by Susan Flantzer
The first wife of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg was born on October 22, 1858 in Dolzig Palace in Sommerfeld, Prussia (now Lubsko, Poland). A great-niece of Queen Victoria, a niece of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein who was the husband of Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Helena, and a descendant of Danish and British kings, Augusta Victoria was the last German Empress and Queen of Prussia. Her full German name was Auguste Viktoria Friederike Luise Feodora Jenny, but in her family she was known as Dona. Her father was Frederick VIII, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, who was a great-grandson of King Christian VII of Denmark and his wife Princess Caroline Matilda of Wales, sister of King George III of Great Britain. Her mother was Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, the daughter of Queen Victoria’s half-sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen.
Dona was the eldest surviving child of her parents’ seven children and grew up with her four surviving siblings. Because of the Schleswig-Holstein Question, the family had lived in several places: Dona’s birthplace Dolzig Palace in Sommerfeld, Prussia (now Lubsko, Poland), in Gotha which was one of the two capitals of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and in Primkenau, formerly in Germany but now in Poland. (I am not attempting to explain the Schleswig-Holstein Question, referring readers to the Wikipedia link above and quoting British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston: “The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”)
In 1868 when she was ten years old, Dona had first met Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, who was only a few months younger than her and was the eldest child of the Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia (the future Kaiser Friedrich III and his wife Victoria, Princess Royal). In the years that followed, Dona fell in love with her cousin Prince Ernst of Saxe-Meiningen and was sent to England to visit relatives to quash the romance. Wilhelm had proposed to his first cousin Princess Elisabeth (Ella) of Hesse and by Rhine. Ella, however, turned him down, and later would marry into the Russian Imperial Family and be murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Dona and Wilhelm were reacquainted in the summer of 1878 in Potsdam, Prussia. The Prussians did not look favorably upon Dona as a possible wife for Wilhelm. There were questions whether the marriage would be equal because Dona’s father was not a sovereign. Furthermore, there were political complications from the Prussian annexation of Schleswig-Holstein when Dona’s father had claimed them. However, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was a strong proponent of the marriage because he believed it would end the dispute between the Prussian government and Dona’s father. The engagement was announced officially on June 2, 1880 and the couple married on February 27, 1881 in Berlin. Dona and Wilhelm had a very happy marriage. Wilhelm was a man who needed to be pampered and since Dona adored him, she had no trouble pampering him. She had more artistic interests than he did, but they shared very conservative political views and a deep religious faith. Dona had to endure a rough start to her married life because of her in-laws who did not think her rank was sufficient for the wife of a future emperor.
The couple had seven children, six sons and one daughter:
- Crown Prince Wilhelm (1882–1951), Married Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. They had six children. Their eldest son Prince Wilhelm of Prussia (1906–1940) was killed in World War II.
- Prince Eitel Friedrich (1883–1942), Married Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Oldenburg. They were divorced and had no children.
- Prince Adalbert (1884–1948), Married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. They had three children.
- Prince August Wilhelm (1887–1949), Married Princess Alexandra Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. They had one child.
- Prince Oskar (1888–1958), Married Countess Ina Marie von Bassewitz. They had four children. Their eldest son Prince Oskar Wilhelm Karl Hans Kuno of Prussia was killed in 1939 in World War II.
- Prince Joachim (1890–1920), Married Princess Marie-Auguste of Anhalt. They had one son. His great grandson Grand Duke George Mikhailovich of Russia, Prince of Prussia (born 1981) is a pretender to the Russian throne.
- Princess Viktoria Luise (1892–1980), Married Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick. They had five children. Among their descendants are Prince Ernst Augustus of Hanover, husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco; former King Constantine II of Greece; and Queen Sofia of Spain.
The year 1888 is called “The Year of Three Emperors” in German history. Wilhelm’s grandfather Wilhelm I died on March 9, 1888 and was succeeded by Wilhelm’s father Frederick III. Frederick was already gravely ill with cancer of the larynx and lived only three months more, dying on June 15, 1888 when Wilhelm succeeded to the throne.
When Dona became Empress (Kaiserin in German), she took up and enjoyed the traditional roles of a consort, serving as a hostess and working with charities. It even seemed that her relationship with her mother-in-law improved although Dona carefully guarded her children from their grandmother’s liberalism. Dona was with her mother-in-law when she died of cancer of the spine in 1901 and thereafter there was no question who was the first lady in Germany. After Wilhelm became Kaiser, he especially needed Dona due to his notorious stress and erratic personality. Unlike any other person, she had a calming and comforting effect upon him. However, Dona’s attention to her husband meant that she often neglected to take care of herself. The German people adored Dona even more than her husband. World War I put a terrible strain on Dona because of the strain it put on Wilhelm. Nevertheless, Dona did all she could to give aid and comfort to her family and the German people.
Dona’s health had started to fail even before Wilhelm lost his throne in the aftermath of World War I. In 1918, Dona and Wilhelm went into exile in the Netherlands eventually settling at Huis Doorn, a small manor house near the town of Doorn in the province of Utrecht. In July of 1920, Viktoria Luise, Dona’s daughter, visited her parents at Huis Doorn where she received a report from her mother’s doctor saying that two days previously her mother “suffered a heart spasm.” Several days later, Joachim, Dona and Wilhelm’s youngest son, committed suicide. According to Viktoria Luise’s autobiograpy The Kaiser’s Daughter, the family feared for Dona’s health and decided to tell her that Joachim’s death was due to an accident. Dona never got over her son’s death. In November of 1920, Dona’s condition worsened. She died on April 11, 1921. Viktoria Luise writes in her autobiography of how she learned of her mother’s death. She was traveling to Doorn to visit her parents…”I had to stop over in Nuremberg and there I happened to glance at an advertising pillar where a crowd of passerby was gathered. Instinctively, my gaze fastened on the posters and I was startled to see an “extra” which proclaimed the news of the death of the Kaiserin.”
Dona had wanted to be buried in Germany, but this meant that Wilhelm would never be able to visit her grave as he was exiled. The German government agreed to the burial, but insisted that the special train that carried Dona’s coffin only travel at night and that there should be no announcement of the arrangements. Dona’s sons Adalbert and Oskar accompanied her remains back to Germany while Viktoria Luise remained at Doorn to comfort her father. Dona was still popular with the German people and despite the fact that there were no announcements about the arrangements, the 600-kilometer route through Germany was lined with people. Viktoria Luise writes: “…thousands upon thousands lined the railway tracks, which were leading their revered Princess home. Whenever the train stopped, there were hundreds and thousands in their mourning clothes, waiting to say farewell. Church choirs sang, and bands played the music of hymns. And along the countryside, waiting by railway embankments, farmers’ wives sank to their knees and prayed.” The train reached Potsdam where Dona was to be buried at the Temple of Antiquity which had been built by Frederick the Great to house his collection of antique artifacts, coins, and antique gems. More than 200,000 people lined the route of the funeral cortege. Wilhelm remarried and survived Dona by 20 years. When he died in 1941, he was buried in a mausoleum on the grounds of Huis Doorn.