In the annals of star-crossed love, the tale of the suicide pact between Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, ranks second only to that of Héloïse and Abélard. The couple’s doomed romance, which ended in a double shooting at the fairy-tale hunting lodge of Mayerling in 1889, has been chronicled by many historians. It has also been the subject of several films. The latest, in 1969, starred Omar Sharif as the dashing young heir to the Hapsburg throne. But last week a new dimension was added to the legend. Former Austrian empress Zita declared that the story of a suicide pact is a false one. What really happened at Mayerling, the 90-year-old Zita alleged, was murder.
Zita, the widow of the last Hapsburg monarch, Emperor Karl, claimed that Rudolf and his mistress were assassinated by two conspirators after he refused to take part in a plot to oust his father, Franz Josef, and because he threatened to reveal the intrigue. The theory is not unreasonable. Rudolf harbored republican sympathies and, under a pseudonym, he wrote newspaper articles condemning his father’s imperialist policies. But Viennese academics last week dismissed the theory as court gossip.
The fact remains, however, that almost every piece of evidence on the deaths has mysteriously disappeared from archives. At the same time, Zita claimed that she knows the names of the men responsible for the murders and she says that she will release them when experts have analysed the material in her possession.
Zita is indeed a legend herself. Because she refused to renounce her claim to the Hapsburg throne, Austrian authorities forced her to remain in exile for 63 years until last year, when she made three short, private visits to her homeland.
Some critics speculated that Zita’s allegations were simply her way of attracting attention. But one historical fact was undeniable. Rudolf’s death resulted in the succession of his cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as heir to the throne. The archduke’s assassination in 1914 sparked the First World War and swept away the interlocking monarchies of Central Europe. Whether Rudolf’s death was suicide or murder, the shots that rang out 94 years ago in the Vienna woods changed forever the course of European history.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.