When studying the outbreak of the First World War, the death of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is an established catalyst in starting the war that would engulf Europe and the rest of the world for four years. What is less well known, however, is the controversial circumstances surrounding the death of an heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire 25 years prior; the manner of Crown Prince Rudolf’s demise would have lasting political significance and paved the way not only to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but also to the outbreak of the First World War.
On the 30th of January 1889, the body of Crown Prince Rudolf was discovered at the Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, near Vienna. Whilst initially the cause and manner of the Prince’s death was uncertain, it became evident that the Prince had shot himself. Alongside the married Prince was the 17 year old Baroness Mary Vetsera, with whom he had been having an affair, and who had been killed by a gunshot wound to the head. The news was met with horror and disbelief and whilst attempts were made to shield the public from the truth, the fact the pair had died in an apparent suicide pact became common knowledge. Whilst conspiracy theories raged both at the time as well as into the present day, the general consensus of historians is that Rudolf had had previous tendencies towards suicide and was unhappy with his father’s demand that Rudolf should end his relationship with the Baroness.
As the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth and without a son himself, Rudolf’s premature death posed a serious dynastic problem. Franz Joseph’s brother Karl Ludwig became heir-presumptive, only for him to waive his succession rights in favour of his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand. However, Rudolf’s death had large political ramifications. Rudolf was far more liberal than his father, and his death meant the conservative and reactionary policies of Franz Joseph were far easier to pursue without objections from his son. For this reason, Rudolf’s death endangered the growing reconciliation between the Austrian and Hungarian factions of the Empire, deepening tensions not just in Austria and Hungary but also in the Balkans. Whilst Rudolf’s death did not predestine the First World War or the collapse of the Habsburg dynasty, the aftermath of the Mayerling Incident certainly shaped and contributed to the events that occurred in 1914.