Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria

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Rudolf, crown prince of Austria, was born 21 August 1858 in Vienna and died 30 January 1889 in Mayerling. Rudolf was the only son of Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth (originally of Bavaria). During his lifetime regarded as either the liberal hope of the Habsburgs, or as a wayward radical and dissolute, Rudolf is best known to posterity as the central figure of the legendary murder-suicide of Mayerling.

Due to his mother's influence, Rudolf received a liberal education from an array of highly respected liberal academics. This upbringing influenced Rudolf to be much more progressive in his thinking than his father. Relations between the emperor and his heir were strained from early on, with Francis Joseph denying Rudolf's wish when a teenager for a higher education in science. Francis Joseph insisted that Rudolf enter the military, for which Rudolf's sensitive personality and delicate constitution were not well suited. Rudolf was in his own way very loyal to his father, and tried his best, at least in his public life, to live and work within the limits set for him. These included marriage to the Belgian princess Stephanie in 1881 and pursuit of his career in the military, where in 1888 he was appointed general inspector of the infantry. This was, however, a title with little actual power, and the emperor in practice excluded his son from any major position of influence.

Rudolf therefore found ways to operate outside these public limits and spent much of his life working for his progressive goals, largely in secret, against the policies of his father's government. One very public form of engagement was his large-scale publishing project, Österreich-Ungarn in Wort und Bild (Austria-Hungary in words and pictures). Started in 1884, this illustrated guide-cum-encyclopedia of the monarchy, eventually twenty-four volumes, was intended to unite the public in a sense of the rich diversity of the shared realm. This reflected Rudolf's wish to create a liberal version of the old Habsburg "Austrian idea," in which the nationalities of the empire would live together in progressive harmony with each other, united by a supranational and liberal monarch (himself).

Rudolf 's political aim was to create a liberal coalition that spanned the Monarchy's national fault lines. He shared this goal with his ideological ally and friend, the Jewish editor of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, Moritz Szeps, with whom he collaborated under strict secrecy from 1881 onward. Rudolf 's supranational liberalism made him popular with many of Austria's Jews, and, although he was critical of their nationalistic Magyarizing policies, Rudolf 's approach also made him an ally of the Magyar liberal leadership. Political trends, at home and abroad, were not, however, moving in Rudolf 's direction. The conservative, federalizing policies of the Taaffe government were counter to Rudolf 's plans, and the rise of ethno-nationalism, also among Austrian Germans, prevented the emergence of a transnational liberal alliance; the associated rise of anti-Semitism also led to Rudolf being seen as a "servant of the Jews" because of his many Jewish friends.

Abroad, the death of his relative and ally, Louis II of Bavaria in 1886, followed by the death in 1888 of the Prussian king Frederick III, a liberal, and the succession of William II, whom Rudolf both detested and feared as a reactionary, left Rudolf's hopes for a band of progressive, liberal monarchs in central Europe in tatters. His efforts to strengthen Austria-Hungary's ties with liberal France also proved vain. Instead, as an open letter to his father in 1888, under the pseudonym Julius Felix, illustrates, he feared the results of the Dual Alliance with Prussia, warning Francis Joseph about involvement in Bosnia, which he presciently described as "one foot in the grave."

With all of his hopes seemingly dashed, Rudolf became deeply depressed, and he became ever more dissolute. Suffering from gonorrhea picked up from one of his many sexual liaisons, Rudolf retreated into a world of alcohol, drugs, and sex, and from autumn 1888 was clearly thinking of suicide, admittedly with the "romantic" twist that he should die together with a lover. It appears that Baroness Mary Vetsera agreed to his plan, and on 30 January at Mayerling, Rudolf shot first Vetsera and then himself. The subsequent attempts at a cover-up by the Habsburgs led to various conspiracy theories, feeding the Mayerling legend. One irony of Rudolf's death was that Francis Joseph's love for his son and the dignity of the Habsburgs overcame his strict Catholic faith, so that he had Rudolf declared insane at the time of his suicide, hence allowing the suicide-murderer to be buried in the family crypt in the Church of the Capuchins.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Francis Joseph.


Beller, Steven. Francis Joseph. London and New York, 1996.

Hamann, Brigitte. Rudolf: Kronprinz und Rebell. Vienna and Munich, 1978.

Kronprinz Rudolf. Majestät, ich warne Sie: Geheime und private Schriften. Edited by Brigitte Hamann. Vienna, 1979.

Steven Beller