06 March 2011

Fire at the Palace

Katherine clung to her mother as the flames leapt around them. Somehow an ordinary summer day had turned into a raging nightmare for the three-year-old princess and her family.

All had seemed normal that July morning in 1916. The hot, summer heat was just as oppressive as the day before. The Greek King Constantine I, his German-born wife Sophie and their family were at least a bit cooler at their summer retreat at Tatoi, outside of Athens. Political turmoil was running rife in the country as factions urged the king to join enter World War I as an ally of the Triple Entente, but Constantine believed Greece should remain neutral. The nation had emerged victorious but scathed by the Balkan Wars just three years earlier. Strife and mayhem were nothing new in the region. The king’s father George I has been assassinated by an anarchist in 1913, in between the two Balkan Wars, but Constantine was fearless in his opposition to joining the new war.

“The salvation of Greece is more precious than the Greek throne,” he would tell a New York Times reporter later that summer. Greece was more important, he continued, than “the life itself of Constantine.”

The summer before Constantine had battled illness and survived. Even this bout with pleurisy had become fodder for his political enemies, who denied that he had been sick. Rather, they alleged, he had been stabbed by his own wife, the evil sister of the belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm.

The fact that Queen Sophie was rarely on good terms with her brother did not enter the equation. The fact that she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and had been raised by her mother Victoria Princess Royal to love all things English was blithely ignored. The fact that she had actually been in England on her annual holiday when World War I started did not matter. Whenever war is afoot, a foreign queen is an easy target, even if that queen had once been banned from Germany for converting to orthodoxy.

By the middle of 1916, Greece was being torn into two factions, those who supported the king and neutrality and those who supported the former prime minister and the Entente. For months, the Entente, particularly France and Britain had been waging a campaign to make the royal family’s position untenable, spreading about the king and his wife.

So, on the torrid day in July, it probably seemed like a welcome distraction when someone spotted a bit of smoke on the horizon in the forest of the estate. Constantine, Sophie, three-year-old Katherine and several members of the household decided to drive out and take a look at what was happening. No one thought about how dry oak and pine could become in the midst of a summer drought. No one considered how quickly hot, summer winds could drive a blaze under those conditions.

Suddenly, the royal cars were practically surrounded by walls of flames. With no room to maneuver the vehicles, everyone jumped to the ground and started running. Sophie grabbed up Katherine, the youngest of her six children, and scrambled for the clearing. Constantine chased after them but then realized that some of their party had been left behind. He returned to try to help them, but it was too late.

For two miles, Sophie ran with her terrified baby. Unaware of her husband’s fate, not knowing where she could flee for true safety. Her only certainties were the breath in her lungs and the babe in her arms.

Back in the fire, Constantine struggled to help others as flaming branches fell on him. Desperate to escape, he jumped from a bridge to save his life. Early reports said he had been badly injured, damaging his face and a leg, but only his clothes were damaged.

In the meantime, soldiers and sailors were sent from Athens to battle the blaze. They tried to cut a firebreak between the conflagration and the villa, but it was of no use. At the villa, people were working quickly to remove furniture and pictures—anything that could be removed—before the flames arrived. The garage filled with seven cars was consumed. Then, the barracks of the Royal Guard. As the fire spread, it eventually reached the home of the crown prince and that of the king’s widowed mother. By nightfall, the flames were licking at the king’s villa. The inferno raged for two days. Various reports claimed anywhere from ten to forty people perished, including several people from the king’s “immediate suite.”

“It was a terrible, and yet a remarkable experience, being in the midst of that hell,” King Constantine said days later.

As it turned out, that hell was not yet over. Early presumptions that the fire had been caused by a careless smoker were soon replaced by fears that the fire had been set intentionally in an attempt to kill the king and his family. Arsonists were almost certainly to blame, but the exact culprits were never found. In 2007, Princess Katherine’s obituary placed blame on the secret police.

Considering the delicate position of the royal family, that may be a reasonable accusation. Within a year, the entire royal family, except their second son Alexander, were forced to flee the country under threat of bombardment by the Entente. With the neutral king and his heir Crown Prince George neutralized, the new King Alexander was forced to rubberstamp Greek’s alliance with the Entente and declared war.

In 1920, Alexander died of infection following a monkey bite and a plebiscite returned Constantine and Sophie to the throne. Their return, however, was short-lived. They were exiled once again in 1922. They both died in exile.

When their first son was returned to the throne in the 1930s, Constantine and Sophie were returned to the royal burial ground at Tatoi. In the 1967, their grandson King Constantine II was forced out of Greece and monarchy was abolished.

Today, Tatoi is better known as Decelea after the nearby town. As with other Greek royal properties, it has been the subject of protracted legal disputes between the exiled family and the government. In 2007, the family was awarded compensation for the estate, which is now considered state property. The amount the award is equal to pennies on the dollar.

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