Sophie of Prussia: The German Queen of the Hellenes

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Today, in 1870, Victoria, Crown Princess of Prussia gave birth to her sixth child, Sophie, at the New Palace in Potsdam. Victoria, or “Vicky,” was the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of Crown Prince Frederick “Fritz.” The new baby joined three older brothers and two older sisters – a fourth brother, Sigismund, had died from meningitis at the age of two.

More importantly, Sophie was born as the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Her christening was attended by Prussia’s highest-ranking men in full military dress, including her father and the political thorn in his side, Otto von Bismarck. By the next year, the war was over and Prussia reigned supreme – her grandfather, Wilhelm I, was duly anointed Emperor of a unified Germany and Europe was never the same.

But while those continental factors would play a significant role in Sophie’s adulthood, her childhood was sheltered. Instead, her life centered on a balancing act that began to play out in the 1850s and carried on for decades – the odd generational split between Fritz and his parents, and Fritz and his eldest son. Rather bizarrely, Vicky and Fritz always had a strained relationship with their three eldest children – Wilhelm, Charlotte and Henry – while maintaining a close relationship with their youngest four, Victoria, Waldemar, Sophie and Margaret.

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From L to R: Margaret, Sophie and Victoria

Vicky’s role as Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter may have been attractive as a potential mate for Fritz in the beginning, but her continued British sensibilities and sympathies were less appreciated after her marriage – a situation addressed more directly here. The younger Wilhelm, as he chafed against the influence of his parents, grew to sympathize with the conservative, nationalist views of his grandfather and shunned both his parents’ liberal politics and his mother’s British heritage. Shunned, but was also attracted to, developing a love/hate relationship that helped drive him right into World War I a generation later. When Waldemar died of diptheria in 1879, the three youngest sisters banded more tightly together, effectively creating an even split of three and three between siblings.

Largely isolated from her paternal grandparents, Sophie and her siblings spent a fair amount of time in England and Scotland visiting Queen Victoria and were wholly delighted by her. At the age of 11, Sophie remarked, “She is so nice to kiss you cannot think.” When in Germany, she split her time between Berlin and Potsdam, but her homes and her education had firm British influences at odds with the austere atmosphere of traditional Prussia court life.

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Fritz

It came to end in 1888 when, in short order, it became apparent Fritz was dying of throat cancer and finally, at the age of 56, succeeded his father to the German throne. He would only reign for three months, but lived just long enough to see Sophie turn 18. Vicky wrote to her mother:

“With a pleasant smile he asked after her at once and wanted us to do something to amuse her. What a birthday for the poor child! What a recollection for the whole of her life! At nine she came over with her sisters, he embraced her and gave her a bouquet, looked at her so kindly and did not appear sad or depressed; he had no idea how seriously ill he was.”

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Within 24 hours he was dead and the first act that her brother, now Wilhelm II, took was to ransack the family home for signs of a “liberal plot,” having armed guards rifle through their personal belongings as his mother and sisters were in the first stages of grief. It would be downhill from there.

The year before Sophie had spent an extended stay in England to celebrate her grandmother’s Golden Jubilee and it was there that she made the acquaintance of Prince Constantine “Tino” of Greece. Their  burgeoning friendship caught Queen Victoria’s eye and she gave a full-bodied endorsement of the match. Tino next saw Sophie in Berlin for her father’s funeral and, given the tense living condition in which Vicky and her daughters now existed, when he proposed she readily accepted.

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Sophie and Tino

On October 27, 1889 the couple were married in Athens in a public Greek Orthodox ceremony and a private Protestant one in deference to the bride’s religion. Sophie was met with elaborate fanfare in the capitol, many viewing her marriage as the realization of an old prophecy that when “Constantine and Sophia” reigned, Constantinople would return to Greek hands.

Tino’s brother, Nicholas, noted:

“[It] seemed to me that the Greek people felt at last, that they were nearing the realisation of their lifelong dream – the dream that lasted throughout the dark centuries of slavery, the dream that had saved their souls from the despair.”

Which brings us to Greece and Tino. Tino was the eldest son of King George I and Queen Olga (a member of the Russian Royal Family). George had, in fact, been born in Copenhagen as a Danish prince and was the younger brother of none other than Alexandra of Denmark, wife of Queen Victoria’s eldest son and Sophie’s maternal uncle, the Prince of Wales. Their sister, Marie, had married Tsar Alexander II of Russia and if that’s become confusing to you then we’ve reached my point – the ruling families of Europe were incredibly inter-related by the second half of the 19th century, a fact that only became more complicated as it approached World War I.

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Tino was two years older than Sophie and his education had been completed in Germany and based in military training, making him of a wholly familiar ilk to his Prussian-reared wife. And while Sophie was devastated to leave her mother in Berlin, the marriage began on a successful enough note when she was able to relay to her family four months later that she was pregnant. Vicky had had the forethought to smuggle a midwife into her daughter’s household, afraid that medical care in Athens wouldn’t be quite up to par. However, in a hilarious (or tragic) anecdote of Victorian morality, she hadn’t told her daughter who or what she was – as she later explained:

“Of course I could not tell you what her real profession was when you were a young girl, so I have to invent the name and function of housekeeper, so that you might have her always near at hand […] you married, so she went with you; but I could not tell you why.”

But she’s lucky Vicky did send the woman because she very well saved Sophie’s life during a precarious labor which at one point saw the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. The event, on July 20, 1890, resulted in the birth of Prince George and occurred, as the eagle-eyed Queen Victoria pointed out, “at least a week too soon, for she won’t have been married nine months until the 27th.”

The birth of her son solidified Sophie’s attachment to Greece and prompted her decision to convert to Greek Orthodoxy despite her ability to remain Protestant. The news was welcomed by the Greek public and her in-laws, and received without much comment by her mother and grandmother (the latter of whom chose odd moments to be flexible). Her brother was another matter altogether; Wilhelm reacted with complete and total rage.

Sophie told Wilhelm about her decision in November 1890 when she and Tino returned to Germany for the wedding of her sister, Margaret. In a scene best captured by historian Julia Gelardi:

“In the course of the wedding festivities, Dona [Wilhelm’s wife] summoned Sophie to her suite. The heavily pregnant empress immediately confronted Sophie, firing off a venomous attack. Was it true, asked Dona, that Sophie was planning to change her religion? It was indeed, answered Sophie defiantly. But Willy would never hear of it, argued the empress. As head of the church in Germany, it simply would be unforgivable for his own sister to leave the religion she was raised in. Dona shrieked that if Sophie persisted, she would never hear the end of it from Wilhelm, and above all, she would end up in hell. With that, an equally indignant Sophie retorted, ‘That does not concern anyone here and I do not need to ask anyone.’ As for Wilhelm, Sophie continued, ‘I know him better than that; he has absolutely no religion. If he had, he would never have behaved as he did.’ Moreover, ‘whether I go to hell or not is my own affair.'”

Wilhelm’s response was a telegram to King George in Athens: “Should she persist in her intention, I will no longer regard her as a member of my family and will never receive her again.”

And while Vicky sided with her daughter, she also understood both the political and personal significance of an irreparable breach between her two children. She advised Sophie to write a letter to Wilhelm, warning her, however, that Wilhelm “had no heart.” Sophie’s letter was duly sent and rebuffed.

She telegraphed her mother: “Received answer. Keeps to what he said in Berlin. Fixes it to three years. Mad. Never mind.”

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When Dona gave birth to a premature son a month later, Wilhelm outrageously declared to Queen Victoria that if the baby died it would be completely Sophie’s fault for having upset his wife. The baby didn’t die and when Sophie next visited Germany he received her without comment. Their relationship, however, was never comfortable again.

Sophie acclimated to life in Greece quickly, picking up the language and taking an interest in the people and culture. Three years after George’s birth she gave birth to a second son, Alexander, who was followed three years after that by a daughter, Helen. She championed a number of domestic causes, particularly those associated with the environment – of particular need given widespread fires and earthquakes that plagued civilians. In 1896 she organized the Union of Greek Woman, which helped to assist refugees from the Ottoman Empire.

The following year, in the Thirty Days’ War that ended in a humiliating defeat for Greece and the loss of Crete, Sophie worked with the Red Cross and helped to found field hospitals to provide medical care for wounded soldiers. Notably, they didn’t differentiate between providing care for Greek or Turkish men, leading to criticism that the Royal Family had helped bring about the country’s defeat.

It was better received in Britain where Queen Victoria gave her granddaughter and Queen Olga the Royal Red Cross and it was here where Sophie continued to seek respite, as she had done in her formative years. When she built new homes for her and her young family she sought the large department stores of London, taking pleasure in the pure novelty of shopping.

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As she approached a decade in Greece, Sophie was growing increasingly wary of her adopted country, particularly the dramatic rise and falls of the Royal Family’s popularity and the fickle nature of public opinion. While happy with her family and the culture writ large, a secretary from the British embassy visited her around this time and noted that life in Athens was apparently a “great trial” for her.

1901 opened with the death of Queen Victoria and was punctuated seven months later with the death of Vicky, an event that brought Sophie and her sisters, Victoria and Margaret, together again. The three women kept a bedside vigil by their mother until she passed away on August 5th, a silver lining to an altogether trying widowhood in a Wilhelm-run Germany. Sophie didn’t stay for long; she was five months pregnant at the time and that December gave birth to her fourth child, a third son named Paul.

Three years later a fifth child, Irene, was born, highlighting an interesting trend in Sophie’s fertility – lengthy gaps between pregnancies, all the more notable given how quickly she conceived her first after her wedding. Given a lack of birth control and the sheer volume of children that Sophie’s generation and rank of women produced, it’s odd that her children were spaced three and four years apart. It could speak to the nature of her relationship with her husband, for while she and Tino appeared harmonious in the early years, she was taken aback by the brazenness by which he conducted his extramarital affairs.

By 1912 the couple appeared to live much more separate lives, however they successfully co-parented their children and continued to work well together. Tino took a long-term mistress, Countess Paola von Ostheim, a divorced stage actress who maintained a relationship with Sophie’s husband until his death. When Sophie gave birth to her sixth and final child, Katherine, in 1913, nine years after her last, there were rumors that she was the result of Sophie’s own affair, though no credible candidate was put forth as the potential father. At one point Sophie asked her father-in-law what she could do about her husband’s infidelities and the King shrugged, suggesting she ask his wife for advice – which is both hilarious and dark.

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Sophie and Katherine

Politically, things weren’t going much better. The turmoil of the 1890s had led to the rise of deep anti-monarchical sentiment and in 1909 Tino and his brothers resigned their posts in the military before their father was forced to dismiss them. Tino and Sophie also re-located to Berlin – all the more unsettling given King George had been asked to take over the reins of Greece as a Danish prince. The Royal Family was still held responsible for the 1897 loss of Crete, a situation that became so tense Tino and Sophie had already been forced to spend some time abroad at the end of the previous decade. The so-called Goudi coup in 1909, however, was more significant, driven by the Greek government’s refusal to approve the annexation of Crete at the island’s behest for fear of Ottoman reprisal. Sophie and her husband returned in 1910, however both distrusted the new, reformed, military-heavy government.

During her exile, Sophie had lived with her sister, Margaret, a situation that had at least offered the comfort of family and familiarity. Margaret noted that her sister’s letters once she was back in Athens were pessimistic, the political situation still so uncertain. A British ambassador noted that several months after returning home, Tino had made his peace with the necessity of the new government, but Sophie remained resolute in her disapproval – a stance that calls to mind her brother, though they continued to be on the outs, particularly since Germany had sided with Turkey in the previous decade’s war.

Two years later, Sophie and the other women in the family were called upon play nurse once more when Greece entered the First Balkans War on behalf of its new allies, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria. Luckily, the war amounted to a victory, a moment Tino, at least, didn’t take lightly. He wrote:

“We are here! Praise to God for His blessing! The city has surrendered to me with almost 20,000 prisoners, so some of our historical ideals have been realized. Yesterday, while making my solemn entry […] among the frantic applause of the Greeks whom we liberated, and who kissed my boots and the edge of my great coat […] I thought to myself: ‘The moment to die has now arrived! Never again shall we experience a moment of such great joy.”

The moment of euphoria was stamped out by King George’s decision to abdicate in the second half of 1913, saying that Tino was ready to lead and would be better-able to do so, having been born in Greece while he was still viewed as a foreigner. The timing was taken from him, however, when, in March of that year, he was shot through the back while taking a walk with an aide and instantly killed.

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From L to R: Irene, Sophie, Katherine and Helen

Tino returned to Sophie in Athens and the two were named king and queen, Sophie then pregnant with Katherine at the age of 42. For all of the tragedy and the strife that had gone on to put them on the throne, their reign was heralded as a new golden era, so close off the heels of the military victories in the Balkans.

And then: World War I. While the Greek government was officially neutral, internally it was divided in sharp factions over who or how it should support the Allied cause. Sophie, both German and British in heritage, was politically sympathetic to Britain and, of course, loathed her brother. Even so, her status as Wilhelm’s sister made her a public source of suspicion and her insistence on educating her younger children in England only made her seem more foreign and her motives alien. Their unpopularity grew so dire that in July 1916 their enemies set fire to the forest that surrounded their home in Tatoi – the flames nearly killed Tino who was saved by two aides, while Sophie was forced to sprint on sheer adrenaline with her three-year-old daughter, Katherine, in her arms to literally outrun the fire.

That December British and French soldiers arrived in Athens and fighting broke out between them and Greek royalists. Sophie, two of her daughters and the women in her household were forced to seek refuge in the Palace cellars as they listed to shrapnel and guns exploding against the walls. The British and French set up a blockade around Greece that effectively starved the people, going so far as to sink lone fishing boats with civilians attempting to feed their families. The response from the soldiers was that they would leave when Tino did and the harshness of their stance, particularly the French, pushed Sophie to appeal to Wilhelm for help. Even so, the Greeks were heard calling out, “Long live the King!” and “We are pleased to starve for him!”

And if that’s not an image that will put you off monarchy then I don’t know what is.

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The 1917 fall of Tsar Nicholas II had dire effects on Sophie and her family, for the Tsar had been Greece’s single strongest protector. Once gone – and once Europe had been shown a template for how to topple a monarchy – the extent to which Tino would keep his throne was up in the air. In fact, by June, Tino agreed to abdicate in the hopes of ensuring no more blood was spilt. Remarkably, he stepped aside not for his eldest son, George, but for his second, Alexander. George, at nearly 27, was an unpopular figure given his military education in Germany. Alexander, as a younger son, had spent more time in Greece with his younger siblings.

Believing that France was essentially bullying their king into leaving (and it was), Greek crowds thronged outside the Palace shouting their support for the Royal Family and calling for Tino not to leave them. The mood turned angry and so, in a sense, Tino and Sophie were held captive inside the Palace for a period of several hours amidst cries that they wouldn’t let them pass. Overnight the city fell silent, but no one inside or outside the Palace slept. At 4:30 am on the morning of June 12th, Tino left the gates in a chauffered car – when crowds attempted to block him in desperation, he issued a proclamation:

“Even far from Greece, the Queen and I will always retain the same affection towards the Greek people. I beg you all to accept my decision with serenity, trusting to God, Whose blessing I invoke on this nation […] At this moment the greatest solace for the Queen and myself lies in the affection and devotion which you have always shown to us, in the happy days as in the unhappy ones. May God protect Greece.”

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Alexander was proclaimed king and Tino finally departed, however not without more drama. The family was forced to hurl themselves bodily into cars, afraid for their lives from either the French troops or their own people who were now calling out that if the King wouldn’t stay then they would kill him. Men in the street were attempting to commit suicide, the weather turned to rain which did nothing to help deep-rooted Greek suspicions and the crowds followed them as they departed the city.

When they eventually departed from a Greek port, Tino’s brother, Nicholas, recorded:

“The crush became even greater when we advanced along the pier; the nearer the King and Queen drew to the boat the fiercer grew the frenzy of the people, who tried to keep him back by force; many leaped into the sea and held fast to the boat. The King and Queen, after a last handshake right and left, stepped into the boat […] among lamentations and sobs that rent the air […] whilst all the people went down on their knees and stretched out their hands towards the King and Queen. It was a heart-rending picture and the King ordered them to put on speed.”

From the shore, the new King Alexander was heard to call after the boat, “You shall come back to us soon.”

The family ended up in Switzerland where Sophie and Tino were ostracized by English society over Greece’s role in the war. The tragedy was made worse when Alexander, who hated being king and was ill-prepared for the role, grew dangerously sick after a monkey bit on October 2, 1920. Though he called out for his mother in his fever, she was refused entry into Greece. He died alone on October 25th and was buried at Tatoi. His reign was later viewed by the family as illegitimate and he is referred to on his tomb as a “Prince of the Hellenes,” who ruled in the place of his father from 1917 until 1920.

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Alexander

The death became a personal tragedy but a political triumph when a vote was held for the return of Tino and Sophie. Millions voted in their favor and only a few thousand against. By December, the family had returned to Athens, but not for long. Inheriting an ongoing dispute in Asia Minor, the Greek army suffered crushing blows and the military revolted once more. Tino was forced to abdicate the throne a second time on September 27, 1922.

This time the family landed in Italy, but Tino was broken. He died on January 11, 1923 in Sicily of heart failure.

Prince George officially ascended the throne as King George II following his father’s abdication, however he, too, was forced into exile by the end of the year.

Over the next several years Sophie spent time with her remaining children and grandchildren in Italy. She made trips to see her extended family in England and Germany and once, in 1929, she went to visit Wilhelm who was living out his own exile in the Netherlands after he was forced off the German throne in the wake of World War I. While she enjoyed her freedom, Sophie also refused to purchase her villa in Italy because she never believed her time out of Greece was permanent.

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It would be. She died in Germany on January 13, 1932 surrounded by her children. Three years later George was restored to the Greek throne and her body repatriated. She was re-buried at Tatoi where she remains today.

There’s much more to say about the eventful lives of her children, as well as the rest of George’s reign, but for now we’ll leave it with the fact that he reigned until his death in 1947 and was succeeded by his younger brother, Paul. Sophie had three sons; all would become Kings of the Hellenes.

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