Prince William's Visit

The British Royal Family’s Complicated History With Nazi Germany

Prince William will follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and visit the East Jerusalem tomb of his great-grandmother this week. But while Princess Alice sheltered a Jewish family during the war, three of her daughters were married to prominent Nazis

A church official standing next to the tomb of Princess Alice of Battenberg, June 14, 2018. The Greek princess is buried inside the Russian Orthodox church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

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The Duke of Cambridge will pay homage to his great-grandmother, Princess Alice, at her burial site in East Jerusalem next Thursday. But while she was honored for sheltering a Jewish family during World War II, several of her daughters were married to prominent Nazis.

The darker side of this history was highlighted recently in the Netflix series “The Crown,” which chronicled the early years of Prince William’s grandparents – Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Indeed, in the second season, viewers see a teenage Philip walking behind the swastika-draped coffins of his sister, Cecilie, and her husband, in a public funeral procession full of Nazi regalia. And before Philip married Elizabeth in 1947, there was reportedly much concern in British royal circles that he was an unsuitable match given his family’s Nazi ties. For example, another sister, Sophie, whose husband was in Nazi inner circles, named her son Karl Adolf in honor of Hitler.

The show also depicts Prince William’s great-great uncle, King Edward VIII, and his well-documented ties and affection for the Nazi movement. It was Edward’s abdication after 11 months that allowed William’s family line to inherit the throne in 1936.

A postcard of Princess Alice of Battenberg shortly after her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece in 1906.
Wikimedia Commons

William, the second-in-line to the monarchy after his father Charles, is scheduled to visit the Church of Mary Magdalene – a landmark in Jerusalem with its highly visible golden-dome-topped spires. It’s where the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, is buried.

She was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1993, after hiding a Greek-Jewish family in Athens during the Holocaust.

The family she rescued were old friends of her husband’s family, who just happened to be the Greek royal family: Rachel Cohen – the widow of Haimaki Cohen, who had been a member of the Greek Parliament – sought refuge for herself and her daughter in 1943, after the Nazis had seized power there. (The Cohen family had four sons, but while three of them fled to Cairo, the fourth had to return to Athens and also sought sanctuary.) Previously, central Greece was held by the Italians, who were more moderate in their treatment of the Jews.

According to Yad Vashem, when Princess Alice heard that Rachel Cohen was seeking shelter, she offered to hide her and her family at the palace. And despite Gestapo suspicions and questioning of Alice, she managed to keep the Cohens safe.

“Her status protected her somewhat,” Joel Zisenwine, Righteous Among the Nations project director at Yad Vashem, tells Haaretz.

Prince William, center, with his father Charles and grandparents Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 2003.
AP

Princess Alice was deaf and, according to Zisenwine, pretended not to understand her interrogators’ questions – a ruse that proved effective in protecting her charges until Greece was liberated.

Princess Alice became extremely devout, even establishing an order of Greek Orthodox nuns – the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary – in 1949. She died in London in December 1969, aged 84, but before her death requested to be laid to rest at the church where her aunt, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, is interred. (The duchess was executed by Bolsheviks in Russia in 1918.)

Prince William won’t be the first royal to visit Princess Alice’s tomb, situated on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Charles made a private visit there after attending former President Shimon Peres’ funeral in 2016. And Philip himself visited the grave, again in a private capacity, in 1994.

The Nazi princes

Born in 1921, Prince Philip had four elder sisters, three of whom married German princes – and three of them were known to be Nazi Party members.

As part of Hitler’s strategy to gain entry into German society, he courted the old noble class of German aristocracy. The aristocracy had emerged tattered and under pressure from the devastation and loss of status after World War I, and many found Hitler’s patriotic message of national pride appealing. They also feared communism and the possible seizing of their family assets that could come with it, seeing the Nazi movement as a potential bulwark.

In her 2015 book “Go-Betweens for Hitler,” Karina Urbach describes how the German aristocracy helped Hitler come to power and then helped him overseas, using personal connections across Europe in the push to help him win respectability and improve ties with key figures. For German princes – Prince Philip’s brothers-in-law among them – linking themselves to Hitler was a way to survive financially, politically and socially, Urbach argues.

Prince Christoph of Hesse, the husband of Philip’s sister, Sophie, joined the SS in 1932 – even before Hitler came to power – and served as a director in the Third Reich’s air force and as commander of its air reserves.

Christoph’s brother, Prince Philipp, was an even more prominent Nazi, having joined the party and the SA in 1930. Considered Hitler’s “favorite prince,” and himself married to an Italian princess, he served as a frequent go-between for Hitler with Benito Mussolini. (He would later fall out of favor with the fuhrer, being banished to solitary confinement in a concentration camp.)

A general view of the Russian Orthodox church St. Mary Magdalene, located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, June 14, 2018.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

The two brothers are the focus of a 2006 book by historian Jonathan Petropoulos, “Royals and the Reich: The Princes von Hessen in Nazi Germany.” There is also a photograph that shows Sophie dining across from Hitler at the 1935 wedding of Hermann Göring. It was Göring who is said to have encouraged Sophie and Prince Christoph to invite Hitler to lunch in 1932, which led to them both joining the Nazi Party.

Prince Christoph’s mother was also an enthusiastic Nazi supporter, and is said to have flown the swastika flag from her castle. The prince himself was a fighter squadron pilot and was killed during World War II while flying a mission over Italy in 1943.

Another of Prince Philip’s sisters, Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, and her husband, Hereditary Grand Duke Georg Donatus of Hesse, were also members of the Nazi Party.

They were killed in an air crash in November 1937, along with their two young sons, while flying over Belgium en route to a wedding in London. Cecilie was eight months pregnant at the time and is believed to have given birth mid-flight to a third son, who also perished.

It was their funeral in Darmstadt that the young Prince Philip attended and where he was photographed in the funeral procession alongside uniformed Nazis, including Göring.

And Prince Philip’s eldest sister, Margarita, also married a German prince. His name was Gottfried, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. According to the Australian Daily Telegraph, he was a member of the Nazi Party and served as an army commander during the 1938 occupation of Austria. 

However, he was later dismissed from the army for his role in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, which was planned by fellow aristocrats who had turned against the Nazi leader.