Grand Duchess Marie Anne with her six daughters in 1920 during the reign of Grand Duchess Charlotte. / © Public domain
Most of us familiar with the history of Luxembourg during the Second World War know the experience held by Grand Duchess Charlotte, the monarch at the time, as well as that of her son and heir Hereditary Grand Duke Jean.
The Grand Duchess, her consort Prince Felix of Luxembourg, and the Hereditary Grand Duke all fled Luxembourg before the Nazi invasion. All three spent their war years in Allied countries, notably the United Kingdom and the United States, although both Prince Felix and Hereditary Grand Duke Jean returned to Luxembourg as part of the liberating forces. The Grand Duchess remained in exile, broadcasting messages of hope and resilience to her people. For more on Charlotte’s story, our Luxembourg’s Royals series provides an excellent overview.
Both Grand Duchess Charlotte and her younger sister, Princess Antonia, spent the wartime years resisting the Nazi regime. The two sisters did not have similar experiences, with Antonia's story being far more tragic than that of her older sister. The cadet sister of Luxembourg’s matriarch was profoundly affected by her wartime experience, which saw Antonia and her daughters imprisoned in several concentration camps.
Princess Antonia of Luxembourg, known as 'Toni' to her family
Princess Antonia was born Antoinette Roberte Sophie Wilhelmine on 7 October 1899 to Prince William (later Grand Duke William IV) and his wife Princess Marie Anne during the reign of Grand Duke Adolphe. She was the fourth of the Grand Ducal couple's six daughters. Of the familial history, there is already a more controversial and dramatic story that is far better known, namely that of Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde's difficult reign and eventual abdication in favour of her sister, Charlotte.
Princess Antonia, stylised as Antoinette, standing above her mother in the portrait taken of the Grand Duchess Marie Anne and her six daughters. Grand Duchess Charlotte is sitting on the far right. Approximately 1910s. / © Public domain
Antonia for her part does play a role, albeit a small one, in the pressure mounting on her sister. In 1918, Antonia became engaged to Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, a man already widowed and 30 years her senior. The controversy surrounding the engagement was not about Rupprecht's age, but the apparent close relationship between the Luxembourgish royal family and royalty of the German Empire, whilst Luxembourg had been occupied by Germany. Rupprecht was also known as a formidable field marshal during World War I, and many historians focus on the crown prince's military career, which makes it slightly difficult to find out detailed information about his family life.
The engagement did get cancelled following the end of World War I, amidst political unrest in Bavaria. Rupprecht's father, Ludwig III, published a declaration widely interpreted as an abdication, which the Bavarian government then used as a basis to transform the state into a republic. The Wittelsbach house had ruled Bavaria for 738 years, but suddenly Rupprecht became a crown prince without a territory to become crown prince over.
The last Crown Princess of Bavaria
Despite public rumblings, Antonia and Rupprecht became engaged again, as announced in Luxembourgish newspapers in February 1921. The French government reacted to the news by describing the 'distasteful impression' it was left with in a diplomatic cable to the French minister based in Luxembourg.
The two were married at Schloss Hohenberg in Bavaria, the summer home of the Grand Ducal family and Antonia's birthplace, on 7 April 1921.
In total, the couple had six children: Prince Heinrich, Princess Irminggard, Princess Editha, Princess Hilda, Princess Gabrielle, and Princess Sophie. During the interwar years, Rupprecht established himself as an opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime, meeting with King George V in the summer of 1934. At this meeting, the British Foreign Office's summary reports Rupprecht as telling George V that he "remained convinced that the Fuhrer was insane." Rupprecht remained a thorn in the side of the Nazis, refusing to adorn Wittelsbach residences with the swastika. Rupprecht also hoped to see the monarchy restored in Bavaria, and continued to be venerated by many residents.
The family became associated with a resistance plot in 1939 and the Gestapo seized Wittelsbach properites, including their main residence, Schloss Leutstetten. Rupprecht fled to Italy in exile and Antonia and the children followed not long after. Thus, in parallel with her sister, Antonia was no longer welcome at her home and living in exile, resisting the Nazis.
The attempt on Hitler and 'Sippenhaft' retribution
After an assassination attempt was made on Adolf Hitler's life in 1944, Rupprecht and his son Heinrich went underground in Italy, separating from the rest of the family. Rupprecht and the family were quickly designated as opponents to the Nazi regime, and hunted down.
The Nazis employed the use of Sippenhaft, the notion of kin liability and that a whole family is liable for the actions of one of the family members, to go after the Wittenbachs. Rupprecht may have been in hiding, but Adolf Hitler personally ordered the arrest of Antonia and her children.
The Gestapo managed to capture Rupprecht's son from his first marriage in addition to Antonia and her three youngest daughters in northern Italy on 27 July 1944. Although accounts vary, it is generally believed that Antonia contracted typhus and was left at a hospital in Innsbruck, whilst her daughters were transported to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp north of Berlin.
Princess Irmingard, the eldest daughter of the couple, was captured separately near Lake Garda and brought to the same hospital as her mother. The two were eventually deemed 'well enough' to be transported to Sachsenhausen, although they were separated near Weimar. Irmingard was reunited with her sisters at Sachsenhausen in January 1945, but was initially unrecognisable as she had lost all her hair.
Antonia and her children, shortly after the end of the war. / © Public domain
Generally, the historical consensus is that the family was moved first to Flossenbürg, then Dachau, as the Soviets advanced through eastern Germany. However, one source maintains that Antonia was held at Buchenwald concentration camp and cruelly tortured there. The obituary for Princess Irmingard also reports that her mother was found at a hospital in Jena in April 1945, which is 30 kilometres from Buchenwald. It has been difficult to ascertain the truth of this, but the internment in concentration camps had its toll on Crown Princess Antonia. When found in the hospital, she weighed less than 40 kilograms.
The war had its toll on Antonia even in the after-war years. Prince Felix, her brother-in-law, escorted her back to Luxembourg to recover, and her children joined in May 1945. Afterwards, she lived in both Italy and Switzerland. The Crown Princess vowed never to return to German soil and died nine years later, on 31 July 1954 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
There are very few accounts of the experiences Antonia and her family had in the concentration camps, likely due to increased exposure on the life and exploits of Crown Prince Rupprecht and perhaps the fact that Antonia never recovered from the ordeal. At any rate, the Grand Duchess's younger sister was one of many to be held at German concentration camps during the war. Her experience of the war is certainly more tragic than that of her older sister, whose husband and son helped liberate Luxembourg, and who was able to return to her homeland.
Nathalie Lodhi is an editor and translator for RTL Today with a background in history. This series on Luxembourg's history sees her inner historian deplore the lack of academic writing (where are the references?!) whilst trying to keep the series interesting.