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Belle Necropolis

Ghosts of Imperial Vienna


Katherine Arens

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.
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2. From Mayerling’s Ghosts to Today’s Revenants: An Introduction to the Memory Cultures of Austria


An Introduction to the Memory Cultures of Austria

Thinking in Dickensian terms, the ghosts of Mayerling have been for Austria both spirits of the past of its possible futures—morbid harbingers, indeed.

The story of that fateful night in January, 1889, is central to the modern memory of the Habsburgs and Austria-Hungary1—the story of a crumbling monarchy, a doomed crown prince, and an ancient emperor with a mad wife who is “never spared anything” by fate or political circumstance.

I have argued in detail elsewhere2 that In memoriam (Helene Vetsera’s Denkschrift) was by no means intended to tell a true tale, but rather a plausible one that could serve to salvage her family from this imperial disaster. Rudolf had, after all, been unreliable for years (and Helene Vetsera may well have been his first mistress), given his unhappy marriage, increasing ill-health, and lack of voice during his father’s reign. The stereotypes proliferate: the Empress is distant, if not disturbed3; Emperor Franz Joseph is conservative, pedantic, sometimes cruel, and enjoying his mistress; the court is a cabal - a camarilla -,incapable of action, corrupt, and willing to destroy its own children. Helene Vetsera lives at the edge of those circles: her narrative elides her family’s own relatively close connections to the court’s inner circles, with two sisters married to court officials, and two brothers noted gentleman jockeys and members of the Jockey Club.4

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