A woman of courage
You’ve probably never heard of Hilda. I hadn’t, until someone stole her tiara. But once I started digging, I had to know more. Now I’m obsessed with her courageous mother, her gallant father, her beautiful nieces, and a world that crumbled into a firestorm of war and violence around them. At this story’s heart is Hilda, who may have been the strongest of them all...because she had the courage to be true to herself.
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“As a young woman, Hilda made a fantastic impression on pretty much everyone. Accounts describe her in glowing terms - charming, accomplished, sweet, you name it. She attended her first grown-up ball in Vienna, at the court of its white-whiskered emperor, Franz Josef. Empress Elisabeth was impressed with Hilda’s horseback riding skills, which is the royal equivalent of Steph Curry telling you you have a good jump shot.”
Not gonna lie...
I’d never heard of Hilda until her tiara was stolen from Karlsruhe’s Badisches Landesmuseum in 2017. I started researching her because I was at a turning point in my life and writing career. She was a blank slate because I knew nothing about her. But what I found made me convinced I had to tell her story.
When Hilda was born,
people fought battles with sabers and cavalry charges. By the time she died in 1952, people had learned how to use the smallest forms of matter in the universe to spread death and destruction on the largest possible scale.
You’d think someone who lived through such extreme social and technological turmoil would have had to reinvent herself over and over, like Madonna, just to survive.
Nope. Hilda did the opposite.
She doubled down on the things that made her who she was: her family, her faith, her values, and her homeland. She had an incorruptible moral compass that guided her through the minefields of two world wars, national socialism, and the near-total destruction of the privileged world she’d been born into.
Don’t worry—this isn’t the kind of story that sinks like the Lusitania under the weight of definitions and abstractions. First and foremost, it’s a story.
A true story,
with real people like Hilda—a woman who loved shortbread cookies and a big black poodle named Imo. I have so much sympathy and respect for her. Once I tell her story, I hope you will, too.
Cast of Characters
Adolph, Duke of Nassau
Hilda’s father. He survived a tragic personal loss and Prussian asshattery, emerging as one of the richest men in Europe. Then, because of genetic happenstance, he became a grand duke at the age of 73. He loved hunting chamois, drinking German wine, and smoking Cuban cigars. I secretly adore this man.
Adelheid-Marie of Anhalt-Dessau
Hilda’s mother. Queen Victoria and her daughter gossiped about her and said she was up to no good. I disagree. I think she was a spirited woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or follow her heart. Especially when it meant telling a Prussian general to fuck off. Yeah, that happened...and it was kind of awesome.
Grand Duke Friedrich II of Baden
Hilda’s husband. The grandson of the first German kaiser, Fritz grew up with two stubborn women in his life: his mother Louise and his sister Victoria. A bit unlucky with the ladies, Fritz also proved unlucky during the German revolution of 1918. He lost his throne.
Grand Duke Friedrich & Grand Duchess Louise of Baden
Hilda’s in-laws. Louise was the first kaiser’s only daughter, and don’t you forget it. She loved the spotlight, and had a hard time stepping aside when her son married Hilda. She also collected recipes and enjoyed a good meatloaf. Who’d have thunk.
Grand Duchess Maria Anna of Luxembourg and Her Six Daughters
Hilda’s sister-in-law and nieces. Maria Anna married Hilda’s brother William and had six beautiful daughters. If that sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, think again. One of them was forced to abdicate and died tragically young. Another married the much-older man of her dreams, only to fall victim to the century’s worst excuse for a human being, refusing to return to her adopted country ever again.
“Hilda did the things grand duchesses do, like christening the German Imperial Navy’s first dreadnought, the SMS Nassau. I love that she chose the name Nassau. If anyone gave her side eye, she just had to say that’s where she’d been born, homeland, lebensraum, rah rah, go team. But it was also sly as hell, because Nassau had fought against Prussia (read: Germany) in 1866 under the leadership of her father, who hated the kaiser’s grandfather with a passion. I’d like to think that, in her own small way, Hilda was sticking it to the grandson of the man who’d dethroned her father.”
On the night of April 21, 2017, someone walked into the Badisches Landesmuseum and stole a tiara worth $1.2 million.
But as fascinating as the robbery is, that isn’t the real story. The real story is about the women who owned this tiara and the family drama that played out during events that shaped the world we know it. It’s about the million little ways their stories connect and overlap with each other…and with us.
Someone connected to this story went down on the Titanic. Someone else made an appearance in the Wonder Woman movie. Other connected figures were played by Judi Dench, Matt Smith, Dimitri Leonidas, and Tom Cruise when their stories hit the big screen.
We think of history as isolated, something set apart from our daily lives.
That’s why this is a different kind of history book, built around the stories of Adolph, Hilda, and Antonia. There are plenty of detours where their stories intersect with a fascinating person or incident.
- How is Adolph connected to the great Russian poet, Pushkin?
- What is Imperial Tokay and why did 19th century royalty drink it by the gallon?
- Who built a church that’s essentially the German version of the Taj Mahal?
- Which monarch’s visit caused Adelheid-Marie to hide the family silver?
- Which figure in our story did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle accuse of war crimes?
- What does Grand Duchess Louise of Baden’s meat loaf recipe have to do with any of this? Well, nothing, but the fact that it exists and that I have it is too good not to share. You can get it by joining my mailing list.
Lest you think our story never veers off the European continent, you’ll be happy to know that Clara Barton, Theodore Roosevelt, the state of Texas, and James Beard all make appearances.
If I were writing a traditional history book, all these incidents and references would have been left out, dismissed as tangential or irrelevant.
To me, they’re what make history come alive.
I can’t tell you how our story ends because there is no end. Hilda’s tiara is still missing. Adolph, Adelheid-Marie, and Antonia’s descendants live on today.
But I can tell you how it begins.
It begins when you open the book.
Or, more accurately, when I finish writing it. To get progress updates and a bunch of other goodies, sign up for my mailing list.
“As revolution swept the former German empire, monarchies toppled like dominoes. To put pressure on the remaining kings and grand dukes to abdicate, the German post office suspended their mailing privileges. That’ll show ‘em. In Baden, Fritz tried to stem the tide of unrest, but it was too late. On November 11, a riot broke out in Karlsruhe. A mob coalesced and advanced on the palace. This was inconvenient for several reasons. First, angry mobs tend to do not-so-nice things to royalty. Second, Fritz and Hilda weren’t alone. They had very important company—Fritz’s aging mother and his near-invalid sister, Queen Victoria of Sweden. It was probably Victoria's presence that saved them from what happened next.”
You Can Help
- Do you read German? Can you help me translate a few tricky sentences from my sources?
- Do you have little-known info about any of the people mentioned above...Hilda, Fritz, Antonia, etc.? If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear from you.
- Do you have images of any of the people mentioned above? If you own the copyright, would you be willing to let me publish them here on the site or in the book?