Elizabeth von Habsburg (1883–1963)

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Elizabeth von Habsburg (1883–1963)

Austrian aristocrat, orphaned by the suicide of her father Crown Prince Rudolf, who displayed a spirit of intellectual independence by joining the Social Democratic Party and becoming renowned as the "Red Archduchess." Name variations: Archduchess Elisabeth Marie; Elisabeth Marie von Habsburg; Erzsi; the Red Archduchess. Born Elizabeth Marie von Habs-burg in Laxenburg near Vienna, on September 2, 1883; died in Vienna on March 16, 1963; daughter of Crown Prince Rudolph or Rudolf (1858–1889) of Austria-Hungary and Stephanie of Belgium (1864–1945); married Otto zu Windischgraetz also known as Otto Windisch-Graetz, prince of Windischgrätz, on January 23, 1902; married Leopold Petznek (1881–1956, a militant Marxist leader and president of the Parliament of Lower Austria); children: Ernst Ferdinand; Franz Joseph; Rudolf; Stefanie.

Born in 1883 into the imperial family of Austria-Hungary, Elizabeth von Habsburg was the daughter of a Belgian mother and Austrian father whose marriage was emotionally dead. She was baptized Elizabeth in honor of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231) as well as her beautiful grandmother, Elizabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898), who was known as Empress Sisi. At the age of five, Elizabeth von Habs-burg became an orphan when her father, the highly intelligent but emotionally unstable Crown Prince Rudolf took his own life and that of his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera , in a suicide pact in January 1889. Never close to her mother Stephanie of Belgium , young Elizabeth early showed signs of the same intellectual independence that had often made life difficult for her father, who yearned to re-form the decrepit monarchy of his reactionary father, Emperor Franz Joseph (or Francis Joseph). Rudolf had engaged in secret journalistic assignments for Austria's leading liberal newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse. Many of Rudolf's friends were progressive Jewish intellectuals, and this fact, as well as his critical attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church, the aristocracy, and Pan-Nationalist extremists, made his name anathema in anti-Semitic, reactionary and racist circles. Rudolf's only child, who would be known throughout her life as "Erzsi" (the Hungarian diminutive for Elizabeth), also developed into a "Royal Rebel."

Although loved and pampered by her grandfather Franz Joseph, the emperor of Austria-Hungary, Elizabeth rejected the socially rigid, conservative values of his ancient clan. Instead, in January 1902, "Erzsi" became a Court rebel by marrying Prince Otto Windisch-Graetz, a man regarded in Court circles as being considerably beneath her in social rank. Although it

produced four children, the marriage turned out to be a disaster, with both partners engaging in numerous affairs that soon became the talk of Viennese society. Although Elizabeth longed for a divorce, this was impossible because of her aristocratic status. When she legally became a commoner with the demise of the Habsburg monarchy in November 1918, she could then file for divorce from Windisch-Graetz. Bureaucratic delays and a bitterly contested struggle with her husband over custody of their children, however, resulted in sensationalistic press coverage of domestic animosities that included attempts to kidnap the children and several desperate calls for police intervention. The divorce would not become final until 1924.

During her extended battles with her husband, Elizabeth found strong support from the Social Democratic Party, which had long advocated women's rights, including the right to divorce and to retain custody of their children. On one dramatic occasion, Elizabeth von Habsburg, aristocrat and child of privilege, found herself receiving protection from a contingent of ordinary workers who arrived at her palace to shield her from toughs hired by her husband. Now moving more and more in Viennese Social Democratic circles, she met and soon fell in love with one of the leaders of "Red Vienna," Leopold Petznek, a militant Marxist for whom politics and struggle was simply part of daily life. A schoolteacher of working class origins, Petznek was one of the best-known personalities in the Republican Protective League (Republikanischer Schutzbund), a highly trained formation of workers who provided security for Social Democratic meetings and met the challenge of armed Nazis and Fascists on Vienna's streets and neighborhoods. Highly respected by Vienna's workers, Leopold Petznek served for many years in the Parliament of Lower Austria and was elected its president in 1927.

Despite having grown up in a radically different world, Elizabeth von Habsburg was thrilled by the energy and idealism of Vienna's organized working class, and she chose to become a card-carrying member of the Social Democratic Party. As one of the very few ex-aristocrats in the Marxist movement that governed Vienna from 1920 through 1934, Elizabeth would always be the center of attention at party meetings and rallies, which she attended faithfully until the end of her long life. She also marched in May Day celebrations, adding a touch of class to the thousands of her militantly class-conscious colleagues who turned out for the hallowed proletarian holiday.

Austria became a Fascist dictatorship in 1934, and Elizabeth von Habsburg's beloved Vienna was destroyed. The Anschluss which absorbed Austria into the Third Reich in March 1938 was another profound blow to her and to her companion Leopold Petznek, who served five months in prison in 1934 because of his political militancy. No longer young, both Elizabeth and Leopold survived the Nazi occupation and the war years (Petznek was briefly incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945). Until they finally moved to a family castle after the war, they lived for many years in an extremely modest apartment. In 1948, their relationship was formalized by marriage. As an anti-Nazi veteran, Petznek was chosen to serve in several important posts after 1945 (he retired as president of the Highest Court of Audits) and died in 1956. After the death of her beloved husband, Elizabeth von Habsburg increasingly withdrew into seclusion, at least in part because of a severe case of gout that now confined her to a wheelchair. But the older generation of Viennese continued to remember her as the strong-willed daughter of Crown Prince Rudolf, as a woman who had been able to fashion a life uniquely her own. Elizabeth von Habsburg died in Vienna on March 16, 1963, and is buried in Vienna's Hütteldorf cemetery.


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Salvendy, John T. Royal Rebel: A Psychological Portrait of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

Weissensteiner, Friedrich. Die rote Erzherzogin: Das ungewöhnliche Leben der Tochter des Kronprinzen Rudolf. Vienna: Österreichischer Bundesverlag, 1984.

related media:

"The Hapsburgs: A European Family History" (4 videocassettes), Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1998.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Elizabeth von Habsburg (1883–1963)