Personal letters humanize famous imperial women to bring a new perspective on World War I–era Europe.
A century has passed since the First World War, a conflict that essentially marked the end of an era that began with Charlemagne. By the time the war came to a close, the influence of the great houses of Europe had crumbled, and imperial life as it had been known for centuries was no more. The story of the men heading those royal families at the time is well documented. But what of the women? Independent historian and researcher Justin Vovk addresses this question in his fascinating and thorough history, Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires.
The book takes a comprehensive look at the lives of four women in the most prominent places in imperial life. Augusta Victoria was the wife of Wilhelm II, king of Prussia. Alexandra, perhaps the most famous of the four women, was the wife of Czar Nicholas II, last of the czars. Zita, empress of Austria and and queen of Hungary, was the wife of Charles I. Mary, wife to King George V of Great Britain, held the titles of queen of England and empress of India.
Vovk excels in bringing a relevant, human dimension to the stories of women who lived in unparalleled social positions, in a world that is long gone by. Given how difficult it can be for a reader—especially one not well versed in the perplexing turn-of-the-century political and social climate—to view the various kings and emperors as human beings rather than merely impressive titles, the task of making the famous women of the time approachable to the reader is rather daunting. It seems to be to Vovk’s advantage, however, to focus on the women, as it brings a look at their loves, their children, and the relationships and interpersonal dramas within the families, as well as those on the national and international scale. History books focusing on men might fall into the dehumanizing approach of looking only at various treaties, laws, and battles. These women were separate from warmongering and legislation but just as deep in the structures of power as their more-famous husbands.
Vovk, obviously a diligent researcher, further expresses the humanity of his subjects through copious reference to correspondence. In letters, the reader can see both the emotion and restraint in place in the lives of these powerful women. For example, Zita reveals that, at a family meal in 1914, her uncle Franz Ferdinand declared with certainty that he would soon be murdered. Elsewhere in the book, we learn of Alexandra’s faith and heartache at her son’s painful struggle with hemophilia. Such personal touches run through the book.
Though large, long, and complex, Imperial Requiem remains highly readable throughout. The text is supplemented by copious footnotes, an extensive bibliography, detailed family trees, and an index. Imperial Requiem presents a fresh and engaging view of lives at the end of an era.
Jason Henninger, Foreword Clarion Reviews
Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires is a biography of four princesses raised at the margins of European royal society who became consorts to the most influential monarchs who reigned during the First World War. Three of these women would lose their thrones in the conflict find themselves in straightened circumstances once more. Princess Augusta Victoria “Dona” of Schleswig-Holstein’s father, Duke Frederick VIII was exiled from his duchies after losing Prussian support for his rule, as part of Otto von Bismark’s plan for the unification of Germany. Dona’s marriage to the future Kaiser Wilhelm II was controversial as there were many who did not consider the daughter of a deposed duke to be a grand enough consort for a future German Emperor.
Princess Victoria Mary “May” of Teck had a father with morganatic ancestry and a mother who was a comparatively impoverished cousin of Queen Victoria. She spent part of her adolescence in Florence after her parents fled the creditors who gathered outside their grace and favour apartment at Kensington Palace. May’s circumstances changed dramatically when Queen Victoria decided she would make a suitable consort for her grandson Albert Victor and then his brother, the future King George V despite her morganatic ancestry and impecunious parents.
In common with the House of Schleswig-Holstein, Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt’s family found themselves on the wrong side of Bismark’s unification of Germany, and had persistent financial problems alleviated by Queen Victoria’s generosity to her motherless grandchildren. Marriage to Emperor Nicholas II of Russia catapulted the shy young Alix into the most opulent court in Europe as the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. A generation younger than Dona, May and Alix, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma was also raised in financially straightened circumstances as the seventeenth of her father, Duke Robert’s, twenty-four children. Zita’s husband, Archduke Karl became the last Emperor of the Hapsburg Empire in 1916, at the height of the First World War.
Justin C. Vovk, an independent historian based in Hamilton, Canada has experience writing sweeping composite biographies of royalty, having previously written In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa. His approach provides a portrait of royal society and court politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries encompassing both the provincial courts and the grand centres of power. Fluent in English, German and Slovenian, Vovk draws upon published works and extensive archival material from the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria to craft compelling three dimensional portraits of Europe’s Imperial consorts during the First World War.
The greatest accomplishment of Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empiresis Vovk’s recovery of Dona and Zita from the margins of history. Dona has been criticized by both her contemporaries at the German court and subsequent historians for her perceived haughtiness, bigotry and subservience to Kaiser Wilhelm II. Vovk provides analysis of the last German Empress that incorporates both her well known character failings and her often overlooked strengths including her close involvement in the upbringing of her children and promotion of charitable causes benefiting poor women, including vocational training for underprivileged girls.
While most consorts of deposed monarchs are blamed for their husbands’ political failings, Dona remained a popular figure despite the collapse of the House of Hohenzollern and exile of the German royal family, an accomplishment that was not matched by Zita and Alix. Zita’s brief tenure as the Hapsburg Empress may appear to preclude a political role but Vovk’s archival research and interviews with her descendants reveal the full involvement of the consort and the House of Bourbon-Parma in Emperor Karl’s attempts to make a separate peace for Austria during the First World War. The collapse of these efforts directly contributed to the overthrow of the Hapsburg dynasty.
Vovk also provides fresh analysis of May’s family life, particularly the conflicting accounts of her parenting and the influence of her financially precarious childhood on her decisions regarding her household as an adult....Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires is a fascinating composite biography of four obscure princesses who married the rulers of powerful empires during a period of intense political turmoil. Their marriages and political influence shaped the course of European history during the First World War. Vovk has rescued the last German and Austrian Empresses from comparative historical obscurity and placed them in context with the last Empress of Russia and one of Britain’s most respected Queens.
Dr. Carolyn Harris, www.royalhistorian.com
In this large volume, Justin C. Vovk explores the end of the imperial age, when empires and kingdoms disintegrated in the wake of World War I, through the intersecting lives of four women: Augusta Victoria, married to German Emperor and King of Prussia, Wilhelm II; Mary, wife of British King and Emperor of India, George V; Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia; and Zita, wife of Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary, Charles I.
Vovk's primary aim, he notes, is not historical but rather to tell the stories of "four extraordinary women." At the same time, though, Imperial Requiem provides an historical framework for their biographies, beginning in 1858 and ending in 1989. Zita is less well known than her Western European counterparts, but just as crucial for an understanding of how the royal bloodlines of the 19 th century became irrelevant in post World War I.
Vovk adds nothing new to the period’s history, but that is hardly a criticism of a group biography that admirably seeks to tell the stories of these royal lives— aided by family trees, illustrations, photographs, a map, extensive endnotes, and a bibliography. Vovk relies on both primary and secondary sources and is well aware that he is dealing with events and personalities subject to differing interpretations and disputes....
Given the intricacy of events and the plethora of sources available to him, Vovk does an admirable job of writing a coherent narrative. He provides an informative and reliable...guide to that last great group of ruling personalities — people who were unaware of how close their empires were to extinction as their privileged worlds were on the verge of collision and collapse.
In Destiny's Hands
Justin Vovk has written in one volume, a most interesting account of the tragic lives of five of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria’s children...Readers will find many fascinating details in Vovk’s In Destiny’s Hands. Vovk has shed some light on these individuals and provided a much needed new work on Maria Theresa’s progeny.
Julia P. Gelardi, author of Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria, In Triumph's Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters, and the Price They Paid For Glory, and From Splendor to Revolution: The Romanov Women, 1847-1928.
In Destiny’s Hands tells the fascinating story of the Habsburg five. Vovk takes the already thrilling tales of Marie Antoinette, Joseph the Second, Amelia, Leopold, and Maria Carolina and then chronicles their rise and fall in the most enthralling way imagineable. Be prepared for heart break, smiles, and most of all, a roller coaster of enlightenment. Though I will warn potential readers; do not start this book if you have something important to accomplish, for you will not be able to put it down.
David Antunes, author of Napoleon's Way: How One Little Man Changed the World
First time author Justin Vovk shoots right out of the gates with his book In Destiny’s Hands – Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa. This tale of history, tragedy, and intrigue is both captivating and engaging, and will leave the reader with a greater understanding of not only history, but of the love of a caring mother as well.
The book tells the story of Maria Theresa and her children, most notably the five who rose to great prominence and power in the 18th century. These children, who grew up to be Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II; Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma; Grand Duke Leopold I of Tuscany (who later became the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II); Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily; and Queen Marie Antoinette of France, have their entire lives thoroughly chronicled in this work.
Any story of such epic proportions can be hard to understand without the proper context, and this is something the author very clearly took into consideration. Vovk does not leave any rock unturned in describing the history of these rulers. He goes into great detail about their pasts, and how certain events in their lives came to influence the way they would rule over their respective kingdoms.
Vovk’s use of structure is one of his work’s strongest points. Rather than just focusing on one of Maria Theresa’s children at a time, Vovk switches back and forth between these tragic stories, only revealing a small piece of the puzzle about each of these future rulers at a time. Each chapter ends in a cliffhanger of sorts, ensuring that the reader will want to keep reading on to find out the resolution, and not want to put the book down.
Even those who are not avid readers of historical non-fiction can enjoy Vovk’s work. By creating such an interesting narrative and story structure, even those who know nothing about the court of Maria Theresa will be engaged and interested in the story that unfolds. For a story that is so deeply rooted in history, Vovk is truly able to make it timeless by making it so relatable for a modern day reader.
Alexander Patteson, The Satellite