The Tragedy of Marie Adelaide
Of all the rulers of western European countries in the first quarter of the
twentieth century, few are as unknown to British and American historians as Marie
Adelaide, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg during World War I. The small size of her
realm alone does not explain history's neglect; by all accounts Marie Adelaide was an
extraordinary personality whose short and tragic life was spent amid revolutionary
turmoil and the chaos of the Great War. She has been called both a failure and a saint,
and there is evidence for both views.
What follows is a brief summary of the career of the Grand Duchess which I
hope to develop more fully as documentary sources become available.1 Although short
accounts of her reign are given in various general histories of Luxembourg, especially
those in French, German, and Luxembourgeois, the only full length biography in any
language appears to be Edith O'Shaughnessy's , published in 1932 and long out of print.
Unfortunately this work contains almost no precise documentary references. The
author, now deceased, often relied on apparently undocumented, sometimes
anonymous eyewitness accounts of key events in the life of her heroine, and perhaps
was herself a confidante of the grand duchess. To the enigma of Marie Adelaide is thus
added the mystery of Edith O'Shaughnessy and her sources _ a necessary further
research project for the modern biographer.2
Marie Adelaide was born on June 14, 1894 and died on January 24, 1924, ruling
Luxembourg from 1912 (when she came of age at eighteen) until her forced abdication
in 1919. After her resignation she roamed Europe in a vain search for spiritual peace,
unsuccessfully attempting convent life first with the Carmelites and then with the Little
Sisters of the Poor before dying in exile, apparently of an illness contracted while
working with the poor in Rome. On these few facts all sources agree, but not on much
No sooner had she come to the throne in a wave of popularity, the first sovereign
in two centuries to be born on Luxembourg soil and a very beautiful and devout young
woman, than her devotion to the Church and to her duties as a Catholic ruler landed
her in bitter controversy. In a speech on her coronation day she had stated, ". . . I will be
faithful to the noble motto of our ancient house: I will stand fast! [Je maintiendrai]"3
In the mind of the Grand Duchess, "standing fast" meant promoting the common
good of her subjects, including the defense of their Catholic faith, to the full extent of
the powers accorded to the sovereign by the constitution of Luxembourg. She is said to
have remarked of the Catholic Faith of her subjects, "I will not allow their most
precious heritage to be stolen while I have the key."4 It soon became clear to all, both
from the words and actions of the Grand Duchess, that she took to heart the motto of St.
Joan of Arc, "Dieu premier servi."
Like the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, Marie Adelaide had not been trained
by her father in statecraft _ a fact to which she alluded in her accession speech. She was
therefore forced to rely to a large extent on the advice of experienced government
ministers, especially Minister of State Paul Eyschen who had been a major political
influence during the reign of Marie Adelaide's father, and wielded even more power
during the Grand Duke's fatal illness and the regency of his wife from 1907 to 1912.
Eyschen was to face unaccustomed opposition to his will from the new young
The first skirmishes between the two occurred over the appointments of political
radicals to government posts. Communism, socialism and anti-clericalism were gaining
momentum in Luxembourg, their proponents using democratic rhetoric to create
opposition to the Catholic monarchy. By contrast, Marie Adelaide was exceptionally
devout, a daily communicant devoted to Carmelite spirituality who was determined to
maintain the Faith among her people. To this end she revived pilgrimages and
processions of the Blessed Sacrament that had been allowed to lapse during the reign of
her Protestant father, and took part in them to the delight of her people. "Their faith
must not be less, but greater when I die," she was said to have argued, and "You know
the history of my people. Their prayers have often been their sole bread. Shall I offer
them the stone of unbelief?"5
Her most serious breach with Eyschen came over the proposal to reduce
religious instruction in the schools which the Grand Duchess, in opposition to the
wishes of her prime minister, refused to sign.6 The impasse caused Eyschen to prepare
and sign his resignation just before the heart attack which caused his death in 1915. The
instability of succeeding ministries and the growth of leftist political power led Marie
Adelaide to dissolve the Chambre and call new elections, which resulted in serious
losses to the left-wing parties, while it made them more determined to defeat her.7
Although the sovereign was careful to keep within the limits set by the
constitution, her enemies (and the enemies of the Church) exploited her political
difficulties to stir up sentiment against her. In addition to being charged with bowing
to clerical influence, she was accused of intransigence and authoritarianism.8 More
extravagant charges were soon to come.
The existence of Luxembourg as a nation-state has often been precarious,
surrounded as it is by its sometimes covetous neighbors, Belgium, France and
Germany. In its present form, Luxembourg is a spinoff of the Congress of Vienna
settlements, especially the Treaty of London in 1839. Another Treaty of London in 1867
provided for the neutrality of the new state.9 Hence the outbreak of World War I found
the country in a dangerous position, unable to defend itself from German invasion
because of its neutral status. When, on August 2, 1914 Germany violated the neutrality
of Luxembourg on the pretext of protecting the railroads, Marie Adelaide and her
government issued formal protests which failed to prevent the military occupation of
Under the guidance of their ruler and her government, Luxembourg and its
people, now behind German lines, wisely did not attempt a foolhardy and vain
resistance to the occupying army, but maintained their neutrality throughout the war.
(This was to be held against them by the victorious Allies.) Marie Adelaide devoted
herself to the work of the Red Cross in Luxembourg and nursed soldiers on both fronts.
Political tensions, however, continued unabated throughout the war. The increasingly
hostile leftists within Luxembourg seized on every excuse to discredit their royal
opponent. Marie Adelaide was of German blood; she had agreed to her sister's
betrothal to a German prince; she went to the funeral of an elderly relative in Germany;
she had received the Kaiser in her palace (she had, in fact, only learned of his proposed
visit when he was already on his way), and apparently agreed, on the advice of her
prime minister and against her better judgment, to receive the German commander
when he entered the country.11
Belgium, meanwhile, had been pursuing a campaign of diplomacy and
propaganda in its bid for Belgian annexation of the Duchy once the war was over.12
Even some of Marie Adelaide's domestic political enemies supported the Belgian claim,
in their hatred for their sovereign. The ambiguous attitude of the Allies after the
armistice made the position of the Grand Duchess more and more untenable.
Democratic ideology was far more favorable to the establishment of republics
everywhere rather than the upholding of monarchy. Furthermore, the perception of the
Grand Duchess as "pro-German" made her unpopular to the point that the French
government declared in December 1918 to a representative of Marie Adelaide's
government that "The French Government does not consider it possible to have contact
or negotiations with the Government of the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, whom it
considers as [having been] gravely compromised with the enemies of France."13
The political strife of the next few weeks involved all parties. Luxembourgeois
supporters of the royal dynasty realized that the cause of Marie Adelaide was lost and
favored her abdication and the accession of her sister Charlotte, though the leftists
continued to demand a republic. Belgium seemed to regard a republic as potentially
more favorable to its goal of annexation, while France began to see the existence of the
monarchy as a bulwark against Belgian claims.14 In the end, Marie Adelaide bowed to
the intense pressure, abdicating in favor of her sister. Charlotte and her successors,
however, were not to wield the political power and authority previously accorded to
the sovereign by the constitution. With the amendment of article 32 of the
Luxembourgeois constitution, sovereignty no longer resides in the person of the
sovereign but in the nation. The ruler "has no other powers than those formally
attributed to him by the Constitution and specific laws. . . ."15 As Denis Scuto puts it,
"The formula 'by the grace of God' is emptied of its true meaning," and the dynasty
receives its right to the throne from the people." ". . . beyond the person of Marie
Adelaide, a whole conception of monarchy, overtaken by national and international
events, agreed to abdicate. With Marie Adelaide, Grand Duchesse from 1912 to 1919,
the figure of the monarch fully exercising constitutional prerogatives and intervening
in political debates disappeared."16 The struggle of a young ruler in a tiny country can
thus be seen as a microcosm of the epic political and spiritual conflict that has afflicted
all of the nations of Europe in turn, since the Protestant Reformation.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to follow Marie Adelaide on the spiritual
odyssey which filled the rest of her short life. She suffered keenly under the cross of
exile, ill health, and a sense of failure in the religious life where she had hoped to find
peace _ a peace which only came at last with her holy death, while still in exile. In a
sense she was destroyed by the modern ideology which deifies man and democracy
and hates the Catholic Church. The tragedy of Marie Adelaide was that she attempted
to be, like Charles of Austria, a Catholic monarch in the twentieth century.
1 Many important documents concerning the life of Marie Adelaide remain in the
personal files of the royal family of Luxembourg; the archivist assigned to catalogue
them has not yet got into the twentieth-century papers [interview with M. Guy May,
Luxembourg National Archives, May 19, 1992].
2 I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who may have information about
Edith O'Shaughnessy or her descendants.
3 Jean Schoos, "Vor 50 Jahren, Dokumentation zur Regierung und Abdankung I.K.H.
der Grossherzogin Marie-Adelheid," in , no. 88
(1969), p. 78.
4 Edith O'Shaughnessy, (New York: 1932), pp. 134-135.
6 Christian Calmes, "Marie-Adelaide (1894-1924), Grande-Duchesse de Luxembourg de
1012 a 1919" in (Luxembourg: 1989), p. 93.
8 Schoos, "Vor 50 Jahren," pp. 79-80.
9 Gilbert Trausch, (Luxembourg, 1989), p. 13.
10 Denis Scuto, "1919: Quel avenir pour la Monarchie?" in , November 11,
1989, p. 5.
11 O'Shaughnessy, p. 155.
12 Gilbert Trausch, "L'accession au Trone de la Grande-Duchesse Charlotte en Janvier
1919 dans sa signification historique," in , 31 (1979), pp. 153 ff.
14 See the discussion of these positions in Trausch, "L'accession."
15 Quoted in Scuto,
This article was taken from the Fall 1994 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions
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Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN