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.
The story begins with the Countess Marie Larisch, Rudolf’s illegitimate cousin who helped facilitate his assignations with young women, including the girl he would die with. In 1913, 24 years after the tragedy at Mayerling, she published an account of the events in which she alleged that another dead man, whom she identified as Archduke John of Tuscany had revealed all. This man was Archduke Johann Salvator, later known as John Orth, who renounced his titles in 1890 and went off to South America, disappearing in a boating accident shortly thereafter. Being conveniently dead, attributing the wildest of claims about another dead man to him was legally safe, and a good way for Larisch to get back at the Habsburgs, whom she hated since they shut her out of Court life after Rudolf’s suicide.
Here is what she said, referring to an alleged cache of papers Johann Salvator was taking with him:
I began to cry; it was all so uncanny and mysterious. The Archduke took my hand.
Ah, yes! The evil Freemasons. Convenient bugaboos, they were linked in the minds of the aristocracy with socialism, and thus with liberalism, Rudolf’s political affiliation. The connection, though, was tenuous at best: Rudolf had studied Voltaire, a Mason, and on his eastern trip in 1881 was said to have initiated mysterious activities on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in preparation for restoring Solomon’s Temple. These activities, though, were not his doing but rather the embarrassed reaction of Ottoman officials when they saw that the Dome of the Rock had fallen into disrepair, making them look bad in front of the prince. An Ottoman official vowed to restore the Dome. The Masons tried to bring this in to the cause, but fellow Masons debunked the idea that Rudolf was restoring Solomon’s Temple in short order. The French historian Jean Berenger claims that Rudolf was initiated into Freemasonry in Hungary (it being illegal in Austria since the French Revolution, when the Habsburgs invented Freemasonic conspiracy theories to discredit the group), though he provided no evidence for this in his book The Habsburg Empire, 1700-1918 (1990). The connection probably reflects Rudolf’s opposition to anti-Semitism, since Jews were identified with Freemasons in the anti-Semitic campaigns of Georg Ritter von Schönerer, who launched a political attack on Rudolf and would go on to teach anti-Semitism to Hitler. On the other hand, rumors flew in the 1890s that the Freemasons had had Rudolf killed as part of an anti-Catholic revenge fantasy. Really, you could just roll your own conspiracy.
But anyway, Larisch had accused Rudolf of trying to usurp the crown of Hungary, and here she seems to have been exaggerating from an actual historical fact from a few years prior to Rudolf’s death. In the Habsburg tradition, the heir apparent to the throne had been elected to a (powerless) royal crown to mark his eventual succession to the imperial title. In the days of the Holy Roman Empire, a monarch would often have his son elected King of Germany to ease his transition to the imperial throne. When the Holy Roman Empire died, Francis I of Austria carried on the tradition by making his son Ferdinand King of Hungary and Croatia in 1830, during Francis’s own lifetime. Ferdinand succeeded to the empire in 1835. In the summer of 1882, Rudolf had come to believe that Franz Joseph would make Rudolf the King of Hungary in the same manner. However, his uncle, Archduke Albrecht, opposed the plan for a logical reason: If Rudolf received the Hungarian crown before the imperial one, then he would have to swear an oath to uphold Hungary’s traditional constitution, which would have limited Rudolf’s ability to restructure the monarchy into a federation as he had hoped to do. Rudolf agreed, and the plan was scrapped.
This much is documented. The 1889 Hungarian coup, which would have suffered from the same problems, lacks clear documentation.
King and Wilson spin a tale in which Rudolf conspired with Hungarian independence forces to launch a coup d’état in Hungary after Rudolf’s ally, Count Karolyi, led Hungarian nationalists in the Budapest parliament to defeat a bill sent by the monarchy to make German the language of command in the armed forces of Austria-Hungary, considered by nationalists to be an insult to Hungarian pride. The Budapest papers had reported that Rudolf was working with Karolyi and had sent him a secret letter. The authors note that as soon as the bill unexpectedly passed, Rudolf received a telegram from Karolyi, who was en route by train to meet with Rudolf but promptly returned to Budapest upon learning of Rudolf’s suicide. Rudolf had killed himself shortly after receiving Karolyi’s telegram. The authors might as well have thrown in another popular fact: Rudolf had been reading about the coup that placed Alexander I on the Russian throne, ostensibly in preparation for his first visit to Russia. His papers contain German translations he had made of excerpts from books of Russian history.
But British historian Alan Palmer, who actually read Rudolf’s papers, something that King and Wilson did not apparently do, states plainly that his reading shows that Rudolf was dumbfounded by Karolyi’s behavior, and a massive misunderstanding had occurred. Palmer writes: “Clearly, he had sought a personal meeting in order to clarify a misunderstood speech and perhaps to give warning of a mounting crisis and it was natural for an eminent magnate to return home when the kingdom was plunged into mourning. A ‘Hungarian conspiracy’, tempting the Crown Prince into treason, is a figment of the historical imagination.” Given that Palmer read the archival materials and King and Wilson did not, I would trust his judgment, though it must be said that there is no specific letter, diary, or other document that definitively settles the issue. The absence of evidence speaks louder, which is why King and Wilson must suggest that Franz Joseph gave all of the official papers to the Minister-President of Cisleithania (the fancy title of the prime minister of Austria), Count Eduard Taaffe, who took them home with him and engaged, with his family, in a century-long conspiracy to both hide the secret files and to show them to all and sundry on condition that they never disclose a word of it while writing only cryptic note about how they learned the “truth.” As weird as it sounds, Taaffe did have the government’s official investigation file, but he claimed it was destroyed when his house caught fire. His descendants said that he lied and that they still have the files, but apparently use them for titillation rather than make them public. This implies that either the files do not actually exist or else are so boring that only by hiding them can their mystique make it worth keeping them.
What do you think are the chances that the emperor would tell his prime minister, “Sure, you can take home proof that my son was a traitor and then pass it on to your kids and their kids!”?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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