From his earliest childhood onwards Rudolf was drilled systematically in preparation for his role as heir to the throne. He proved to be a sensitive child whose development was marked by the complicated relationships and tensions within the imperial family.
Born on 21 August 1858 in Laxenburg Palace south of Vienna, Rudolf was the third child and longed-for son and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth.
Rudolf was drilled by his father in the soldierly virtues of discipline, obedience and endurance, an approach that was at odds with the child’s delicate constitution and sensitive disposition. The very next day after his birth the infant was appointed commander of an infantry regiment by his proud father, and at the age of two Rudolf wore his first military uniform. The boy’s upbringing and education was accordingly entrusted to a high-ranking officer, Major-General Count Leopold Gondrecourt. His educational methods bordered on the sadistic: in order to toughen up the highly-strung little boy, who in his father’s eyes was overly sensitive, Rudolf was subjected to hours of rigorous military drilling in all weathers, or woken by pistol shots in the middle of the night, driving the child to the verge of mental and physical breakdown.
The prince’s isolation in his early childhood was made worse by the difficulties he had in establishing a relationship with his mother, since Elisabeth was mostly absent from court during the first few years of his life. She herself experienced extreme difficulty in asserting her personal needs against the rules of the Viennese court.
On her return to the court at Vienna Elisabeth found that the educational methods her son had undergone had turned him into a mental and physical wreck. At this moment of crisis Elisabeth displayed her strength of will, presenting her husband with an ultimatum in 1865: either she was to have absolute authority over the upbringing of her children or she would leave the court for ever.
Franz Joseph gave in to the demands of his wife, leading to a complete reversal of the crown prince’s educational programme. His new tutor, Count Joseph Latour von Thurmburg, held thoroughly liberal views. He soon managed to establish a relationship of trust with the timid child, and until Rudolf completed his education in 1877 he was to remain the most influential figure in the life of the prince, who was highly intelligent and thirsty for knowledge. The focus of Rudolf’s upbringing now lay less in military training than in science and general knowledge, which were regarded by the aristocracy at that time as little more than bourgeois pedantry and sophistry. The crown prince received an education that was abreast of contemporary currents, shaping him into an ardent liberal who was open to new ideas. His contact with intellectuals, scholars and scientists alienated him from the ideals of aristocratic society. However, very much to the crown prince’s regret, his father would not allow him to study at university, as this would have been unbefitting to his station.