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Elisabeth of Bavaria

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Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria (House of Wittelsbach), Empress-Consort of Austria and Queen-Consort of Hungary, was born in Munich, Germany on 24 December 1837 and died in Geneva, Switzerland on 10 September 1898. Her father was Maximilian, Duke in Bavaria, and her mother was Princess Ludovika of Bavaria; her family home was Castle Possenhofen[?]. From an early age, she was called Sisi by family and friends.

Her life

In the summer of 1853, Elisabeth, aged 15, accompanied her mother and her older sister, Helene, on a trip to the resort of Ischl[?], Upper Austria [1] (http://www.aeiou.at/aeiou.encyclop.b/b041313.htm;internal&action=_setlanguage.action?LANGUAGE=en), where they hoped Helene would attract the attention of their cousin, 23-year-old Franz Joseph, then Emperor of Austria. Instead, Franz Joseph chose Elisabeth, and the couple were married in Vienna in the spring of 1854.

Right from the start, Elisabeth had difficulty adapting to the strict etiquette practiced at the Habsburg court. Nevertheless she bore the Emperor three children in quick succession: Sophie (1855-1858), Gisela (1856-1932), and the hoped-for crown prince, Rudolf (1858-1889). Elisabeth was denied any major influence on her own children's upbringing, however, and soon after Rudolf's birth the marriage started to deteriorate. Elisabeth embarked on a life of travel, seeing very little of her offspring. She visited places such as Madeira, Hungary, England, and Corfu, where she commissioned the building of a castle which she called Achilleion[?]. (Later, she lost interest in the building and it was sold to the German Emperor Wilhelm II).

National unrest within the Habsburg monarchy caused by the rebellious Hungarians led, in 1867, to the foundation of the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy, making Elisabeth Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. Elisabeth had always sympathized with the Hungarian cause and, reconciled and reunited with her alienated husband, she joined Franz Joseph in Budapest, where their coronation took place. In due course, their fourth child, Marie-Valerie, was born (1868 - 1924). Afterwards, however, she again took up her former life of restlessly travelling through Europe.

In 1889, Elisabeth's life was shattered by the death of her only son: 31 year-old Crown Prince Rudolf had obviously first shot his young lover, Maria Vetsera[?], and then himself in a hunting lodge in Mayerling, Lower Austria.

On 10 September 1898 in Geneva, Switzerland, Elisabeth, aged 61, was stabbed to death with a file in a pointless act of anarchism. Reportedly, her assassin, a young man called Luigi Lucheni, had failed to encounter the man he really wanted to kill and turned on Elisabeth instead as she was walking along the promenade of Lake Geneva about to board a steamship for Montreux. She was buried in the Kapuzinergruft, the crypt in Vienna's city centre which for centuries served as the imperial burial place.

Elisabeth: The myth

While Elisabeth's role in, and influence on, Austro-Hungarian politics should not be overestimated (she is only marginally mentioned in scholarly books on Austrian history), Elisabeth, particularly during the second half of the 20th century, has undoubtedly become an icon now often compared to Princess Diana. A free spirit who abhorred conventional court protocol and at the same time a tragic figure, she has inspired filmmakers and theatre people alike.

In the German-speaking world, her name will forever be associated with a trilogy of romantic films about her life directed by Ernst Marischka[?] starring a young and still unknown Romy Schneider in the title role:

  • Sissi (1955)
  • Sissi -- die junge Kaiserin (1956) (Sissi -- The Young Empress)
  • Sissi -- Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin (1957) (Sissi -- Fateful Years of an Empress)

The three films, now newly restored and colorized[?], are almost regularly shown on Austrian and German TV and have helped a lot to create the myth surrounding Elisabeth. It may be assumed that for the average Austrian these films are the only source of knowledge as far as Elisabeth's life is concerned. A condensed version dubbed in English was published under the title Forever My Love.

In the 1980s, Brigitte Hamann, a historian also renowned for her more recent book on Hitler's early years in Vienna (see bibliography), wrote a biography of Elisabeth, again fuelling interest in Franz Joseph's consort.

In 1992, the musical Elisabeth premièred at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. It was written by Michael Kunze[?] (libretto, lyrics) and Sylvester Levay[?] (music). For years, busloads of theatregoers from all over Austria and its neighbouring countries were shipped to Vienna to see the show. Meanwhile, the musical has had successful runs in other parts of Europe as well.

Tourism has profited enormously from the renewed interest in Elisabeth and vice versa, both in Austria and abroad. Apart from buying the usual souvenirs[?] such as T-shirts and coffee mugs, visitors are eager to see the various places of residence frequented by Elisabeth at different points in her life. These include her apartments in Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the imperial villa in Ischl[?], and the Achilleon[?] in Corfu, Greece. She also had a summer residence in Gödöllö.

Finally, countless fansites on the Internet pay tribute to an exceptional woman who was in many ways ahead of her times. The three addresses below are just random examples:

Further reading

  • Brigitte Hamann: The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Knopf: 1986) (ISBN 0394537173) (410pp.).

  • Brigitte Hamann: Sissi, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (Taschen America: 1997) (ISBN 3822878650) (short, illustrated).

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