Friday Royal Read: Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival 1900-1950

The first half of the twentieth century was a turbulent time for Europe’s royal families. The First World War precipitated the collapse of the German, Austrian and Russian ruling houses. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary fled into exile with their families while Nicholas II of Russia was murdered with his wife, children and servants in 1918. The Turkish War of Independence led to the overthrow and exile of the last Ottoman Sultan in the 1920s. The Greek royal family (including the infant Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) also experienced exile in the 1920s. King Alfonso XIII of Spain went abroad in 1931 and his dynasty would not be restored until his grandson Juan Carlos became constitutional monarch in 1975. Italy’s reigning House of Savoy lost power in 1946. Not only did Umberto II have to leave the country but his male descendants were forbidden from visiting Italy until 2002.

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 is the story of what happened to German, Russian, Turkish and Spanish families after the fall of each country’s monarchy and Italian families during the last years of the House of Savoy. While countless historians have analysed the politics and wars of 20th century Europe, the impact of these cataclysmic changes on ordinary families has received little attention. Ginsborg combines short biographies of key figures with careful analysis of changes to family law in the early 20th century including the resistance to these developments. The new regimes that came to power often distrusted the traditional family that emerged from the 19th century, fearing that loyalties to other individuals would supersede loyalty to the state. Successive conflicts including the Spanish Civil War to the Turkish Wars of Independence divided families and tested the bonds between spouses, siblings, and parents and children.

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 is often a heartbreaking book, particularly the last couple of chapters that discuss the destruction of millions of families in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust and Soviet Russia during the Holodomar and Stalinist Terror. Amidst the devastation, individual tales of heroism and family solidarity emerge from a Soviet lamp factory worker who refused to disown her husband after he was sent to a gulag to a lawyer’s wife who disguised herself as a street vendor to safeguard her children during the Spanish Civil War.  Family Politics is never an easy read but it is a very important one that illuminates how the family endured through  war and revolution across Europe.

Next week: Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

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