Mafalda of Hesse (1902–1944)

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Mafalda of Hesse (1902–1944)

Italian-born princess, daughter of the king and queen of Italy, who died in a concentration camp during World War II, accused of poisoning Tsar Boris of Bulgaria . Name variations: Princess Mafalda of Savoy; landgravine of Hesse. Born Mafalda Maria Elizabeth, princess of Savoy, on November 19, 1902, in Rome, Italy; died on August 29, 1944, in Buchenwald concentration camp; daughter of Elena of Montenegro (1873–1952) and Victor Emmanuel III (1869–1947), king of Italy (r. 1900–1946); sister of Giovanna of Italy (1907–2000) and Maria of Savoy (b. 1914); married Philip (b. 1896), landgrave of Hesse, on September 23, 1925; children: Maurice Frederick (b. 1926), prince of Hesse; Henry William (b. 1927); Otto Adolf (b. 1937); Elizabeth Marguerite Elena (b. 1940), princess of Hesse (who married Friedrich Carl, count of Oppersdorf).

One of the countless dark stories that emerged from the Buchenwald concentration camp following World War II concerns Princess Mafalda of Hesse, the daughter of the king and queen of Italy, who was wounded in an American air raid on the camp on August 24, 1944, and died of her injuries a day later. Princess Mafalda was imprisoned by order of Adolf Hitler in 1943, after she and her husband Philip, landgrave of Hesse, were implicated in the mysterious death of Hitler ally Boris III, tsar of Bulgaria. Boris was married to Mafalda's sister Giovanna of Italy (1907–2000). Many of the facts surrounding Mafalda's death were not revealed until after the war, and to this day her involvement in any plot to murder Boris has never been proven.

Mafalda Maria Elizabeth, the second of the five children of Victor Emmanuel III, king of Italy, and Elena of Montenegro , was born in 1902, a year after her sister Yolanda Margherita of Italy , and two years before her brother Umberto (Umberto II), the heir to the throne. Two more girls, Giovanna and Maria of Savoy (b. 1914), completed the family. The king and queen, noted for their unpretentious lifestyle, brought the royal children up in a modest villa in the countryside outside of Rome. (It was said that Elena, who was raised in a small Balkan village, even did some of her own cooking and cleaning.) Mafalda grew up to be an accomplished young woman, who spoke four foreign languages, as well as her native Italian, played four musical instruments, and was an avid sports-woman. In 1923, she and her younger sister Giovanna were simultaneously stricken with typhoid fever and nearly died from the illness. Following her lengthy recovery, Mafalda remained in frail health and suffered life-threatening bouts of influenza in 1925, 1936, and again in 1939.

As a young woman, Mafalda was linked romantically with the prince of Wales and Crown Prince Leopold of Belgium (Leopold III), but in June 1925 she became engaged to Prince Philip of Hesse, whom she met at a garden party on the grounds of a Roman villa. The son of Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse and Princess Margaret Beatrice , and the nephew of exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II, Philip was an architect and engineer by training and served as a lieutenant in the German army during World War I. His engagement to Mafalda marked the first betrothal between the former opposing royal families since the war. In order to marry the Catholic princess, Philip, a Protestant, renounced all rights to his succession, and agreed that any children of the union would be raised Catholic. The couple married at an elaborate medieval ceremony held at the royal castle in Racconigi on September 23, 1925. On the eve of the wedding, while the royal guests dined in splendor within the confines of the castle, the royal family hosted a slightly more modest banquet for the villagers of Racconigi at a local hostelry, and even made a surprise appearance at the event. After the nuptials, the newlyweds honeymooned on the Italian Riviera, and in Germany, then returned to Rome, where they settled in a villa designed by Prince Philip. In 1933, when Philip was appointed governor of the province of Hessen-Nassau by Chancellor Hitler, they moved to Cassel, Germany. In the meantime, the couple began a family which eventually grew to include four children, three sons and a daughter, Elizabeth Marguerite Elena (b. 1940).

During the war, Philip rose to the honorary rank of general in Hitler's Brown Shirts and served as a go-between for Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Heinrich Himmler, although according to The Goebbels Diaries, Philip was never trusted because of his Italian connections. Indeed, Hitler had nothing but disdain for the House of Savoy, once referring to Mafalda as "the trickiest bitch in the Italian royal house." In August 1943, when Tsar Boris of Bulgaria was struck by a disease of "mysterious suddenness" and died a short time later, Hitler made note of the fact that the illness coincided with a visit from Mafalda to her sister Giovanna. David Irving, in his book Hitler's War, asserts that Hitler's physician, Professor Hans Eppinger, who assisted on the case, strongly suspected that Boris had been poisoned. "The King's Italian wife Giovanna would not permit an autopsy, but Eppinger noticed that the royal corpse's lower extremities had turned black—a phenomenon he had seen only once before, after the Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas, had been poisoned in January 1941." Hitler also learned from other sources that around the time of Boris' death, Prince Philip had dictated groups of ciphers to Mafalda over the telephone. Armed with only this circumstantial evidence, Hitler had the princess arrested that summer and jailed along with her servant. He then invited Philip to be his guest at headquarters, telling his guards not to let the prince out again.

At Buchenwald, which was primarily a concentration camp for men, Princess Mafalda was confined to a special compound for dignitaries, which also housed approximately 54 other prominent personalities whom the SS wanted to separate from the rest of the prisoners. They had a special guard for the building which was surrounded by a ten-foot stockade. Others in residence there were the former Social Democratic Reichstag deputy Rudolph Breitscheid and Jehovah's Witness Maria Ruhnar . When the building was destroyed in the American raid, Mafalda survived the bombing but emerged with a badly wounded arm, which was amputated by the prison doctor. The operation, carried out in one of the recently established camp brothels, was botched. The princess suffered from excessive bleeding and an infection set in; she died the following day. After her naked body was dumped into the crematory, the prisoner in charge, Father Joseph Thyl, dug it out of the heap, covered it, and arranged for a speedy cremation. He also cut off a lock of her hair which would be smuggled out of the camp and sent to her Hessian relatives.

Prince Philip endured a two-year imprisonment in Darmstadt, Germany, existing for some time in a crowded coal bin dubbed "Camp Despair" by its inmates. He was later a witness at the Dachau trial of Flossenburg concentration camp guards, and in December 1947 he received a suspended two-year prison sentence from a German denazification court. The court also confiscated a third of the prince's property, estimated at $68,600.

Mafalda of Hesse was not forgotten by her nation. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Italian government issued a stamp on which the image of the princess is superimposed against a barbed-wire fence.


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Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts