It began in October 1990, when I flew into the Vienna airport and images of the imperial city flashed across the cabin’s projection screen: palaces, gardens, the statue of Johann Strauss. I had no immediate opportunity to go into town as I was quickly whisked off to my assignment teaching English in a Czechoslovakia recently liberated from the Soviet yoke. But I was soon to bounce around ballroom floors to strains of Strauss with delightful Slovak females, and soon managed to dance away New Year’s Eve with a lovely Brazilian in a quaint Viennese inn. Still, it took me years to fully appreciate the connection between the Waltz King and the Habsburg emperor. More chronological coincidence than artistic patronage, but nonetheless the kind of thing you might hear in Julie Andrews’ commentary on a New Year’s broadcast from Vienna.
The Czech Connection
Franz Joseph began learning this Slavic language at the age of ten; coincidentally Olomouc, in today’s Czech Republic, is where he became emperor. By late November 1848, the revolutions convulsing Europe had spread to Vienna. The imperial family—FJ was the nephew of Emperor Ferdinand—fled the capital to this provincial capital of Northern Moravia, in today’s travel 3-4 hours northeast of Vienna. FJ’s uncle abdicated, while his father renounced the right to the throne in order to give the people a younger, and presumably more reform-minded, sovereign. Thus, at the tender age of 18, Franz Joseph became the ruler of a vast empire.
The humble ceremony—there was no grand coronation, given the circumstances—took place in the archbishop’s palace. Legend has it that FJ and his younger brother broke a huge mirror playing ball in the apartments later that evening but received only a mild reprimand. That building had itself been the subject of some humiliation a century before. So the story goes, the archbishop failed to summon the proper retinue of dignitaries to greet Empress Maria Theresa upon her arrival in town. In retribution she had an armory built right in front, which to this day frustrates photographers trying to get a decent angle on the façade.
I managed to get a fairly exclusive tour of the interior as a student of Czech during a summer program at František Palacký University in 1999, just a half year after the 150th anniversary of the “coronation.”
By the late 1990s, I’d been several times to Buda’s Castle Hill and visited the Matthias Church where FJ was crowned Apostolic King of Hungary, following the 1867 Ausgleich, or Compromise giving Hungary nearly equal status with Austria. (Thus the hyphenated name Austria-Hungary.) But now for a more obscure sight.
In 1998, I took a month of intensive language training at Debrecen University. I flew into Budapest a few days before the program and took a train to the town of Gödöllő, a half-hour to the east. I had some idea of its historical significance, since my summer reading was Alan Palmer’s Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph. Thanks to a good budget guide book, I got dirt-cheap lodgings at a campground near where Franz Joseph used to hunt. He was often accompanied on these retreats from Vienna and Budapest by his wife, Empress Elizabeth of the long dark tresses, more affectionately known as “Sissi.” While he was off shooting grouse or boar, she would indulge her passion for horse-back riding. Equestrianism is a favorite sport of the Magyars, who proudly cite it as part of their Asiatic origins—think of Mongols performing daring feats on ponies in the steppes.
They corresponded with each other regularly in the very difficult Magyar tongue, but Sissi acquired the greater taste for all things Hungarian. She was more beloved among the Magyar population than he – and in modern tourist attractions, particularly in Vienna, comes off as the more likeable of the couple. He appears as a stern, greying, mutton-chopped enforcer; she enjoys the role as his lovely consort.
Back in 1998, the chateau where the couple had stayed on their visits to the Hungarian countryside was under renovation after decades of socialist-era neglect. At least the central part of the building had been restored, but there was scaffolding all around. On a return trip in 2011, I was delighted to find the grounds completely renovated; the refurbished interiors featured not only delightful artwork, but also interactive history lessons on computer.
On the original visit, I was struck by a newspaper, dated Sept. 10, 1898, in a waist-level glass case with the headline in Magyar: “Our Queen has been Killed.” She’d been stabbed by an anarchist in Geneva while boarding a steamship. At the news, her husband exclaimed, “Mir bleibt doch gar nichts erspart auf dieser Welt!" (“So I’m to be spared nothing in this world!”), a reference to the execution of his brother Maximilian in an ill-fated attempt to become Emperor of Mexico, and the suicide of his son Rudolf.
And so I spent the summer learning Hungarian, reading Palmer’s history, watching horseback performances in the Great Hungarian Plain, and, along with convivial fellow students, sated my self with wine, spicy paprikash meals, and Gypsy music in country inns. My return flight on the Hungarian airline, Malév, was that Sept. 10. After liftoff, on the plane’s projection screen came news about the 100th anniversary of her assassination, commemorated, among other events, by a fashion show, appropriate for her glamorous reputation.
In 2000, before another trip to Olomouc for more language instruction, I made the journey to Bad Ischl, a spa town in the Salzkammergut. In this very quaint town surrounded by lush hills and rock formations, I began to understand that the gray and green colors dominating traditional Austrian dress are an imitation of natural surroundings. Franz Joseph also hunted in these hills, and the walls of the Kaiservilla are lined with antlers and mounted animal heads. I also learned that FJ used to take a private path down to the house of his confidante, the actress Katerina Schratt, who became something of a soulmate after his relations with Sissi cooled down, and even more so after her assassination. (There is considerable dispute over whether she was the emperor’s lover.)
And yet Franz Joseph kept a large portrait of his wife near his desk in Vienna’s Hofburg complex, the nerve center of his empire. Here, the austere old man would work from five AM signing papers and attending to other affairs of state. I can remember lingering there on a self-guided tour later that summer, gazing out the windows at the courtyard below, thinking how Ischl and Gödöllő provided only momentary escapes from this gilded cage.
Still, even the liberal, pacifist Jewish Austrian Stefan Zweig waxed nostalgic about this empire in The World of Yesterday. He lamented its breakup into nation states, which seemed to have set the stage for World War II. Could Austria-Hungary have evolved into a modern monarchy like the British, Swedish, or Spanish?
Who knows? But Franz Joseph, with his 68-year reign, the longest of the Habsburg dynasty, is the prime symbol of Central Europe’s “World of Yesterday.”