16 May 2020

The Popular Crown Princess

By Caspar Ritter via Wikimedia Commons
Crown Princess Cecilie was nothing if not practical. All of her life, she had faced trials and heartbreak with equanimity. She had survived war and revolution. Even when her husband was forced to leave his country and was later denied the Imperial German throne for which he had been born, Cecilie remained steadfast. She stayed in the home that had been built for her, the enormous Cecilenhof in Potsdam near Berlin and she adapted as needed, sending her sons to ordinary schools. She was the daughter of a Russian grand duchess and the daughter-in-law of the last German Kaiser, but none of that mattered in 1945 as Russia's Red Army battled its way through eastern Germany toward Berlin. These were the revolutionaries who had assassinated three of her Romanov uncles and innumerable cousins. Cecilie knew it was finally time to leave her home. Perhaps she took one wistful glance back as the car whisked her away, remembering those too-brief years when her children had played in Cecilienhof's six courtyards.

The youngest child of the German Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaievna, Cecilie was born into a peripatetic existence. As her father's subjects insisted, she had been born in Mecklenburg after her older brother and sister were born abroad. Nevertheless, the family continued to spend most of their time in southern Europe, where the climate better suited her father's asthmatic lungs, and Russia, where they indulged in the imperial splendor that would be swept away.

Cecilie faced her first personal tragedy at the tender age of 13 in the beautiful city of Cannes on the French Riviera. Her father, Friedrich Francis, was found lying at the foot of wall outside of the family's home. Had his deteriorating health caused him to become dizzy and to fall over? Or, as the quickly published rumors would have it, did the despairing 46-year-old fling himself to his death? The family hastened back to Mecklenburg, where her 15-year-old brother was now the ruling Grand Duke, but they didn't stay rooted there. A year later, her older sister Alexandrine married the future King Christian IX of Denmark and moved to Copenhagen. Their mother, only 36 when she was widowed, found entertainment elsewhere, gambling and dancing in Monte Carlo and elsewhere. Five years after her husband's death, Anastasia retreated to Villa Wenden, one of the properties she had inherited from him, with a severe case of chicken pox. As it turns out, the Grand Duchess wasn't poxy, she was pregnant. Her son by her private secretary was born there. Named Alexis Louis, he was raised by his mother, and later her son-in-law, the Danish king officially granted him the surname de Wenden after the place of his birth.

Despite the scandalous nature of her mother's open secret, young Cecilie's reputation appears to have been unharmed. She was still considered a worthy bridal candidate for Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany when he met the 17-year-old dark-eyed beauty at her brother's wedding in 1904. A year later, Cecilie and her mother were welcomed to Berlin with great fanfare for Germany's wedding of the century. Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Empress Augusta Viktoria were eager for their rascally oldest son to marry, hoping, perhaps that it would settle him down. It did not. So, while the New York Times speculated that Cecilie was not just his arranged bride but his true sweetheart, the teenager entered into a loveless marriage with a blackguard and braggart who took pleasure in boasting to her of his extramarital escapades.

Nevertheless, sensible and bright, Cecilie quickly adapted to her role as Crown Princess and won the love of her new family and the people, if not of her husband. Within 10 years, she had produced four healthy sons and was expecting her fifth baby. Although the country was embroiled in the Great War, she was secure. She continued her role of establishing and leading various charitable works, especially those linked to education for girls. Of course, like all royal women in war time, she also looked in on hospitals and talked with wounded men. At home, construction of Cecilienhof was nearing completion.

From left to right: Prince William, Prince Hubertus, Crown Princess Cecilie, Crown Prince William, Prince Frederick and Prince Louis Ferdinand. Front row: Princess Alexandrine and Princess Cecilie By Wilhelm Niederastroth via Wikimedia Commons
The Crown Princess was at home in Berlin at the Kronprinsenpalais when she felt the first pangs of her labor. It wasn't long until, at last, she held her very first daughter in her arms. As she stared into the baby girl's eyes, the war probably seemed very far away. She named the baby Princess Alexandrine after her sister. But, it wasn't long before something started to bother her. There was something different about her eyes. Did she seem a bit less active than her brothers? Was her face a little too flat? As those first months passed, it became clear that Alexandrine was indeed different from her siblings. She had Down syndrome. While other royal babies with health issues were sheltered or even hidden from the public, Cecilie and Wilhelm agreed that would not be the fate of their little blonde beauty. While Britain's epileptic Prince John was moved into his own home separate from his family during World War I, his cousin Alexandrine stayed at home in the loving embrace of her parents and siblings, including little sister Princess Cecilie, who was born two years later. Like all of the imperial children, her photos appeared on postcards and she was present for public events. Later, they even sent her to a school especially for girls with special needs. (Read my post about her daughters Alexandrine and Cecilie.)

Just a year after little Cecilie's birth, Germany was clearly losing the war and a Revolution erupted. Crown Princess Cecilie's father-in-law and her husband abdicated and fled to The Netherlands in November 1918. At first, Cecilie sought to flee what might happen living so close to Berlin -- the Russian Revolution had already murdered her uncle Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich while two other uncles and many cousins were being held by the Bolsheviks; all of them would be dead within the next year. She took the children to her mother-in-law Empress Augusta Victoria (read my post about her), but she was devoted to her husband Kaiser Wilhelm and soon made arrangements to join him in exile. After a bit, it became clear that the German Revolution would not be as bloody as the one in Russia. Also, as one of the most popular members of the Imperial Family, Cecilie was secure back home at Cecilienhof, where she sent her sons to ordinary schools.

Soon, a punitive peace agreement was reached and Germany struggled under financial reparations and economic catastrophe. Cecilie stayed in Germany, raising her children alone, while the new government deprived the family of property and income. Crown Prince Wilhelm was eventually allowed to return in 1923, and a financial settlement was finally reached which restored some property and income to the family. Cecilienhof, however, was taken by the state. Due largely to her popularity, Cecilie was granted to right to live there for her lifetime. She and the Crown Prince rarely lived in the same home at the same time, alternating mostly between Cecilienhof and Castle Oels.

Princess Alexandrine, Crown
Princess Cecilie and Princess Cecilie
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2003-1014-505 via Wikimedia Commons

The extended family struggled with finding its role during the period between the two World Wars, with the Emperor and the Crown Prince both awaiting a call to return to the throne. Initially, the rise of Hitler gave them hope, mostly because Hitler led them to believe what they wanted to believe. With a new war looming, Cecilie's sons were soon in harms way. When the war started in 1939, the four princes were aged 28 to 33, prime ages for military service. The youngest, Prince Frederick, was studying in England at Cambridge. Within months he was interned as a prisoner of war in Britain before being sent to different camps in Canada. (After the war, he married Lady Brigid Guinness and was naturalized as a British citizen.) Meanwhile, 29-year-old Prince Hubertus was among the German troops that invaded Poland and launched the war. Second-born Prince Louis Ferdinand was working in the aviation industry, never having served in the military unlike most German princes from every generation. Even with the war, Hitler prevented him from joining the services. Hitler did allow the oldest son Prince Wilhelm to serve. Six years earlier, Wilhelm had renounced his succession rights in order to marry a woman of lower status, so it was Louis Ferdinand, not he, who was considered the next heir to the defunct throne that the Fuhrer was still dangling in front of the family.

Soon, young Wilhelm's fate would change to the war for the rest of the family. During the invasion of France in May 1940, he was gravely injured and died within a few days. The fake monarchist Adolph Hitler allowed his body to be returned to Germany and to be buried in family mausoleum. When tens of thousands of mourners showed up, Hitler got nervous. He realized that the family still retained extensive popularity, which could become a threat to his Reich. From that summer on, all members of the former German ruling houses, not just the Imperial Family, were barred from military service. This at least meant that Cecilie would lose no more children to the war.

Nearly five years later, as the German war effort once again fell into disaster, Cecilie had to worry more about the approaching liberators, for it was the Soviet Army that was advancing into Berlin. These were the same people who had slaughtered dozens for her maternal relatives at the end of the last war. The 59-year-old Crown Princess fled south to Bavaria to Bad Kissingen, a sanatorium run by her now deceased father-in-law's former doctor. She stayed there for seven years, with her children and her husband visiting occasionally. Her youngest daughter married an American and moved to Texas in 1949. Then, Prince Hubertus died from an attack of appendicitis in 1950. A year later, she attended her husband's funeral back at Castle Hohenzollern.

In 1952, Cecilie moved to an apartment in Stuttgart, but she traveled for family occasions, like the christenings of her growing brood of grandchildren. In May 1954, she returned to Bavaria for a visit to Bad Kissingen and passed away there. Her body was taken to Castle Hohenzollern to be buried next to the husband who had so rarely been at her side.

More about Crown Princess Cecilie
Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, German Crown Princess on Unofficial Royalty
Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin - The Last Crown Princess of Germany on History of Royal Women
Crown Princess Cecilie of Prussia on The Royal Watcher
Crown Princess Cecilie's Faberge Tiara on The Court Jeweller
Duchess Cecilie has arrived in Berlin on Royal Musings
The Princess & Her Palace on The Esoteric Curiosa
The Prussian Meander Tiara on The Court Jeweller
The Prussian Meander Tiara on The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor
See Two Rare Faberge Tiaras on Town and Country

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a highly-entertaining and fascinating account! My knowledge of history wavers after 1918 so it was interesting to read what happened next...