Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden: 'A model sovereign princess'
by John Van der Kiste
edited: Saturday, July 06, 2002
Posted: Saturday, July 06, 2002
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A short life of Princess Louise of Prussia (1838-1923), brother of Emperor Frederick III and uncle of Emperor William II. From Royalty Digest, July 2001
Princess Louise of Prussia was born on 3 December 1838, the second child of Prince William, second son of King Frederick William III, and Princess Augusta. William and Augusta, who had married in 1829, already had a son and heir Frederick ('Fritz'). Husband and wife were thoroughly ill-suited, and with the birth of a daughter Augusta declared that her duties towards the perpetuation of the dynasty were complete.
William showed little affection for his son, but doted on his daughter. When Louise was a child, he only had to appear unannounced in the schoolroom for her to put her work aside and climb on to his knee. Despite the teacher's half-hearted protests, in no time they would be playing together on the floor. It never happened when Augusta came in, for then 'Louise involuntarily drew herself up to her full height, and sat stiff and constrained as for her portrait, while she inwardly trembled lest her answers should prove incorrect...her mother’s presence filled her with awe.’
In April 1851 Louise, now known in the family as 'Vivi', or 'Wiwy', accompanied her parents and brother on their visit to the court of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace the following month. A docile, not to say dull girl of twelve, she made little impression on the company alongside the lively, eager 'Vicky', the Princess Royal, her hosts' eldest daughter. Maybe she had already begun to appreciate that the traditional role of a German princess was to take no interest in anything outside her family, children, churchgoing and charitable works. Her intellectual mother, born and brought up in the more emancipated court of Saxe-Weimar, had learnt the hard way, as would Vicky, who would marry Fritz in January 1858. Nevertheless Queen Victoria was sure that the princesses enjoyed each other's company, writing to Leopold, King of the Belgians, later that month that Vicky had ‘formed an amazing friendship for that charming Child Vivi'.
Three years later Louise was betrothed to Frederick, Regent of Baden. Queen Victoria was among the first to congratulate Augusta, while subconsciously wishing there was another Prussian princess who could have been a bride for one of her sons. 'We had already long wished for such a wife for the good Fritz of Baden, and I consider that you yourselves have every reason to be happy at the choice of such a husband for your dear child. Oh, if only you had such another daughter; a younger! I know of no young girl who would fill a high position so well as Wiwy!'
Born on 9 September 1826, Frederick (like his betrothed's brother, also known as Fritz in the family) was the second son of Grand Duke Leopold of Baden by his marriage to Princess Sophia of Sweden. On his father's death in 1852 his elder brother, another Leopold, succeeded to the title, but he was insane and Fritz was appointed as Regent. Four years later, the doctors decided that there was no hope of Leopold's recovery, and Fritz was accordingly proclaimed Grand Duke. Leopold lingered for another sixteen months and died in January 1858.
Louise and her Fritz were married on 20 September 1856 at the Neue Palais Chapel, Potsdam. Within a few weeks she was expecting her first child and their elder son, named Frederick after his father, was born on 9 July 1857. Six months later, Vicky married her brother. Both women were very different in personality, and though Vicky tried her best to get on with her, there was always a sense of none-too-friendly rivalry. The latter's firstborn son William not only had to suffer the lifelong handicap of a deformed left arm and shoulder but, as all the Prussian royal family pointed out to his mother, was smaller and thinner than their babies had been at the same age. Louise, complained Vicky, could not resist boasting that 'hers was bigger the day he was born than mine is now after 8 weeks wh. I take very ill, & wh. surely is hardly possible.' However Louise took great interest in her nephew, whom she recognised would be her future sovereign. He was barely two years old before Vicky was telling her mother that Louise 'spoilt him quite dreadfully' and the governess Mrs Hobbs found it 'very difficult to get him into order again.'
The following summer, on 7 August 1862, Louise had a daughter, named Sophia Maria Victoria, who in 1881 would marry Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden. Four years later Louise's son Frederick married Princess Hilda of Nassau. Remarkably son, daughter and parents all celebrated their weddings on the same day of the year - 20 September. A second son, Ludwig William Carl Frederick, was born on 12 June 1865 but never married.
As Grand Duchess of Baden she played a major role in helping to found the Baden Frauenverein, a women 's welfare charity with a particular role in providing hospitals and children 's homes. Shortly after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870 she met Clara Barton, with whom she was to enjoy a lifelong friendship. Both women helped to establish sewing factories for women as part of the war effort, and organise military hospitals at the beginning of the conflict, In 1873, after the war, Barton was awarded the Iron Cross of Merit by Emperor William I, largely on Louise's suggestion, and she later founded the American Red Cross.
Though she took care not to involve herself more in political issues than possible, the events of Bismarck's Prussia made it impossible for Louise to stand aside all the time. In the war of 1866 Baden had been among the states siding with Austria, defeated at the battle of Königgrätz, but as the Grand Duke was King William 's son-in-law, Baden was spared the savage indeminities wrought on other states by the King's minister-president Bismarck. As Grand Duchess of one of the foremost Catholic states of the German confederation, Bismarck distrusted her as a tool of the clerical and Catholic influences which in his view threatened the stability of the German Empire. His suspicions deepened when she interceded with her father, now Emperor, on behalf of the oppressed Catholics of Alsace - a request for clemency that Bismarck did his best to see came to nothing.
Louise’s eldest nephew Prince William of Prussia found her company, and that of his uncle, more congenial than that of his own parents. She had always taken a keen interest in his welfare and education, and when he was a student at Bonn, she was one of his most trusted confidantes, always ready to discuss weighty religious matters and other subjects with her. Like almost everyone apart from his own parents, she indulged and flattered him. In his memoirs he recalled that his aunt ‘possessed considerable political ability and a great gift for organisation, and she understood excellently how to put the right men in the right place and how to employ their strength serviceably for the general benefit. Although it was not always recognised, she had learned admirably to combine the Prussian element with the Baden character; and she developed into a model sovereign princess.'
Much as she loved and admired her nephew, this kindness did not initially extend to her nephew's wife Augusta Victoria ('Dona '), whom he married in 1881. At the time of Dona's arrival in Berlin, Louise called her 'wholly delightful, sweet, natural and uninhibited'. Yet within weeks of the wedding, Dona was facing a barrage of criticism from her husband's family, which she never forgot. By far the worst offender, she would later tell her daughter, was their aunt Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden, who overwhelmed her with instructions as to what a princess in her position should do, and demanded complete obedience.
Though Louise had not been close to her mother in childhood, once she was an adult the situation improved. In1883 mother and daughter both hoped that Louise's elder son Frederick would marry Elizabeth (Ella) of Hesse, second daughter of the widowed Grand Duke Louis, whose wife Alice, Queen Victoria 's second daughter, had died in 1878. When Ella made it clear that she intended to marry Grand Duke Serge of Russia, Louise thought her family had been snubbed, and relations between her and Vicky became more distant still. Later that year when the family was fiercely divided over the possibility of a marriage between Vicky and Fritz's second daughter Victoria (Moretta) and Alexander von Battenberg, sovereign Prince of Bulgaria, Louise unhesitatingly sided with her parents and nephew William, saying that such a mesalliance was unworthy of the Hohenzollern dynasty. William found her a valuable ally, not only with regard to the Battenberg controversy, but in assuming an attitude of defiance in general disputes with his parents.
By this time Louise's own parents, the elderly Emperor and Empress, were in poor health. Her brother the Crown Prince was distrusted at court because of his wife's influence, and as a 'good German', Louise took it upon herself to spend more time supporting them. Vicky strongly resented her authoritarian manner. 'The Empress’s caprices, supported by Louise of Baden, are a very great misfortune for us', she wrote pointedly to Queen Victoria in October 1886.
Early the following year Louise came to Berlin to help organise festivities for the Emperor's 90th birthday, a role for which she was well suited, especially as the ailing Crown Prince was beginning to display symptoms of what was to be his final illness. After the birthday banquet on 22 March 1887 she stayed ostensibly to help their father, but also to consult with the doctors and act as a self-appointed press agent for the court. Thanks to her, several articles about her brother's health reached the press without her asking or consulting him or Vicky. She regularly summoned the doctors for information on her brother's condition, and this interference infuriated Vicky, who told Queen Victoria that 'Dear Louise of Baden questions & talks me to death till I nearly turn rude!' By now Louise and Dona were reconciled, and she was part of the reactionary, anti-Semitic movement which influenced William and Dona in championing the notorious court chaplain Adolf von Stöcker.
In the following year Louise lost three of her closest male relatives within four months. On 23 February her younger son Ludwig died at the age of 22. The Emperor was dying, and she was at the family vigil around his bed in the palace at Berlin on 9 March as his strength was ebbing. The story is told that, at a signal from him, she fetched a miniature portrait of his long-dead first love Elise Radziwill and placed it in his hands just before he drew his last breath. To Louise he had bequeathed a copy of the New Testament, published in 1818, with a bejewelled crucifix of lapis lazuli affixed to the cover. It had been presented to Elisa Radziwill by her mother, and the cross by the then Prince William, on the occasion of her confirmation in 1820, and left to William when she died of consumption in 1834. Louise accordingly left this family keepsake in her will to her nephew William, who became Crown Prince on his grandfather's death.
Three months later her brother Emperor Frederick died. Like the rest of the court, she showed herself a faithful supporter of her nephew, now Emperor William II. Though any illusions Vicky may have had about Louise's better nature had long since been dispelled, she still had some faint hopes that the once-liberal 'Fritz of Baden' might prove to be her ally. They were in vain, for as she wrote to Queen Victoria in October 1888 the Grand Duke had 'completely changed in politics', while Louise declared that 'William behaves so wonderfully well in every way' because he 'walks in the way of his grandfather'.
In January 1890 Empress Augusta died. Full of sympathy for Louise, Vicky asked Queen Victoria to offer her the Order of Victoria & Albert, which had been conferred on the late Empress and should by rights now be returned to the Queen, saying that Louise was 'sorely stricken & feels her mothers death very much; so I venture to plead your giving her her mother’s order.' Vicky might have been less eager had she known that Louise was largely responsible for helping to deprive her sister-in-law of her rightful role as head of the two most important German charitable societies, a post held by the late Empress. Instead the position went to Dona, who was admittedly Empress Consort but had none of Vicky's experience or knowledge.
Two years later when Vicky's third daughter Sophie, married to Constantine, Crown Prince of the Hellenes, found her mother's constant questions a little trying and innocently compared her to the Grand Duchess, Vicky was somewhat affronted: ' I am much flattered to be compared to Aunt Louise of Baden! The difference, you see, is that she asks questions because it is a habit and she cannot help it, because it is her way of making conversation, and because she loves meddling in other people’s affairs and making herself important.'
However relations between the sisters-in-law gradually improved. In the autumn of 1895 Vicky went to stay' with them on the occasion of a statue of her husband being unveiled, and wrote to Sophie afterwards that 'Uncle Fritz and Aunt Louise are most kind and try to make me feel at home'. Some four years later all three met at Karlsruhe station when Vicky was on her way through Baden, and she wrote to Queen Victoria that they both looked lined and old, but were 'very kind & much disturbed that I was not well!' Though Vicky was the youngest, she was already suffering from cancer and died in the summer of 1901.
Louise and her husband lived to enjoy a more contented old age than her brother and his wife. In his memoirs the chancellor Prince Bülow noted that she 'profoundly understood her husbands greatness, [and] supplemented his character in the happiest manner;: I do not think that even patriarchal Germany produced a ruling Princess who did her duty as the mother of her people in a more exemplary manner than Grand Duchess Louise.' After the statesman christened SS Deutschland at Stettin in January 1900, and made a speech declaring that Germany had to take her place in the world as a leading sea power, she telegraphed to him; 'I cannot resist telling you what a grateful echo the patriotic, moderate and enthusiastic words of the speech you made yesterday in Stettin found within me.'
One younger member of the German princely families would always have good reason to revere Louise's memory. Hermine, daughter of Prince Henry XXII of Reuss, born in 1887, was orphaned at the age of 14, her mother having died when she was still an infant. Louise and Frederick readily gave her a home at Karlsruhe and treated her like a daughter. She was pleased to live just long enough to see her favourite nephew, having lost his throne at the end of the Great War and then his first wife, take Hermine (by then a widow with young children of her own) as his second wife. The Grand Duke died on 28 September 1907, nineteen days after his 81st birthday, to be succeeded by their surviving son and namesake as Frederick II. On 8 December Louise's daughter Victoria came into her inheritance as Queen Consort with the death of her father-in-Iaw King Oscar and her husband's accession as King Gustav V of Sweden.
When the revolution came at the end of the Great War, Louise was an elderly lady of almost eighty. The republican government allowed her to live out her remaining years in retirement at Baden-Baden. Though she also spent some of her time at the Island of Mainau, on Lake Constance, it was at Baden that she died peacefully on 24 April 1923, aged 84. She was buried at Karlsruhe beside her husband.