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January 30

"Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that's wise!" wrote the Greek philosopher Sophocles. And surely there was no greater truism of European history that explained how the suicidal despair of a powerless Austrian Crown Prince could so profoundly affect the lives of hundreds of millions. Like the ill-fated heir to the throne these imperial citizens also lived in miserable subjugation under the yolk of his despotic father Franz Josef, destined to repeat the error of another stupid old man called Frederick Hohenzollern who had lost his Kingdom in Prussia after his rebellious son's flight from Mannheim.

30th January, 1889 - Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria found deadFor most of the following century and half the Royal House of Hapsburg-Lorraine had ruled a vast tract of land from the Baltic to the Aegean. Of course the interregnum was itself highly significant because the Napoleonic era had not only ended the Holy Roman Empire but it had unleashed the unstoppable rise of nationalism. Perhaps if the Hohenzollerns had survived then Otto Bismarck might even have become more than just a political thought-leader lost in his aryan dreams of a German anschluss. But then again if Napoleon had never been, perhaps Rudolf Franz Karl Joseph would have eventually become the Holy Roman Emperor.

Which is to say of course that every dog has its day and almost inevitably a Hohenzollern-style family tragedy would depose the Hapsburgs too. Ironically despite the enormous size of their demesne the bitter personal conflict between his conservative father and the liberal heir to the throne reached a boiling point of no return over a small area of land - the purchase of the Mayerling hunting lodge two years earlier. Then in late 1888, the thirty year-old crown prince met the seventeen year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera, known by the more fashionable Anglophile name Mary, and began an affair with her. According to official reports their deaths were a result of Franz Joseph's demand that the couple end the relationship: the Crown Prince, as part of a suicide pact, first shot his mistress in the head and then himself. Rudolf was officially declared to have been in a state of "mental unbalance" in order to enable Christian burial in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna.

Ultimately the "shot heard from around the world" was the opening salvo of a general conflict between the Great Powers. And inside that struggle for the mastery of Europe burnt the German aspiration to dominate. After the Great War the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be broken up, and the three German states would gain independence with Hanover competing with Prussia for political influence in Mecklenburg, but failing. And it wouldn't be until 1945 when the Bavarian Fuhrer Adolf Hitler would manage to fulfill his dream of a united German-speaking people from the Rhine to the Danube and Baltic.