Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Consort Profile: German Empress Augusta von Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach

Often overlooked by history, when King Wilhelm I of Prussia presided over the unification of the German states to become the first German Kaiser, the woman at his side, through it all, was Augusta von Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. She was born Her Serene Highness Princess Augusta Marie Luise Katharina von Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach on September 30, 1811 in Weimar, the second daughter of Grand Duke Karl Friedrich and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia (who was the daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia). Although her father was a rather simple man, her mother was a known intellectual who befriended and corresponded with some of the most famous thinkers of her day and thanks to her influence the Princess Augusta received an exemplary education. Very well rounded, she was brought up to appreciate the usual subjects of language, history, mathematics, politics and so on as well as being well versed in the arts, particularly music and painting. Her introduction to the heirs of the King of Prussia came at a very early age.

King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia thought the daughters of the Grand Duke excellent choices for his sons as brides and Princess Augusta met his second son, Prince Wilhelm, in 1826 when she was 15-years-old. At the time, Prince Wilhelm was infatuated with a Polish girl and in any event considered Princess Augusta less attractive than her sister Maria. She was off-limits though as his younger brother Prince Karl had his eye on her and the two were married the following year. Still, Wilhelm thought Princess Augusta a nice and charming girl and King Friedrich Wilhelm III encouraged him not to dismiss her as a potential bride. His marriage was considered of prime importance since the Crown Prince had yet to produce any children and so it looked as though it would fall to Prince Wilhelm to secure an heir to the Prussian throne. His Polish sweetheart lacked the pedigree suitable for a future Queen of Prussia. Finally, he came back to Princess Augusta and with pressure mounting to marry and start a family the two were finally engaged in 1828. It was not, exactly, a match made in Heaven.

The two were married in Berlin on June 11, 1829. Prince Wilhelm was fourteen years older than his new bride and admitted to his sister that he was not totally in love with her. He appreciated her kind nature and keen mind but, unfortunately, she just did not ‘stir’ his blood at all. Princess Augusta knew nothing of this and had an exalted view of her new husband and was filled with hopes for happiness, a house full of children and total domestic bliss. However, her rose-hued glasses soon fell away. Her intellectual interests made her rather unappreciative of the very militaristic Prussian court and she could not help but feel slightly put off by her sister-in-law, the Crown Princess, being given pride of place even though everyone knew the future of the succession would depend on Augusta. She thought well enough of the Crown Prince but soon fell into an ever deeper state of sadness due to the neglect of her husband. Too bookish for his tastes, in time he began seeing more “feminine” mistresses and Princess Augusta fell victim to bouts of depression. It was not until 1831 that the succession was finally secured when Princess Augusta gave birth to the future Kaiser Friedrich III. It would take seven more years for another child to be born, Princess Louise, and no more were forthcoming. There were other pregnancies but, tragically, all ended in miscarriage.

However, Princess Augusta was not unappreciated everywhere. Her friends and connections in intellectual circles fostered in her a growing support for social change. As such, she became rather well regarded in the liberal circles that had hoped for the accession of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV to bring about a new, democratic and united Germany, only to see their hopes dashed. Unfortunately, this reputation certainly could not have helped her situation at home considering the very traditional and conservative views of her husband. Crop failures and rabble rousers helped bring about a growing discontent that resulted in several small rebellions before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848. Princess Augusta hoped her brother-in-law would work with the liberals and unite Germany as well as giving Prussia a constitution. He would do neither and Prince Wilhelm was at the head of those urging his brother to set the army loose on the liberal mobs, which probably did not please his wife. Even after the worst danger was suppressed, public anger was so great that Prince Wilhelm had to leave the country. Frustrated liberals hoped that, perhaps, the King and Prince Wilhelm could be made to abdicate and Princess Augusta, who was more to their taste, could rule as regent in the name of the little Prince Friedrich to create the sort of state they desired.

Because Augusta later burned all of her papers from this period it can never be known if she was party to or even supportive of such designs. She was certainly disappointed that the King did not take the lead in the unification efforts but outwardly she always remained supportive of her husband and the Prussian monarchy as it was. They moved to the Rhineland when Prince Wilhelm was posted there and more liberal-minded people continued to visit her. The court in Berlin, naturally, disapproved of this as they disapproved of her ideas on education, her tolerance of and friendship with Catholics and the way she was raising little Prince Friedrich, ensuring his training was academic as well as military. The liberal attitudes Friedrich later displayed were often (mostly in Berlin) “blamed” on his British wife but the upbringing his mother gave him also had a great deal to do with it and she was, naturally, perfectly thrilled when he became engaged to the Princess Royal for the same reason Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were. Aside the personal happiness they clearly had together, she too hoped that they would be the future rulers of a united Germany that was a democratic and progressive constitutional monarchy.

Nonetheless, she was never a pushy woman and never even tried to exercise much political influence on her husband, despite often being accused of doing so after Wilhelm succeeded his brother as King of Prussia in 1861. When Bismarck came to power he assumed that Queen Augusta was responsible anytime King Wilhelm I did not immediately bend to his wishes and it was no great secret that Augusta and Bismarck despised each other. The Queen was distressed at how Bismarck handled the government and was positively outraged when he provoked a war with Austria to push the Hapsburgs out of German politics. Over time she became more and more opposed to the entire direction Prussian foreign policy was taking and this also caused a falling out with Crown Princess Victoria (“Vicky”) who, despite her own differences with Bismarck, allied with the chancellor in his goal of uniting the German states under Prussian leadership. Her opinion of her daughter-in-law fell lower and lower as she regarded her as being insufficiently religious and lacking in her sense of duty to the monarchy. She did, however, think very highly of her first grandson, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, and put her hopes for the future in him.

Augusta despised the outbreak of war with France just as deeply as she did the war with Austria and (rightly) blamed Bismarck for all of it. Warfare went against her very nature as an open-minded, intellectual type and she devoted herself to organizations to care for the wounded. When, in the aftermath of the defeat of France, she became German Empress alongside her husband, she was not at all flattered and considered it a calamity. She was convinced that only moral persuasion could unite the Germans and that a unity based on military conquest would never last. She was unhappy about it but it was, sadly, only the latest unhappiness in a married life that seemed to be filled with little else. Nonetheless, she was dutiful to the last, even when infirmity confined her to a wheelchair. Her marriage had long been little more than a formality but she and the Kaiser did finally reconcile but only a year before his death of extreme old age. She lived to see her son and grandson become German Emperor in their turn before she finally passed away on January 7, 1890 in Berlin at the age of 78.

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