Light at the End of a Tunnel
Trigger Warning: Disability and Personal Struggle
She was born with congenital deafness, diagnosed with schizophrenia, committed to a sanatorium, rescued Jews from the Nazis (despite her daughters being married to high-ranking members of the Nazi Party) and founded her own religious order of nuns. The life of Princess Alice of Battenberg is an embodiment of the old saying that “truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.” With more to explore on this topic is Perspectoverse’s Srishti Choudhury.
Princess Alice of Battenberg was born at Windsor Castle in 1885 in the presence of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
When she was a child, her deafness was diagnosed and by the age of eight she had become a fluent lip reader. This handicap may have made her especially sensitive to the underprivileged and to the known outcast in society. She was married at the age of 18 to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark with whom she had five children : four daughters and a son, Prince Philip who would later become consort to Queen Elizabeth II. In 1922, when Prince Philip was an infant, the family were exiled from Greece and they swiftly became separated. While Prince Andrew lived by his own means in Monte Carlo and Alice was interned at a Swiss sanatorium after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
When Prince Philip was just three, his father, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark was court martialed. The Greek army blamed him for losing a battle against the Turks. King George V had to intervene to stop Prince Andrew from being executed.
Soon afterwards, Princess Alice started to behave in a very disturbed manner. She claimed to be in contact with Christ and the Buddha. Her mother was distraught but practical. She consulted a psychiatrist who specialised in shell shock, Thomas Ross, as well as Sir Maurice Craig who treated the future king George VI, before he had speech therapy. Both diagnosed it as schizophrenia and recommended psychoanalysis.
By the end of the 1920s as Freud was world famous, Princess Alice was sent to the Tegel Clinic in Berlin which was run by Ernst Simmel, a close colleague of Freud’s, against her will. Simmel made little progress with a fundamentally hostile patient. Princess Alice was then sent to the asylum at Kreuzlingen which was run by Ludwig Binswanger, another follower of Freud’s. Binswanger also described her condition as paranoid schizophrenia.
Both Simmel and Binswanger consulted Freud. He believed Princess Alice’s religious delusions were the product of “sexual frustration” and recommended “X-raying her ovaries in order to kill off her libido.” Princess Alice protested she was sane and repeatedly tried to get out of the asylum. She did not see Prince Philip for some years and wandered around Europe incognito.
As Jane Austen, an 18th century novelist said,” There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.” Princess Alice was testament. She returned to Greece in 1939, and eventually founded a sisterhood of nuns there. She began doing charity work - “looking after the poorest people,” as her mother, Princess Victoria described it - soon after her return. During the war, she worked in soup kitchens in Athens, and tried to use her royal status to procure medical supplies for the Greek people.
She is remembered particularly fondly for sheltering a Jewish family in her Athens palace during the Nazi occupation of Greece. She reportedly cared for the Cohen family as well, spending hours at a time with them; once, she even used her deafness as an excuse to wave off the Gestapo. As Philippe Cohen, one of the family’s descendants said, “We all owe our existence to the courage of Princess Alice.”
While visiting her grave in 1994, Prince Philip said, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow beings in distress.”
Despite the many untold horrors inflicted on her, she emerged a strong woman. Instead of bitterness, she dedicated her life to public service, often at great personal risk. The story of Princess Alice is encouraging and heart warming in an obvious but surprising manner.
Written by Srishti Choudary
Illustrated by Anannya Pincha