The 13th Floor

Did This Mysterious Murder-Suicide Actually Lead to WWI?: The Mayerling Incident

You can’t discuss World War I without talking about the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, an act carried out in 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serbian born Yugoslav nationalist from Sarajevo. It’s the event that everyone attributes as being the start of a war that left 38 million soldiers and civilians dead, shaping events in Europe and America for decades to come.  But there was one event that predates the assassination that may in fact be the catalyst that set all of these historic events into motion- the Mayerling Incident. It is a mysterious, unsolved event that has been a source of inspiration for Central European artists for years, helping to spawn many plays, films, and television series.

Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand
Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand

Rudolf Franz Karl Joseph was the Crown Prince of Austria and the only son of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth. Therefore, he was heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1889, it was clear that Rudolf and his wife Stephanie were on the outs. It was also common knowledge that the thirty-year-old Rudolf had been shacking up with seventeen-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera for quite some time.

On January 30, 1889, Rudolf arranged to go hunting at Mayerling, the imperial hunting lodge. That morning, Rudolf’s valet, Loschek, went to his room to wake him, but received no answer. Rudolf’s hunting companion, Count Joseph Hoyos, arrived and tried to force his way into the room, finally resorting to chopping through the door with an axe to gain entry.

Inside, Loschek and Joseph found the Archduke sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed, his head forward with blood dripping from his mouth. On the bed was Mary Vetsera. Her skin was cold and blue. By the bed was a single glass. Loschek had seen strychnine poisoning and believed that that was what killed the Archduke and his lover.

The official statement was that Rudolf died of an aneurism of the heart. But those findings meant nothing to the reporters that were descending on Mayerling to find out the truth. The reporters quickly learned that Mary was present at the time of Rudolf’s death, despite the fact that her body was whisked away in the middle of the night and buried in a ceremony so secret not even Mary’s own mother was allowed to attend.

The reporters also learned of a theory circulating around the lodge that Mary was the one who poisoned the Archduke before she poisoned herself. Realizing no one was buying their story, the family amended the previous heart failure COD statement and stated that Archduke shot the baroness in a suicide pact before shooting himself. It was believed that the emperor demanded his son call off the affair with his teenage mistress. This was believed to be what drove the pair of lovers to their end.

Because the crypt was in a catholic cemetery and because people who commit murder or suicide are deemed persona non-grata, the Emperor had to do a lot of ass kissing to get his son buried in the Imperial Crypt. In order to obtain a declaration that stated that Rudolf was in a state of “mental unbalance” at the time of his death, the Emperor had Mayerling legally converted into a convent.

This event’s historical importance, as well as its political importance, also conjured up plenty of conspiracy theories. One theory is that the entire thing was a double murder staged to humiliate the Emperor as well as dispose of his politically liberal son. Because he was the Emperor’s only son, succession would revert to the Emperor’s brother, Archduke Karl Ludwig.

Ludwig’s death in 1896 passed the succession on to his own son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Franz Ferdinand would carry the title of heir presumptive up until his death on June 28, 1914 when he and his wife were killed in Sarajevothe capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Gavrilo Princip. A month after his assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This is considered to be the first action in a series of aggressions that lead to the start of the Great War.

It’s hard to say what would have happened had Rudolf been allowed to carry on with his affair and not had to resort to a suicide pact with his lover. Or was it even a murder-suicide at all and not a plan for something larger? Would a war that killed tens of millions of people been avoided? Sure, a massive arms race in Europe, accompanied by growing nationalism and imperialism may have been enough to start the war, but Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination was the spark that set the whole damn thing on fire.