After almost twenty years of research into the activities of the most important ruling family in Slovene history, I have already got used to the fact that the answer to the question “Who was the most important Habsburg?” is in most cases a woman. Besides the well-known female Habsburg, the great reformer, mostly known among Slovenes for her many offspring (at least that was the impression I got when I worked as a guide in Vienna as a student) and for her introduction of mandatory potato planting (for which the municipality of Šenčur even built her a monument five years ago), hardly anyone can name more than one male representative of the dynasty. Most people know about Franz Joseph, but the majority also think that he was the last Habsburg Emperor. The throne was indeed his for almost seven decades, but in the autumn of 1916 he was succeeded by his great-nephew Charles, who was at the end of World War I driven out of Vienna by revolutionary forces.
It is interesting that when Franz Joseph passed away, the Ljubljana Catholic Printing Company trusted the important task of writing his biography to one of the rare female journalists in Slovene lands. Ivanka Anžič Klemenčič, considered to be the first Slovene professional female journalist, wrote an engaging booklet with the eloquent title The Great Emperor. Her view on the role of the eternally “grey-haired emperor” is shown in the citation included at the conclusion of an overview of Slovene national emancipatory achievements during his reign: “In short, for all that we are and all that we have, we have to thank the era of the ‘Great Emperor’ Franz Joseph I and his mild government. His name shall remain with us indelible.” Later, the women who wrote Ivanka’s biographies reproached her with “a sudden loyalist shift”, which they claimed to be very different from her “original views and opinions”. But why could a Slovene intellectual not have such genuine feelings towards the ruling dynasty? By the way: the main expert in the field of court law of the Habsburg dynasty was said to be the Slovene jurist from Styria, Ivan Žolger, who in 1917 wrote an outstandingly comprehensive monograph about it (after resigning as a minister in the Austrian government, to which he was appointed as the sole South Slav in history).
So, Maria Theresa often appears at the top of Slovene chart of the most popular female historical figures. But, of course, she was not the only female Habsburg to make a memorable intervention in European and world history. In general, it seems that, in the century and a half since her passing, the female members of the family have often played more important roles than most authors give them credit for. Let us take, for example, her daughter Marie Antoinette who, along with her spouse, the French king Louis XVI, ended up on the guillotine. The image ingrained in our minds is that of her alleged excessive lavishness and leaning towards luxury. To some extent, this is probably the product of the egalitarian tendencies of the French Revolution. However, her habits most likely did not help her husband when he was trying to satisfy the demands of the bloodthirsty revolutionaries. Her brother, Joseph II, who sat on the Habsburg throne after Maria Theresa, did not come to her aid when she was in distress. His opinion was that he indeed had a sister, but Austria did not. In general, Maria Theresa’s successor had no luck with the ladies. He was infatuated with the beautiful 19-year-old Isabella of Parma, who was meant to become his wife. But the lovely Isabella fell for someone else – Joseph’s sister Maria Christina. The nature of their relationship can be seen from their correspondence, which was confiscated due to the delicacy of the subject at the time of Isabella’s death at the early age of 22.
Even the mighty Napoleon Bonaparte himself experienced the particularities of the Habsburg femmes fatales. The cunning Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich made a deal to sacrifice Marie Louise, the beautiful daughter of the “kind emperor” Francis, in return for urgently needed peace. It was Francis who had to give up, after five hundred years when the crown of the Holy Roman Empire had been mostly in the possession of Vienna, the ancient imperial title because of Napoleon. Before that, Joseph Haydn composed a magnificent national anthem, which soon also perfectly suited the new crown of the Austrian Empire. Austria achieved peace by giving away Marie Louise and by marrying into the most important European dynasty, while Napoleon gained the legitimacy which he never had as a considerably lower-ranked Corsican. Even though the imperial family considered this to be a marriage with the devil, the couple gave them a successor – Napoleon II. After his father’s downfall, he was raised in the Habsburg spirit in Vienna and was given the title of Duke of Reichstadt (after the northern Czech town of Reichstad or Zakupy). He had a reputation as a heart breaker, but tuberculosis did not spare him and he died at the age of 21. During his childhood, his aunt Maria Leopoldina took care of him, but she soon left Vienna and married the Portuguese heir to the throne, “Dom Pedro” of the Braganza family, who was crowned Emperor of Brazil in 1822. Since he was quite uneducated, “Dona Leopoldina” was said to have had a big influence on his politics (since then, the Habsburg yellow shines next to the royal green in Brazil’s flag). If we return to Napoleon II for a moment, it has to be said that he was quite disappointed that his grandfather never let him go to Paris, so that he would not be tempted to renew his father’s empire. He was buried in the traditional Habsburg Imperial Crypt beneath the Capuchin Church in Vienna. The sarcophagus was then transferred to Paris as a kind gesture towards the Vichy regime by order of Adolf Hitler, who was one of the biggest adversaries of the Habsburgs ever since his inglorious Vienna days. Not knowing about the ancient burial ritual of the Habsburgs, which dictates that the heart of the deceased must be buried separately, Hitler forgot about Napoleon’s heart in the Augustinian church in Vienna.
We can learn a lot about Elisabeth, beautiful Bavarian wife of Franz Joseph, if we visit the Habsburg summer residence in Vienna, the famous Schönbrunn. The celebrated Sisi, who made Romy Schneider a famous actress and the eponymous film trilogy one of the key heralds of Habsburg nostalgia after World War II (let us not forget The Sound of Music), truly does seem like a goddess in the painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. On the occasion of the couple’s silver wedding, the Slovene poet and writer Luiza Pesjak wrote the following lines: “Praised be her heart, the merciful Mother of her children; May the burning wish be fulfilled; Keep them safe, Lord, forever more!” She seems to be another loyalist Slovene. Similar examples of Slovene poetry celebrating the state can be found in the excellent anthology of Marjan Dolgan and others.
But soon after the wedding, it turned out that the Vienna court was not the sensitive Sisi’s favourite place on Earth. She was known as a very intelligent and emotional woman, but her obsession with keeping a slim figure was almost pathological and she stuck to strict, sometimes borderline anorexic diets. Besides regular horseback riding, she also decided to have her own personal gym. Her marriage with Franz Joseph was marked by the early death of their two-year-old daughter Sophie and the Mayerling tragedy resulting in the death of their only son and heir to the throne, Prince Rudolf. This did not make their marriage a happy one. Until this day, the death at the Mayerling castle remains the subject of much speculation, as it involved the suicide of Rudolf and his femme fatale Mary Vetsera. Even the young Mussolini dedicated a short novel to this incident – before becoming Il Duce, of course. His description of the events of that tragic January night in 1889 were very vivid. According to the leading Habsburg expert, Harald Havas, it would nowadays be described as a sexual orgy. Before that, Franz Joseph lost his brother Maximilian, who responded to an invitation from Napoleon III (supposedly the Slovene diplomat Alojz Dobravec also had something to do with it) and in 1864 decided to leave the pleasant Trieste seaside castle of Miramare and accept the crown of the Mexican Empire, which after three years brought him before a firing squad of Mexican Republicans. His honour was also defended by Slovene volunteers, whose adventures are depicted in an excellent comic book by Zoran Smiljanić and Marijan Pušavc. And finally, in 1898, Empress Sisi was assassinated. Franz Joseph really did not have it easy.
Despite all the family tragedies, Franz Joseph was not willing to indulge his nephew Franz Ferdinand when he asked him for permission to marry the love of his life. The new heir to the throne had fallen in love with Sophie, daughter of the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Dresden, Count Bohuslav Chotek. That was the start of a love story that had fatal consequences for the further development of the monarchy. They got married on 1 July 1900, even though the Emperor himself was opposed due to the low rank of the bride-to-be. Two days earlier, Franz Ferdinand renounced the succession to the throne of his male descendants, which is why he was allowed to go through with the ceremony. However, following the Habsburg house rules, the marriage was only morganatic. Nevertheless, for her wedding gift, Franz Ferdinand named Sophie Princess of Hohenberg, and then Duchess in 1909. Because of her low rank, the strict Habsburg protocol always left the unfortunate Sophie somewhere in the back row, and it caused suffering to both her and her spouse. It is well known that in June 1914 Franz Ferdinand did not want to visit Sarajevo, where he was then assassinated. But it seems that the love for his spouse was also a prevailing factor in his decision. On the same day, 28 June, fourteen years earlier, Franz Ferdinand, in the presence of the Emperor and government representatives, had solemnly sworn on the Bible that in exchange for permission to marry he accepted the provisions of a morganatic marriage, according to which his descendants would not be entitled to succession to the throne. In his last conversation with the Emperor when he revealed to him his doubts about going to Sarajevo, he was reportedly promised that during the visit his spouse could benefit from all the honours due to the wife of the Habsburg heir to the throne. The decision he made turned out to be a fatal one for the entire world. The death of the unfortunate couple was put in writing in Slovene by the very same Ivanka Klemenčič.
Translated by: Nina Maslovarić.