Prince Otto hated all the travelling that Elisabeth did, and he eventually stopped joining his family. Their marriage was now clearly in trouble, and their paths began to grow apart. Later Elisabeth would say that Otto had a venereal disease, which he passed to her. She wrote, “I fell ill as a result of my husband’s perverse disposition, confided in doctors, and as a result, I had to demand a complete cessation of all such intercourse, in order not to be manipulated by my husband into a state of nervous disruption.”1 To her husband, she wrote, “Recently, however, many things have convinced me that it is impossible for me to continue living under the same conditions. You have accused me of impairing your manhood by my coldness, but you have not considered how unworthy and humiliating it is to a woman to be treated this way. You know very well how grievously you have sinned against me in this respect.”2 He, in turn, also accused her of having affairs, most notably with a naval officer named Egon Lerch.
The following messy separation and divorce caused a great scandal. Emperor Franz Joseph attempted to mediate between the spouses. Elisabeth tried to reconcile with her husband and wrote, “It will expose both of us to sensationalism and scandal of the gossip-mongering crowd and cast a shadow over our children’s names that may never be removed.”3 Otto eventually agreed to be reconciled and an agreement was reached on 26 June 1916. Several assets were divided in this agreement, and Elisabeth agreed to pay the cost of their children’s education. Unfortunately, this so-called reconciliation was just another step towards a divorce.
Not only was Austria in the midst of the First World War during this time, but it was also the end of an era as Emperor Franz Joseph neared the end of his life. On 16 November 1916, Elisabeth was received in audience by her grandfather, but their discussion has not been made public. Just five days later, the 86-year-old monarch passed away. He left Elisabeth well taken care of in his will. As the new Emperor Charles I accended the throne, Prince Otto came to demand more of his wife. He wanted to have more influence on the education of his children, among other things. At the end of 1917, Elisabeth turned to her lawyers for help and informed her husband of her wish to divorce officially. He responded quite badly and attempted to take the children from her. The custody battle took months, and eventually, the elder two children were awarded to Elisabeth, while the younger two were awarded to Otto. The physical handover of the children during visiting times and travel was often marred by violent scenes and refusals to go.
Elisabeth had no support from her mother and angrily wrote to her, “You condemn me without having heard me, without knowing how things stand. God grant that we may understand each other.”4 It wasn’t until 26 March 1924 that the divorce was officially finalised. By then, Elisabeth had already met the man she would spend the rest of her life with. His name was Leopold Petznek, and he was a teacher and social democratic politician. There was also no longer an empire as the Austrian Empire had come to an end in 1918, and Emperor Charles had died tragically young in 1922. The new Habsburg law, which banished the Habsburgs from Austria, did not apply to Elisabeth as she had already renounced her rights before the end of the empire. She had also long said goodbye to the social circles that had surrounded the Habsburgs following the scandal of her divorce proceedings.
Elisabeth began to idolise the memory of her father, and she was vehemently against the publication of her mother’s memoirs, which disparaged her father’s memory, in her opinion. This veneration of her father only led to a further breakdown in her relationship with her mother. Stéphanie responded by attempting to have her put under curatorship and eventually disinherited her entirely. Elisabeth became interested in the social democratic movement, and she met Leopold Petznek at a voters’ meeting in Leobersdorf. Though it is unclear when exactly she joined the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, she did join and was a very active member. Her stepfather wrote, “She marches in these odious processions. […] She sells carnations in the street.”5
In an interview in 1927, Elisabeth explained, “You can get to socialism in many ways. You can be born into it, taking up membership with life itself. This path certainly seems to me to be the happiest, comparable to those who are born into freedom and do not have to struggle to attain it. Other people need a push to reach socialism. I had to go through the school of life first, I had to gain experience on the outlook of life in the circles in which I was forced to live after my marriage. Added to this was the difficult struggle for my children, which I led mainly to be able to bring them up in my way. The case has unfortunately been public for a long time. All the powers seemed to be against me when help came to me from where I had least expected: from social democracy. […] I am a woman who likes to think further.”6
To get out of the continued spotlight, Elisabeth sold her home of Schönau Palace and moved into an apartment in Vienna. She settled down with Leopold, and soon there were rumours that they were to marry. However, Leopold was not free to marry. Leopold’s wife was severely ill, and the two had not been living together for a long time, but they were still legally married. Leopold never hid his relationship with Elisabeth from his wife, but she did refuse him a divorce.
- Elisabeth, Die rote Erzherzogin by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.99
- Elisabeth, Die rote Erzherzogin by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.100
- Elisabeth, Die rote Erzherzogin by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.114
- Elisabeth, Die rote Erzherzogin by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.126
- Elisabeth, Die rote Erzherzogin by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.142
- Elisabeth, Die rote Erzherzogin by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.144