By John Elliott
I've been working my way through this old BBC “docudrama.” It's something I should have tracked down and watched years ago, given my fascination with the Habsburgs even to focusing on Austrian history as one of my doctoral minors. I've had a book of the same name by C. L. Sulzberger for years; I thought it was published to accompany the series but apparently not. I only got around to the miniseries recently, and now thanks to Netflix.
It is an experience. It's not quite like any docudrama I've ever seen. Objectively, it's a bit boring in its execution. A good bit of narration; typically it is like watching a filmed version of a stage play; any large vistas and scenes such as of battle are conveyed by means of panning across paintings. Decent history, just saps it of vitality. I'm going to persevere, I'm sure – seldom do I start something like this without trudging on to the end, and it's only thirteen episodes, I think.
The “eagles” are symbolic of the three great imperial dynasties of late 19th-early 20th-century Europe: Austria under the Habsburgs, Germany under the Hohenzollerns, and Russia under the Romanovs. These three ancient divine-right absolutist states (the German Empire may only have been formed in the course of this series, ca. 1870, but it was built on the militarism of the Hohenzollerns who had ruled expanding Prussia for centuries) did not adapt well at all to the changes that were coming to European society through the 19th century, and ultimately failed in the conflagration of World War I – shattering old Europe in the process, with consequences that echoed through the 20th century.
There are four episodes on this first disk: Briefly, they are:
“Death Waltz,” which sets the scene for the entire pre-World War I era by telling the story of the ill-fated love- (infatuation-) match of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”), the Princess Diana of the 19th century. I'm not the first to make that comparison – a quick Google search found multiple references in book descriptions, reviews, and message board postings, including this by Manuel on 10 August 2009 at the Goodreads forum which sums it up pretty succinctly: “Both were incredibly young beautiful women who married emotionally distant husbands. Both had a hard time fitting into court life. Both found a niche in the public eye and bothwere known for extended vacations through Europe and beyond. Both died tragically while traveling away from home.” The way I saw it in the mid-90s (prior to Diana's death) was that both Sisi and Di were absolutely unsuited to the public role they attempted to take up. Luckily Diana's sons seem to have turned out better than Elisabeth's did (as seen in the fourth episode on this disk, see below). “Death Waltz” refers to the upper crust and rulers of Europe dancing their way toward tragedy, oblivious to the societal forces that were making their way of life obsolete.
“The English Princess” continues the theme, somewhat, focusing on Queen Victoria's daughter of the same name, “Vicky,” marrying Prince Frederick “Fritz” of Prussia. Her – and his – more British liberal-constitutional view of monarchy clashes with the aggressive, militaristic “Blood and Iron” philosophy of rising Prussia.
“The Honest Broker” continues the story of Prussia, detailing the career of the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who more than any other man built the German Empire of 1871. We also get to see the accession first of liberally-minded Frederick – who had been barred from any leadership role while his father ruled under Bismarck's thumb until an advanced age, but who already when he came to the throne suffered from a throat cancer that would cut his reign short after a matter of three short months – as well as that of Fritz and Vicky's son Wilhelm II – blustering and bellicose, overcompensating for a crippled left arm – whose first act of state virtually is to dismiss Bismarck.
“Requiem for a Crown Prince” returns to Austria for a snapshot of a single scandalous event in the inexorable collapse of the monarchy – the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his lover Mary Vetsera in January 1889, and the royal cover-up at the highest levels that follows. Whatever was the cause, Rudolf was one odd bird, very much caught up in a contemporary Viennese fascination with death, manifested in such things as elaborate ceremonies surrounding All Souls' Day, the lionizing of actress Sarah Bernhardt who “could perish more beautifully before the footlights than anyone else” (Frederic Morton, A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889  – which I read long ago as part of that Habsburg minor – p. 151), but above all in a horrendous suicide rate. Rudolf paid morbid attention to the press accounts of suicides. According to Leonard Wolf (ed., The Essential Dracula: The Definitive Annotated Edition of Bram Stoker's Classic Novel , p. 211 n. 9), there was a “late nineteenth-century cult of female invalidism … [which] culminate[d] in the notion that a dead woman is more beautiful than a living one.” Maybe this is the reason Rudolf needed a female companion in death? - because he had actively sought such a companion among other lovers as well as his wife. They all refused. And after he shot Mary in the evening, he sat with her body through the night, writing letters, before blowing his own brains out. None of this would be consonant with the divine-right Catholic monarchy of the Habsburgs, hence the scramble to cover up the tragedy.
And so the “death waltz” continued....
* * *Note: Yes, that is Patrick Stewart at top right. He played Lenin in the later portion of this series.