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WWI: The Alternate History of King Rudolf of Austria

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

By Shannon Owens, Reference Department

June 28, 1914…a date which will live in infamy? Well, something like that, at any rate. For those left in the dark, June 28th signifies the anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke and heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Most casual observers believe this incident was the cause of The Great War (WWI.) It should go without saying that this grossly oversimplifies the situation. The late 1800s saw a shift in the fairly equal balance of powers that had previously dominated the political landscape of Europe. Several causes led to this, but suffice to say, the continent was braced for a fight. By 1914, Europe was simply a ticking time bomb, ready to explode. Many thought war was inevitable (this begs the chicken vs the egg question: did war break out simply because enough important people didn’t see another recourse? Depressing to consider.) At any rate, a Serbian national shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on a state visit in Sarajevo…and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is less often mused over is how unlikely it was that this situation would come to fruition in the first place. Heck, Franz Ferdinand wasn’t even supposed to be the heir to the great Habsburg line in the first place. His cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, was the son of Emperor Franz Josef. However, he died suddenly, in a sordid fog of mystery, that wouldn’t be out of place in a 21st century soap opera. Rudolf was not a man known for fidelity, the number of affairs he conducted were countless. Cue the Mayerling Incident. In 1887, he bought Mayerling and turned it into a hunting lodge of sorts. The following year, Crown Prince Rudolf (then 30 years old) met Baroness Marie Vetsera, a young woman of 17. Simply put, the baroness was utterly besotted, she worshiped him fully. For his part, it’s hard to imagine that he returned the young girl’s ardor, but he probably cared for her. At the very least, he was a vain man, and likely loved to be the center of a lovely young woman’s world. On the morning of January 30th, 1889, a valet broke his way into a Mayerling bedroom after hearing two pistol shots. Once inside, he found a gruesome scene. The prince’s skull had been partially blown away, his body slumped on the bed next to the body of his young mistress.

Combined Portrait Photographs of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria and Baroness Marie Vetsera

The official report stated that Rudolf had shot his mistress then proceeded to kill himself (he had also been declared “mentally unbalanced”.) This is likely the truth. Other conspiracies have been suggested over the years but none really stick. Crown Prince Rudolf (despite his womanizing and carousing) was a more liberal figure than his father and other European heads of state at that time. He was resolutely against unnecessary military conflict and intervention. He was constantly at odds with his overbearing father and may very well have been a deeply unhappy man.

With Rudolf’s death, Archduke Karl Ludwig (the emperor’ eldest surviving brother) became the heir presumptive. After Karl Ludwig’s death, his son, Franz Ferdinand, became the heir presumptive. Had Crown Prince Rudolf lived (and if his father abdicated in the tradition of his father before him) Austria would have had a leader with a far more pacifist outlook than his father. He may very well have been against the military alliance with Germany that was instrumental in the outbreak of World War I. Unfortunately, that was not the way history played out. The Great War was one of the most brutal wars of all time, resulting in the deaths of roughly 40 million souls.

 


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