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During the twenty years of Napoleonic Wars, Europe was torn asunder. Great armies crisscrossed Europe from Spain to Russia. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives and fortunes fighting for or against Napoleon. Economically Europe was devastate. Yet during all the death and destruction several of the worlds most renowned romances took place. The most famous of these may be that of Napoleon and Josephine. Almost every country that took part in the Napoleonic Wars has a love story which is held dear to its countrymen.
One of the romantic but less well known is the love story of German Prince Wilhelm Hohenzollern and Lithuanian Princess Elisa Radziwill. Only the lack of a William Shakespeare pen has kept their story from rivalling that of Romeo and Juliet. Their bittersweet love story is worthy of a movie, but is little known to our current generation. A century ago their love story brought tears to the eyes of young lovers across Europe.
The nightmare of the Napoleonic Wars had brought about a renaissance of sentimentality and led to great proficiency in love letter writing in the early nineteenth century. Lovers were judged not only by their ardour but by their skill in letter writing. It is from the letters written by Wilhelm and Elisa and their love story told and retold by members of the German royal court and common people that they are affectionately remembered.
Wilhelm was born in 1797, Prince of the royal House of the Hohenzollern and son of Frederick Wilhelm III, the ruling king of Prussia. He was destined to lead the German States in 1871 in forming the Imperial German Empire. Princess Elisa was a direct descendant of Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas and born into the noble Radziwill Family with estates in Lithuania, Poland, Prussia. Though not a member of a royal house, the Radziwill ancestry was illustrious by most any standards. She was destined to die at a very young age grieving for the loss of her true love.
Wilhelm and Elisa’s love grew slowly during their childhood as the great struggles of the Napoleonic Wars took place around them. It blossomed in the post war period while they danced in royal palaces in Berlin, Vienna, Posnan, and rich country estates in Prussia and Lithuania. Yet the love that was denied them in life was carried by both into death and would immortalize them forever.
Elisa was born in 1803 on one of her father’s royal estates as Napoleon’s forces were marching across Europe. Her father was Antoni Henry Radziwill, the Lord of Klezh and the son of the last Voivode of Vilnius. Her mother was Princess Luise of Prussia, a niece of Frederick-the-Great and a cousin to King Frederick Wilhelm III. Though one of the wealthiest families in Europe, the Radziwill family estates lay in territories divided by Russia, Prussia, and Austria during the 1795 final dismemberment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In order to protect these divided estates, Antoni Radziwill sought to maintain good relationships with both Moscow and Berlin.
Prince Radziwill abided by the adage that the family interest comes first above all other considerations. He sought to cement close ties with the Prussian and Russian rulers who occupied his country. Unlike his brother, Michael, who went into exile and served as a general with Napoleon, and his cousin, Dominik, whose brave death leading his troops against the Russians was mentioned in Napoleon,s dispatches, Antoni was not a patriot. Rather than fighting for the restoration of independence in his country, Antoni sought to become more Prussian than the Prussians. For this reason Antoni Radziwill was not loved by his countrymen.
As a close personal friend of King Frederick Wilhelm III, Antoni loyally followed the monarch into exile in Koenigsberg and Memel after his military defeats by Napoleon at Jena and Auerstedt. For his loyalty, Antoni would accompany King Wilhelm to the Congress of Vienna where the victors would divide Europe after the fall of Napoleon. He would be made the Governor of Posnan and be given large estates confiscated from other Radziwill members who supported Napoleon.
The Hohenzollern-Radziwill friendship was bonded while King Wilhelm and his family lived on the Radziwill estates in East Prussia after the French occupied Berlin. The Radziwill estate in Memel resembled a kindergarten filled not only with their own eight children but also Prussian Crown Prince Frederick, Prince Wilhelm, Prince Karl, and Princess Charlotte. With the death of the queen mother, the Prussian royal family came to look upon Princess Luise as their step-mother and the Radziwill estates as their second home. In this atmosphere the two families enjoyed a special relationship unequalled in the realm. Eventually the childhood friendship of young Prince Wilhelm and Princess Elisa would turn into everlasting love. So close was the relationship between the two families it never occurred to anyone that inequality at birth would someday separate them.
From his early years, Wilhelm was raised in the Prussian military tradition and was commissioned a second-Lieutenant by the age of ten. Though the Prussian military had regularly won great battles under Frederick-the-Great, the armies now were routinely defeated by the French forces of Napoleon. As a result,Wilhelm experienced great instability and humiliation as a youth. His early years in exile would have a profound effect on the prince and his later politics. By the time of Napoleon’s final defeat in 1814, Wilhelm had become a confirmed conservative and staunch supporter of the established system. Wilhelm expected his subjects to faithfully carry out their obligations without question and he swore to scrupulously discharge his own duties. This oath of duty without question would cause Wilhelm to renounce his true love when she threatened the stability of the monarchy.
One cannot be sure when Wilhelm and Elisa first fell in love, but one of his letters written at 19 definitely documents the awakening of his romantic feelings. Though Elisa was scarcely fourteen years old, Wilhelm wrote to a friend how delighted he was in learning that the Radziwill family was moving from Posnan to Berlin. He wrote of his desire to learn how the lovely Elisa with the big eyes would look after two years of separation. By the time he was twenty-four and Elisa eighteen, their love was evident to all.
Wilhelm matured from callow adolescent into a serious young man. He had travelled to Saint Petersburg, Paris and London and been decorated by his father and Czar Alexander for bravery in combat. He was in every way a dashing young man in the prime of his life. Elisa from her early years had been described as one of the most charming creatures who ever trod this earth. Her smiles were said to be like rays of sunshine that brought pleasure to all who met her. Even King Frederick Wilhelm could not hide his emotion and commented that Elisa was an angel on earth. Wilhelm himself wrote: “her gentle disposition, her noble and sensirive character, her intellectual gifts and the indescriable grace in all the things she does, can only be the reflection of a beautiful soul and splendid mind”.
Sleeping beauty castles in Berlin, Vienna and Posnan were the perfect settings for their romance. They danced in candlelit ballrooms and took quiet walks along river banks in the moonlight. Wilhelm would give Elisa the code name eternal in his letters to signify the everlasting nature of their love. Their future looked bright and without clouds. As they danced across Europe there were few signs of the trouble that lay before them.
While Wilhelm and Elisa thought only of the time when they would be joined together forever, the court gossip began to cloud their future. The German palace clique moved slowly to extinguish their eternal love. The Hohenzollers were a staunch Lutheran monarchy, taught to consider all others in serious danger of losing their immortal souls. The conversion of Wilhelm,s sister, Princess Charlote, to the Russian Orthodox faith prior to her marriage to Grand Duke Nicholas, had caused the court to worry about her salvation. Though Elisa had been raised a Lutheran in accordance with a premarital agreement, Prince Antoni Radziwill and his sons were Roman Catholic. This fact caused great anxiety in the Prussian court and many feared that the young Prince could be influenced to become a Catholic.
With increased talk of a marriage between Wilhelm and Elisa, emotions in the court reached a fever pitch. Elisa’s suitability to the royal station was eventually questioned. Equal birth was a prerequisite of the court, and marriage of a Royal Prince to Princess Radziwill was viewed with prejudice by the Royal House of Prussia. For eight years King Wilhelm vascillated on an official proclamation, allowing the young lovers to continue their romance. Some suggested strategies which would allow the lovers to overcome the court,s objections such as having Elisa adopted by Czar Alexander of Russia. Elisa,s adoption would make her a member of a ruling family, except that such an action would be a great insult to Prince Antoni and the Radziwill family. The lovers sought in vain to find a solution to their dilemma.
Many reasons have been advanced for King Wilhelm’s vascillation. One of the more interesting is the supposition that the 54-year-old monarch had eyes on Elisa himself and was only waiting for young Wilhelm’s passion to cool. The mysteries of the King,s psyche are unknown, however, shortly thereafter he married the 24-year-old Countess Augusta von Harrach. Whether the King was behind the lovers dilemma will never be known, but such was the gossip that circulated in the court.
Finally, in 1826, King Wilhelm officially informed the Radziwill family that no marriage could take place. Although well born, the family was nevertheless not descendant from a ruling house and therefore unsuitable for a royal marriage. The decision shocked the young lovers. Wilhelm immediately sought to see Elisa but she fled with her family to Posnan. Wilhelm had accepted the King’s decision but still sought to see Elisa. They eventually met only one week before his arranged marriage to the 17-year-old Duchess Auguste von Weimar. History does not have a record of their conversation and one can only guess about what transpired at their reunion. After his marriage Wilhelm wrote his sister Charlotte that one can only really love once, but that Auguste cannot and ought not be denied respect and affection. His marriage aside, Wilhelm turned to his three remaining passions: Prussia, the army, and Absolutism. Through his efforts Prussia would become the central power in a unified German nation. Whether Wilhelm and Elisa,s union would have changed the course of history can only be surmised. There is no doubt that the rise of modern German militarism can be traced to Wilhelm.
The proclamation of the King was like a death sentence to Elisa: she wept and fell into total despair. Wilhelm’s acceptance of the decision without question added to her grief. Sadness followed humiliation in the Radziwill family.
In 1831, Lithuania and Poland rose up against Russian and Prussian occupation of their country. Elisa’s uncle, Michael Radziwill, led the insurrection and this daughter of the Hohenzollerns now found herself making bandages and praying for the success of the rebel forces. Elisa, like Wilhelm, had found comfort with her people. The failure of the insurrection resulted in the end of the Providence of Posnan and the loss of Radziwill prestige in both Berlin and Moscow.
Elisa’s health turned poor and her last two years would be consumed by tuberculosis. Although she retained her beauty, Elisa’s health progressively degenerated. During her illness, her father and brother died. Antoni went to his grave never recovering from the humiliation caused to the Radziwill family by Elisa’s rejection. Nevertheless, as a member of the Prussian nobility, Elisa’s presence was required at various state functions. When her health permitted, Elisa was forced to endure the pain of seeing Wilhelm at official court functions. Their eyes would meet but no words of their love passed between them.
On September 27, 1834, Charlotte, now Empress of Russia, returned home on an official state visit. The whole city of Berlin turned out in her honor and a great parade greeted her. Wilhelm, in his full dress uniform, waited with his troops at the reviewing stand .Impatiently, he scanned the visitor stand hoping to catch a glimpse of Elisa. Not seeing her in the stands, Wilhelm asked an adjutant if Elisa was ill again. The silence announced Elisa’s death. The adjutant had been instructed not to make her death known to the prince until after the ceremony. Elisa died never having had another affair nor having renounced her love of Wilhelm. It is said she died with the name Wilhelm upon her lips.
Wilhelm was destined to live on for years to come and to lead Germany to greatness. His official biographers would describe the Elisa Radziwill love affair as the prince,s victory over himself. The act of denial provided the steel which girded his character. And so, Elisa’s suffering and death served a useful purpose.
One would think this tragic love story is thus ended. And so it may have except for an event that occurred some fifty years later. On the morning of march 9, 1888, Wilhelm Hohenzollern, Kaiser of Germany, lay on his bed surrounded by his wife, children, and members of the royal court. At daybreak, Wilhelm whispered something to his daughter who immediately left the chamber. She hurried to an adjoining room and returned clutching an item that had stood on her father’s desk for almost 70 years. Wilhelm grasped the object in his trembling fingers and held it until he died. At his death a miniature painting of the love of his youth, Elisa Radziwill, was removed from the old man’s hands. The love which Wilhelm and Elisa could not have in life was with each of them in death.
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