Belle Necropolis

Ghosts of Imperial Vienna

by Katherine Arens (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 231 Pages
Series: Austrian Culture, Volume 48


Since coming to public notice through major museum catalogues and the work of Carl Schorske around 1980, fin de siècle Vienna has been cast as the final bloom of a dying culture. Yet this assessment is itself a historical construct, deriving from the politics of the twentieth century. This volume argues that «Habsburg nostalgia» is anything but backward looking: instead, images from this glittering Habsburg past become evidence of a culture’s sophisticated sense of how and why history is made, in both official and popular spheres. Including the first translation of an original account of Crown Prince Rudolf’s suicide at Mayerling in 1889, Belle Necropolis argues for Austria’s continued reuse of its own history to point the way toward the future rather than simply memorializing a past that only exists as living memories of shared stories, not as a truth in itself. Case studies included here range from imperial stereotypes before 1900 through their adaptations in the film 1. April 2000 and today’s musicals, and from the politics of representing Austria since Rebecca West up through Schorske’s master narrative of the Ringstrasse. Through these studies, Habsburg culture emerges as a culture of commemoration that uses its own past to overcome the limits of a small country seeking a role on the contemporary world stage.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Necropolis: Introduction to the Ghosts of Imperial Vienna
  • 1. Excursus from the Crypt: In memoriam, by Helene Vetsera
  • Postscript, by Heinrich Baltazzi-Scharschmid
  • 2. From Mayerling’s Ghosts to Today’s Revenants: An Introduction to the Memory Cultures of Austria
  • 3. The Persistence of Mitteleuropa in Memory: The Ghosts of Central Europe
  • Travels Across Habsburg Europe
  • Narrating Politics: The Appeal to Biopolitics
  • Habsburg Wraiths: The Case of Jörg Haider
  • Ghosts of Austria
  • 4. Habsburg Nostalgia as Postmemory, and what Comes After
  • Science Fiction Habsburgiana
  • Revisiting the Action: Twitting the Allies
  • History, Memory, and Collective Trauma
  • 5. “Glücklich ist, wer [nicht] vergißt”: From Broadway to the Necropolis
  • Habsburg Revenants: Broadway-an-der-Wien
  • Broadway an der Wien—The West End, East
  • Some Conclusions: The Musical as Austrian Popular Culture
  • 6. Building the Habsburg Subject: Scholarly Historical Fictions
  • Prussian-Cold-War Vienna: From the Public to the Academy
  • Schorske’s Modernist fin de siècle
  • The Ringstrasse as a Social-Textual Project
  • Some Conclusions: The Ideology of Austrian Historicism
  • Afterword: Beyond Necrophilia
  • Appendix: An Introduction to the Denkschrift
  • Denkschrift, by Baroness Helene Vetsera
  • Nachschrift, von Heinrich Baltazzi-Scharschmid
  • Notes
  • Necropolis
  • 1. Excursus from the Crypt
  • 2. From Mayerling’s Ghosts to Today’s Revenants
  • 3. The Persistence of Mitteleuropa in Memory
  • 4. Habsburg Nostalgia as Postmemory, and What Comes After
  • 5. “Glücklich ist, wer [nicht] vergißt”
  • 6. Building the Habsburg Subject
  • Afterword
  • Appendix
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series index


  ← vi | vii → Acknowledgments

This book would not have been possible without the support of many, since it was begun and finished at the two ends of a difficult era.

First and foremost, I would like to acknowledge that the publication of this book was made possible by a University of Texas Subvention Grant, awarded by President William C. Powers, Jr. His support of this program in this age of austerity reflects his unwavering commitment to the faculty of The University in the face of adversity, and I know I speak for many who are grateful for his support and leadership.

Numerous colleagues have been generous discussants of parts of this work, helping me to see around some difficult corners. Special thanks to Robert von Dassanowsky, historian extraordinare of Austrian film, for his help on the back story of 1. April 2000, to David Luft for his wisdom on Musil and his general good counsel, and to Janet Swaffar, the colleague whose wisdom we all need, who suffered through many discussions about why Austria is not Germany.

Without the support of Janet Swaffar, Leah Ross, and Carlos Amador, the project would not have gotten off the ground; they made it possible for me to present the first version of the Schorske material at the conference of the Modern Austrian Literature and Culture Association (now the Austrian Studies Association) at the University of Vienna, and to keep my eyes on the finish line—the rare ← vii | viii → combination of great souls and good readers. These three, along with Philip Russell, have at various times and repeatedly over the last four years, kept me from going off the rails that led me to the finish line. On another front, Pamela Myers remained a cheerful voice who supported me unwaveringly where I could not put my hand in. They are the family we all wish we had, and I want to thank them all profusely, as well as the other friends who’ve stepped in with great good cheer.

William Russell has stood by me through thick and thin, both on my side and on his, never wavering in his belief in and support for me and these ghosts from the other side of the world. This volume is dedicated to him—it should be much more.


  ← viii | 1 → Necropolis

Introduction to the Ghosts of Imperial Austria

Austria, successor state to a Holy Roman, then Austrian, then Austro-Hungarian Empire that never had an official name, is remembered today principally for its marketing. The popular mind settled on fin de siècle Vienna as the image of an imperial power that was disassembled at the end of the First World War. But it has always had an allure, a myth surrounding it.

At least since the 1970s, complaints have been raised against Vienna as the heart of Austria’s museale Kultur—a fossil, museum (even mausoleum) city, rather than an environment fostering innovation. This image was reinforced by the plethora of “Vienna 1900” museum exhibits of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and by Schorske’s discussion of theRingstrasse in Fin de siècle Vienna (1981). To this day, these charges have stuck, no matter that, in the 1970s, Austria’s young intellectuals and artists actually were actively working against these stereotypes, taking aim at what they considered the excess state funding directed at the Vienna Opera and the Salzburg Festival by an increasingly conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) administration. Nonetheless, Vienna persists in the musty, funereal image established in the public mind by the Third Man ’s tour through its sewers and perpetuated on webpages calling it die Nekropole, the necropolis.1

In what follows, I will offer some glances into dustier corners of that myth—into the great lost torso of an imperial culture that incubated so many of the ← 1 | 2 → twentieth century’s central crises (from the Freudian unconscious through the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s). In those corners, I will find a necropolis, a city of the dead (the term has been applied to Vienna itself), in which we can still find some little known “exquisite corpses” (funeral pomp, schöne Leich’) whose stories warrant closer looks.

Not surprisingly, any number of these beautiful corpses are female, but they are not alone in occupying a speace strikingly different from that known by those familiar with the Beautiful Blue Danube. Those corpses of historical memory, as I trace them below, reach from Austria’s own map through the fate of its (still persisting) imperial and royal family. Most haunting are two: the Habsburg monarchy itself, and its most famous Empress, Elisabeth (Sisi), both still alive in one form or another.

We will make our way through the gravestones in later sections of the present volume. Let us start with the murder-suicide that helped to give the last years of the Habsburg empire its image: the infamous murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolph at his hunting lodge, Mayerling, where he and his teenaged mistress, Mary Vetsera, met their end. We will hear that story out of the hand of one participant: the Baroness Helene Vetsera, the girl’s mother—in the classic version of a story that constantly gets retold, but not necessarily ever verified.2 It speaks in the voice of a Victorian woman at the bottom rung of the aristocracy, one whose life has been conducted as part of Vienna’s second society. In it, she both mourns her daughter and tries to claim her as a victim so that her remaining daughter is not utterly ruined as the sister of a murderess, after early rumors about the Crown Prince’s cast her as the villainess of the piece.

Imperial police confiscated the original private printing of her story, intended for her family and closest friends, but the narrative escaped to be known by historians as inaccurate in many of its procedural details. Yet it speaks from its own grave: the old Baroness, Mary’s mother, lived long into the twentieth century, where the author Arthur Schnitzler spied her on her bike in a lake district, peddling wildly through the mist like an apparition from another age. She speaks here in her own voice about ghosts of love and imperial power.

The year was 1889…

← 2 | 3 → 1

  Excursus from the Crypt

In memoriam

Privately Published from Manuscript for the Baroness Helene Vetsera1 by Johann N. Vernay, Vienna, 1889.

Amidst the first staggering impressions emerging from the Mayerling catastrophe, it had been impossible for those most closely involved with the event to assert the complete and full truth about it. The dreadful event came upon all without warning or preparation; the first reports rendered all downcast; those most closely involved knew neither what had occurred, nor how it had taken place. When scandal then began to raise its head and to send out its tendrils even as far as the public papers, the hallowedness of pain seemed to forbid us from doing justice to our duties towards the living and towards ourselves—not before the period of mourning for the dead had lapsed, before a period so full of despair had been given its due.

Now that this is accomplished, it would be a dereliction of duty towards the living and towards the memory of the dead to deny to truth her justice; we hesitate no longer in facing squarely the multifarious misstatements and attacks that the mournful event brought in its wake.

The events that found their most staggering conclusion in the castle at Mayerling2 were to that point a secret of the departed, guarded as carefully as possible; only later had they reached the awareness of those remaining here. No matter how painful it is to submit them to public scrutiny, they must nonetheless be exposed without reservation in order that untruths and scandal be stayed. They did not ← 3 | 4 → desist in their sorry handwork even in the face of the solemn majesty of death and of dreadful misfortune—as if some reason could be offered for denying details to the public. Thus may it now be permitted to bear witness to the truth in all particulars, so that the living are granted justice, and so that the guilt of the dead does not appear any greater than it actually was.

The abduction of the seventeen-year-old BaronesseMary Vetsera3 from the house of her mother was preceded by the following event, in the last days of January.4 Before this event occurred, the Baroness did not have the slightest inkling that any personal contact between her daughter and the Crown Prince could have taken place. On the 26 January, the lady’s companion from the house brought the following report: on the previous day, as they left the ice-skating rink, she had been compelled by the Baronesse to accompany her to a fortune-teller, with whom [the Baronesse] had a secret conversation. She had further to report that [the Baronesse], in her company, had on the 15 of January bought a golden cigarette case at Rodeck5 and had something engraved in it. As [the Baronesse] did so, she remarked that her maid would pick it up. At the same time, the Baronesseurgently impressed on [the lady’s maid6] to tell her mother nothing of this. [The maid] followed these orders because she was of the opinion that this was to be a surprise; now, however, she had reservations in connection with the visit to the fortune-teller, which had been very unpleasant for her, and she now felt herself compelled to inform [the Baroness] about this matter. The Baroness had a discussion with her daughter. After much pleading and many threats, the Baronesse admitted that she had purchased the case for the Crown Prince and had sent it to him. She maintained, however, that this had happened anonymously through a manservant. The Baroness objected most strenuously to her daughter about this deed, which she thought terribly ill-considered. She reminded her [daughter] that it could only compromise her fearfully if her name were to be mentioned at all in connection with his, because a relationship between her (as a girl scarcely seventeen years old) and him (as Crown Prince and married) could only dishonor her before the world. What would [the Baroness’] own life be, if her daughter were dishonored—at which the daughter burst into tears.7

On the Baroness’ order, she now had to open her iron strongbox, in which was found a steel cigarette case with a sapphire and with the engraved name “Rudolf,” together with a will dated the 18 January 1889. Called to account for the source of the cigarette case, she claimed to her mother to have received it from the Countess Larisch8; the Countess had herself purportedly received the case from the Crown Prince in the course of the previous summer and had given it to her when she had remarked in jest that she adored9 the Crown Prince! The Baroness ← 4 | 5 → had to consider this information trustworthy when the Countess confirmed it, as the Baronesse had indicated she would. Since there was nothing further to be discovered to evoke even the slightest suspicion, she could not in the slightest attribute any serious significance to the will, but rather considered it to be only a product of [her daughter’s] youthful overwrought state. She remarked to her daughter that everyone would be compelled to laugh at her for stringing together such nonsense.

After this scene, the Baronesse looked very pale and strained, but seemed to recover in the afternoon; she then took her customary walk with her mother, from which they returned home after 5 o’clock. About an hour later, as the Baroness sought out her daughter in her room, she had disappeared from the house.

Seeking information from the servants, the Baroness found she had to assume that her daughter had seized upon the ill-conceived notion of going to visit Countess Larisch alone—the Countess was, as she discovered at this time, back in Vienna again.

The Baroness thus immediately hurried to the Grand Hotel, where, however, the porter informed her that the two ladies had just driven off into the Salesianergasse.10 Upon her return home, she found her daughter in bed, pale as a corpse and speechless, fallen victim to a kind of nervous attack. Her elder daughter reported to her that, after her return, her sister Mary had collapsed on the floor in her room, upon which she had, with the help of the Countess, put Mary immediately to bed. The Countess then asked: “What have you two done with her? I wrote her that it was impossible for me to come to her tonight, and when she begged a second time for me to come anyway, I had her told orally that I have to meet with the Empress at 7:00. Then she suddenly came rushing in to me, threw the iron cigarette case that I gave her at my head, with the words: ‘Take it back, I’m going to [to throw myself] into the Danube straightaway,’ and then fell to the floor in a fit, just as now. I put her back together and brought her directly home here, while I asked her to consider just exactly what her mother would say to her leaving the house alone.”


VIII, 231
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
history future Habsburg nostalgia
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 231 pp.

Biographical notes

Katherine Arens (Author)

Katherine Arens received her PhD from the Departments of German Studies and Humanities at Stanford University. Currently she is a professor in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Arens served as past president of the Austrian Studies Association and member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and has written widely on Austrian and German intellectual and cultural history and minority discourses.


Title: Belle Necropolis
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