Even when she was a newborn, the world knew that Elisabeth Marie would make history. As the granddaughter of a powerful Emperor, little Elisabeth Marie held the title of Archduchess, only to live as a commoner and be buried in an unmarked grave. While her life contained great family tragedy, two world wars, and personal turmoil, Elisabeth Marie’s fall from royalty wasn’t due to bad luck. It was her choice. Uncover the startling, wholly unique life of Elisabeth Marie, the “Red Archduchess.”
Elisabeth Marie Facts
1. The Lone Heir
Born in 1883 as Elisabeth Marie Henriette Stephanie Gisela, the little Archduchess was the only child of Rudolf, the Crown Prince of Austria, and his wife, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. But even though Elisabeth Marie entered life in the lap of luxury, she also entered a world of drama. At the urging of Rudolf’s mother, who thought Stéphanie wasn’t good enough for her son, Rudolf began to detest his bride. In time, Stéphanie returned the favor. When it comes to these guys, “unhappy family” is an understatement.
2. Unholy Union
Elisabeth’s parents were notorious for not getting along with each other. Things were decent enough for them to have a child, but after Elisabeth was born, things began to turn sour for the royal couple. Rudolf’s liberal views strained his relationship with just about everyone and Stéphanie wasn’t exactly welcomed by her imperial in-laws. Unsurprisingly, both of them were having affairs.
3. The Pains of Sleeping Around
Elisabeth was an only child, but that didn’t happen because it was her parents’ intention. Instead, the reason was so much more sinister. After Elisabeth Marie’s birth, her father Rudolf contracted gonorrhea…which he then gave to his wife. With that, the chances of Elisabeth having siblings officially ended. The gonorrhea led Stéphanie to become sterile. Little Elisabeth would have to endure her crazy family alone.
Elisabeth’s nickname was Erzsi, a diminutive for her Hungarian name, Erzsébet.
5. Her Politics Ran Red
In history, Archduchess Elisabeth Marie isn’t called Erzsi. Instead, she’s more famously known as “The Red Archduchess,” a nickname she gained due to her radical politics. Despite being born with the bluest blood possible, when Elisabeth grew up, she only saw red. The Archduchess made waves when she pledged her allegiance to the Austrian Social Democratic Party.
6. Things Were ‘A Changing
To understand how radically things changed during Elisabeth Marie’s lifetime, just look at the earth-shattering events that befell her homeland. When Elisabeth was born in 1883, she entered the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the time of her passing in 1963, the same territory was called the new Austrian Republic.
7. The Cooling Twilight
Of all the scandal and drama in her life, the defining arc of the Archduchess’s time on earth was the decline and fall of the Hapsburg Empire…which also meant the collapse of her own family. One particularly ominous event occurred when little Elisabeth was only five years old. It would shape her life and foreshadow the doom that the imperial family, and soon all of Europe, would face.
8. The Pact That Changed History
In late January, 1889, Elisabeth’s father Rudolf and his young mistress Mary Vetsera went to Mayerling hunting lodge; Rudolf had arranged for a day of shooting. But when his valet went to rouse him that day, he found the door locked and the inner chamber silent. Knowing something was wrong, the man had to break down the door to open it. What he saw made his blood run cold.
Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Mary Vetsera were both dead from what is believed to have been a suicide pact. It is known to history as the Mayerling Incident.
9. Setting the Dominoes in Motion
The loss of Elisabeth’s father had consequences for more than just the royal family—it also made an enormous impact on the course of history. First, it completely destabilized the country and caused growing strife. Moreover, with Rudolf gone, the Austrian crown had to scramble to find the male heir required for royal succession. As a result, the crown passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, and then to his eldest son, a man who would make history in the worst way possible.
10. Tough Luck
That’s right, Rudolf’s demise paved the way for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the man whose assassination kicked off World War One. In this sense, Rudolf’s end wasn’t just the personal tragedy of a lovelorn man, but the end of the world as the Victorians knew it. It was into this unstable world that little Marie Elisabeth had to grow up, and without a father to boot.
11. Under the Emperor’s Watch
After the loss of Rudolf, his father Franz Joseph officially took over as the guardian to Elisabeth Marie. Thankfully, even though Stéphanie didn’t get on with Elisabeth, her grandfather Franz absolutely adored the grieving little girl. To make sure she would stay close, he went to a disturbing extreme. He officially banned Elisabeth’s mother Stéphanie from leaving Austria with her daughter in tow. If Stéphanie wanted to get out of town, she’d have to abandon her child.
12. Giving Up the Court
Erzsi’s reputation as a firecracker only grew as she matured. Though her personality is what her grandfather, Emperor Franz Joseph, prized most about her, it is also what led her to question and interrogate foundational elements of Austrian society. Her inquisitive nature led her to question the Viennese court, and she quickly opposed its pomp. In other words, Elisabeth wasn’t content with the status quo…and she wasn’t afraid to show it.
13. You’re So Vain
While Elisabeth had a close relationship with her grandfather, her relationship with her grandmother was an entirely different story. Her grandmother was the tragic Empress Elisabeth, a woman whose great beauty netted her fame…as well as great vanity. Because the Empress did not want to identify herself as an old grandmother, she took out her insecurities on her grandchild. She did not maintain a close relationship with any of her grandchildren, including her own namesake, little Elisabeth.
14. Hidden Love
Like her son Rudolf, Empress Elisabeth met a horrific end. When the anarchist Luigi Lucheni heard that Elisabeth was in town under a fake name, he devised a chilling plan. Lucheni found the Empress walking toward her ship, almost entirely alone. He went up, peered under her parasol, and struck her in the heart with a crude four-inch needle file. Within moments, she collapsed and died. The Empress had been assassinated. But for little Elisabeth Marie, that was just the beginning of a jaw-dropping revelation.
15. Surprise, You’ve Got Money
Even after Empress Elisabeth’s shocking death, the reluctant grandmother still managed to surprise her family. Despite being chilly and distant to her granddaughter Erzsi, the Empress bequeathed her nearly her entire inheritance.
16. Starting the Renunciation Tradition
After her young daughter’s father and grandmother had both passed in such violent ways, you’d think that Stéphanie would step it up in the mom department and try to mend things with Elisabeth Marie. But you’d be wrong! Instead, the Crown Princess Stéphanie focused her attentions on a controversial new suitor: The Hungarian Count Elemer Lonyay.
17. 95 Theses Not to Marry a Protestant
In 1900, Stéphanie shocked the world by announcing that she would renounce her royal title to wed her new beau. The marriage caused a great controversy, and not just because it meant that Stéphanie was abandoning the crown. Not only was Elemer Lonyay significantly younger than his wealthy bride, he was also a Protestant. Many disapproved of their relationship, including Elisabeth, who felt that her mother was betraying her father by marrying the Count. In time, Elisabeth went to disturbing extremes to show her mother how deeply she disapproved.
18. Motherly Hate
Elisabeth and Stéphanie’s already tense mother-daughter relationship started to devolve with snipes, fights, and distance. But by the time Stéphanie married her second husband, Elisabeth took things to the next level. She was so upset that she cut off all contact with her mother and refused to maintain any kind of relationship with her. In retaliation, Stéphanie would betray her own daughter with an utterly brutal gesture.
19. When One Inheritance Closes, Another One Opens
Elisabeth hurt her mother by cutting off contact, so Stéphanie fought fire with fire. She retaliated by heartlessly disinheriting her own daughter.
20. Cream of the Crop
Elisabeth was a beautiful woman, with a rich background and a royal family at the head of one of the world’s great Empires. Because of her wealth and social standing, she easily had a spot on the shortlist of the most desirable women in all of Europe. Many European princes considered making her their princess, but ultimately Prince Albert of Belgium chose her to be his bride. The two got married and lived happily ever after. Just kidding! Their flirtation was a huge catastrophe.
21. King Leopold Knew No Loyalty
After the fiasco with Elisabeth’s cradle-robbing, crown-abandoning mother, Prince Albert’s father King Leopold II–not known as the nicest man on Earth–rejected Archduchess Elisabeth. As though his dad’s disapproval wasn’t enough, Albert’s sister, Henriette, also harshly criticized his bridal choice. Ultimately, Prince Albert’s family forced him to drop the idea of marrying Elisabeth. The public rejection was a huge social scandal…but Elisabeth wouldn’t give up.
22. Reaching Out from the Cradle
At a court ball, Elisabeth met Prince Otto Weriand von Windisch-Gratz. Though she was ten years younger than him, she fell desperately in love with the older man. However, the odd couple had more to deal with than just their age difference. Otto was also significantly lower in rank than his new arm candy. As such, Elisabeth had to beg her grandfather Franz Joseph to give her permission to wed Otto.
This is where being Franz’s favorite granddaughter came into play. He shocked Europe by permitting the unconventional marriage. But in the years to come, he’d wish he said no.
23. Keeping the Family Names
Soon after Franz Joseph gave his blessing to Elisabeth and Otto’s union, Elisabeth Marie and her beloved Otto got married in 1902. They had four children, three sons, and one daughter. As an homage to Elisabeth’s deceased father, she named one of her sons Rudolf. And then, in a heartbreaking gesture to her estranged mother, she named her only daughter Stephanie. Unfortunately, this gesture would go sour.
24. Continuing the Cycle
Don’t go getting weepy about the whole Stephanie name too quickly. When Princess Stephanie grew up, she did not have a good relationship with her mother, Elisabeth. Sound familiar?
25. Secret Wedding
To Elisabeth, she and Otto were a match made in heaven, but to Otto, things were a little less romantic. Otto didn’t realize how serious young Elisabeth felt about him and not only that, it turns out that he was more than prepared to keep on living his life without her. He was already engaged to another woman, and it took a brutal gesture to make him leave his first choice to walk down the aisle with Elisabeth: Emperor Franz Joseph had to order Otto to marry Elisabeth. Sounds like a great start to a relationship.
26. The Renunciation Games
Elisabeth’s wish to marry Prince Otto did not come without any conditions. Because Otto came from a far less prestigious house than his 19-year-old bride, Emperor Franz Joseph agreed to the marriage under one condition. He told Elisabeth that she had to renounce her succession rights if she wanted to walk down the aisle with Otto. This meant that if she and Otto had children, they would never rule Austria. Head over heels in love, Elisabeth agreed to her grandfather’s terms.
27. You Can’t Force Love
Elisabeth adored Otto, but then again, she wasn’t the one who had been literally forced into the marriage. Otto was deeply unhappy with his royal bride, and soon enough, his eye began to stray. After only a year of marriage, Elisabeth discovered that Otto was cheating on her with a beautiful young actress in Prague. The girl’s name was Louise Ziegler, and though she didn’t know it, her days were numbered.
28. Heat of the Moment
Upon finding out about the affair between Otto and his young actress girlfriend, Elisabeth became enraged and soon enough, utterly deranged. When she couldn’t control herself anymore, Elisabeth took a golden pistol and burst into her husband’s bedchambers. Otto’s valet attempted to keep Elisabeth from entering the room, but when he saw her weapon, he realized he had no choice.
29. Seeing Red
At her wit’s end, a frantic Elisabeth stormed into Otto’s private quarters only to have her worst fears confirmed: Her husband wasn’t alone. Louise Ziegler was in bed with him. At that point, Elisabeth saw red. She raised her pistol, shot her rival in the chest, and broke down into tears. The young actress died, and even though scandal erupted throughout the empire, Elisabeth never paid for her chilling actions. She literally got away with murder.
30. Let’s Open This Thing Up, Honey
As though actual murder didn’t give it away, Otto and Elisabeth were far from a happy couple. Even so, they were part of the upper crust and so they had to keep up appearances by maintaining their deranged marriage. Eventually, they figured out a way to remain married and stay sane: They agreed to let each other enjoy other people’s company, if you know what we mean. Even though Elisabeth had a ring on her finger, she was ready to enjoy the perks of being a single woman.
31. That Wasn’t Fun While It Lasted
While Franz Joseph lived, Elisabeth Marie and Otto had little choice but to keep up the charade of their marriage. But when he passed away, all bets were off. With the dissolution of the Austrian monarchy in 1918, Elisabeth’s entire world changed. She was now free from the monarch and could finally explore the rebellious intellectual circles she was interested in. As she explored her country’s new social movements, she entered her most rebellious phase yet.
32. Das Kapital
In 1921, Elisabeth began the stage of her life that would define her legacy. She shocked the world by officially renouncing her royal lineage and joining the left-wing Social Democratic Party. With this rebellious shift, the papers renamed Elisabeth Marie. Say goodbye to the high-spirited Habsburg royal and the tempestuous, pistol-toting wife. Elisabeth was now “The Red Archduchess.”
33. Is This What Happiness Looks Like?
When Elisabeth attended one of the Social Democratic election meetings, she met a man who would change everything. She and , who was the president of the party’s auditing office, struck up a relationship that would last for the rest of their lives. Finally, after generations of dysfunction, a woman in the Austrian royal family would finally enjoy a stable relationship. However, Elisabeth and Petznek’s love story wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
34. You Always Want What You Can’t Have
Just like before, Elisabeth fell in love with a man who had baggage, and that’s putting it lightly. Petznek didn’t just have another woman in his life. He was fully married with a child, and to make matters even more messed up, his wife was deeply ill and had to be institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. When she eventually passed away, Elisabeth and Petznek were free to make things official…but first, Elisabeth had to do something forbidden in the royal world: Get a divorce.
35. Leaving the Craziness Behind
After living her entire life under royal confines, Elisabeth was happy to live like a regular woman. But in order to shed the last vestiges of her old live as an archduchess, she had to officially split with her husband Otto. Unsurprisingly, their divorce was incredibly tumultuous. The bitter exes engaged in a long, drawn out custody battle over their four beloved children, Franz Joseph, Ernest, Rudolf, and Stephanie.
36. Just Don’t Mess with Her Children
When Elisabeth heard the court’s ruling over her custody battle, her heart broke. The law had decreed that she would only retain custody of her two eldest sons. Furious and devastated, Elisabeth refused to abide by the ruling without a fight. She is said to have intimidated Prince Otto into allowing her to retain custody of all her children. According to rumors, she either sent armed socialists to Otto’s house or threatened to commit suicide. Whichever method, it worked. Elisabeth got her children.
37. No Mommy Dearest
Elisabeth was happy to have custody over her children, though that doesn’t mean it led to having a great relationship with them. Two of her sons left Elisabeth to be with their father, but compared to what happened with her daughter Stephanie, abandonment is nothing. When Stephanie grew up, she married her first husband solely because she knew her mother despised him. As the wedding approached, Stephanie and Elisabeth publicly feuded over whether or not Stephanie had invited Mommie Dearest to the wedding.
38. Putting Your Kids to Work
When her son Rudolf was a child, Elisabeth wasn’t content with him attending school. By then, she was a staunch socialist and believed he would gain more by working in a factory. Accordingly, she pulled him out of school and put him to work.
39. Some Like it Haughty
Elisabeth joined the Social Democrat circles and fit in seamlessly. Her partner Leopold Petznek was also popular, or he was in the right social circles. Petznek became the President of the Lower Austrian parliament, and the public was generally supportive of the leftist couple. However, aristocratic circles never welcomed the ex-archduchess’ beau. Ironically, they said it was because Petznek was too “haughty.” Pot, meet kettle.
40. Up at the Villa
In 1929, Elisabeth undermined her usually socialist views and lived the high life one last time. She bought herself the big ol’ villa that would become her and Leopold Petznek’s new home. Elisabeth and her beau would live here for 20 happy years, until a cataclysmic event changed everything, not just for Elisabeth and Petzneck, but all of Europe. In 1939, World War II began.
41. The Right Side of History
When Hitler rose to power, Elisabeth immediately knew what she thought of him. She said that he was an abhorrent dictator and warned that he would create a world where “hatred reigns.”
42. Cool Hand Leopold
While Elisabeth was furiously denouncing Hitler, her beau Leopold Petznek had his own fair share of run-ins with the brutal regime. In 1933, the ruling Austrian government imprisoned him. Then, in 1944, things got even worse. The Nazis captured Petznek and put him in the Dachau concentration camp for seven horrific months. Miraculously, he survived life in Dachau and was able to return to Elisabeth afterward.
43. Putting the Money on Red
As WWII raged, Elisabeth was fighting in more ways than one. Not only was her husband captured by the Nazis, her dramatic divorce from Otto continued with a seemingly endless series of court battles. In 1934, one particular accusation marked a new low in the couple’s drawn-out split. Otto and one Elisabeth’s sons accused her of frivolously wasting the profits from the family’s sold estate on donations to the Social Democrats. They eventually dropped the motion, but it shows the contempt that Elisabeth held for the imperial class.
44. No-Fuss Marriage
In 1948, Elisabeth and Otto officially divorced, and shortly thereafter, she married Petznek. This marriage was a quiet one. The couple never had much time for pomp and circumstance and their nuptials were no different. They did not even hold a service, instead deciding to make their bond official with some simple paperwork in the Vienna registry office.
45. Coming Home
Even after WWII ended, Vienna remained occupied for many years. For Elisabeth and Petznek, this meant that they were barred from their beloved villa. It was occupied first by Soviet boots on the ground and then by French General Bethouart. It would take until 1955 for the couple to finally be allowed to return home. Sadly, by that point, they didn’t have much time left. Petznek died in 1956.
46. The Dog Whisperer
In her final years, Elisabeth had gout and needed a wheelchair. She is said to have grown reclusive and shied away from social life, instead spending her time breeding German Shepherds. Even though this sounds like a fine way to enjoy your twilight years, Elisabeth became eerily fixated with her dog hobby…and in time, she would take her passion to disturbing extremes.
47. A Girl with No Name
In March of 1963, Elisabeth passed away quietly at 79 years of age. While she was still alive, she made a jaw-dropping request, considering her royal background. Elisabeth didn’t want any pomp and circumstance accompanying her to the next life. Instead, she asked to be buried in an unmarked grave near the Vienna house that she had shared with her beloved Leopold. Her family respected her wishes, and they buried her next to her one true love.
48. Putting the Dogs to Sleep
Elisabeth had specific requests regarding her possessions, not just her own body after she passed away. Most of them made sense, but one of them was downright disturbing. She specifically requested that her dogs be put down after her burial. Apparently, this was so that she could keep them from suffering at the hands of any trainers besides herself. Um, Elisabeth…if you don’t want them to suffer, maybe don’t kill them?
49. Where There’s a Will, There’s a State
Elisabeth had a great many imperial possessions, and she did not want anything to happen to them after she was gone, nor for anybody to profit from their worth. So she came up with a plan: Elisabeth willed over 500 Hapsburg Imperial family heirlooms to the Republic of Austria. As for her collection of art and books, she asked for them to “be put back in their former places.”
Elisabeth’s villa is still intact and has been owned and operated by the Japanese Buddhist community, Soka Gakkai, since 1995.