When the dust, smoke and cordite cleared over no-man’s-land following the infamous Somme Offensive of July-September 1916, the German Commander of the troops facing the British lines sat down and wrote an assessment of what had just occurred. Rows and bloody rows of Tommy pals had been cut down as they went ‘over the top’, their young officers falling in front of them as they went as far as they could towards the German lines and the relentless spitting of machine-gun bullets . . .
On 15 September Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria (1869-1950) recorded in words far from triumphalist: ‘Our losses may be seen on the map with a microscope. Their losses in that far more precious thing – human life – are simply prodigious . . . It saddens us to exact the dreadful toll of suffering and death that is being marked up on the ledger of history, but if the enemy is still minded to possess a few more hectares of blood-sodden soil, I fear they must pay a bitter price’. Although he had been in command of a successful defence he later confided that the Somme had extinguished the last of the pre-war German professional army and that victory was no longer possible.
At the outbreak of war the crown prince’s wife had made a flamboyant public gesture of kissing his sword and declaring she would kiss it again when he brought it back again stained with the blood of his enemies. If Rupprecht was as eager for the glories of war as suggested by this event, professionalism, hard-headed pragmatism and humanitarian sentiments were the defining features of his military career that followed. No toy general, he lured the French into a trap at the battle of Louvain at the outbreak of hostilities and quickly rose to the rank of field marshal. The prince was one of Germany’s most capable commanders. However, for Rupprecht victory could not be at any price as he was guided both by the interests of those under him and by strong Christian humanitarian principles especially in relation to non-combatants. He gave orders against looting and burning, believed a scorched earth policy was not only immoral but counter-productive, and strongly objected to the use of poison gas, and wrote to the German high command telling them so.
After the Somme, Rupprecht was convinced that a German victory was no longer possible and that peace talks should be started as soon as could be arranged while his country was still in a strong negotiating position with its forces occupying large areas of enemy territory and while there was little chance of a decisive allied offensive. After years and military stalemate the allies were also fatigued and ill-prepared financially to continue for much longer. In July 1917 he wrote to the Chancellor of Germany, Count Georg von Hertling, urging peace negotiations. Other letters were sent to his father, Ludwig III and the Kaiser as an informed officer in the field. The Kaiser, however, had come under the influence of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff fresh from a victory over the Russians on the Eastern Front, for whom Rupprecht had little regard. The crown prince believed their plan for a massive offensive against the allies before fresh US troops could be deployed would be unsuccessful and was proved correct, but he dutifully took part, acquitting himself well in the process. Antipathy between the Bavarian crown prince and Ludendorff did not end at the armistice, which the latter described as a ‘stab in the back’ of the German troops by the socialist civilian government although his own voiced concerns and recommendations had led to the peace negotiations in the first place.
Before the prince could return to Bavaria his father had absolved his staff of their oaths of loyalty. He did not abdicate, but events overtook him. He was deposed by a declaration of a Bavarian socialist republic by socialist leader Kurt Eisner who had paralysed Munich with a General Strike and had the support from Northern munitions-workers and disaffected veterans. In February 1919 Eisner was assassinated and following a purge of social democratic representatives Bavaria came under the control of Communists under Eugen Levine. However, the soviet republic he created faced a general strike of its own and eventually the government of the Weimar Republic unleashed the Freicorps militia on Bavaria, under Franz Ritter von Epp, which entered Munich on 1 May ending the Bavarian revolutionary experiment. This did not liberate Bavaria, however, but tied it more firmly to Berlin and the increasingly centrist republic.
Rupprecht settled into private life, but remained committed to his people and his principles. In 1922 he offered his opinions on warfare and disarmament to the Washington Conference: although arms limitation might be difficult to achieve, he thought, war could be made more humane, especially for civilians. He wanted chemical weapons and gas banned along with submarine blockade, aerial bombardment from aircraft or long-range guns, and hoped Germany could be represented at future conferences. When his father died in 1921 he became heir to the kingdom of Bavaria, but made no attempt to enforce his claim in spite of widespread popularity. He said that he could become king in a couple of weeks by means of a coup, but would then only be leader of a faction. He refused to join in any restoration plots stating that he would only come to his throne with the consent and by the declared will of his people.
In 1923 Hitler and Ludendorff made an alliance in an attempt to march on Berlin and stage a coup. The first step was to be in Munich where the Nazis were based. In an attempt to garner support monarchist and other groups were courted with vague promises of restoration. Rupprecht was approached by Nazi representatives, including Brown-Shirt commander Ernst Rohm, but each was ejected. On dispatching the last, while the plotters’ Beer Hall Putsch was underway, Rupprecht sent an urgent message to government leaders warning them to put down the insurrection at all costs, using troops if necessary. Hitler had never intended to form a real alliance with the Crown Prince and had earlier plotted to capture or kill him together with Bavarian political leaders at the unveiling of a memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Munich. The prince and the future dictator continued their dislike of each other while both lived. In 1936, on a visit to George V and Queen Mary in England, he warned the British king that Hitler was insane.
Rupprecht wrote to President Hindenburg in 1932 urging him not to allow Hitler any power. As usual his letter was ignored and history took its course. With the Nazi leader’s appointment as Chancellor the following year Bavarian leaders were presented with a predicament. Although the Crown Prince always preferred Bavaria to remain a part of Germany, he quickly changed his mind. The Bavarian government started to move hesitantly towards secession, considered restoration in 1932 and in 1933 offered their would-be king the temporary post of staatskommissar giving him the authority to keep order as his country prepared for independence. However, the Bavarian government hesitated and nothing came of the plans. Franz Ritter von Epp, the Freicorp commander who had liberated Munich from the Communists, was appointed to restore order in Bavaria, which he did by dismissing the elected government! Hitler could not allow dissent in the birthplace of National Socialism and Bavaria was subsumed into the Nazi German Reich. Rupprecht wrote complaining to Hindenburg and the exiled Kaiser to no avail.
Monarchist organisations were banned or converted into Nazi ones and the Crown Prince found himself outside of the state he had served all his life. Rupprecht’s grandson Duke Franz of Bavaria notes how, when he made no concessions to Nazi rule and refused to hang the swastika from any of his palaces, his reserve was interpreted as opposition: ‘My grandfather and my father, Herzog Albrecht, were monitored by the Gestapo because the Nazis were aggravated by their popularity and position as the soul of opposition to National Socialism in Bavaria. Also, as a way of intimidating them personally some members of their inner circle were arrested.’ Rupprecht himself dismissed the upstarts who had taken over his country with a few choice words about his dynasty. ‘We are Bavarians,’ he said, ‘we forced no foreign wars upon the people. We are part of the people, the soil. We are accustomed to think in centuries and in the interests of Bavaria. Do you think such a bond can be broken by ephemeral forms of government?’
The brave Crown Prince had another throw of the dice before events overtook the world. He sent an emissary to Hitler to persuade him of the necessity to restore the monarchy in Germany, which he said he was sure he would understand. His continued occupation of the post of chancellor would not be possible of course, he said, because it would be an impediment to the unification of the German nation, but there would be rewards for him including a dukedom. Predictably Hitler scornfully rejected the offer.
Rupprecht sent his youngest children to school in England and did what he could to keep his family away from Nazis and Nazi indoctrination. Most of his property was confiscated after a monarchist plot of which Rupprecht was unaware. A response to the occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia was, he thought, the last opportunity the Allies had to check German expansionism and was surprised that Britain, especially, did not act.
In November 1939 he made plans to visit King Victor Emmanuel (Vittorio Emanuelle III) of Italy and in December of that year was granted a passport, his wife and daughters joining him later in Rome where they were welcomed by the Italian royal family.
He knew that a return to Bavaria was not an option for him, so settled as an exile in Florence under royal protection – aware that this could only be temporary as the Nazis would move on him eventually. The Gestapo became aware that Rupprecht was in touch with the Allies so, immediately following the famous, but unsuccessful, 20 July plot against Hitler, the Nazis moved to arrest the Crown Prince’s family and him if they could. Rupprecht went into hiding, but unknown to him his wife and family were caught and imprisoned on Hitler’s personal orders. ‘After the Stauffenberg Plot,’ explains Duke Franz, ‘they arrested the family members to force my grandfather to leave his hiding place in Italy. However, he only got to know about the destiny of the family in 1945’. The family were taken to Sachenhausen-Oranienburg and then to Dachau. ‘We were liberated by the American army on 30 April 1945,’ says Duke Franz. ‘Crown Prince Rupprecht was still in Italy and tried to return to Bavaria’. He too had been liberated by the Allies to whom he had reported from his hiding place on their arrival. ‘Crown Princess Antonia [Rupprecht’s wife] was seriously ill and had been held prisoner under cruel conditions in Jena more dead than alive. Then, by chance, she was discovered by an officer from the Luxemburg army’. When Rupprecht eventually returned to Bavaria he found his home Leutstetten occupied by British forces so wrote to Queen Mary reminding her of their meeting in mid 1930 asking her to intercede with George VI for the return of his only serviceable abode. This was followed by another from Leutstetten thanking her for her help and informing her that he had heard from an American officer the identity of the person to whom he owed his gratitude for the restoration of his home.
‘From his return in 1945,’ reveals Duke Franz, ‘he was regarded by all sections of the population as a prominent and upright national figurehead who had a stabilizing effect on the country during this time of upheaval’.
In Scotland he was regarded by some as the Jacobite claimant to the British throne as he was descended from James II (VII), but he never made such a claim himself and neither does his grandson and heir. This year we could commemorate him as a worthy adversary 100 years ago, but for the rest of his life the enemies of the United Kingdom and of peaceful coexistence in Europe were his own.
During his time in wartime exile Rupprecht wrote to the Allied leaders offering his help and suggesting the establishment of a confederation of Bavaria and Austria as a way of ensuring stability and recovery in the region. However, the letters of this kind and wise man continued to be ignored even though he retained the respect and love of the Austrian people who, one is tempted to believe, would have had him as their king and followed him to the end of the earth had they ever been asked.
Frank Millard is a writer, journalist, poet and historian who lives with his wife and son in the South of England. He also has a background in Fine Art and Literature. He has a Masters in Medieval Studies and a PhD in Medieval History.