Bahney (Stealing Sisi’s Star, 2015) returns to the subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for this dual biography of Archduchess Marie Valerie, daughter of the Empress Elisabeth, and of Princess Stephanie, mistress of Marie Valerie’s husband.
In 1890, Marie Valerie “renounced her right to the Austro-Hungarian throne” to marry a man beneath her station, the man she loved, her cousin Archduke Franz Salvator. Twenty-four years later, Salvator’s philandering resulted in the elevation of a young woman from a middle-class Jewish family to the rank of princess. He had engaged in a passionate affair with Stephanie Richter, who had a penchant for powerful men, and the affair resulted in a pregnancy. To save his daughter the embarrassment of her husband’s scandalous behavior, the aging Emperor Franz Joseph arranged a hasty marriage for Stephanie to a lesser German prince. And so, Stephanie Richter became Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst, wife of Friedrich Franz, giving her a title and entry to the highest levels of European society. Although Friedrich Franz divorced Stephanie in 1920—much to her delight—he let her retain the title of princess. In a bizarre historical twist, this title and her social connections enabled Stephanie to form a close friendship with Adolph Hitler. Bahney’s well-researched biography offers an engaging glimpse into the personal lives and political intrigues of the Austrian-Hungarian royals from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries. Although interesting, readers who aren’t avid fans of royalty will have difficulty keeping up with the vast cast of major and minor royal characters in the volume’s early sections. The bulk of the tale, however, belongs to Stephanie, who served as an effective propagandist for Hitler in the British press during the “appeasement” days before World War II. Bahney questions “how Stephanie Richter could deny her Jewish ancestry in order to voluntarily collude with Adolf Hitler.” The answer appears to be that Stephanie’s primary concerns in life were money, prestige, and powerful liaisons.
A unique addition to World War II literature, loaded with details of clandestine European prewar political and financial machinations about a decidedly unlikable, albeit savvy, historical figure.