Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires by Justin C. Vovk (Review)

Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires is a biography of four princesses raised at the margins of European royal society who became consorts to the most influential monarchs who reigned during the First World War. Three of these women would lose their thrones in the conflict find themselves in straightened circumstances once more. Princess Augusta Victoria “Dona” of Schleswig-Holstein’s father, Duke Frederick VIII was exiled from his duchies after losing Prussian support for his rule, as part of Otto von Bismark’s plan for the unification of Germany. Dona’s marriage to the future Kaiser Wilhelm II was controversial as there were many who did not consider the daughter of a deposed duke to be a grand enough consort for a future German Emperor.

Princess Victoria Mary “May” of Teck had a father with morganatic ancestry and a mother who was a comparatively impoverished cousin of Queen Victoria. She spent part of her adolescence in Florence after her parents fled the creditors who gathered outside their grace and favour apartment at Kensington Palace. May’s circumstances changed dramatically when Queen Victoria decided she would make a suitable consort for her grandson Albert Victor and then his brother, the future King George V despite her morganatic ancestry and impecunious parents.

In common with the House of Schleswig-Holstein, Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt’s family found themselves on the wrong side of Bismark’s unification of Germany, and had persistent financial problems alleviated by Queen Victoria’s generosity to her motherless grandchildren. Marriage to Emperor Nicholas II of Russia catapulted the shy young Alix into the most opulent court in Europe as the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. A generation younger than Dona, May and Alix, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma was also raised in financially straightened circumstances as the seventeenth of her father, Duke Robert’s, twenty-four children. Zita’s husband, Archduke Karl became the last Emperor of the Hapsburg Empire in 1916, at the height of the First World War.

Justin C. Vovk, an independent historian based in Hamilton, Canada has experience writing sweeping composite biographies of royalty, having previously written In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa. His approach provides a portrait of royal society and court politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries encompassing both the provincial courts and the grand centres of power. Fluent in English, German and Slovenian, Vovk draws upon published works and extensive archival material from the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria to craft compelling three dimensional portraits of Europe’s Imperial consorts during the First World War.

The greatest accomplishment of Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empiresis Vovk’s recovery of Dona and Zita from the margins of history. Dona has been criticized by both her contemporaries at the German court and subsequent historians for her perceived haughtiness, bigotry and subservience to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Vovk provides analysis of the last German Empress that incorporates both her well known character failings and her often overlooked strengths including her close involvement in the upbringing of her children and promotion of charitable causes benefiting poor women, including vocational training for underprivileged girls.

While most consorts of deposed monarchs are blamed for their husbands’ political failings, Dona remained a popular figure despite the collapse of the House of Hohenzollern and exile of the German royal family, an accomplishment that was not matched by Zita and Alix. Zita’s brief tenure as the Hapsburg Empress may appear to preclude a political role but Vovk’s archival research and interviews with her descendants reveal the full involvement of the consort and the House of Bourbon-Parma in Emperor Karl’s attempts to make a separate peace for Austria during the First World War. The collapse of these efforts directly contributed to the overthrow of the Hapsburg dynasty.

Vovk also provides fresh analysis of May’s family life, particularly the conflicting accounts of her parenting and the influence of her financially precarious childhood on her decisions regarding her household as an adult. The weakest sections of the book are those pertaining to Alix’s tenure as Empress of Russia. Vovk does not appear to have used Russian language archival sources and he is insufficiently critical of the memoir literature written about the Imperial family after the Revolution, which leads to some inaccuracies in the text.

Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires is a fascinating composite biography of four obscure princesses who married the rulers of powerful empires during a period of intense political turmoil. Their marriages and political influence shaped the course of European history during the First World War. Vovk has rescued the last German and Austrian Empresses from comparative historical obscurity and placed them in context with the last Empress of Russia and one of Britain’s most respected Queens.

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