Richard J. Evans

  • Go-Betweens for Hitler by Karina Urbach
    Oxford, 389 pp, £20.00, July 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870366 2

Before the First World War, the European high aristocracy roamed freely across the continent, taking the waters at Baden-Baden, sampling the sea air at Biarritz, shooting partridge and pheasant at Sandringham, and coming together for grand balls and funerals in virtually every European capital. With so many occasions on which to meet, and so much disdain for those who married below their station, it was hardly surprising that the rate of intermarriage between Europe’s leading families was so high. They truly were a transnational social class for whom national borders could be treated with the same contempt as any other restrictions on their freedom.

Karina Urbach, whose last book was a short biography of Queen Victoria, provides many exemplars of this remarkable social phenomenon. Prince Max Hohenlohe noted that his family had produced ‘a German chancellor, a French marshal, a Roman Catholic cardinal, a number of Austro-Hungarian field-marshals, generals of Prussia and Baden, hereditary marshals of Württemberg, and ADCs general to the Russian tsar’. Such men routinely spoke and read not only their native language but also French, still the language of diplomacy long after the First World War, and English, usually because they’d been brought up by a British nanny, an essential member of the household for the European nobility. Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was a regular reader of the Illustrated London News, the Bukarester Tageblatt and Indépendance romaine; while the Dutch noblewoman Victoria Bentinck once commented that a niece of hers had blundered by marrying a German count who could speak no other language than his own, and so was a ‘“fish out of water” in our family at Middachten, where four languages were constantly being spoken sometimes in the same breath’.

In its internationalism, as in many other aspects of life, the high aristocracy took its lead from the royal families of Europe, who were almost all related to each other several times over. Germany’s numerous princely families provided a ready source of minor royals for the Concert of Europe to plant on the thrones of newly created states in the Balkans, and their internationalism made it easy for them to move from one country to another: Prince Ferdinand of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha became the prince regnant of Bulgaria in 1887, Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen the prince regnant of Romania in 1866.

Connections with other royal houses helped: Prince Leopold of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, who was manoeuvred onto the throne of newly independent Belgium in 1831, had served for many years in the Russian army and married, first, the prince regent’s only daughter, Charlotte, then some time after Charlotte’s death, the daughter of the French king Louis-Philippe. He was also a field marshal in the British army, with the title His Royal Highness. This made him acceptable to the Concert of Europe, and his occupancy of the Belgian throne was a success. King Otto of Greece, on the other hand, a member of the Bavarian royal family enthroned by the international agreement that recognised Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, became deeply unpopular: he imported so many German bureaucrats to run the country that his government was called the ‘Bavarocracy’ and was overthrown in a coup. Prince Wilhelm of Wied, who became Prince Vidi I of Albania following the creation of the new state as part of the international settlement following the First Balkan War, was forced out of the country by a clan rebellion in less than a year.

Whatever their fate, the monarchs of Europe were bound to each other by a vast network of family interconnections presided over by Queen Victoria, whose longevity and fecundity made her Europe’s matriarch for much of the 19th century. Her grandchildren included Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany; the queens of Greece, Norway, Romania, Spain and Sweden; Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse; the grand duchesses Victoria and Elisabeth and the tsarina Alexandra of Russia; Prince Alfred of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha; Princess Alexandra of Hohenlohe-Langenburg; Princess Beatrice de Orléans y Borbón, Duchess of Galliera; Prince Albert, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein; Princess Marie Louise of Anhalt; and Princess Alice of Teck.

The First World War was a challenge to this high society of monarchs and aristocrats. The Russian-born Dowager Duchess of Coburg was denounced in Germany as a spy; she was British before she became German, having married Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, before he became Duke of Coburg. The British-born Princess Daisy Pless wrote that she ‘had relatives and dear friends in England, Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Spain, Russia, Sweden … How well these best elements of the fighting nations knew each other and despite this they had to continue killing each other.’ She was obliged to declare her allegiance to Germany, her husband’s country. Aristocratic men could join the army of their choice, but many of the great families fell under suspicion because of their connections on the enemy side. The British royal family had to change its name to Windsor in 1917, and a Titles Deprivation Act was also passed that year which stripped British titles from German nobles. Carl Eduard of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha lost the dukedom of Albany; at the start of the war he had publicly renounced his position as chief of the Seaforth-Highlanders, and in return he removed from the line of succession to his dukedom all of his British, Belgian and Portuguese relatives.

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