Queen Victoria and the Nazis: the strange tale of the search for the royal family’s Aryan origins

When German forces invaded Austria in 1938, many citizens were required by the racial laws of the Reich to produce documents proving 'Aryan descent'. In this 2005 article from the BBC History Magazine archive, Matthew Seligmann reveals how the edict sparked a remarkable search for Queen Victoria's birth certificate

Archduchess Ileana’s great grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose birth certificate Ileana desperately needed to get hold of (Getty) 

On 12 March 1938 the German army invaded Austria. Shortly thereafter, this formerly independent republic was incorporated into the Third Reich. For Austria’s six million citizens, most of whom were enthusiastic supporters of this development, the impact was profound. For the Jewish community, in most cases it ultimately meant exile or death. The ensuing Nazification of everyday life ensured there were numerous smaller consequences; for example, popular books and music scores were banned, and there were limitations on freedom of expression. There were other outcomes, one of which was experienced by the Archduchess Ileana of Austria-Toscana, as a file unearthed in the National Archives shows.

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Ileana was connected by birth or marriage to many of the leading royal families of Europe. Her parents were King Ferdinand and Queen Marie Victoria of Romania (by birth a British princess). Her maternal grandparents were Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, who from 1893 was also the reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha, and the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia, the daughter of Tsar Alexander II. Among her great-grandparents were Britain’s Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, Albert of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha. She herself was married to the Archduke Anton Leopold of Austria-Toscana. As a result, she was simultaneously a scion of the Romanov dynasty as well as a Romanian and a British Princess. She was also of great significance in the context of the Anschluss – a Habsburg archduchess, who had lived, since marriage in July 1931, in the palace of Sonnberg at Hollabrunn in Lower Austria. The implications of her residency soon became apparent.

“A most extraordinary request”

On 25 June 1938, the Archduchess wrote to her old friend, Sir Stephen Gaselee, the Foreign Office librarian, with “a most extraordinary request”. Now that Austria had been incorporated into the Reich, she and her husband had become German citizens and needed, like all those in the Nazi racial state, “to produce to the authorities documents proving her Aryan descent”. She required birth, baptism and marriage certificates going back three generations. This included evidence of the satisfactory racial and marital status of three members of the British royal family: her mother, Queen Marie Victoria of Romania; her grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh; and her great grandmother, Queen Victoria. Having no idea how to obtain such documentation, she begged Gaselee for his aid.

Sir Stephen was bemused. “It seems to me infinitely comic,” he wrote in the departmental minutes, “that it should be necessary to prove Queen Victoria’s Aryan descent!”. Nevertheless, he replied on 28 June: “I think we shall be able to obtain for you the copies of the certificates required”. Upon making inquiries, however, Sir Stephen found this prediction was optimistic.

First, the records of the Registrar General’s office only went back as far as 1837. Thus, they could not provide a certificate of Victoria’s birth. Second, because of the regulations regarding royal weddings, this agency had “no records of marriages of members of the Royal Family”. Gaselee then approached the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Clarendon. Although regarding the matter as “astounding” and “very sad”, Clarendon was willing to help. However, as he reported: “the Royal Register kept in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, dates only from the 11th March 1882”.

A circumstance for pomp

As copies of the certificates appeared unobtainable, some other measure had to be devised. Gaselee’s suggestion to the Lord Chamberlain was to bamboozle the Germans with official pomp: “It has occurred to me that [the Germans] would be most likely to accept a certificate drawn up by yourself as formal and even pompous in style as possible. I would then authenticate your signature … attaching a Foreign Office seal”. This was duly done. Dispatched to Archduchess Ileana was a paper certifying the necessary details of her British ascendants.

It seems likely that the ruse was successful, for Ileana was able to stay in her Austrian home. Compared to most Nazi horrors, her difficulties appear trivial, yet they highlight the nonsensical nature of the Nazi racial state; even Queen Victoria’s past was not safe from its racial obsessions.

Dr Matthew Seligmann is professor of history at Brunel University London. His book Spies in Uniform is  published by Oxford University Press.

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This article was first published in the July 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine