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Friday 4 September 2009

True Courage

Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig - "Ernie" - of Hesse is, in my opinion, one of the overlooked heroes of history and, had he happened to be born on the winning side in the First World War, he would probably have been hailed as such. One interesting fact is that a man who is so frequently (thanks to the gossip of his first wife) described as effete proved to be so heroic during the German defeat and overthrow of the Kaiser and the monarchy.

Overshadowed in history, perhaps, by his sisters, the Tsarina Alexandra and Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Ernie was unsurprisingly a deeply sensitive soul. Not only must he have felt (as children take these things upon themselves) in some way responsible for the death of his little brother, Frittie, who died as a result of haemophilia after falling from a window while waving to Ernie, but then, for the death of his mother. While Ernie was recovering from diphtheria, his mother, distraught at his grief for the death of his little sister of the same illness, removed the mask she was wearing to keep her from contracting the infection, and kissed him to comfort him. As Disraeli told the British Parliament, it was literally a kiss of death. Poor Ernie, at only 10 years old, how he must have interpreted that!

When Ernie was in his early 20s his father died and he became Grand Duke of Hesse-and-By-Rhine. He was a very popular Grand Duke, and undoubtedly had inherited his mother's common touch, along with his father's love of the grand duchy. He was also, like so many members of his family, a gifted artist. Queen Victoria, feeling that he was incapable of managing the Grand Duchy alone, all but forced him to propose to his cousin, Victoria Melita ("Ducky") of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg. The main reason, as I see it (and, of course, who can tell what goes on in someone else's marriage?), for the failure of the marriage was that Ducky was already in love with another man, was too temperamental and flamboyant for the grand duchy, and Ernie may or may not have been more attracted at that age to men than his wife. The death of their daughter was yet another tragedy for Ernie. His marriage to his second wife, however, appears to have been very happy.

Where he really comes into his own, however, and shows his true spirit is during the war. When the rest of Europe was caught up in that manic euphoria of war, Ernie (taken from Charlotte Zeepvat's beautiful book, "Queen Victoria's Family") wrote, "It was a terrible time when men were fired by an excitement and enthusiasm one simply cannot imagine. Throughout the day and night, people sang patriotic songs at the tops of their voices...It was an indescribably feeling, to hear these young men's voices raised in song in the darkness, and to know they were all marching to death. Often it was unbearable."

He was not a brainless thug, obviously! And yet, when revolution came and the Kaiser fled to Holland, and the Kaiser's brother, Henry, commander of the Navy, had to tie red flags to his car to escape from Germany, brave Ernie sat in Darmstadt and waited for the revolutionaries to arrive. He didn't flinch or flee as the others did. He remained calm and greeted them as fellow Hessians. So touched were the revolutionary soldiers by his courage, that he was allowed to keep his estates....Who was the most courageous? The ones who strutted in a macho manner and spoke of the glories of war, or the one who sat there calmly at the end, having seen what the outcome would inevitably be?

A life utterly blighted by tragedy (the death of his little brother and sister, his mother, his daughter...the murder of two of his sisters and 4 of his nieces and his nephew....(and very soon after his own death in 1937, the Hessian tragedy reached a dramatic and tragic conclusion in a terrible plane crash....but that's another story). I deeply admire this man.


Christina said...

I do apologise for not having seen your comment sooner, and still more for my failure to understand Russian (which I am struggling to learn).
Surely you understand English and whatever you have written, thank you! Thank you for taking the time to write and for reading my post!

Emma said...

I'm absolutely fascinated by Ernie and thought it was strange that I couldn't find a biography or his published memoirs. Do you know if they have been published, or if they still exist? I keep seeing sources quoting his memoirs and I'd love to read them in their entirety.