. Their rigorously researched Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and The End of the Habsburgs makes excellent use of numerous interviews with members of the Habsburg family as well as recently released archival material on the Habsburg dynasty in Vienna. The analysis and commentary are measured and insightful. As both authors explain, sentimental romanticism is so strong today in modern Austria that many still refuse to accept that Rudolf shot himself or that he killed Mary Vetsera.

Unsurprisingly, many explanatory conspiracy theories have surfaced over the decades, including: the prince faked his own death and moved to the United States; his suicide letters were cynical forgeries; he was murdered for political reasons. Some have pointed a finger at Berlin as originator of some of this speculation. German Chancellor Otto von Bismark, it is noted, always publicly expressed his disdain for the idea of Rudolf eventually ascending to the Habsburg throne.

But there is also what is known as the Hungarian conspiracy. Although Rudolf had once insisted that the country must forever remain part of the Habsburg empire, his views softened over time.

And King and Wilson give a great deal of evidence here to suggest that Rudolf was secretly pledging to support a rebellion that would give him the Hungarian crown. In essence, a coup against his own father for the glory of the Hungarian throne.

Moreover, both authors claim that any of Rudolf’s papers related to his Hungarian plans mysteriously vanished from the Habsburg archives.

This Hungarian conspiracy lays out the claim that Franz Josef learned of his son’s plot in late January 1889, where he then confided in his uncle Archduke Albrecht, who planned to confront Rudolf at a family dinner. But when Rudolf failed to show up, and went to Mayerling instead—so the story theory goes—a small group of trusted soldiers were dispatched to arrest Rudolf: a scuffle broke out killing Rudolf and Mary in the process.  

King and Wilson impressively adhere to the facts at hand and make their judgments based on the limited available evidence. That evidence suggests, they write, that only two people were responsible for the Mayerling events: Rudolf and Mary. Yet exactly what took place behind the locked bedroom door can never truly be known. There is no question, however, that Rudolf’s mental state deteriorated progressively over the last two years of his life. The authors believe he probably suffered from what modern psychologists call bipolar disorder.

But Rudolf also felt disconnected and isolated from his family and friends during this period. He and Franz Josef were worlds apart in their politics and also in temperament. The reactionary emperor ruled his kingdom with a firm hand, believing that God had put him on the throne to preside over his subjects with paternal authority. The bureaucratic emperor had little time for books, ideas, or even people as he went about the drudgery of tending to the papers on his desk, seldom making distinctions on what was crucially important and what was merely routine.

The rebellious son turned his back on the father’s values and rejected anything that smacked of conservatism. He welcomed robust change, both for his father’s vast empire and for Europe at large. Given his rebellious nature, Rudolf carelessly began sharing sensitive political and diplomatic information publicly, which undermined his father’s trust. Although heir to one of Europe’s oldest royal dynasties, Rudolf was forbidden to publicly express any kind of intellectual or political ideals. Humiliated and condemned to the role of passive onlooker at court, the frustrated prince took to a life of decadent pleasure-seeking involving women, booze, and drugs.

Even by the liberal sexual mores of the Viennese aristocracy at the time, Rudolf’s sexual appetites were considered excessive. Despite his marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, the prince openly pursued prostitutes and flights of drunkenness. It seems he contracted gonorrhoea and passed it on to his wife. Interestingly, the same fate befell Rudolf’s mother, Elizabeth, who apparently contracted the dreaded sexual disease from Franz Josef a generation before.

The close correlations between the prince’s unstable mental state and the symptoms of gonorrhoea—infected eyes, joint pains, insomnia, and a continual sense of nervous restlessness—are difficult to overlook. In fact, it has been suggested that the prince suffered from syphilis, a more deadly disease that, if not treated, can lead to brain deterioration. Indeed, some autopsy snippets leaked to the press shortly after the prince’s death hinted at some unnamed abnormality in Rudolf’s brain. In any event, attempting to numb his physical and mental ailments, the prince increasingly dabbled with drugs such as cocaine, morphine, and opium.

He also began to talk openly, usually after copious amounts of brandy and champagne, about death and suicide.

His own wife even wrote that Rudolf “suffered more and more from nervous unrest and from violent temper, culminating in what was tantamount to complete mental decay.” Their relationship deteriorated, with Rudolf even threatening to shoot the crown princess and then turn the gun on himself.

“I no longer find it within me to worry about anything at all,” Rudolf confided to Latour von Thurmberg in the October before his death. To another confidante he wrote, “The pursuit of high ideals has died within me.”


The prince was not alone among royal family members in suffering mental disorders. Numerous relatives on both sides of the prince’s family showed signs of insanity and mental illness. And the authors suggest that this dark tendency in the prince towards anxiety and depression may have been hereditary, stemming from some kind of genetic dysfunction brought on by generations of incestuous marriages of first cousins. Franz Ferdinand, who became archduke after Rudolf’s death, once remarked of his extended royal family that “man and wife are always related to each other twenty times over [and] that the result is that half of the children are idiots or epileptics.”

As the new heir to the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand looked ahead to ruling over a polyglot empire of disparate lands artificially united beneath the yellow and black imperial banner that had ruled Europe’s preeminent Catholic dynasty since the 13th century. In the summer of 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie visited Sarajevo, in Bosnia, then rent by powerful crosscurrents of ethnic and sectarian animosity. Twenty-six years earlier, Rudolf and Stephanie had visited the Bosnian city amid worries of possible assassination. Nothing happened. But the successor archduke and his wife would not be so lucky.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was once called an unexpected gift from Mars to the Viennese war party. Austria-Hungary accused the Serbian government of involvement in the assassination and issued an ultimatum to Serbia in late July 1914 that was intended to strip the Balkan nation of much of its sovereignty. When Serbia complied nonetheless because of fears of its fate in any resulting war, Vienna upped the ante and war became inevitable, with the entire balance of power throughout Europe now threatened. The localized Balkan conflict quickly turned into a global conflagration. By the time the Great War ended four years later, the Tsarist, Habsburg, Ottoman, and German empires had all collapsed, and their crowned heads were all gone. The European continent and the world would never be the same.

It is probably idle to speculate on how things might have turned out differently had Crown Prince Rudolf not ended his life that frigid winter morning in 1889, just 25 years before the Great War commenced. It’s entirely possible that, given Rudolf’s physical and psychological impairments, the history of Austria-Hungary and of Europe might have moved in even more nasty and distasteful directions. One needn’t engage in any counterfactual history, though, to find satisfaction in this very human story, rendered in stark yet sensitive prose in this volume, that serves as a kind of table setting for Europe’s final game of thrones.  

JP O’ Malley is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. He has written for a number of newspapers and publications around the globe, including the Irish Times, the Sunday Independent, the Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, the Chicago Tribune, and numerous others.