Ghosts of Imperial Vienna
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
← 35 | 36 → Low tragedy was not lacking in...
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