The image of the beautiful Kaiserin Sissi of Austria-Hungary is ubiquitous across Austria, and especially Vienna. She is seen as a reminder of the romantic past of Austria, a past of beauty, elegance and “the real Austria”. However this is an image at odds with the reality of her life.
Elisabeth (Sissi) Wittelsbach became the sixteen year old wife of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary in 1854. Sissi, who had been brought up in the, relatively, impoverished and informal atmosphere of Possenhofen castle found life in the Viennese court oppressive with its insistence on strict protocol. Her husband, the Emperor Franz Josef brought up in the atmosphere of Habsburg adherence to duty, was a workaholic in thrall to his mother, Duchess Sophie, who actively disapproved of Sissi, who was her niece. The birth of three children in quick succession did little to help the situation as Sophie took on much of the responsibility and authority for the care of the children. Sissi withdrew into herself, travelled abroad frequently, claiming illness, and seldom appeared in public. This did little to endear her to the ordinary people of Austria and isolated her from the aristocracy at court. She found refuge in the countryside of Hungary where the people found her to be their “champion”, further alienating her from Austrians.
So why should Sissi have become the symbol of the glorious past of Austria? In 1954, when the new Austrian Republic appeared they had, as all new countries do, to find a creation myth. But because Austria was more an old country reinventing itself, rather than a newly created one, they were burdened by their recent past. The ease with which the Anschluss occurred had exposed the levels of Austrian anti-semitism. This was not a country which had Nazism imposed upon it, rather it was a country readily receptive to such ideas. By the 1950s when Austria was reinventing itself it found an anchor in the past of the late nineteenth century. The music of Strauss, the glamour of the last Habsburg court, even the romantic tragedy of the deaths at Mayerling were preferable to the reality of the recent past. This was, in part aided by the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 which forbade any union between Germany and Austria. Set free from any relationship with Germany Austria could thus move forward by looking back. The previous years could be set aside as a temporary aberration. Those on the left in Austria, keen to explore the fascism of the previous years, were faced with a denial swathed in a sea of ballgowns and a truth drowned out by the waltz of the Blue Danube. The nascent tourism industry took off, aided by a world weary of war and looking for fantasy and diversion. Sissi with her undoubted beauty provided that fantasy. The film industry joined in with several films about the “true Austria” culminating in Ernst Marischka’s Sissi trilogy: Sissi (1955), Sissi: Die Junge Kaiserin (1957), and Sissi: Schicksaljahre einer Kaiserin (1957). Highly popular the films embedded the romantic fantasy of the beautiful Kaiserin Sissi into the Austrian conscience. A place which she retains to this day.