• Lucy

'Faith killed by a bullet': the beliefs of Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

When we think of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (or ‘Sisi’), the image of the wonderfully charming Romy Schneider running up the steps of Schönbrunn palace may come to mind. However, the life of this lonely woman was marked by death, and after the suicide of her only son Rudolf, she retreated into a world of grief, wearing only mourning for most of the rest of her life. While Spiritualism provided a great deal of comfort to many, it and the Catholic Church in which Sisi was raised and which prevailed at the Austrian court are not compatible. Ultimately, she was a tormented soul looking for peace. She sought to find it in Spiritualism, but one can question if it truly brought her solace, or drove her further into herself.

The Empress and Spiritualism

Spiritualism is the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. This movement first began with the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, as well as the experiments of Anton Mesmer.[1] It did not take long for Spiritualism to spread to Europe from America (firstly through newspaper reports) and the first serious treatment of it in Europe was in the 1850s.[2] Despite the 19th century being associated with the swift advance of science and technology, people tended to hold strong beliefs in the supernatural and paranormal. This is perhaps a result of the high death rate of the time. People were desperate to cling onto any hope that they could reach.

Parapsychology as a field in Austria began with Baron Hellenbach von Paczolay, who brought mediums to Vienna.[3] These séances took place in the presence of members of the imperial family, including Crown Prince Rudolf (Sisi’s only son). After a sitting in the Hofburg Palace, Archduke Johann Salvator (a close friend of the Crown Prince) wrote a brochure which claimed fraud.[4] This was not the first (or last) time that such an event happened in the Empress' circle. In fact, there was plenty of amateur research into Spiritualistic phenomena carried out by the Austrian aristocracy: Rudolf’s daughter, Erzsi, brought the ‘poltergeist girl’ Molnár Wilma to her castle. Although no publication came from her extensive observations, it was clearly a matter of great interest to the aristocracy, including those surrounding Sisi.[5] The Austrian court was not alone in its curiosity; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert participated in séances, and Spiritualism hastily became a part of 19th century European culture.

For those who already believed in Spiritualism, the test of a message would be its veracity. If the message were found to be true, then the experience was deemed as authentic, especially if the knowledge was previously unknown to the recipient.[6] Sisi sought validity of her experiences with her dead cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and the vision of him supposedly took her hand in order to prove that it was not a dream.[7]

According to Marie Larisch’s account (which must be looked at cautiously as a source), Sisi claimed frequently to speak with Ludwig II.[8] The king of Bavaria was one of the few people that Sisi felt understood her, and we see that after Ludwig’s death, Sisi’s spiritualist tendencies greatly increased.[9] The first visit that Sisi claims to have experienced was the night after Ludwig’s death:

I heard a monotonous drip, drip of water. […] I took no notice until the noise was succeeded by the unmistakable ripple of water when it kisses the shore. We heard it often as we rode by Lake Starnberg.[10] […] I began to experience all the sensations of drowning. […] Then I saw the door open very slowly, and Ludwig came within. His clothes were heavy with water […] his damp hair lay close round his white face, but it was Ludwig much as he looked in life.[11]

In 1874, over ten years before the death of the Bavarian king, Crookes claimed that such phantom forms were the work of evil spirits, come to pull people away from Christianity.[12] The Church condemned calling spirits; however, in the 19th century it did not denounce the popular belief that the spirits of murdered people or suicides haunted the living.[13] How Ludwig died is uncertain; the body of the king was found floating face down in Starnberg Lake. To this day, various theories circle about him being murdered or him committing suicide by running into the water. The account that we have of Ludwig’s visit to Sisi shows that this visitation was not sought by her. This, then, was not bad Christian practice on her behalf (although we are unsure of how exactly Ludwig died).

Ludwig’s spirit claimed death had not brought him peace.[14] Ludwig described himself as an ‘earth bound soul’,[15] which suggests that he had not made it to any form of heaven or hell. Ludwig then prophesied about his ex-fiancée, Sisi’s favourite sister, Sophie: ‘she burns in torment […] and I am powerless to save her’.[16] Sophie was later to die in a fire. Buckland claims that many messages received from the other side are symbolic, and this would certainly be symbolic of Sophie’s death.[17] Ludwig additionally claims that after Sisi died, she would join Ludwig and Sophie in Paradise.[18]

For Carter, phenomena could be explained by wishful thinking, self-deception, and ‘morbid states of mind’.[19] One could infer that Sisi’s experiences were a result of this, as she was often in a morose mindset: her sorrow was so great that she wished for death to take her: ‘Mama said today that she often longs for death’ (Marie Valerie). Not only would the vision of Ludwig bring the comfort that she could still communicate with this kindred soul, it would also provide her with a positive view of the afterlife. However, the claims that Ludwig was an earth bound soul and yet would join Sisi in Paradise seem confusing and contradictory. Rudolf noted her hysterical and overwrought condition after Ludwig’s death.[20] In Carter’s view, this would account for the vision which Sisi had of Ludwig the night following his demise.

In the 19th century, women were regarded as more spiritual than men, and as being better mediums due to their natural predisposition to spirituality.[21] Excepting her daughter Marie Valerie, Sisi was incapable of communication and relationship with others. Yet, she sought understanding of the souls of the past, and even the ‘future souls’a to which she dedicated her poetry (dictated to her by the dead poet, Heinrich Heine).[22] Mulacz argues that while it was a kind of faith for her, it lacked critical analysis, and was probably a result of Rudolf’s death,[23] for which she felt guilty. There does appear to be a lack of critical analysis from Sisi, however, there is plenty of evidence for Sisi practising Spiritualism long before Rudolf’s death (Ludwig died before Rudolf). Perhaps her attachment to it could have grown after he Rudolf died, especially as she claimed that her faith in Christianity was killed alongside him.

The most famous example of Sisi practising Spiritualism is that of her obsession with Heinrich Heine and believing that he dictated poetry through her: ‘the Master dictated them to me’ she wrote in 1890, a year after her son’s suicide.[24] This is an example of automatic writing, where writing is produced under the control of spirits. She felt that she was the executor of Heine’s will.[25] This imaginary ‘soul traffic’ was the consolation and peace of Sisi which completely isolated from her contemporaries.[26]

One letter to Marie Valerie said one night she lay awake, and Heine appeared. Then, Sisi had a sensation that his soul was trying to take possession of hers:

The struggle lasted only a few moments but Jehovah was stronger. He would not allow my soul to leave my body. The vision faded, and in spite of my disappointment at continuing to live, it left me happy – strengthened in my sometimes wavering faith, with an increased love of Jehovah and the conviction that he sanctioned the intercourse between my soul and that of Heine.[27]

This is an example of Spiritualistic experiences strengthening the Christian faith of its followers, an argument which was often used to support the practice of Spiritualism in the 19th century. Sisi is attempting to validate the experience she had by saying that it increased her love for God. We shall see, however, that Sisi’s beliefs (before they were ‘killed’ alongside Rudolf) were not of the orthodox kind. Yet, it is unsurprising that this deeply isolated woman sought connection with those she felt close to who had died. This could have provided a great deal of comfort to her, as the entire movement of Spiritualism did for many.

Spiritualism and Christianity

The arguments for Spiritualism being compatible with Christianity are in relation to the strengthening of faith and comfort that it brought. Giles St. Aubyn notes that the majority of those practising Spiritualism actually saw their ‘surrogate faith’ as being consistent with Christianity and actually reinforced it.[28] Sisi felt this also, as in recounting one incident to Marie Valerie, she said that ‘the visit had consoled her, for now she knew that spirits did not come at one’s bidding, but only when the great Jehova allowed them to’.[29] Yet the Church of which she was a member would strongly disagree with her. To this day, it advises heavily against the practice of Spiritualism.

Spiritualism provided the prospect of immortality for those who had rejected religious beliefs.[30] Fear of death is a universal human experience. Many are taunted by the question of the afterlife (including the self-professed atheist Rudolf). Sisi confided her fears of the afterlife to her friend Barker, and proposed to him that the first to die would give a sign to the other from beyond the grave.[31]

Scott raises an interesting point in regards to what Spiritualism teaches about the afterlife: ‘that man survives the death of his body — this would appear to be the one and all sufficient doctrine of the spiritualist creed, whereas mere survival is not what Christianity is concerned with at all, but with life eternal which consists in the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ’.[32] So although is clearly provided reassurance to many, this hope was not entirely in line with the teachings of the Church and what eternal life means within it

The Empress and Catholicism

Haslip makes reference to the deep rooted Catholicism of Sisi’s Bavarian childhood.[33] While religion was very much present in the Bavarian court, Sisi’s immediate family was rather liberal and tolerant.[34] Her mother, Ludovika, was not very religious in contrast to her sister Sophie (Sisi’s mother in law).[35] One is able to see items such as rosaries and a gothic prayer kneeler inthe Empress' bedroom in the Hofburg Palace. She clearly prayed, as she asked the vision of Ludwig to pray with her for peace.[36] Yet, Sisi had no real religious conviction. This is shown by the fact that she would frequently shun religious ceremonies where she was to play an important role. Had she a deep conviction, surely she would overcome her shyness in order to play her part. Additionally, Sisi was anticlerical, which was hugely problematic as the monarchy in the 19th century had close links with the Church.[37]

The consolation Sisi drew from her Spiritualist experiences appear to have increased the Christian faith that she did have (at least up until the death of her son). Marie Valerie wrote that after Ludwig’s death, Sisi left everything in God’s hands, and that she had never known her mother to ‘be so devout’. For a while, even Marie Valerie thought that Sisi’s dealings with Heine were a result of God’s countenance.[38] It seems as though the Empress was mixing up Catholicism and Spiritualism, cherry picking what suited her best. As a woman drawn deeply into herself and the world inside her head, this is unsurprising. Her daughter Marie Valerie was not completely against Spiritualism, and wrote in her diary that experiences also gave her reassurance.[39]

Despite this, Sisi’s religious views were also a source of fear and confusion for the deeply faithful Marie Valerie. At one point, Sisi is said to have thrown herself upon the floor whilst crying “Jehovah, thou art great, thou art the god of vengeance, thou art the god of love, thou art the god of wisdom”. The cause of this outburst was Sisi tormenting herself “to understand the inscrutable decrees of God, thinking of eternity and retribution in another world, and now realise one must be humble and place one’s faith in the great Jehovah”.[40] This faith seems hysterical, and a further source of affliction on the Empress' already delicate mental state.

Additionally, Sisi had somewhat pagan views. She believed in the evil eye, and was extremely superstitious: ‘whenever Sisi saw a magpie, she bowed to it three times, and when the moon was new, she begged that long harboured wishes would come true'.[41] The Catechism has strong words against such superstition: ‘superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God’.[42] There were many who practised Spiritualism who abandoned conventional religion.[43]

Sisi’s faith was not compatible with the Church in which she was raised: ‘Mama’s piety is […] different from other people’s […] extravagant and abstract as her death cult’.[44] Marie Valerie even went to the Mother Superior of the Sacred Heart convent to confess her fears for her mother’s religious views. She was afraid Sisi would devote herself entirely to a death cult in her obsession with Ludwig and Heine. To Marie Valerie, Sisi was ‘merely deistic’.[45] Deism is defined as a belief in a ‘creator who does not intervene in the universe’.[46] Marie Valerie’s statement then, is not entirely true; Sisi believed God intervened in the universe by playing a role in the visitations she experienced.

Furthermore, Marie Valerie believed her mother had not been a good churchwoman, and that her God was the ‘cruel, avenging deity of the Old Testament rather than the compassionate, forgiving Christ’. She then went on to say that ‘mama’s piety is not like that of others. It is at times ecstatic, others introspective […] [it] makes her more restless and unhappy.’[47] The fact that Sisi’s faith made her unhappier suggests that her it was an unhealthy one. A Mother Superior also felt that Sisi’s views were problematic, and urged Marie Valerie to bring her mother back to the Church.[48]

After Rudolf’s death, Sisi believed that her faith had died: ‘I feel so cold and hardened that there are times when I can scarcely pray’.[49] On the anniversary of Rudolf’s death, a Mass was held at the Mayerling Carmel (built on the site of Rudolf’s death). Franz Joseph was described as ‘humble and devout’ whilst ‘submitting with Christian resignation to the will of God’. Sisi, however, was confessed that she felt as though ‘Rudolf’s bullet had also killed her faith’. [50] Rudolf’s suicide certainly made an impact on Sisi’s orthodoxy as she admitted that she ‘could not believe according to the Church’, as doing so would entail believing that Rudolf was damned (he committed suicide, seen as a mortal sin in the Catholic Church)[51] Despite this, she still seemed to retain some belief in the afterlife, as Sisi continued to practise Spiritualism, and is quoted as wishing ‘if only God would take me to himself’. [52]

The Empress of Austria was a truly isolated woman. A sensitive and artistic soul who wrote flurries of poetry in her diary, she felt misunderstood and unappreciated in the Austrian court, particularly by her own husband. That she retreated into a belief that she could communicate with the people who she felt understood her most (Ludwig, Rudolf and Heinrich Heine) is nothing but understandable. Her belief in a ‘cruel, avenging deity’ rather than a compassionate Saviour may have stemmed from the fact that, although in an undeniably privileged position, this woman suffered a great deal of anguish. Perhaps it really is up to us ‘future souls’ that she wrote to empathise and embrace this remarkable woman.

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[1] Dr Andrzej Diniejko, “Victorian Spiritualism,” Victorian Web, accessed April 21, 2020, http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/spirit.html [2] Peter Mulacz, “History of Parapsychology in Austria” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Parapsychological Association, Freiburg, Germany, August 17-20, 2000). [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Mulacz, “Parapsychology”. [6] Raymond Buckland, The Spirit Book, (Detroit: Visible Ink, 2005), 256. [7] Marie Larisch, My Past, (Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2010), 201. [8] Larisch, My Past, 199. [9] Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, trans. Ruth Hein (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), 274. [10] Where Ludwig died. [11] Larisch, My Past, 199-200 [12] William Crookes, Phenomena of Spiritualism, (London: J. Burns, 1874), 100. [13] Joseph McCabe, Spiritualism, (London: T.F. Unwin, 1920), 16. [14] Larisch, My Past, 200. [15] Ibid., 201. [16] Ibid., 200. [17] Buckland, Spirit Book, 256. [18] Larisch, My Past, 201. [19] Giles St. Aubyn, Souls in Torment, (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 2011), 378. [20] Joan Haslip, TheLonely Empress, (London: Phoenix Press, 2004), 355. [21] “Victorian Spiritualism,” Victorian Web. [22] Brigitte Hamann, Das poetische Tagebuch, (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1997), 12-13. [23] Mulacz, “Parapsychology”. [24] Ibid., 282-3. [25] Hamann, poetische Tagebuch, 12. [26] Ibid., 12. [27] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 361. [28] St. Giles, Souls in Torment, 371. [29] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 403. [30] St. Giles, Souls in Torment, 371. [31] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 436. [32] David Scott, “Spiritualism and Christian Faith,” Modern Churchman 45 (1955): 43. [33] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 355. [34] Ibid., 58. [35] Hamann, Reluctant Empress, 9. [36] Larisch, My Past, 202. [37] Hamann, poetische Tagebuch, 10. [38] Hamann, Reluctant Empress, 275. [39] Ibid., 277. [40] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 355. [41] Hamann, Reluctant Empress, 277. [42] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 2111. [43] “Spiritualism”. [44] Hamann, Reluctant Empress, 275. [45] Ibid., 346. [46] Oxford English Dictionary, 'Deism'. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2017. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/deism [47] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 361. [48] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 362. [49] Ibid., 405. [50] Ibid., 412. [51] Hamann, Reluctant Empress, 346. [52] Haslip, Lonely Empress, 409.

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