118 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Saturday, August 22, 1998
This above all
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Sisi, the Empress of Solitude
Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary (1837-1898)

By G.S. Cheema

ON August 30, falls the first anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Only a few days separate it from the centenary of the assassination of Elisabeth, Empress of Australia, popularly known as Sisi, another princess who achieved iconic status in her lifetime. The cult of the princess remains as strong as ever today, and her portraits can be seen all over Vienna, often paired with that of her ageing husband, Emperor Francis Joseph. In fact so ubiquitous are they that the casual visitor to this pocket-sized republic might be forgiven for mistaking Austria to a monarchy.

One wonders if Diana’s impact will be as lasting. Certainly the parallels between them are remarkable. Both were striking beauties, and their marriage were considered fairy-tale romances. Though the Spencers of Althorp were peers of England and no commoners, it was the first time since many centuries that an heir to the British crown was taking a bride from a family that was not a ruling house. Likewise, though Elisabeth was a Wittelsbach — one of the most ancient houses of Europe — her father was relatively poor; he was only a distant collateral of the Bavarian royal house. He was Duke in Bavaria, rather than of, the preposition making all the difference in status-ridden Germany.

His own wife, one of the royal Wittelsbachs, had been acutely aware that she had married below her rank. Her sister, Sophie, had married an Austrian archduke who, half mad though he was, stood next in the succession to the imperial throne. When Revolution swept through Europe and the Habsburg lands, Archduchess Sophie secured the succession for her son , 18-year-old Francis Joseph, then handsome and dashing. The Archuduchess had originally intended one of her nieces. Helen — the eldest of Elisabeth’s sisters (they were five in all) — as her daughter-in-law, but the young Emperor fell in love with Elisabeth, then only 16 ! The following year they were married; the emperor was 24 and she 17 and everyone agreed that they made a lovely couple. It was almost like a fairy tale.

Unlike Diana, Elisabeth’s childhood had been happy. She was one among eight children, and life in the parental home was free of the constricting formality and rigid protocol usually associated with princely courts. But Vienna was very different. The young Francis Joseph may well have been willing to relax protocol, but his mother the Archduchess Sophie would never let him forget that it was by her ‘sacrifice ‘ that he had ascended the throne, and she remained, till her death, the First Lady of the Court. And even though she was Sisi’s aunt, she proved to be, in every way, a typical mother-in-law.

When the Crown Prince Rudolf was born, it was she who appointed his governors and tutors and the Empress had virtually no say in the matter, for, after all, she was so young. Thus, soon she and the Archduchess found themselves in conflict, and in her entourage the latter was known as ‘evil Sophie’. Sophie in turn ridiculed Sisi’s unsophisticated ways. Even the expression of a simple desire for a private breakfast in her apartments, or a preference for beer (the national drink of her native Bavaria) as against wine, the proper drink of the upper classes, drew sarcastic comments from the mother-in-law.

Thus Diana’s struggle against the cold formality of the Windsors had a parallel in Sisi’s struggles against the protocol enforced in the Hofburg by the Archduchess Sophie. But both princesses reacted differently to the constraints to which they were subjected. Until Diana busied herself in ‘her’ various causes and charities. She was a partly-girl. On the other hand no whisper of scandal was ever seriously attached to the Empress. But she found an outlet in riding and hunting, and as soon as she became indifferent to the barbs of her mother-in-law, she was scarcely to be seen in Vienna. Sometimes she would be hunting in Hungary, or at her villa near Trieste on the Adriatic, sometimes she would be at Madeira, or at Corfu. Sometimes and entire season would be passed hunting in Britain. She soon became famous as one of the finest riders in Europe. To be able to travel more freely, she usually went incognito, under the title of the Countess of Hohenems — one of the innumerable titles attached to the chief of the house of Habsburg.

But she was not entirely indifferent to her duties. At the time of her marriage, the Habsburg monarchy was still shaky. The revolutions of 1848 had been brutally crushed. The Italian possessions were fated to be lost in the next two decades, and Austria was deprived of her dominant position in Germany after the disastrous seven weeks’ war with Prussia. At this moment had Hungary again revolted all may well have been over with the Habsburgs, but at this crucial juncture the young Empress played a vital role in reconciling the proud Hungarian nobles to the monarchy. She found the Hungarians fascinating. The latter too were won over by her beauty, her horsemanship, and command over the language, which is quite distinct from other European tongues. In the negotiations which preceded the formation of the ‘Dual Monarchy’ which raised Hungary to equal status with Austria, the young empress played a key role. It was about this time too that popular gossip linked her name with that of Count Andrassy, a leading Hungarian statesman, who helped to bring the talks to a successful conclusion, and was ever thereafter her devoted knight.

During the Danish war of 1860, and later during the Prussian war, she visited hospitals and comforted the wounded. Like Diana she felt a particular affinity for the sick, and while undergoing the cure for her nerves at Kissingen spa, she enjoyed conversing with the invalids. It was here that she befriended the blind and aged Duke of Mecklenberg, and the Englishman John Collet, who addressed the following verse to her:

May God preserve the Lady fair and true
Whose pitying heart can feel for others pain
For thou at least Kind Queen has not passed through
The trying fires of suffering in vain.

If bulimia was Diana’s particular problem, Elisabeth inclined to the anorexic. She was obsessed with her figure and had a well-equipped gymnasium in her rooms at Schonbrunn. She took long walks in the early morning, in the public park known as the Prater, with her dog and a lady companion. Besides ‘nerves’ were an old Wittelsbach affliction.

Her mother-in-law died in 1872, but the liberation had come too late. The life of the court had become intolerable to her, and her husband had lost her respect by being his mother’s obedient son.

Her brother-in-law, Maximilian, "Emperor" of Mexico, was shot in Queretaro in 1867, following a revolution. In 1886, her cousin, Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, to whom she was deeply attached, was deposed and he died in mysterious circumstances. In 1889, her only son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, enmeshed in scandal, was found dead, the top of his head blown off, in his shooting lodge in Mayerling. The girl he loved was also found dead by his side, apparently the outcome of a suicide pact. And finally in 1897, the year before she herself was fated to die, perished her sister, the Duchess d’Alencon, burnt in a conflagration in a charity bazaar at Paris.

She had never really been part of society, apart from the hunting and riding set. But ever since her cousin Ludwig’s death she had given up riding, and withdrawn almost totally from the world. Rudolf’s suicide was the final blow; henceforth she would wear only black. She travelled incessantly, and invariably incognito — to Madeira, Corfu, and the near East-while newspapers wrote sorrowfully of the ‘Empress of Solitude’.

Certainly her nerves were frayed and nothing could lift her out of her melancholy. She immersed herself in Greek and Shakespearean drama, and translated Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest into modern Greek. Sometimes the Emperor would join her for a while, as he did at Alicante on the Spanish coast. Nearby lived Eugenie de Montijo, former French Empress, the widow of Napolean III, another lonely woman and a grieving mother, mourning for her only son, the Prince Imperial, killed in 1879 while serving as a British officer in the Zulu war. The two women had much in common; Eugenie too had been famous for her beauty, and, since her widowhood, had become an indefatigable traveller.

September 1898 found the Empress — again travelling as the Countless Hohenems — at the little resort of Territet, on the shores of Lake Geneva, not far from the Castle of Chillon. Territet was one of her favourite refuges. From here one could make little excursions to the lakeside towns — Geneva, Lausanne, Nyon, Vevey, Montreux. It was after one such excursion to the Rothschild residence near Geneva, on September 10, as the Empress and her little entourage were hurrying to catch the ferry for Territet, a shadowy figure stepped forth from the trees and struck the Empress on the chest with his fist. She stumbled and fell, it took some time to realise that the assault was murderous . As her companions hurried to her aid she is said to have murmured, "What could that man have wanted? Perhaps he wanted to snatch my watch."

She was carried on the ferry. Under the impression that she had merely fainted, her companions loosened her clothes, and only then did they notice the small triangular wound where the assassin had struck her with his weapon. Amazingly there was no bleeding. The ferry was hastily reversed and the Empress’s unconscious body was carried ashore to a hotel, and doctors summoned . But within minutes she had expired. The weapon, which was a pointed triangular file, had penetrated the heart.

The assassin, an Italian anarchist called Lucheni, was apprehended within minutes of the attack. He made no attempt to hide his identity and asked whether his victim was dead, expressing the hope that his attack had not been in vain. Throughout his trial he remained proudly defiant, expressing not the slightest feeling of regret. The canton of Vaud in which Geneva fell did not provide for capital punishment, so Lucheni was sentenced to life imprisonment. After a few years, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.

The public reaction, as could be expected, was almost hysterical. In Germany, it was ferocious. One newspaper denounced the Swiss republic as a den of international criminals; a Munich daily demanded that it should be partitioned among its neighbouring powers. The German Kaiser telegraphed hysterically to his Austrian cousin, "it is necessary to act!"

The Austrian reaction , on the other hand, was dignified. The Austrian minister conveyed his Emperor’s thanks to the German Ambassador, for the spontaneous and generous reaction of his emperor, but made it clear that Francis Joseph regarded the matter as a personal grief, and did not wish that it should be exploited for political ends, which would unnecessarily spoil his country’s relations with Italy and Switzerland. The Swiss were courteously thanked for all that they had done; and assured that under the sad circumstances nothing more could have been expected. Had Austria behaved as sensibly in 1914 on the occasion of Sarajevo, instead of letting itself be bulldozed by Kaiser Wilhelm, World War I might well have been avoided. Like terrorists today, anarchists were the bogeymen of the last century. Even in their own countries, rulers were not safe. Several attempts had been made on the life of Napolean IIIin Paris, and Czar Alexander II had been blown to bits by an anarchist’s bomb in St. Petersburg.

Francis Joseph had lost his brother, his son, and his wife — all by violence. Sixteen years later his heir presumptive would also be killed, together with his spouse, at Sarajevo, unleashing a war which would destroy the monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian state. It is said that in 1849, in the course of the bloody repression which followed the Hungarian uprising, Countess Batthyani had pleaded in vain for the life of her attained husband. But 19-year-old Francis Joseph, fearing that mercy would be mistaken for weakness, had proved inflexible. In despair the distracted woman had declared, "God will likewise destroy all whom you love and hold dearest in your family!" The Emperor lived to the ripe age of 86. It certainly seemed that he was being preserved only for the purpose of seeing the fulfilment of the Countess’s fearful malediction.


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