The only child of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, Archduchess Elisabeth Marie of Austria was an incredibly strong-willed – and unpredictable – woman, yet her life plays out like a microcosm for the tides of radical change that washed across Central Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.
Born in 1883 to one of the world’s most powerful monarchies within the 676,615 square kilometre Austro-Hungarian Empire, she ended her life in 1963, within the 83,879 square kilometres of the post-war Austrian Republic.
Born the granddaughter of an Emperor, she died a commoner in an unmarked grave – but it was her choice.
The coming death of the Hapsburg era was foreshadowed five years after the young Archduchess’s birth by the tragic death of its heir.
In an episode still enshrouded in rumour and conspiracy, on 31 January 1889, Rudolf retired to a hunting lodge in the woods south of Vienna with his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera.
The next morning his panicked valet and hunting partner broke down the couple’s bedchamber to find them dead. Mary lay on the bed and Rudolf by its side. By the most plausible accounts, the Crown Prince killed her and then himself in a suicide pact – and the heartbroken letters proved it.
Courtiers rushed to cover up this scandal, repeating the unconvincing mantra that Rudolf had died from a brain aneurysm. Emperor Franz Joseph I, perhaps the only constant in young Elisabeth Marie’s life, took custody of his grandchild, forbidding her to leave Austria.
In the decade following her faithless husband’s demise, Elisabeth’s mother grew steadily colder. Remarrying in 1900, she renounced her title of Crown Princess and joined her new husband, the Count Elemér Lónyay de Nagy-Lónya et Vásáros-Namény in his home in what was then Western Hungary (now Slovakia).
Elisabeth Marie – known affectionately as Erzsi, the Hungarian diminutive of Erzsebet – wouldn’t have followed her even if she could, viewing her mother’s new life as a betrayal of her father – seemingly oblivious to the fact that her beloved father had betrayed her first.
Rudolf once observed that Erzsi was “the only thing that will remain of me.” He would be proven more right than he realised.
In two key ways history would repeat itself for Elisabeth Marie, but this time the sequence of events would be subtly different. She would renounce her place in the line of succession to marry for love (this tidier line would place Franz Joseph’s nephew, the abrasive Archduke Franz Ferdinand firmly in the firing line in 1914), and a marriage would end with the sounds of pistol shot in a bedchamber.
The first event in 1902 is not quite as romantic as it seems. Becoming smitten with Prince Otto Weriand von Windisch-Grätz at a ball, the unassuming object of her lust found himself forced into marriage (and forced out of the engagement he was already in) by his bride’s grandfather, who dropped the bombshell of fait accompli in a formal letter of congratulations.
Obviously unhappy, Otto began having an affair with Louise Ziegler, a “slender, beautiful” French opera singer/actress “at whose feet were half the gilded youth of Prague.” Discovering their union (“possibly from some disappointed suitor of the actress” speculates the San Francisco Call gleefully), the 20-year-old Elisabeth Marie stormed into the Prince’s apartment at the palace, determined to have it out.
A valet, sworn to protect his master’s privacy, blocks her way. Obviously pained by the conflict in duty between master and mistress, he’s promptly absolved of it when she pulls a gold-handled revolver and opens fire. The poor retainer then flees for safety down the corridor. Bursting into the bedchamber, Elisabeth Marie shoots the actress in the chest.
Globe-trotting gossip George Greville Moore recalled:
The whole affair caused a painful sensation at the Court in Vienna, though it has been hushed up as most events of the kind are.
Indeed, the newspapers that reported of the tragedy were largely sympathetic to the young Archduchess, while behind the curtain in this Hapsburg pantomime 27-year-old Ziegler died from her wounds.
The years that followed brought more bloodshed and sorrow than the court gossips and scurrilous scandal sheets could have ever imagined. As the bold sons of the Hapsburg eagle died by the thousand on the Eastern Front, civil unrest bloomed in Budapest and Vienna.
Defeat looked inevitable and US President Woodrow Wilson lit the touch paper by pushing for the kingdom’s patchwork of nationalities to have their own say on their futures. When they spoke, the Empire’s Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles and countless others chose independence, or at least a union much closer to home.
Declaration followed declaration, tearing feathers from the eagle one-by-one and on 31 October 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire finally collapsed, with Hungary itself dissolving the Dual Monarchy.
Without the disapproving glare of the Emperor and the dignity of an Empire to uphold, there was no need to keep up appearances any longer, and Elisabeth Marie and Otto separated. The shooting of Ziegler had brought down the curtain on their sham marriage and by now both were having affairs openly, with Elisabeth Marie infamously seeing Egon Lerch, a submarine captain.
The result was a bitter custody battle for their four children: Franz Joseph, Ernst, Rudolf and Stéphanie.
She may have been unhappy, but Erzsi was at least fantastically wealthy. She had endured an icy relationship with her emotionally distant grandmother and namesake, the Empress Elisabeth. A heart-stopping beauty in her day whose vanity screamed out at being thought a grandmother, Elisabeth nonetheless bequeathed her considerable jewels to Elizabeth Marie when she met her untimely end in 1898, stabbed by an anarchist in the street.
Similarly when Franz Joseph I finally gave up the ghost in 1916 – two years before the end of the catastrophic conflict he had begun – the emperor’s considerable private holdings were divided between his two daughters and his beloved granddaughter.
Then the heir to Hapsburg throne made her boldest move yet and in 1921 joined the left-wing Social Democratic Party, selling red paper carnations at the May Day parade.
Formed in the 1898 to champion reform and represent the interests of the peasant class, in the aftermath of empire the Social Democrats entered a coalition government with the Socialists, presiding over a much-needed wealth of new welfare and labour laws, hospitals, schools, libraries and housing projects, while resisting putsch attempts from both the far left and the far right with the help of its paramilitary wing – the Republican Defence Guard.
The Social Democrats were the toast of the European left. Proof that unlike the horrors of Bolshevik Russia, progress and reform could come from the ballot box and not the barrel of the gun.
Now nicknamed “the Red Archduchess” Elizabeth Marie began having an affair with Leopold Petznek, the party’s married president of the audit office and member of the Lower Austrian Landtag (the regional parliament), and they marched side by side at rallies. Eventually Austrian socialism’s new royal family moved in together in 1929 to a villa in Hütteldorf, just outside the city.
Active in fund-raising (and donating plenty from her own coffers), the women’s movement, the socialist children’s organisation and even standing as a socialist councillor in Vienna, the only daughter of Crown Price Rudolf was held in high regard in the unlikely new circles in which she moved.
Some, she recalled, even forgot themselves and addressed her as “Royal Highness.”
If Otto thought he’d finally get the upper hand now that his bitter bride didn’t have the weight of Emperor Franz Joseph to back up her every whim, he was very much mistaken. As the long drawn-out custody battle swung his way in the courts (which traditionally favoured the father in deeply conservative Austria), he turned up at her villa only to find a cadre of armed socialists blocking his path. He left empty handed, and the children remained with their mother.
Visiting Austria a few years later, British diplomat and historian John Wheeler-Bennett found himself fascinated by the juxtaposition:
Where relics of her past jostled with evidence of her present life. Revolutionary literature and an imperial snuff-box occupied adjoining shelves.
Reporting on the political situation in Vienna in 1932, a reporter from the New York Evening Post recalled:
It was many years ago on a first of May that I watched a Labor Day demonstration by Social Democrats from the balcony of the Town Hall, now governed by a Social Democratic municipal council. A little further from me, quite near to Mayor Seltz, stood a very tall, elegant and distinguished looking woman. Though simply dressed, she wore her garments with an aristocratic nonchalance, and her tall and slender figure commanded notice.
Erszi’s politics soon informed her homelife, too:
The Red Princess conducted the education of her children in a Socialist spirit. She had four children and attempted during the past fourteen years to educate them in a way which would correspond to her party standing. The father of the children, Prince Otto von Windisch-Grätz, viewed with misgivings this attempt of the mother.
Like its neighbour to the North – Weimar Germany – this age of left-of-centre bliss couldn’t hold. Blamed for industrial action they were unable to control and prompting fears from the bourgeoisie thanks to their uncompromising ‘class struggle’ rhetoric, both sides of the political spectrum found themselves at spoiling for a fight.
In a moment of supreme irony, the year before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Engelbert Dollfuss and his Fatherland Front took control of the Austrian government. Members of the Fatherland Front were fascists, yes, but they had far more in common with Mussolini’s corporatist ideology than Hitler’s National Socialism, they were staunch supporters of the Catholic Church, were deeply resistant to the influence of “Protestant Germany” and its agents, the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party.
Opponents to the new regime were rounded up in 1933, starting with the Communists, but then the Social Democrats – Petznek among them – and, right at the other end of the political spectrum, the National Socialists.
The next year they repaid the favour and Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis who stormed the parliament building in an attempted coup, leaving Kurt Schuschnigg, chancellor and the Fatherland Front, in an increasingly precarious position. Schuschnigg even opened negotiations with the Social Democrats to try and stave off the advances of the ever more confidant Third Reich, but it was all in vain.
Petznek’s health suffered, perhaps from the stress. In an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer – on a page awash with gloomy tidings from Central Europe – Erzsi lashed out at the world that had treated her beloved so cruelly:
I am afraid that monarchy may be restored in Germany as well as in Austria. I believe a Democratic Republic is the best form of government and abhor dictatorship as represented, for instance, by Chancellor Hitler. I do not intend to be active in politics anymore and at present have but one interest and that is my sick husband.
Nothing counts but love and people will realize it again, although hatred reigns in the world at present.
Discord was brewing at home too. Erzsi’s dogged adherence to her Marxist principals had become a point of contention with the family and they soon fled her all-consuming orbit. The New York Evening Post chronicled the crisis in August 1933:
She tried to bring up her children in this spirit, but apparently without success. Two of the sons left home, and Prince Ernest is now agent for a wine merchant, while Prince Francis Joseph is an attendant at an American gasoline filling station. Princess Stephanie left the house of her mother at the end of last year and went to Belgium, where she was accepted by the Belgium royal family.
Stéphanie married into the Belgian aristocracy, and her request for a dowry from her mother was flatly refused, kicking off a war of words in the international press. Erzsi claimed she hadn’t been invited to the wedding in Brussels, while Stéphanie claimed that she had refused to be invited:
The [family] gave a statement to the papers that Princess Elisabeth Windisch-Grätz was neglecting her children because of her love affair with the Socialist functionary Petznek; that she owns a huge tenement house near the Vienna opera which brings her sufficient rent; moreover, that she inherited from Francis Joseph the estate at Schoenau, which she sold but that the proceeds were carefully invested. It was also asserted that, despite her Socialist views, she lives In great luxury In a villa in the Auhof Strasse in Vienna, surrounded by rare art treasure which represent a huge value.
With the Anschluss in 1938, the last dregs of the Dollfuss regime were swallowed up by the toxic dream of a Greater Germany, and persecution of Austria’s Social Democrats not only resumed, but reached a terrible new height with the Holocaust. Not only were the Social Democrats one of the few parties to accept Jews in their ranks, but they had a number of prominent Austrian Jews among their leadership.
Elisabeth’s Hapsburg heritage offered her some small degree of protection, she and Leopold Petznek were spared incarceration, while her children were spared military service. Living quietly in their villa in Hütteldorf, the war finally came pounding on their door following the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944.
With only seven months of conflict left to play out, Petznek was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Dachau concentration camp as part of a general round-up of political ner-do-wells, where he remained until the camp was liberated by the Americans in March 1945.
The war’s end offered no respite for the princess and the politician. Their villa lay in the French occupied zone of Austria and had been confiscated by General Emile Béthouart for his personal use.
Despite the hardship of life in ruined Austria, Elisabeth Marie finally divorced her first husband and the pair finally married in 1948 in a Vienna registry office. Leopold Petznek became President of the State Court of Audit, and Elisabeth Marie Petznek remained at his side until his death in 1956.
Her own health failing and increasingly reliant on a wheelchair, the Red Archduchess became increasingly reclusive following Petznek’s death. Her own mother had died in 1945, estranged from her, and the 80-year old Erzsi died 16 March 1963 in her villa just outside of Vienna, estranged from her own surviving offspring Stéphanie and Franz Joseph.
At her explicit demand she was buried with her second husband in a simple nameless grave in Vienna – not wishing it become a shrine for monarchists or revolutionaries – while her heirlooms, the baubles, tokens and lost luxuries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and her riches were bequeathed to the state. Even in death she was her own master.
She had survived two World Wars with her homeland imprisoned at its heart.
She had seen out the end of the Dual Monarchy and the crumbling baroque of that lost world give way to fragile republic.
She had endured the rise of fascism and the terrible spread of National Socialism’s dark clouds across Europe.
Elisabeth Marie of Austria – the Red Archduchess – was a survivor but not a cynic, an idealist but not a fool, and her desires were simple: she wanted to live the life she had chosen for herself, with the man of her choosing.
And she did. After all, “Nothing counts but love.”
- Princess Shoots Actress In Her Husband’s Palace: San Francisco Call, 7 December 1903
- The Straits Times, 22 January 1904
- News Stories From Europe’s Capitals, New York Evening Post, 25 November 1932
- Tragedy In Royal Romance, New York Evening Post, 10 August 1933
- Austrian Princess Fears Hohenzollern Restoration, Philadelphia Enquirer, 5 August 1934
- Society Recollections in Paris and Vienna, 1879 to 1904 by by George Greville Moore
- The Transformation of Austrian Socialism by Kurt Leo Shell
- Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett by Victoria Schofield
- Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph by Alan Palmer