Elizabeth of Bavaria (1876–1965)

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Elizabeth of Bavaria (1876–1965)

German-born queen of the Belgians, patron of music, and humanitarian who was one of the most admired European sovereigns of the 20th century. Name variations: Elisabeth, Dowager Queen of Belgium; Elisabeth of Belgium; Elizabeth von Wittelsbach, duchess in Bavaria. Born Elisabeth Valerie Gabrielle Marie von Wittelsbach at Possenhofen Castle, Bavaria, on July 25, 1876; died at Château de Stuyvenberg, near Brussels, on November 23, 1965; buried at Laeken, Brussels, Belgium; daughter of Maria Josepha of Portugal (1857–1943) and Karl Theodor "Gackl" also known as Karl Theodor von Wittelsbach, duke in Bavaria [sic]; earned a medical degree from the University of Leipzig; married Albert I (1875–1934), king of the Belgians (r. 1909–1934), on October 2, 1900; children: Leopold III (b. 1901), king of the Belgians; Charles Theodore (b. 1903); Marie José of Belgium (b. 1906, who married Umberto II of Italy).

One of the most beloved royals of the modern age, Belgium's Queen Elizabeth of Bavaria was born in Germany, making her by birth a citizen of a nation few if any modern Belgians had reason to respect or admire. She was born in Bavaria as Elisabeth Valerie Gabrielle Marie von Wittelsbach, daughter of Maria Josepha of Portugal and Karl Theodor, duke in Bavaria, which meant that he did not have a claim to the Bavarian throne as would a duke of Bavaria. Karl Theodor was the brother of the empress of Austria-Hungary, Elizabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898), who would be assassinated by an anarchist in Geneva in 1898. His cousin, King Ludwig II, was the "Mad King of Bavaria" who had provided vast sums of money to the composer Richard Wagner and decreed the construction of extravagant neo-medieval castles at Neuschwanstein and elsewhere in his kingdom.

The eccentric and often self-destructive strain evident for generations in the Wittelsbach family manifested itself in a more benign fashion in Karl Theodor, who ignored his aristocratic calling, insisting instead on studying medicine in Munich and Vienna. A formative event in his life was his participation as an officer in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Having witnessed the cruelties and suffering endured by wounded soldiers, he resolved to dedicate himself to humane ideals and the alleviation of disease and pain. Once he had earned his medical degree, the duke went on to practice his specialty of diseases of the eye. He founded three eye hospitals, the chief of which was situated at the Royal Schloss at Tegernsee. Here the "Oculist Duke" performed his surgeries, often operating free of cost on indigent patients. Those who could afford to pay were expected to contribute to the hospital's collection box, which was periodically emptied for distribution to the poor people of the region.

Along with her brothers and sisters, Elizabeth of Bavaria was raised in an environment of the utmost simplicity. Their father, considered a model husband, respected the personalities and potentialities of his children. He impressed upon them the need for a strong sense of duty toward the poorer and weaker members of society, and he insisted that this duty must be expressed in a practical, never patronizing, fashion. One of Elizabeth's brothers took Holy Orders, working as a curate in one of Bavaria's poorest parishes. Elizabeth was particularly close to her father, who personally supervised her education and encouraged her musical interests which included piano and violin, on both of which she achieved considerable skill. She often assisted him in his hospital and chose to accompany him on his rounds with peasant patients. To prepare for a life of giving to the less fortunate, Elizabeth studied nursing, earning a medical degree from the University of Leipzig. From her earliest years, she showed a strong affinity for nature and enjoyed a mountain-climbing expedition in the Bavarian alps with her brothers.

Elizabeth first caught the eye of Belgium's Prince Albert (1875–1934) in Paris during May 1897 when both attended the funeral of Sophie of Bayern , duchess of Alençon. They met again the next year in Vienna to attend another funeral, that of Elizabeth's paternal aunt, the Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria. Albert and Elizabeth fell in love and announced their betrothal in Paris in 1900. Although German Kaiser Wilhelm II viewed the marriage of a Bavarian princess to the heir of the throne of neighboring Belgium as an important geopolitical victory, the marriage of Albert and Elizabeth in Munich on October 2, 1900, was in fact born of love, not a mere dynastic arrangement.

The couple arrived in Brussels a few days later and almost instantly won over the hearts of millions of Belgians. Albert was heir to a throne still occupied by King Leopold II, who was little loved by most of his subjects both because of an autocratic personality and colossal greed. Leopold had amassed an immense private fortune through exploitation of Africa's Congo region, which he ruled as a personal possession. In contrast, the young Prince Albert and his Bavarian-born bride soon provided convincing evidence of their strong sense of duty.

Albert busied himself with numerous philanthropies, and Elizabeth dedicated her energies to learning about the sick and needy citizens of Belgium. Before long, she became a familiar sight in Brussels hospitals and orphanages. Years before Albert became king, both he and Elizabeth became immensely popular in all social strata, but particularly among the poor and dispossessed. Both royals showed a dislike of excessive formality, behaving in a manner that was considered to be extremely egalitarian for the age. From the time Albert became king of the Belgians in 1909, his reign was characterized by a strong social conscience on the part of the entire royal family. Elizabeth fully shared the sentiments King Albert I had expressed in December 1909, during his first speech from the throne: "Our prosperity depends upon the prosperity of the masses."

Both Elizabeth and her husband were interested in the arts, and even before 1909 their home in Brussels' Place de l'Industrie had often been the site of gatherings of Belgium's most brilliant artists, writers, and musicians. The queen's interest in the arts and her medical training crossed paths when she secured the best possible medical treatment for the celebrated painter Laermans who was threatened with the loss of his eyesight.

The bourgeois probity exhibited by the couple—particularly after the birth of their three children, Leopold, Charles and Marie José of Belgium —was much admired by a Belgian public that had long ago become disillusioned by the scandalous private life of King Leopold II. Albert and Elizabeth greatly enjoyed their family life, which was simple and unadorned by the royal standards of the day, and their people responded to them with ever-growing respect. The elevation of Albert to kingship in 1909 had elated the entire Belgian nation, and most people anticipated a long, prosperous and peaceful reign. These hopes, however, were not to be realized.

World War I began on the Western front with Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality. This was part of the secret Schlieffen Plan which called for a war on two fronts in which France would be defeated in a blitzkrieg via Belgium that would enable German forces to fight Russia in the east as soon as Paris capitulated. Stubborn Belgian resistance in the first weeks of the campaign frustrated Berlin's grand strategy, but at a very high cost to tiny Belgium. During these first weeks, Queen Elizabeth helped to transform the Royal Palace into an emergency hospital for wounded Belgian soldiers. The queen waited until the last possible moment, with German troops already in the Brussels suburbs, before she joined retreating Belgian forces.

Elizabeth and Albert decided to send their three young children to the safety of England, but both were determined to remain with their people. Thanks to the bravery of Belgian troops, as well as King Albert's decision to flood the Yser valley in October 1914, it was possible to keep a small patch of Belgian soil, measuring no more than 20 square miles, from falling into the hands of German occupying forces. Belgian blood and decisiveness had allowed the French to retain possession of their Channel ports and very likely changed the course of not only the great conflict but also of world history.

The German invasion of Belgium that began World War I was a national catastrophe for millions of Belgians as well as a personal tragedy for Queen Elizabeth. German-born, she now had to break all relations with her family in Bavaria. She did so without hesitation, recalling an incident before the war when Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II had tried to pressure King Al-bert toward a more pro-German course. On that occasion, her succinct reply to the ruler of Belgium's powerful neighbor made clear her loyalties: "My husband and I are one, I abide by his decisions." Elizabeth dealt with the issue of her relations with her family, now living in an enemy nation, in the simplest terms possible, noting, "It is finished between me and them; henceforth an iron curtain has descended between us which will never be raised."

On the Channel coast, the royal couple spent the next four years in a modest house in the small fishing village of La Panne, located in sand dunes near Furnes. There was hardly an undestroyed house in La Panne, which was less than eight miles from the front and well within the range of German artillery. "As long as one square foot of Belgian soil is left," said Elizabeth, "I will stay on it." The years of nursing experience in her father's hospitals in Bavaria now proved valuable to the queen, who for the next four years spent countless hours with the wounded soldiers in the La Panne military hospital. Over the course of the war, more than 200,000 wounded were treated there, and, because of the excellent quality of care they received, a relatively low number of 10,000 died, some of them literally in her arms.

To many Belgians suffering the horrors of war, Queen Elizabeth was the embodiment of the spirit of a small nation's will to resist oppression and foreign tyranny. She received many un-official titles including "Heroine of the Yser," "Belgium's Soul," and "The Angel of the Field Hospitals." Occasionally, she would receive visitors at La Panne to remind her of better days. These included the violinist Eugene Ysaye, the composer Saint-Saëns, and the poet Verhaeren. Another famous visitor to La Panne, French President Raymond Poincaré, described Elizabeth, who received him dressed in white: "Delicate and frail, it seems as if she should have been broken by the storm; but she has an indomitable soul; she has given herself wholly to her husband, her children and Belgium."

After four years at La Panne, during which Elizabeth made visits to the trenches along with King Albert, the war finally ended in November 1918. With her children, she accompanied Albert on triumphal visits to Dunkirk, Bruges, and Antwerp. At long last, on November 22, 1918, the king and queen of the Belgians, accompanied by their sons Prince Leopold and Prince Charles, entered the liberated city of Brussels in triumph. Albert and his sons smiled at the crowds, but it was Queen Elizabeth, mounted on a huge white

charger and wearing a faded grey riding habit, who presented the most moving sight. An eyewitness recalled how an obviously overwhelmed queen of the Belgians "sat erect and motionless on her white horse, her face piteously grave in the midst of so much rejoicing, and her eyes stonily fixed on the road ahead, as though she dare not glance to right or left for fear of breaking down."

The postwar years were busy ones for Elizabeth and Albert. Accompanied by their son Crown Prince Leopold, they made a triumphant tour of the United States in 1919, which included a visit with President Woodrow Wilson at the White House. Freed of her wartime duties, the queen was now able to enjoy some leisure time, which included an hour or more of violin practice almost daily. Although she was modest about her musical abilities, Elizabeth was in fact a more than competent violinist, having taken lessons from such masters as Ysaye, Jacques Thibaud, and Georges Enesco. On at least one occasion, she played a violin duo with the American violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin. The incomparable Catalan cellist Pablo Casals became one of her closest friends. Elizabeth also sculpted and was an enthusiastic amateur painter.

The bulk of her time, however, was allocated to an ever-expanding number of philanthropic and cultural activities, as well as to her three children and a growing number of grandchildren. Although Europe's great war had ended, it left in its wake permanently disabled soldiers, as well as widows and orphans who needed care. Elizabeth provided both material support and emotional sustenance for these victims of war. She also busied herself with other projects. Intrigued by the mysteries of ancient Egypt since a visit to Egypt in her youth, Elizabeth traveled there in February 1923 and witnessed the ongoing excavation of the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Her visit was responsible for the creation of a Queen Elizabeth Egyptological Foundation.

Elizabeth chartered other foundations dealing with blindness, polio, cancer, and tuberculosis. Various aspects of child welfare were of high concern to her, and in 1958 she was patron of the World Child Welfare Congress that was held in conjunction with the Brussels World Fair. In the 1950s, these organizations were combined into one large charitable entity under the queen's auspices, the Front Blanc de la Santé.

Sensitive to the needs of the indigenous peoples living under Belgian rule in the Congo colony, in the late 1920s Elizabeth took steps to establish a medical foundation specializing in the study, treatment, and prevention of the tropical diseases found in the Congo and other regions of equatorial Africa. She also kept current with the newest discoveries in science and technology. Both she and King Albert visited factories and laboratories to see firsthand the latest technological breakthroughs. When visiting laboratories and universities, she insisted on meeting the most celebrated scientific innovators of her day, including Marie Curie , Niels Bohr, Paul Langevin, Lord Rutherford, and, of course, Albert Einstein.

The 1930s, which started with a world economic depression and ended with the onset of a second World War, was a tragic decade for the royal family. Economic hardship exacerbated existing tensions between the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking sectors of the country, which greatly distressed the queen. A more personal blow took place on February 17, 1934, when Albert fell to his death while climbing a cliff near Namur. Elizabeth went into a deep depression and was just starting to find a new equilibrium in her life when in August 1935 her daughter-in-law Queen Astrid of Sweden , wife of her son, the new King Leopold III, was killed in an automobile accident in Switzerland.

Although this second family tragedy was almost more than Elizabeth could bear, she began to slowly revive during an extended stay in Naples, where her daughter Marie José lived as crown princess of Italy, having married Crown Prince Umberto in 1930. On Elizabeth's return to Brussels, one of her ladies-in-waiting coaxed her back into a regimen of violin practice. In 1937, she presided over an international music contest for violinists, the Concours Ysaye. Known in later years as the Concours Musical International Reine Elizabeth, this contest came to include pianists as well as violinists in one of the musical world's most important festivals. Conscientious to a fault as the patron of the event, Elizabeth attended all of the elimination rounds in 1937 and would do so in later years as well. She was present at the special gala performance at which the first winner, the Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, performed brilliantly. In 1938, the first piano competition was won by another talented young Soviet musician, Emil Gilels.

With her daughter-in-law Astrid's death in Switzerland, Dowager Queen Elizabeth had effectively become Belgium's only queen. More burdens were soon to be thrust upon her and her adopted nation. In May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Belgium. For the second time in a generation, German troops marched through the streets of Brussels and other cities and towns in Belgium. If the first German occupation was at times harsh, this occupation was infinitely worse in its inhumanity. Members of the Belgian resistance were tortured before their executions, and starting in 1942 Belgian Jews were rounded up to be sent to the East for "special treatment," i.e., systematic murder.

Unlike the Dutch royal family which fled to London and set up an anti-Nazi Government in Exile, the Belgian king remained in Brussels. Leopold III's British and French allies, and many Belgians as well, were critical of their king for having surrendered to Nazi Germany after only a few days' fighting. To many, Leopold seemed to show an insufficient spirit of resistance to the Nazis now occupying his nation, and he seemed incapable of halting the collaborationist tendencies that flourished among many of his subjects. His wartime marriage to Liliane Baels served to further infuriate and alienate his subjects. Like her son, Queen Elizabeth also chose to remain in Belgium, living in seclusion at Laeken Castle near Brussels.

Being German-born, Elizabeth could communicate more easily than most Belgians with high officials of the occupying forces. Some of the leading occupation officials hoped that despite her reputation as a Belgian patriot she might still harbor at least some vague lingering sympathies for Germany. In these beliefs, they were totally mistaken. Elizabeth submerged as best she could her profound hatred for Nazism, using her position to ameliorate the lives of many Belgians. Once it was clear that the country's Jews were targeted for annihilation, she made special efforts to save as many of them as possible. She had always admired Jews both as individuals and as a people, and now she signalled her solidarity with them by wearing in public a five-pointed brooch that resembled the Star of David that Jews were ordered to wear whenever they appeared in public. Her interventions on behalf of Jews took many forms. Sometimes a visit to a threatened household kept German authorities from arresting those individuals for at least a period of time sufficient for them to attempt to go into hiding. On at least one occasion, she contacted one of her son's German guards, knowing that this officer was not sympathetic to Nazism. The officer was able to get a positive response from the top German general, von Falkenhausen. In other instances, her intervention made it possible to save the lives of Jewish children, who found refuge in convents, orphanages and with farm families who willingly risked their own lives to save the life of a child.

Belgium was liberated by Allied forces in the spring of 1945, but the nation could not fully enjoy its freedom for long. Divisions quickly surfaced between those factions that forgave King Leopold III for his wartime behavior and were willing to move ahead in a spirit of national reconciliation, and those Belgians who demanded that the king abdicate because of what they considered a weak performance during a time that had called for a strong example of courage. From the moment of its birth in 1830, Belgium had always been deeply divided along linguistic and cultural lines, and many observers felt that the country was in grave danger of national disintegration. Leopold III abdicated his throne in 1951. During the following years, Elizabeth remained above partisan strife, becoming a unifying element and a universally admired symbol of the Belgian national spirit at its best. Tireless in her charitable and cultural activities, the dowager queen continued to be the embodiment of charm, tenacity, and human compassion.

Queen Elizabeth did not fear the Nazi occupiers of her nation during the darkest days of World War II. Neither did she succumb to the hysteria that seemed to grip the West at the height of the Cold War. She was considerably ahead of her time in her awareness of the dangers raised by the expanding nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. Since the late 1930s when Soviet musicians had won prizes during the first years of her music festival, Elizabeth had felt a kinship to the Soviet Union. During the war, she had kept informed of the sacrifices made by the Soviets in their war against Hitler. Although many in the West branded the Stockholm Peace Appeal of 1950 as little more than Communist-inspired propaganda because it unequivocally called for the banning of all nuclear weapons, Queen Elizabeth gave it her enthusiastic support.

Many of her fellow Belgians disagreed with Elizabeth's determination to challenge Cold War orthodoxies, but she refused to change either her views or public actions. Every year, she welcomed musicians who came to Brussels from behind the Iron Curtain to participate in her music festival. Always an enthusiastic traveler, she made few concessions to her age, visiting in her later years the United States, Israel, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Her trips to the two largest and most powerful Communist nations left her open to charges from conservatives and anti-Communists that she was politically naive and that her actions were harming her nation. Some hostile newspaper accounts dubbed her the "Red Queen."

She infuriated some Belgians by sponsoring the Belgo-Soviet Friendship Society and was once even photographed carrying a copy of Le Drapeau Rouge, the official newspaper of the Belgian Communist Party. The paranoia, so characteristic of the Cold War era, never stopped Elizabeth from speaking out candidly on those issues, particularly the theme of world peace, that she believed to be of major importance to humanity. Not without a touch of imperiousness, the queen would simply state, "I always do what I wish."

Never in robust health, Elizabeth gave many the impression of being physically fragile. This was, however, misleading. Enjoying her role as the much-beloved dowager queen of the Belgians, Elizabeth remained healthy and active into her late 80s. Many of her subjects found it hard to look forward to a time when she would no longer be with them. During her last decades, she did yoga exercises and took long walks, as well as engaging in a continuing regimen of swimming, sunbathing and ice-cold baths. When she suffered a heart attack on November 4, 1965, she initially astonished her physicians by appearing to make a rapid recovery. But a second, more severe attack on the evening of November 23 resulted in her death at Stuyvenberg Palace. Three days of national mourning were declared.

The queen's funeral in Brussels attracted not only royalty from throughout Europe but countless thousands of her loyal subjects. Through the new technology of television, millions of Belgians watched from their homes. After three days of rain and storm, the day of her funeral was cold and sunny. Her simple mahogany coffin was borne on a flag-decked hearse and drawn by 70 Grenadiers, the regiment of her late husband Albert. At the requiem mass in St. Michael's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens eulogized Elizabeth as "simultaneously the Queen of the scholars and the unfortunate, the Queen of artists and writers, the Queen with an unlimited heart." The German-born sovereign who had displayed her fierce love for her adopted homeland during two devastating wars of German aggression was buried at Laeken Castle. She was honored on a number of occasions by being depicted on Belgian postage stamps, including two stamps that were issued in May 1976 to honor her memory on the centenary of her birth.


Aronson, Theo. Defiant Dynasty: The Coburgs of Belgium. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.

Larson, Wanda Z. Elisabeth: A Biography. From Bavarian Princess to Queen of the Belgians. San Francisco, CA: International Scholars, 1997.

Laurent, Lea. Our Lady of Belgium (Notre Dame de Belgique). Translated by Elisabeth M. Lockwood. London: Iris, 1916.

Mallinson, Vernon. Belgium. NY: Praeger, 1970.

Mender, Mona. Extraordinary Women in Support of Music. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997. Nicholas, Alison. Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians: Her Life and Times. Bognor Regis, England: New Horizon, 1982.

"Queen and Humanist: Elisabeth of Belgium," in Memo from Belgium. No. 72. January 1966, pp. 1–24.

"Queen Elisabeth, 89, of Belgium, Is Dead," in The New York Times. November 24, 1965, pp. 1 and 39.

"Queen Elisabeth of Belgium," in The Times [London]. November 24, 1965, p. 14.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Elizabeth of Bavaria (1876–1965)

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Elizabeth of Bavaria (1876–1965)