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.
Being forced to take sides didn’t mean that members of the high aristocracy necessarily abandoned their cross-border family ties. On the contrary, they used them in a variety of ways to act as go-betweens for national governments. With their international networks, mastery of intrigue and command of numerous languages, they were useful in suing for peace when European governments wanted to avoid the official channels. Since the majority of diplomats belonged to aristocratic families – 70 per cent of the 550 men who served in the German Foreign Office were titled – it felt natural to use their dynastic links in their dealings with other countries. Women were particularly adept at behind-the-scenes diplomacy, given their central role in preserving family connections by organising reunions of one kind and another.
Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the wife of the young Karl I of Austria and IV of Hungary, who became the emperor of Austria in 1916 after the death of Franz Josef, made strenuous efforts to broker peace between Austria and the Entente powers via Princess Sarsina, a member of the Habsburg network conveniently domiciled in neutral Switzerland. ‘Austria,’ Zita was reported to have said, ‘did not desire to be ruined for the sake of saving Alsace-Lorraine for Germany.’ The Germans got wind of the intrigue and bullied the Austrian emperor into disavowing it; as a result, the German grip on the Habsburg monarchy was tightened and the emperor was discredited in the eyes of Czech, Hungarian and other nationalists, who saw him now as little more than a tool of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the German military leaders.
The consequences of aristocratic plotting were even more far-reaching in Romania, where the Central Powers conducted desperate intrigues in order to get King Ferdinand, a member of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen family, and therefore German by origin and connection, to commit the country to their side after he acceded to the throne in October 1914. His strong-willed wife Queen Marie, who had been born and partly brought up in England by her parents, the then Duke of Edinburgh and his wife, kept up her connections with George V (who had once asked her to marry him) and the Russian royal family – and Romania joined the Entente in August 1916. Both the general public and the Romanian political class were overwhelmingly in favour of the decision, which was underpinned by the promise of territorial gains from Hungary, so it would be an exaggeration to say that Marie played the most important role in bringing it about – but her contacts certainly helped.
By the end of the war, the world of the European high aristocracy had collapsed. The tsar had been overthrown in a revolution, and the Bolsheviks had quickly dispossessed the leading noble families, many of whose members were killed or forced to flee. In Central Europe, the Habsburg monarchy was replaced by a collection of nation-states ruled by bourgeois politicians. In Germany, the reigning princely houses were deposed and their property seized; a protracted series of lawsuits over the issue of compensation followed. The 1920s was not a good time for German aristocrats. Many were forced to eke out a living in jobs they considered beneath them. They blamed democracy for destroying the habits of deference that had sustained them before the war. Nazism was attractive because it promised revenge on the Bolsheviks and socialists who had toppled them, and its cult of leadership struck a chord. When Hitler came to power in 1933, they were given the chance to play a role again. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski had been forced to run a taxi firm under the Weimar Republic; Ludolf von Alvensleben’s car firm, which he had set up after losing his Polish estate, went bankrupt; Karl von Eberstein worked through the 1920s as a travel agent. All three of them became senior officers in the SS, an organisation whose head, Heinrich Himmler, believed that the aristocracy represented superior blood. By 1938, nearly a fifth of the senior ranks of the SS were filled by holders of noble titles. The former German royal family was enthusiastically brought on board: Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia (‘Auwi’) joined the stormtroopers well before 1933, and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm was an outspoken supporter of Hitler in the presidential election of 1932. The Grand Duke of Mecklenburg and the Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont were members of the SS even before the Nazis seized power. There were many others like them.
Two of the most prominent were the Princes Philipp and Christoph of Hesse, both great-grandsons of Queen Victoria: Philipp became the King of Italy’s son-in-law, and Christoph rose to a high rank in the SS. In his engrossing account of their role as mediators between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Royals and the Reich, the American historian Jonathan Petropoulos showed how their ability to smooth things over became crucial at critical junctures. Carl Eduard of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, another of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, so resented the Weimar Republic that he funded and supported the Organisation Consul, a terrorist group that murdered leading Republican politicians. Coburg became a hotbed of Nazism, and the party’s electoral success there before 1933 endeared the duke to its leaders. His international networks made him an obvious candidate as a go-between for Hitler. Like the princes of Hesse he was also an admirer of Mussolini, who had retained the Italian monarchy and given members of the Italian nobility a leading place in his regime.
The Duke of Coburg’s value to Hitler lay above all in his close connections with the British royal family, many of whom he had known from his English childhood. Under the Third Reich, his presence became acceptable in England again, as Hitler was widely regarded as having restored social and political order in Germany. He was invited in January 1932, and again in January 1933, to Sandringham to meet George V and Queen Mary, and he visited England on numerous other occasions. When the king died in 1936 Carl Eduard turned up at his funeral and joined the procession dressed in the uniform of a general in the Wehrmacht, complete with steel helmet – a tiny, incongruous figure amid all the tall, ostrich-plumed guardsmen and courtiers. He forged close relations with the Prince of Wales, his cousin, who was sympathetic to his plea for an Anglo-German alliance. ‘Has the House of Windsor forgotten that it has German roots?’ Coburg asked him pointedly.
The prince, soon to be Edward VIII and already under the influence of his mother, Queen Mary, who maintained regular contact with her German relations, reciprocated by urging his ‘former comrades’ in the British Legion to visit Germany and offer the hand of friendship. A Spanish diplomat reported in 1940 that Edward, upset about the war, ‘throws all the blame on the Jews and the Reds and Eden with his people in the Foreign Office and other politicians, all of whom he would have liked to put up against a wall’. He had expressed similar views, the Spaniard added, before he became Edward VIII. Urbach assembles plenty of evidence to demonstrate Edward’s pro-Nazi views and his advocacy of an Anglo-German alliance. Nobody should be surprised that he taught his young nieces, Princess Elizabeth (the future queen) and Princess Margaret, the Nazi salute – not as a satirical gesture, but as a trivialising piece of play. More surprising is the evidence Urbach presents that his brother, who became George VI after Edward was forced to abdicate in 1936, had ‘great sympathies’, as a report sent to the German Foreign Office noted the same year, ‘for the Third Reich’.
The Duke of Coburg continued to visit the British royal family even after he had received the former king, now Duke of Windsor, on his visit to Nazi Germany in 1937. During his visit the duke rendered the Nazi salute with a practised and enthusiastic arm and was lionised by the grandees of the Third Reich. Coburg also headed up the German-English Society in Germany, purging it of its non-Nazi members, and was closely involved with its counterpart in London, the Anglo-German Fellowship. He had several conversations with George VI during the Munich crisis and may well have helped persuade him to back the deal that forced Czechoslovakia to let itself be dismembered by the Nazis. The king was obliged to accept his advisers’ warning not to welcome Neville Chamberlain when he arrived at the airport brandishing the worthless piece of paper that he claimed guaranteed ‘peace for our time’, but he still appeared with him on the palace balcony.
The full truth about these matters won’t be known until the relevant papers are released by the Royal Archives. Was the German Foreign Office indulging in wishful thinking when it referred to the sympathetic attitude of George VI to the Third Reich? Does his and his family’s correspondence with their German relations merely indicate that they were ardent supporters of appeasement, like so many other members of the political class in Britain, or did they become, as the title of Richard Griffiths’s illuminating book on the subject puts it, ‘fellow-travellers of the right’? Given the passionate commitment of George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the Allied cause and the crucial role they played in bolstering morale during the Blitz by staying in London and visiting bombed-out families, why are the royal archivists so afraid of opening up their files for public inspection? Secrecy fans suspicion.
Others had a much clearer agenda. Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, emerges from Urbach’s book not as a clever ‘fox’ but as a man completely out of his depth when it came to dealing with the dictators. During the Munich crisis, Halifax made extensive use of the informal channels of communication provided by the networks of the high aristocracy. At a private meeting arranged in July 1938 by another go-between, the Hungarian Stephanie von Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst, Halifax is reported to have said: ‘I, as English foreign secretary, aim to get so far in my lifetime that one day the Führer will be seen entering Buckingham Palace at the side of the King of England [amid] the acclamations of the English people.’ Stephanie, who enjoyed Hitler’s confidence and was awarded a Nazi medal in the 1930s for her work, had arranged the Duke of Windsor’s visit to Germany, and she was assiduous in cultivating significant figures in the British establishment, notably the newspaper magnate and supporter of fascism Lord Rothermere, who greeted the Munich settlement by writing a gushing telegram to Hitler praising him as ‘Adolf the Great’.
One of Stephanie’s relatives by marriage, Prince Max Egon zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg, also lobbied furiously in the interests of the Nazi leadership in Germany, particularly Hermann Göring, whose passion for hunting kept him in close contact with the German and Austrian high aristocracy. With connections to the British royal family, Prince Max had access to London society and used it to promote the cause of the Sudeten Germans in 1938, feeding Foreign Office mandarins like Vansittart and intelligence officers like Group Captain Malcolm Christie with Nazi propaganda disguised as independent opinion. Hohenlohe was rewarded with a ‘mission’ headed by Lord Runciman, who went to Czechoslovakia and met the Sudeten Nazi leader Konrad Henlein in his castle. Runciman spent nearly all his time at the country residences of the Sudeten German nobility and so heard nothing but complaints about the way they were treated by the Czech government. Chamberlain was able to use Runciman’s report, suitably edited, to back up his successful call for the region to be ceded to Germany. Max and Stephanie had done their bit for the Reich. As Urbach concludes, ‘The Munich Agreement was not just a great victory for Göring and Hitler. It was also a great victory for go-betweens.’
Stephanie lost much of her influence before the outbreak of war: Hitler discovered her liaison with his adjutant, Fritz Wiedemann, whom he dismissed, and she was ostracised by Rothermere, who dropped his backing for Hitler in the summer of 1939. She tried to take revenge on Rothermere by suing him for damages, because he had stopped paying her the handsome annual retainer she was supposed to spend on winning over members of the British establishment. She lost, but in the course of the trial, during which the press branded her ‘the Mystery Woman of Europe’, the tycoon’s former enthusiasm for Nazi Germany was laid bare – as was Stephanie’s unscrupulousness and greed.
Stephanie sailed for America to join Wiedemann, now German consul in San Francisco, but others were able to continue her work. As Rothermere’s volte-face indicated, the public mood in Britain changed after Hitler violated the Munich Agreement by annexing the remaining part of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. War couldn’t be avoided, and duly broke out in September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. As defeat followed defeat for Britain, however, elements within the establishment began to feel their way towards peace negotiations with Germany. It was clear to them that this had to happen in secret, so the aristocratic go-betweens became useful once more, and Prince Max got to work again.
He met with Christie several times in Switzerland and tried to persuade him that his patron Göring would sideline Hitler if acceptable peace terms were offered. But negotiations collapsed soon after Churchill became prime minister. He moved key appeasers in the peace lobby to other jobs – Halifax went to Washington as ambassador to the US, Samuel Hoare became the ambassador to Spain – and made it clear that a separate peace would be tantamount to surrender. Hohenlohe switched his allegiance from Göring to Himmler and the SS, whose security service he joined, funnelling information to the Swedes and Americans via his contacts in neutral Spain, where he posed as an employee of the car manufacturer Skoda. He didn’t fool anybody. At the end of the war, he retired to a safe exile in Franco’s Spain, living until his death in 1968 in Marbella, where he is still remembered as the man who unlocked the village’s potential as a tourist resort. The true nature and extent of his prewar and wartime activities are still unclear, and will continue to be until his family papers, like those of the British royals, are released for historians to consult.
After 1945, Prince Max and the other go-betweens did their best to cover their tracks. The Duke of Coburg was initially unrepentant, not knowing, perhaps, that Hitler had ordered him to be shot in the event of defeat. He was arrested by the American occupying forces, whose interrogator described him as ‘arrogant’. When his sister, Princess Alice, learned of his fate, she got courtiers to write to the Foreign Office to plead his cause, and came over from England with her husband, the Earl of Athlone, to try and have him released. She didn’t have an easy time. The American governor of Coburg, she complained in her memoirs, was ‘a Jewish-French-American whom we did not think a suitable representative of his great country’. Nevertheless, she tirelessly bombarded the authorities with stories of Coburg’s ‘peace work’, while the duke himself claimed that ‘on my foreign trips I have never made any propaganda for the NSDAP or National Socialism.’ As the Cold War got underway, many former Nazis were released. Coburg was among them. He lived quietly in Coburg until his death in 1954. Stephanie Hohenlohe adapted her talents, using her contacts and title to fix meetings with prominent people for German journalists such as the newspaper owner Axel Springer, for whom she organised interviews with both President Kennedy and President Johnson. She died in Switzerland in 1972.
How important were the go-betweens? Urbach is properly cautious, noting that the murky world she has explored with such assiduity is something of ‘a historian’s nightmare’: unofficial channels of communication are poorly documented, and too many royal and aristocratic archives are closed (including those of the Swedish royal family, whose role in assisting Nazi Germany remains unclear). Diplomatic historians have mostly stuck to official documents. Urbach’s engrossing and well-researched book constitutes an argument for extending the history of international relations to cover the kind of informal networks she describes.
During peacetime, especially in the 1930s, the efforts of the go-betweens met with some success. They smoothed the way for Hitler by portraying him as reasonable and unthreatening. The vast transnational network of the high aristocracy meant that Nazis such as Coburg had access to the highest circles of the British establishment, including the royal family, of which, of course, he was a prominent member. But during wartime, the network was sidelined by nationalist passions. Attempts to transform the contacts used in the years of appeasement into a lobby for a separate peace in 1939-40 came to nothing. After the war, the high aristocracy lost its political clout: neither the US nor the USSR had any use for it. Instead of dabbling in politics, aristocrats became playboys and playgirls if they had money, and went into business if they didn’t.