An Italian Princess in a Nazi Prison

By Aileen Atcheson

Mafalda Landgrave, Princess Mafalda of Savoy, was second daughter of Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy. Her mother, Queen Elena, was a former princess of Montenegro and was a compassionate and charitable woman who helped various good causes. The little princess had a happy, carefree childhood, but Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death triggered the outbreak of the Great War.

Italy was not concerned in the rivalries involved in the war, the Italian politicians decided to support the allies, with the hope of expanding the country’s borders. Mafalda and her mother visited the prisons and saw the misery war had brought to the Italian people. From then on she was wary of people who tried to reshape the world through armed conflict.

When the war ended, Italy, though the government there had picked the winning side, the country was in chaos. The economy was destabilised and the government’s authority was threatened by communism and a far right movement led by Benito Mussolini. By 1922 he had managed to get himself made Prime Minister and led the country down the road to fascism. Mafalda was expected to marry at this time.

Various princes were linked with her, Britain’s Edward, Prince of Wales, Crown Prince of the Belgians and others. She became betrothed to Prince Philip Landgrave of Hesse, an unlikely choice. He had no military training but had enlisted in the German army when World War I started. He spent most of the war years working in a munitions factory.

After the war Germany was in chaos and split and on the brink of civil war. Phillip started to lead a useless life. In 1924 he met Mafalda at a party and the two became engaged shortly afterwards. The relationship attracted controversy. Phillip’s lifestyle was unsuitable and there was the question of religion.

Mafalda was a practicing Catholic. He was a non practicing Protestant. Had he become a Catholic he would have lost his place and the Landgrave title in Hesse. Italian society was enraged and the Pope, Pius XI became involved. A wedding in Rome was not possible so Turin was chosen as the venue. In 1925 Mafalda married Phillip in a high profile ceremony which attracted royalty from all over Europe.

Mussolini attended and Phillip was soon convinced fascism was the cure Germany needed. It would help restore the German monarchy. In Italy the royal family supported Mussolini’s blackshirts. Phillip was not on good terms with his uncle, the deposed Kaiser. The latter disapproved of his marriage to a Catholic.

Phillip started to pay regular visits to him in Holland and had his as godfather to his and Mafalda’s first child. He became a close crony of Prince Auwi, the Kaiser’s fourth son. Auwi introduced him to Hitler and Phillip then joined the party. Mafalda was not impressed with either Hitler, his right wing politics, nor indeed by Mussolini. Hitler despised her but tolerated her.

Her royal status protected her for the time being and her husband’s position made his useful to the Nazi cause. Philip joined the S.S. and was promoted to S.S. General. He and Mafalda had two more children, Otto and Elizabeth. Phillip was expected to act as messenger between Hitler and Mussolini and had to convince Il Duce to stay out of Germany’s plan to annex Austria.

On the evening of the Anschluss when German troops invaded Austria Phillip flew to Rome with a letter from Hitler. Having read the letter Mussolini reversed Italian policy and allowed Austria to be absorbed into the Third Reich. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia Phillip again dealt with Il Duce and helped set up the Pact of Steel in May 1939. When Hitler won the war Italy would be on Germany’s side.

In 1943 the war was going badly for Hitler. The German army had been beaten in North Africa, so German forces fled back to Europe, followed by the allies. Sicily fell to the allies that July and the Italian Fascists voted to remove Mussolini and restore constitutional powers to Mafalda’s father, King Victor Emmanuel, III. Il Duce was arrested on the king’s orders and Italy tried to make peace. Hitler was outraged by Italy’s betrayal and wanted a scapegoat. Mafalda was the person he chose.

Bulgaria’s Czar Borris III had tried to keep peace between the allies and the Germans. He saved thousands of Jews whom the Germans intended sending to extermination camps. Hitler ordered him to visit him at his country residence and Boris foolishly did so. Shortly after Boris returned to Bulgaria he died suddenly.

The official cause of death was heart failure, the German attache in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, reported foul play. It was thought Boris had been poisoned. Hitler heard Mafalda was in Sofia around the time of Boris death, he made out she was behind the so called assassination. Hitler feared he might be next in line for elimination, based on his awful conclusion about Mafalda on rumour and circumstantial evidence.

There was no way in which she was in any way guilty. She was in Sofia but had arrived there after Boris’ death. She had travelled across war torn Europe at risk to herself to attend Borris’ funeral and comfort his widow, her younger sister Giovanna. News of Italy’s surrender reached Mafalda while she was still in Bulgaria.

She then heard her husband had been placed under house arrest by the Germans. She was called to the German Embassy in Sofia and told an important message from Phillip awaited her there. It was a trick and a lie. She was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Berlin for questioning. Then she was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp.

In August 1944 the US Air Force raided Buchenwald and 400 prisoners were killed. When the rescue parties began clearing the rubble they found Mafalda seriously wounded but still alive. Her face was smashed in and her left arm was crushed and burned. She was taken to a makeshift infirmary, the arm was sutured but nothing more was done to help her. Within two days her arm had gone gangerous and she was taken back to the makeshift infirmary to have the arm amputated.

The doctor who performed the operation was a notorious SS physician who was tried and hanged after the war. He was found guilty of various war crimes, including carrying out brutal clinical trials on concentration camp internees. The operation was botched and the Princess died.

After her death her naked body was dumped with others in the crematorium. Another prisoner, Father Joseph Thyl, pulled it out of the heap and placed it in a wooden coffin. He cut off a lock of her hair, smuggled it out of the camp and had it sent to her relatives. 1n 1951 her burial site was identified and the coffin was disinterred. Her body was taken to Kronberg Castle in Hesse. She was laid to rest there after a proper funeral.

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