The Hesse Heist: The Fate of the Family von Hessen

Part II of the story of the Hesse Heist focuses on the fate of the Hessen family and their estate.

Top Image: Princess Mafalda, wife of Prince Philipp and daughter of the Italian king. Image from the National Archives retrieved via Fold3.com.

As World War II ground on, friction between Nazi leaders and German aristocracy increased. By the spring of 1943, Prince Philipp von Hessen’s relationship with Hitler had begun to fall apart. After Philipp gave Hitler an honest report of the situation in Italy, explaining issues with Mussolini and a likely political collapse, the German dictator became cold towards the prince. Likewise, Phillip’s relationship with Hermann Göring had become strained as far back as 1939. But things were about to get worse.

In April 1943, Hitler summoned Philipp to Berchtesgaden, requiring him to stay at a hotel there until given further orders. As Hitler moved from one location to another, he kept Philipp with him, under a sort of house arrest, allowing him to leave only twice—the last time in July to visit his family in Rome when his son underwent an operation. That trip was cut short when Hitler urgently recalled him to the Führer’s headquarters on July 22. Three days later, King Victor Emmanuel III had Mussolini arrested, sealing the fate of both the former prime minister and Philipp.

Infuriated by Mussolini’s arrest, Hitler attempted to use Philipp as leverage against the Italian king to release Mussolini. Although Philipp was not involved in the plot to remove Mussolini, Hitler had him formally arrested on September 8, 1943 (the same day Italy surrendered to Allied forces). Brought before the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, Philipp was stripped of his membership in the Nazi Party and SA (Sturmabteilung) and had his honorary commission in the Luftwaffe revoked. Müller explained to Philipp that the man he had been no longer existed and that from that point forward he would be known as Herr Wildhof. Stripped of his identity, Philipp was then shipped south to the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria.

Philipp von Hessen, circa 1934 in full military uniform. In less than a decade he was stripped of all rank and honors and imprisoned in a concentration camp. From the US National Archives.

The exact reasons for his arrest were unclear, but Philipp was not to be restored to any of his titles or positions. At Flossenbürg, Philipp was held until mid-April 1945, predominantly in solitary confinement, unable to write or receive letters except to Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Due to his status as a prince, Philipp was given the same food his SS guards ate, and housed in a larger cell that included a wash basin, a table, and even a window. Though given preferential treatment, Philipp was not wholly removed from the grim reality of life in a concentration camp—outside of his window he saw the almost constant movement of the corpses of those who were murdered. 

Beginning in April 1945, Philipp was moved around frequently, first to Dachau, then to one camp after another, in an attempt to avoid Allied forces. Taken into custody by British forces when Germany surrendered, Philipp’s status within the Reich was known to the Allies, who had him on their most wanted list. Philipp was eventually transferred to ASHCAN (Allied Supreme Headquarters for Axis Nationals), an Allied facility which housed over 50 high-ranking German government and military officials, including Göring and Albert Speer.

Philipp was returned to Germany in August 1945, and was ultimately interned at a camp in Darmstadt in 1946, where he remained for two years. Although Philipp was occasionally allowed to leave the internment camp to visit family, he was forced to remain there throughout a series of trials, and finally, his denazification trial. Although authorities attempted to charge him with numerous crimes, including involvement with the Hadamar killing center, none of the charges stuck. Philipp’s fate hinged on his denazification trial, which was held in mid-December 1947. After three days of witness testimony and interrogations, the denazification board reached a verdict, putting Philipp in Category II of activists, militarists, and profiteers (Category I was major offenders, down to Category V, exonerated individuals). 

The verdict included a long list of penalties, ranging from two years of forced labor, restrictions on or loss of personal property, down to the loss of the right to have a vehicle. Philipp was given credit for the more than two years he had already been interned and was released. Allowed to appeal the ruling, Philipp did so in 1948-1949, with his status subsequently being reduced to Category III, lesser offender. In 1950, Phillip once again petitioned for a reduction to his sentence, which granted, moved him down to Category IV, fellow traveler.

Freed from internment camps, but burdened by heavy fines, Philipp leveraged family properties to pay penalties while restoring others for use. Some became hotels, others museums. Philipp’s children survived the war and were reunited with their father, but Philipp’s wife Mafalda was not reunited with her family.

Kassel suffered from numerous air raids by Allied air forces due to larger numbers of military factories in the area. The National WWII Museum, Gift of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009.373.042.

On September 8, 1943, the same day Philipp was arrested, Mafalda was in Sofia, Bulgaria, attending the funeral of her brother in law, King Boris III. Boris had brought Bulgaria into alliance with the Axis, but refused to declare war on the Soviet Union, creating a contentious relationship with Hitler. Thus, the king’s death was considered suspicious by Nazi leaders, in particular Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Mafalda was particularly loathed by Goebbels, who went so far as to accuse her of poisoning her brother-in-law.

Mafalda returned to Italy from Bulgaria on September 21, taking refuge in the Vatican with her children, while her parents, King Victor Emmanuel and Queen Elena, fled south. The next day Mafalda received a note that Philipp wanted to speak with her and had arranged to contact her via phone at the German embassy. As she neared the embassy later that day, Mafalda was met by an SS officer who told her that Philipp would in fact be flying into Rome and had requested she meet him at the airport. Unaware that her husband had been arrested, Mafalda believed the officer and allowed him to transport her to the airfield. Philipp never arrived, and Mafalda, eventually ordered to board an aircraft, met with another lie that Philipp would meet them in Munich. Flying past the Bavarian city, the plane continued on to Berlin, where Mafalda was met by Gestapo agents. 

If she had been uncertain of her fate before, it was clear to her then that she was now a prisoner of the Third Reich.

For two weeks Mafalda was held at Gestapo facilities in the Berlin area where her cell did not even contain a bed. During that time she was treated harshly and interrogated repeatedly. In late October, Princess Mafalda was transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp under the assumed name “Frau von Weber.” There she was housed in the isolation barracks near an armament factory and told that Philipp had died. Mafalda was housed with other prominent prisoners, including members of the  Stauffenberg family and the former Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg. In the summer of 1944, Mafalda was informed that her children were all safe, though her requests to see them were always denied.

Life in the camp was full of unpredictable dangers, including aerial bombing by Allied air forces. On August 24, 1944, a bombing run targeted the munitions factory near the isolation barracks. As often happened, three errant bombs missed their intended target, instead hitting the camp. One hit the isolation barracks, starting a fire and another fell nearby, crushing a covering under which Mafalda had sought refuge. Buried under rubble, Mafalda was critically wounded.

Though she was quickly pulled from the rubble, one arm was burned severely, some reports claiming to the bone. After the bombing, which killed about 400 prisoners, Mafalda and other wounded prisoners were taken to another barrack for treatment. Two days later her arm had become infected, and the camp doctor decided to amputate. The procedure went badly, and Mafalda never regained consciousness, dying sometime in the night of August 26-27 from blood loss. Fellow inmates stole her body and buried it on the campgrounds under a rough marker which said “unknown.” 

When the camp was liberated in April 1945, inmates told their liberators who was buried in the unknown grave, and the news of Mafalda’s death quickly spread worldwide. For the larger part of the von Hessen family, the war brought similar struggles and danger. Spread among several residences in the Kassel area, the family experienced frequent bombings by Allied air forces in 1943-1944. Numerous family homes were destroyed in bombings, and Philipp’s sister in law was killed in a February 1944 bombing attack. Family tombs in the Church of St. Martin were destroyed, as was the Landgrave Museum, which Philipp had created as governor of Hesse.

On March 29, 1945, troops of an African American unit arrived at the large family castle known as Schloss Friedrichshof. Several weeks later, elements of Patton’s Third Army arrived at the castle and informed the remaining family and staff that the castle was to be occupied by American forces. Philipp’s mother, sister in law Sophia, and others were given four hours to pack and leave the grounds. Male family members were arrested, including Philipp’s twin brother, Wolfgang von Hessen, who was head of the family in Philipp’s absence. In the hands of American forces, the castle became an officer’s club after the war ended in May. With huge dining rooms and plenty of bedrooms, it was a beautiful location for American officers to get a little rest and recreation.

This is part two in a series on the House of Hessen and the theft of their family jewels. Part three will delve into the story of one of the largest jewel heists of the twentieth century.


This article is part of a series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by the Department of Defense.

Contributor

Kali Martin

Kali Martin earned a bachelor's degree in International Studies and German at the University of Miami and a master's degree in Mili...
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