Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs

Written by Greg King Penny Wilson
Review by Bethany Latham

The murder-suicide at Mayerling was an event that ripped a family, an empire, and eventually the entire world apart. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination touched off World War I, would never have been heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne had his cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf, not died at the imperial hunting lodge in 1889.

The authors deconstruct the accepted romanticization of the events at Mayerling as a tragic lovers’ suicide pact. Instead, here is a portrait of the Habsburgs at their zenith, an eccentric family done no favors by generations of inbreeding: the cold, regimented patriarch, Emperor Franz Josef; supremely selfish mother, Empress Elisabeth; and stifled, reckless and emotionally unstable heir Crown Prince Rudolf. Add to this recipe a hearty dose of political intrigue and a silly young baroness raised on romantic French novels in a completely amoral environment, and the stage is set for total disaster. King and Wilson’s prose is straightforward, and their research thorough. The build-up to Mayerling seems inevitable and events are fairly well-known, but the authors’ systematic examination of the events and personalities involved, presented in readable style, makes for a compelling treatment of the subject.