Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden (1838–1923)


The Prussian princess Marie Elizabeth was the daughter of Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and the future Emperor Wilhelm I. Her paternal grandmother was Queen Louise of Prussia. The princess spent her childhood years in Berlin, until her father was called to the position of General Governor of the Rhineland and Westphalia, and the family moved to Koblenz, to reside in the electoral castle there.

Augusta placed great importance on a very broad and comprehensive education for her daughter, which encompassed not only extensive private tutoring, but also tuition in social virtues. This included visits to hospitals, orphanages and participation in charity events. The family spent their summers in Baden Baden, where Louise met the Prince Regent Frederick of Baden, who was later proclaimed the Grand Duke of Baden. The couple married on 20 September 1856 in Potsdam, and as the Grand Duchess of Baden, Louise continued to pursue her passion for public welfare and social caring, particularly with regard to women.

In 1859 a conflict between Prussia, Austria and Italy threatened to escalate militarily and an attack on South-West-Germany was feared. Many women living in Karlsruhe and Freiburg reacted to this threat by establishing aid organizations. Louise, 21 years old at the time, supported these initiatives, seeking the advice of the Interior Minister to help put these plans into action. Louise set up a meeting and invited ladies sympathetic to the cause, and together they founded the Baden Women’s Association. Under the auspices of Louise, a whole network of aid organizations spread throughout Baden, and during times of war these organizations were responsible for taking care of the wounded and providing support to widows and children. This meant that women were a part of the home front and hence participants in the war. After the Peace Treaty of 11 July 1859 brought an end to the war, the organizations took over peacetime duties such as taking care of children and the poor, helping women to find employment and campaigning for girls’ education. In later years they also contributed to the fight against tuberculosis. It did not take long before it became a social trend for women to belong to these associations and play their part in helping their home country. According to government statistics in 1908 90% of the women in Baden belonged to one or more of these societies.

In 1863 the first Geneva Convention was established to improve the fate of soldiers wounded in battle. Baden was one of the first states to ratify the convention. The Grand Duchess adopted the idea of a sorority for everyone and promoted this idea with organized evening handiwork and sewing sessions. She also encouraged the wearing of the Red Cross band, as an expression of a common cause, and in the course of time the Baden Women’s Society developed into an Aid Organization of the Geneva Convention, which later became the German Red Cross. In the year 1867, Louise was invited to Paris, to the first International Red Cross Conference where she received the golden Medal of Honour.

The State Archives in Karlsruhe maintain a collection of letters and papers documenting the many areas in which Louise was occupied. In 1870 Louise, aided by her own private secretary, set up a private administration, the so-called Secret Cabinet, whose duties were, according to Louise’s husband, to handle all petitions, to act as liaison between the ministries and to supervise the committee for granting requests. Louise’s engagement far exceeded benevolent commitment; she was politically active, extremely engaged, self-confident and, at the time, unusually independent for a female member of the aristocratic elite. The fact that her husband, Frederick I. allowed and even supported his wife’s activities speaks for a very harmonious and respectful relationship. The couple spent their leisure time together at their summer residence on the island Mainau in Lake Constance. After the death of Frederick, Louise kept the rooms of their summer residence in their original condition, leaving it as a kind of mausoleum for her deceased husband. Her great grandson, Count Lennart Bernadotte, who visited her as a child with his grandmother Victoria, found the over-stuffed rooms of the castle totally stifling. A bust of the Grand Duchess was erected on the island in her memory.

Louise and Frederick had three children: Frederick II (1857-1928), Sophie Marie Victoria (1862-1930) and Ludwig Wilhelm (1865-1888). Sophie married King Gustav V of Sweden, thus becoming Queen of Sweden. Their eldest son Gustav VI is the grandfather of the present Swedish King Carl Gustav XVI. So the Grand Duchess Louise is the great-great-great grandmother of the Swedish crown princess Victoria. Their second son Wilhelm married the Russian Grand Duchess Maria Pawlowna Romanowa; they later divorced, and their son Lennart Bernadotte was raised by his grandmother Victoria. Lennart relinquished his claim to the throne in order to marry a middle-class lady, and in 1932 he settled on the island of Mainau which he had inherited from his great grandfather, where he worked to turn the island into a very popular tourist attraction.