Louise and Leopold, around 1900.
Louise and Leopold, around 1900. Wikimedia

Escape to Switzerland

Siblings Louise and Leopold, members of the Habsburg nobility, fled to Switzerland – so they could be with the people they loved. Their actions ignited a scandal in Europe.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

Today, their names are virtually unknown. Louise, Crown Princess of Saxony, and her brother Leopold Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and Prince of Tuscany, were high-profile figures in their day – thanks to the scandals in which they became embroiled. In December 1902 the pair met up at their parents’ home in the Salzburg royal residence, where they discussed their current predicament. Louise had been compelled to marry the heir to the throne of Saxony for political and diplomatic reasons; her marriage, and her five children, brought her little pleasure. She had now fallen in love with the children’s language teacher, which was not at all befitting a Crown Princess. What’s more, she was pregnant with her sixth child and interestingly, it was unclear who was the father: her husband, the future King of Saxony, or the Belgian language teacher, André Giron?
Louise and Leopold gave up a life in the stately Salzburg residence in exchange for their freedom.
Louise and Leopold gave up a life in the stately Salzburg residence in exchange for their freedom. Wikimedia
Her brother Leopold wasn’t having an easy time either. He was still single, but had become deeply enamoured of a local prostitute. That happened quite often among the aristocracy, and Leopold provided for the woman so that she no longer had to walk the streets. But now he wanted to marry her, a prospect that elicited horror and revulsion within the House of Habsburg. Both Louise and Leopold thus found themselves in awkward situations. They loved people whom, because of their noble ancestry, they were not allowed to love. The Habsburg aristocrats decided to shake off the fetters of their privileged life. During the night of 11 and 12 December 1902, Louise and Leopold ran away, escaping via a back staircase to the palace courtyard; on that clear, moonlit night, the thermometer showed an icy 16 degrees below zero. They headed for Switzerland.
The Habsburg siblings crossed the border at Buchs. They hoped to live quiet, enjoyable lives in Switzerland.
The Habsburg siblings crossed the border at Buchs. They hoped to live quiet, enjoyable lives in Switzerland. Wikimedia
Their escape threw the aristocracy into uproar and their names became known throughout Europe, and beyond. Even the New York Herald reported on Louise and Leopold and their clandestine escape. The pair travelled across Austria to Switzerland by smoke-belching steam train. As fugitives, they were afraid that Austrian officials might discover them en route and send them back.
Louise and Leopold, the brother and sister with a penchant for impropriety. Photo taken around 1900.
Louise and Leopold, the brother and sister with a penchant for impropriety. Photo taken around 1900. Wikimedia

No red carpet in Zurich

They crossed the Swiss border between Schaan and Buchs without incident. Dense fog lay along Lake Zurich, and Louise and Leopold soon arrived in Zurich. Louise later complained in her memoirs: ‘There was no welcoming party for me, no red carpet and no friends or relatives waiting for me.’ It should be remembered that Louise was first of all an Archduchess, then a Crown Princess; she was constantly pampered, indulged and led by the hand. But here in bustling Zurich, no one noticed that the travellers were a couple of genuine blue-bloods. Leopold had chosen one of the best hotels, the Grandhotel Bellevue. Standing at the confluence of three streets at the southern end of Limmatquai, the hotel had given the adjacent Bellevueplatz its name; from the hotel, with its four floors and three distinctive turrets, you really did have a ‘belle vue’ of the lake and the mountains.
The Grandhotel Bellevue in Zurich. The fugitives stayed here in December 1902.
The Grandhotel Bellevue in Zurich. The fugitives stayed here in December 1902. ETH Library Zurich
There, in the Grandhotel, came the next surprise. The aristocratic siblings encountered a woman of whose presence Louise had known nothing. But Leopold was ecstatic, because it was his lady-love Wilhelmine Adamovic, a former prostitute. Louise was dumbfounded; Leopold had not mentioned this to her. When Wilhelmine greeted her with genuine joy and enthusiasm, Louise took umbrage, writing later: ‘This newcomer certainly did not belong in my world’, as she very clearly had no notion either of polite conversation among ladies or of the most basic table etiquette. A (former) prostitute behaved quite differently from a (runaway) crown princess.
Wilhelmine Adamovic.
Wilhelmine Adamovic. Wikimedia
Leopold, on the other hand, was filled with joy in the company of his beloved Wilhelmine. His high spirits showed themselves when he somewhat boldly entered them in the hotel register as a married couple, ‘Herr and Frau Wölfling’. Louise was more careful, using the alias ‘Frau von Oppen’. She felt desperately unhappy: after all the excitement of their escape, when she got to her hotel room she collapsed on to the bed and sobbed into her pillow. She found everything terribly strange and unfamiliar: ‘no lady-in-waiting who knew how I wanted everything arranged, no silk house-robe that I could simply slip into, no crystal and silver bottles full of perfumed essences’ – the spoiled princess had only been able to bring with her what she could fit into her small suitcase. Meanwhile, Archduke Leopold made a major decision there in the city of Zurich; in his hotel room, he composed an important letter to Emperor Franz Joseph, the head of the ruling house of Habsburg: ‘I request Your Majesty’s permission to give up my title and rank as Archduke and take the name Wölfling.’
Leopold asked the head of the House of Habsburg to release him from his duties as Archduke. He wished to live as a private citizen.
Leopold asked the head of the House of Habsburg to release him from his duties as Archduke. He wished to live as a private citizen. Wikimedia
Time and again, the Emperor had to deal with ‘renegade’ Habsburgers. This caused him a great deal of displeasure.
Time and again, the Emperor had to deal with ‘renegade’ Habsburgers. This caused him a great deal of displeasure. Wikimedia
It was a sentence that would send shockwaves through the royal houses of Europe. The Archduke wished to be an archduke no longer; he renounced his title and rank and expressed his wish to live as a private citizen. When reading the letter, Franz Joseph perhaps uttered his famous phrase: ‘Am I to be spared nothing!’ In any case, he would have been angered by the fact that yet another archduke was straying from the fold. He had been Emperor for an incredible 54 years, so it was understandable that he had grown weary of certain aspects of his office. The wars he had lost weighed heavily on him, as did the tragic events in his private life. For decades, there had been an ominous creaking in the framework of the centuries-old Habsburg monarchy. With iron discipline, Franz Joseph was endeavouring to hold together a structure that threatened to crumble in every direction. For that reason he was greatly exasperated by those members of the House of Habsburg who ran off the rails. First his niece Louise with her love affair. And then the many archdukes who misbehaved, like this Leopold. There would be consequences…

Louise and Leopold

In 1902, Crown Princess Louise and Archduke Leopold of Austria-Tuscany fled to Switzerland. The siblings sought to escape from their straitjacketed life in the bosom of the Habsburg family. They succeeded, but their lives became a scandal-plagued descent into a normal middle-class existence, and ultimately ended in poverty and loneliness. Part 1: Escape to Switzerland Part 2: The scandal becomes public knowledge Part 3: The Archduke becomes a Swiss citizen Part 4: Leopold and the women Part 5: Regensdorf versus the Archduke Read the detailed account of Louise and Leopold’s journey in the book of the same name, by Michael van Orsouw. It is published by Hier und Jetzt.

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