On January 30, 1889, the body of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary was found alongside his teenage mistress at his Mayerling hunting lodge outside of Vienna. Though more questions than answers surround their deaths, many believe it may have been the fulfillment of a murder-suicide pact. Rudolf's death had global repercussions, and anticipated the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the start of World War I.
Born on August 21, 1858, Rudolf was the only son and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary. Rudolf had a difficult childhood and a turbulent young adulthood. His drug and alcohol use fueled a dramatic love life, and he probably ended up with syphilis before he was 30. In 1888, Rudolf began an affair with Baroness Mary Vetsera, and by January 1889, the two had apparently entered into a kind of suicide pact.
The Mayerling incident’s true significance lies in what happened in the wake of the tragedy. Rudolf’s death threw the imperial line of succession into crisis. Eventually, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was named the new heir; he was Rudolf’s cousin and a man whose own violent death in 1914 led to world war. Anyone asking, “How did WWI start?” needs to begin at the Mayerling story.
On January 30, 1889, the bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf, age 30, and his 17-year-old lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, were found together, shot to death in bed at the prince's hunting lodge in Mayerling, Austria. According to the medical reports of the time, it appeared that Mary had been dead for upwards of 40 hours, while Rudolf was more recently deceased. The baroness was reportedly holding a wilted rose and covered in blood.
When Rudolf met 17-year-old Mary Vetsera in 1888, there was a small technicality: he was already married. Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie of Belgium in 1881 when he was 22, and the couple had a daughter two years later. But that didn't stop him from engaging in a number of extramarital affairs; Mary Vetsera was only the latest in a line of mistresses. As a teenager, she fell hard and fast for the reportedly dashing and sensitive prince, even though she probably wasn't the love of Rudolf's life.
Under Franz Joseph, Austria-Hungary was a clunky old empire made up of a hodgepodge of ethnic and national groups, many of whom were yearning for their own nation-states. Unlike his father, Rudolf sympathized with them and crafted his liberal political views in opposition to his notoriously conservative father.
As opposed to his pro-German father, Rudolf didn't want Austria-Hungary to get too close to Germany, claiming, "Germany needs this alliance more than we do." Many even went so far as to assume that Rudolf would scrap an alliance with Germany — an alliance that ultimately dragged Germany into World War I — in favor of starting one with France or Great Britain, the nations Austria-Hungary eventually fought from 1914-1918. If Rudolf had lived to have a greater influence over Austrian politics, he just may have steered his empire — and the world — in an entirely different direction.
Rudolf was a man of large appetites and heavy addictions. His numerous love affairs had probably left him with syphilis, experts speculated, or perhaps gonorrhea. He more than likely passed his STDs on to his wife, rendering her infertile.
Apart from his affairs and alcoholism, Rudolf also used morphine. He may have been using drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication, however; like his mother, he may have struggled with depression.