Anyone interested in the history of Germany, of nationalism or of dynasties will be gripped by this book. Born at the start of the 20th century, heirs of an ancient German dynasty, Princes Philipp and Christopher of Hesse-Kassel were good-looking, modern young men. English was their second language, Queen Victoria’s liberal daughter the Empress Frederick their grandmother. No other German princes, however, rose so high in the Nazi party.
Prince Philipp became a member of the Nazi party and the SA in 1930. Prince Christopher joined the SS in 1932. The timing of their adhesion, before Hitler came to power, proves its sincerity. Their mother ‘Mossy’ invited Hitler to tea and flew the swastika from Schloss Kronberg, the German Balmoral which she had inherited as the Empress Frederick’s favourite daughter. In 1933, sworn in by Göring himself, Prince Philipp became Oberpraesident of the provinces his ancestors had ruled as Landgrafs.
Wounded pride, Jonathan Petropoulos shows in this thorough and thoughtful book, was one motive. Nazism helped the old elite recover a few shreds of the power and status lost in 1918. Defeat and deposition had been all the more traumatic for being unexpected. In October 1918, Prince Philipp had been designing furniture for the palace which his father had expected to occupy as the newly elected king of Finland. A month later he and his family were citizens of the Weimar Republic.
Petropoulos exposes the sympathy not just between Nazism and the Hesses in particular, but between Nazism and German dynasties in general. Some princes stayed aloof. More felt sympathy for Nazi elitism and anti- communism. Göring and Himmler, moreover, were keen to employ noble officers. Hitler frequently met the leader of the German Noble Association and, when it suited him, promised to restore the monarchy. Between a third and a half of eligible princes became Party members, a far higher proportion than in most professions. They included 14 Hesses and nine Coburgs. The SS in particular, as ‘a new knighthood’, was a magnet for aristocrats.
Petropoulos also shows how German nationalism, like many others, functioned as the prison of the mind and the conscience. One of the Kaiser’s Nazi sons, Prince ‘Auwi’, forgetting his father’s contribution to causing the first world war, proclaimed, ‘Whether worker or prince, we are all a great community of victims.’ If the Nazis had not, in the final years of the war, turned against princes and ‘international-minded people’, the princes would have fought for Germany to the end. Royals and the Reich is a compelling portrait of a nation and a class locked into its own nationalism, bent on self-destruction.
Prince Philipp developed a close bond with Hitler or ‘Ini’, as the Hesses called him. Albert Speer remembered that Hitler always treated Prince Philipp with ‘deference and respect’. The prince became Hitler’s art-dealer, helping him to beat Göring in their race to buy Italian pictures. In 1939-42 ministers waited for months for an audience; Prince Philipp could see Hitler almost when he wanted. His former protector Göring called him ‘too Hitlerian’. Married to Princess Mafalda of Italy, he was also used by Hitler as an intermediary with Mussolini. During negotiations to ensure Italian acquiescence in the German annexation of Austria in 1938, one of his conversations with Hitler was transcribed. The Prince’s replies consisted of little more than ‘Jawohl, mein Führer!’
Avoiding expressions of outrage, Petropoulos refers to the ‘grey area of complicity’ and asks if, in the prince’s place, he would have done better. He lets letters speak for themselves — although Prince Philipp, or Allied bombers, destroyed much of the Hesses’ correspondence. Petropoulos is obliged to rely on statements made by the prince after 1945 to Allied interrogators, which inevitably distort the past. Moreover Petropoulos has received the co-operation of the prince’s son and nephew. Throughout the book he quotes the justifications of the family historian Rainer von Hessen, who claims his father joined the SS for the sake of ‘law and order’ and that Prince Philipp was ‘motivated by vanity to play a traditional public role in the style of his ancestors rather than by political ambition’ — as if being a Nazi was a ‘traditional public role’. Royals and the Reich is not the full story of, to quote the subtitle, ‘the Princes von Hessen in Nazi Germany’. Two other brothers, Princes Wolfgang and Richard of Hesse, remain in the shadows. The contents of some of the documents Owen Moreshead and Anthony Blunt were sent by George VI to ‘recover’ from Schloss Kronberg in 1945 remain a mystery.
Family co-operation has, however, enabled Petropoulos to reproduce some haunting photographs. In 1937, on the lawn of Schloss Wolfsgarten, one of the Hesse family’s many residences, Edwina Mountbatten, grand-daughter of Edward VII’s Jewish banker Ernest Cassel, sits in a family group beside her husband’s SS cousin Prince Christopher of Hesse. Prince Philipp of Hesse is photographed being listened to, with what looks like deference, by Hitler and Ribbentrop; standing beside Mussolini, Hitler, Göring and Himmler at the Munich conference in 1938; visiting a museum in Kassel in 1939 with Hitler; posing in one of his Nazi uniforms as the frontispiece of the 1941 edition of the Almanach de Gotha. Though always sleek and composed, he occasionally looks lost.
In the end the Hesses paid for their Nazism. A former lover of Siegfried Sassoon, Prince Philipp nevertheless enjoyed a happy marriage with Princess Mafalda. After Italy withdrew from the war in September 1943, out of rage and revenge Hitler had his favourite prince arrested and imprisoned in solitary confinement in Flossenburg concentration camp. Princess Mafalda was imprisoned in Buchenwald, where in August 1944 she died from the effects of a badly conducted operation. Prince Christopher died in combat. Hesse palaces were flattened in British bombing raids.
Even after horrors which make Visconti’s The Damned seem like an innocent idyll, Prince Philipp remained more loyal to his Führer than the Führer had been to him. Under interrogation after 1945, he said ‘he himself had never seen any but the best side of the Führer’, and denied there had been mistreatment of prisoners in his camp.
After release from internment by the Allies, Prince Philipp took refuge from his own past in that of his dynasty. He spent the postwar years rearranging some of his family collections and his own purchases in Schloss Fasanerie near Fulda in the heart of Germany. His taste was better than his politics. Through the masterly display of pictures and works of art commemorating the Hesses’ marriages into the royal families of Russia, Sweden, Prussia, Denmark and Britain, Schloss Fasanerie conveys, better than any other palace, a sense of the connections between Europe’s ‘family of kings’. The Schloss, however, is a deceptive façade. As every page of Royals and the Reich confirms, German princes were at least as nationalist as their former subjects.
Philip Mansel’s latest book is Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (Yale University Press, £19.95).