The Red Archduchess
Throughout their marriage both Elisabeth and Otto were open in having affairs, most notably the former’s liaison with Egon Lerch, an Austrian submarine captain during World War I.
Only after the death of Franz Joseph in 1916 and the end of the monarchy in 1918 did the couple officially separate. In 1921 Elisabeth joined the Social Democratic Party, where she met Leopold Petznek from Bruck an der Leitha, then president of the audit office, at one of the election meetings.
A teacher and a committed Social Democratic politician who became president of the Lower Austrian Landtag (state parliament) after the war, Petznek came from a modest background, but was highly cultivated. He was also married; his wife, with whom he had a son, was institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital in Mauer-Ohling, where she died on June 9, 1935.
The lengthy legal process dragged on, and it was not until March 1924 that Elisabeth was able to obtain a judicial separation. A sensational custody battle for their four children ensued. Originally the court granted Elisabeth custody of the two elder sons, while their younger son and daughter were to live with Otto.
She is supposed to have prevented this either by presenting Otto with a house full of armed Socialists when he came to remove them, or else by threatening him with suicide should she have to give them up. In any event, Elisabeth ultimately retained custody of all four children. Elisabeth doted on her children when they were young, but her relationship with them deteriorated as they grew older.
Rudolf, in accordance with her socialist views, was reportedly taken out of school and put to work in a factory. Elisabeth and her daughter Stephanie did not have a good relationship; she reportedly stated that she married her first husband based on the fact that her mother did not like him.
Elisabeth moved to the Hütteldorf district of Vienna and bought a villa in 1929, where she lived with Petznek for the next twenty years. She was at his side at Social Democratic marches and meetings, where she was accepted and accorded great respect. Leopold, however, due to his “haughty” character, was not welcome in aristocratic circles.
In 1934 her husband and son made a legal motion to place her under a conservatorship on the grounds that she had squandered profits from the sale of the couple’s property in numerous donations, made in order to join the Social Democrats. The motion was later dropped. Although divorce became legal in 1938, when Austria became part of Germany and adopted German law after the Anschluss, Elisabeth was not able to divorce her husband until after the end of the war.
In late 1933 Petznek was arrested and imprisoned by the Austrian government until July 1934. In 1944, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Dachau concentration camp until the camp was liberated by the Americans in March 1945. After the war he became the first President of the Austrian Federal Court of Audit. As Elisabeth had renounced her official title of Archduchess to the House of Habsburg at the time of her first marriage, the new Habsburg Laws did not apply to her; she was allowed to stay in Austria and retain her personal possessions. She formally divorced Prince Otto in early 1948, and on 4 May 1948 she and Leopold married in a registry office in Vienna.
When Vienna was occupied by the Red Army, Elisabeth’s villa was commandeered and then ransacked by Soviet soldiers. When Hütteldorf became part of the French occupied zone, the villa was occupied by General Bethouart; Elisabeth and Leopold were not allowed to return until 1955, when the Allied occupation ended. By then both were in poor health: Petznek died in July 1956 from a heart attack, while Elisabeth—who was confined to a wheelchair due to gout—bred German Shepherds, but became reclusive until her death in 1963.