Despite the great wealth and opulent lifestyle of the Hapsburg royal family as evidenced by the palaces they have left behind for modern tourists to visit and wonder at, they were certainly a family beset by tragedies that would have broken most families. Perhaps if you make arranged marriages with foreign royalty, you might become desensitised about what happens to your children contracted as consorts to foreign allies. However, Empress Maria Theresa must have been very troubled when she received the news that one of her daughters, Marie Antoinette, had lost her head to the revolutionaries in France. Her son, Emperor Joseph II was never particularly concerned at the loss of his sister. Franz Joseph I, one of the longest reigning monarchs in European history, lived much of his life on the world stage and his personal life probably didn’t feature too much in world diplomacy. He may have been on a holiday from his Emperor’s job and suffering from the usual declines of old age in 1914 but he is remembered by History for declaring war on Serbia in 1914 and thus triggering the first great cataclysm of the twentieth century. However, his private life was not just all regal pomp and ceremony; his family life brought with it significant examples of personal tragedy.
The first tragedy that should be mentioned would be the fate of his younger brother Maximillian. I first heard the story when we passed a large grandiose church in Vienna (the Votive Church) that had been organised by Maximillian to thank God that Franz Joseph hadn’t been killed in an assassination attempt in 1859. Five years later, Maximillian became an Emperor himself when he was invited by the French ruler, Napoleon III, to establish a new Mexican Monarchy; unfortunately, the reign only lasted two years before he ended up in front of a Mexican firing squad.
As an aside, it is a curious question to ask how Max became an Emperor in Mexico in the first place. After all he was a member of a royal family thousands of miles away from the new world of Mexico. It was probably due to the cultural and pseudo-scientific view held by society at the time about the nature of ‘blue blood’. Without his genealogy Maximillian wouldn’t have got any Emperor invitations. With the huge increase in ‘new’ countries needing to develop systems of government after the revolutions of the 19th Century that required significantly extra ‘Heads of State’, there was a new demand for royal folk of good blood to take on these jobs. In order to find the appropriate candidates for such important jobs, you basically had to shop around the royal breeding programmes that monarchs like Queen Victoria ran, and in the previous century, Maria Theresa of Austria had provided. Some examples of successful searches for appropriate candidates for new ‘King Jobs’ in the 19th century were…
- Leopold I of Belgium (1830-1861)
- Carol I of Romania (1866-1914)
- Otto of Greece (1832-1862)
When Napoleon III and the conservative political faction in Mexico decided they needed a candidate for their new monarchist government, the hunt was on.
Maximillian of Austro-Hungary was probably an outstanding applicant. His CV would have contained positives like…
- Blue Hapsburg blood;
- Experience as Commander of the Austrian Navy;
- Experience in ruling Lombardy-Venetia (1857-59)
If there was a job interview, Max probably wouldn’t have mentioned that his brother Franz Joseph had sacked him from his Lombardy-Venetia job for being too ‘liberal’! After he was offered the job and accepted it, he didn’t carry out the due diligence necessary for his future prospects as some background checks would have discovered that the job of Emperor of Mexico carried with it lethal possibilities. There was already a standing opposition army running around Mexico with support from the big neighbour, the USA (just finished with its distracting civil war). Maximillian’s job as Emperor of Mexico lasted two years and the news of his execution would have devastated Emperor Franz Joseph.
Another source of tragedy for Franz Joseph was inextricably linked to his family life after he married Elizabeth from the Bavarian House of Wittelsburg. Their marriage was a difficult one, made so by many factors such as the Emperor’s busy job of ruling a large, complex empire and his wife’s personality and character which meant she was not keen on being the traditional, conventional Empress of Austro-Hungary. The first major tragedy that probably destroyed any chance of a supportive marriage was the death of their one and only son, the heir to the throne, Rudolph. Rudolph himself appears to have been a troubled soul. He was married but also had had many affairs and supposedly had contracted syphilis as part of his busy lifestyle. On the day before his death, he had informed his parents that he wouldn’t be coming to their next big party in Vienna, he was going to his hunting lodge for the weekend. He took with him his latest teenage mistress and neither of them survived the weekend. The actual details about the deaths of the couple who died at Mayerling in 1889 are difficult to establish due to the multiple versions of events that were put out at the time; the first was that Rudolf had had a heart attack. Later news suggested that it was a double suicide or at worst a murder suicide (a gun was found present with one shot fired!) Whatever happened at the hunting lodge, it was the end of any normal semblance of married life between Franz Joseph and his celebrity wife Elizabeth (Sisi). She spent the rest of her life travelling the famous European leisure centres; she built herself a palace on Corfu, well away from the court life in Vienna.
The imperial couple lived apart for the majority of the next ten years of their lives but Franz Joseph clearly loved his wife. Whilst he knew he himself had been and still was a target for anarchist assassins, he would never have dreamed that his beloved Sisi would have been a target as well. The third great personal tragedy in Franz Joseph’s life was the tragic murder of Sisi on the waterfront of lake Geneva as she boarded a ferry for Montreux. Sisi had been staying at Geneva incognito but her potential assassin had discovered that she was in town. The Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheri had intended to target a member of the aristocracy and his first preference was the Duke of Orleans but he had left town so he settled on the Empress of Austro-Hungary as an equally appropriate target. He stalked her for three days before he stabbed her with a sharpened file as she boarded the ferry with her ‘lady in waiting’. One wonders whether the emotional impact of this third loss of a close family member in ghastly circumstances ever left Franz Joseph’s consciousness in the years leading up to 1914.
I am not sure if looking for lessons in the tragic lives of members of the last Austro-Hungarian royal family is overly relevant for us a century later living in Western democracies. Perhaps the similarities in the lives and fate of Sisi and Princess Diana a hundred years later are worth noting. Beautiful educated woman intent on personal freedom are clearly unsuited to the formal restricted lives of the aristocracy; being in the limelight, whether it be 19th century court life in Vienna or the centre of the media limelight in late 20th Century London. Whether you are Rudolf, Elizabeth or Diana Spencer, having a personal life with all the usual faults and follies of humanity, doesn’t sit well with the spotlights of both 19th Century and 20th century overly intrusive and judgemental observers.
Looking at the life of Franz Joseph of Austro-Hungary, a simple take away idea may be that being an autocratic ruler of a huge empire is a recipe for a disastrous personal life. We remember Franz Joseph not with empathy for his great personal losses, but for his inability to read the ‘tea-leaves’ of history which meant that his life-style, his social position and his political powers were a thing of the past by 1914. Like his brother-in-arms Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, he didn’t realise that his doomed brother Maximilian was more in touch with the direction that history was taking.
Franz Joseph of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany
- If…Maximilian had become Emperor of Austro-Hungary instead of his older brother and
- if…Kaiser Wilhem’s father, Frederick III, had not died from cancer of the larynx in 1888 after only 88 days as Emperor of Germany, leaving his ‘bellicose’ son to become Emperor…
perhaps World War One would have disappeared from the timeline of history and a generation of world citizens might have gone on to live productive lives rather than ‘dying like cattle’ (as Siegfried Sassoon put it) in places like the killing fields of Northern France.