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Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria

Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (21 August 1858 - 30 January 1889) was the son and heir of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and Elisabeth of Austria. His death, apparently through suicide, along with that of his mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera at Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889 made international headlines, fueled international conspiracy rumours and ultimately may have sealed the longterm fate of the Habsburg monarchy.

The Mayerling 'Suicide Pact'

In contrast with his deeply conservative and reactionary father, Crown Prince Rudolf held distinctively liberal views that were closer to those of his mother. Nevertheless his relationship with her was strained and contained little warmth. In 1881 as Crown Prince, he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium. However there was little affection in what was in effect an arranged royal marriage, which produced one daughter. By the late 1880s he began a relationship with Baroness Marie Vetsera. According to official reports, their double-suicide was a result of the demand of Emperor Franz Josef that the couple cease their relationship. According to those reports, the Crown Prince as part of a suicide pact shot his mistress in the head before shooting himself.

Suicide or Murder?

Many people however doubted the truthfulness of the report. Empress Zita, the widow of the last Austrian Emperor Karl (r: 1916-1918) before her death in 1989 repeated the claim that the young couple had been murdered as part of a conspiracy to silence the young prince after he had refused to take part in a French plot to depose his pro-German conservative father and assume the control as a pro-French liberal Austrian emperor. Empress Zita's claims, however widely rumoured, were not given much credence during her lifetime.

In December 1992 the remains of Baroness Vetsera were stolen from the cemetery at Heiligenkreuz. When the missing remains were tracked down, the police, to ensure they were the correct remains, asked the Viennese Medical Institute to examine them. While they did confirm that they were the correct remains, the institution noted how the skull contained no evidence whatsoever of a bullet hole, the supposed means by which Vetsera had been killed by the Crown Prince. The evidence instead suggested she may have been killed by a series of violent blows to the head. Separately, evidence came to light in the form of a report on the remains of the Crown Prince, made at the time of the double death. His body showed evidence of a major violent struggle. A report at the time had also noted that all six bullets had been fired from the gun, which it was revealed did not belong to the Crown Prince.

The official state report at the deaths claimed that the Crown Prince shot Vetsera before shooting himself with his own gun. It made no mention of the facts subsequently revealed, leading to a conclusion that for some reason, a cover-up of the actual manner of the deaths had taken place. It is unlikely ever to be clarified as to what really happened. Two theories have been postulated. That the couple rowed and had a violent struggle and that the Crown Prince murdered his lover by battering her before shooting himself; in other words, a clear case of murder rather than the suggested double suicide. However that theory fails to explain the ability of the Prince to fire the gun six times as he killed himself, or indeed where the gun came from, given that it was not his gun. The other theory is that some third party attacked both, battered Vetsera to death and shot the Crown Prince. The latter theory does bare some resemblance to the theory postulated for eighty years by Empress Zita, who as Crown Princess from 1914 to 1916 had been a confidante of Rudolf's father, Emperor Franz Josef, and so may have heard his theories, and those of other members of the Austro-Hungarian court, as to the manner of the death of Crown Prince Rudolf.

Impact of the Crown Prince's death

Following the death of the Emperor's only son, the marriage of Franz Josef and Elisabeth collapsed completely, with the Empress spending much of her time abroad, particularly in England and Ireland where she loved to hunt. The heir presumptive to the Austrian and Hugarian thrones became first Archduke Karl-Ludwig, brother of the Emperor. After Karl-Ludwig's death, his oldest son, the reactionary Franz-Ferdinand became heir presumptive. His assassination in 1914 triggered off a chain of events that produced World War I. Had Rudolf lived, it is possible that Emperor Franz-Josef would have abdicated as had his father, passing the thrones to an emperor who was much more liberal in outlook and opposed to Austria's military alliance with Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany that played such a part in triggering the First World War.

Instead however the throne ultimately went to Franz-Josef's grand-nephew, Karl, who in 1916 became the last Austrian emperor as Emperor Karl, and who, though he tried, was unable to stop the war and to save the Habsburg monarchy from final collapse.

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