In Europe, this was the season of Sisi. In an odd coincidence, a number of major media projects focusing on Elizabeth, Empress of Austria debuted within months of one another on the Continent, including two television series, a movie, and (in the coming weeks) a novel. Over on this side of the Atlantic, only one has seen widespread distribution, Netflix’s German biographical series The Empress, perhaps the loosest and most upbeat of the set. When I saw this listed on Netflix, I was rather intrigued; regular readers will recall that Habsburg history is one of my great interests, and rarely does it receive the kind of lush dramatic treatment that Netflix usually reserves for British royalty. Continued in my Substack newsletter.
Before we begin, be sure to read this recent academic essay exploring the History Channel as a vector for conspiracy theories and masculinity panic. I’m cited in it, and, well, we all know that this mix of conspiracy culture, toxic masculinity, etc. feeds directly in to the conspiracy culture we are seeing all around us, notably among the Capitol Hill insurrectionists, whose demographics are a close mirror of the History Channel’s own target audience.
Most readers are aware that I don’t have a terribly high opinion of Ashley Cowie’s work. He is, after all, a guy who made all manner of bizarre claims about secret maps and codes in Rosslyn Chapel. This week, he published a half-assed, pseudo-conspiratorial article in Ancient Origins claiming, with more than a little absurdity, that the pretender to the Napoleonic imperial throne and a minor descendant of the Habsburg emperors married in some sort of mystical attempt to revive the power of the Bonapartist dynasty. Many European tabloids have noted the historical echoes between the union of Jean-Christophe Napoleon Bonaparte, 32, and Countess Olympia von und zu Arco-Zinnerberg, 31, and Napoleon I’s politically motivated marriage to the Archduchess Marie Louise. But to badly paraphrase what Marx once said of another Napoleon, Ashley Cowie has repeated history and made it a farce.
Longtime ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken has a new book out this week called The Gods Never Left Us. However, it is being published by New Page Books, which has banned me from receiving review copies, so I am not able to review the book yet. I would be willing to bet, however, that I could completely make up a review based on von Däniken’s past work and no one would ever notice the difference. At the rate he churns them out, there can’t really be that much original material in any given book. This is especially likely since his next new book, Impossible Truths, is due out in January. The only thing special about The Gods Never Left Us is that it is being marketed as a direct sequel to Chariots of the Gods. And here, silly me, I thought his previous three dozen books on the same theme were sequels. The book description is unintentionally hilarious: “Can’t they leave us alone? And what makes it so difficult for us to acknowledge the existence of these extraterrestrials? That is what this book deals with.” Yes, why can’t they seem to leave poor old von Däniken alone? After all, he’s only gotten 34 volumes out of the “mystery.”
When I reviewed the new book Twilight of Empire by Greg King and Penny Wilson, about the suicide of Austria’s Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889, I mentioned that the conspiracy they suggest that Rudolf endorsed to bifurcate the Austro-Hungarian Empire and seize control of Hungary for himself would have required a much longer discussion than I gave it in my review to do the claim justice. While I don’t have any intention of writing a dissertation on it, I thought that it might be a good idea to take a look at the evidence for the conspiracy to see how it developed from a strange and biased source.
Review of "Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs" by Greg King and Penny Wilson
TWILIGHT OF EMPIRE: THE TRAGEDY AT MAYERLING AND THE END OF THE HABSBURGS
Greg King and Penny Wilson | 352 pages | St. Martin’s Press | 2017 | ISBN: 9781250083029 | $27.99
On a cold winter’s night at the end of January 1889, the heir to Europe’s most illustrious throne murdered his teenaged mistress, sat for hours with her naked corpse, and then put a bullet through his own head. The shock caused by the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was so great that nearly 130 years later, many still cannot believe that Rudolf would take his own life, despite his repeated and professed desire to do so. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs, the new book by Greg King and Penny Wilson set to be released on November 14, explores Rudolf’s actions at his hunting lodge of Mayerling and reconstructs the end of the young prince’s tragic life. However, the authors ultimately exhume Rudolf’s corpse in a literary reenactment of the infamous Cadaver Synod, in which Pope Stephen VII propped up the rotten bulk of Pope Formosus’s dead body for a parody of a trial. They spin a conspiracy that is logically inconsistent, and driven more by a visceral dislike of Rudolf than a clear-eyed evaluation of facts.
A little while back, I wrote about the so-called “Exposure at Vienna,” when in 1884 Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria developed a scheme to expose the American medium Harry Bastian as a fraud. I wrote about that because I had learned of the upcoming release of Greg King and Penny Wilson’s new book Twilight of Empire, about Rudolf’s suicide. On a whim, I wrote to St. Martin’s Press, the publisher of the book, and they kindly provided me with an advance copy, which I am now reading. My initial glance at the book was a bit disappointing in that the authors summarized Rudolf’s entire life in a few pages before moving on to the denouement, and they seem, from what I have read in the first half of the book, to have painted him as a mostly unmitigated villain. The truth is that his life was closer to a supervillain’s origin story, a brilliant potential undone by tragic flaws and the indifference of the world around him, until the final, mad, murderous end. Imagine blue skies gradually filling with storm clouds.
As I mentioned not long ago, the history of the Habsburg Empire is of particular interest to me, though I rarely have the opportunity to discuss it here. I learned the other day that a new book is going to be released last month on the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, who committed suicide after murdering his teenage lover on a hunting trip in January of 1889. The reasons for his death have never been satisfactorily explained, and conspiracy theories surround the events at the hunting lodge of Mayerling. What cannot be denied, however, is that Rudolf’s death set in motion events that culminated in the outbreak of the First World War, because his absence left a weakness at the center of the monarchy and deprived it of its most important liberal voice.
So, you will remember Jason Reza Jorjani, the so-called alt-right “intellectual” who loudly pretended not to support Nazism. I read his book, Prometheus and Atlas, and identified not just fringe history themes (including ancient astronaut claims) but an underlying pattern of Nazi and Nazi-adjacent material in it. Now, the New York Times reports on a Swedish student’s encounter with Jorjani when he thought no one was looking. The Swedish student went undercover as a member of the alt-right and caught Jorjani making exactly the kind of statements that I knew that Nazi-loving weasel would make as soon as he thought that he was speaking only to a sympathetic ear:
As the Trump campaign reeled from the videotape of Trump appearing to brag about being able to commit sexual assault without consequence, Wikileaks attempted to staunch the bleeding by releasing emails from Clinton advisor John Podesta, which U.S. officials believe were hacked on orders from the Russian government as part of an effort to influence the American election. Included in those emails (whose authenticity is likely but not yet confirmed as of this writing) is one from last year in which onetime Apollo astronaut and Ancient Aliens pundit Edgar Mitchell warned Podesta, a UFO enthusiast, about what the space aliens, or Extraterrestrial Intelligences, as he called them, plan to do:
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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