Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden (1826-1907) was the benevolent ruler of the independent country neighbouring sovereign states Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt in what is now Southwest Germany. The title Count of Baden dates back to 962 and the rulers were subsequently titled Margrave of Baden from the 12th century until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 when the territory became a Grand Duchy.
Frederick I’s father Grand Duke Leopold I of Baden was born so far from the throne that only divine intervention could elevate him. He was a child of father Karl Frederick’s second morganatic marriage removing he and his siblings from succession. In a plot not dissimilar to the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, one by one every legitimate male heir of Karl Frederick died – sometimes in pairs like the infant sons of his grandson – leaving Karl Frederick no option but to reinstate Frederick in the line of succession. Marrying Leopold to Grand Duchess Sophie, daughter of King Gustav of Sweden, strengthened his disputed claim and blood ties to monarchy.
Though Frederick I was born in Karlsruhe a third son, his route to succeeding his father was straightforward. His eldest brother died at birth and from an early age the next in line Louis showed signs of the mental illness that would jeopardise his chance of being fit to rule. Even before Grand Duke Leopold died in 1852 he had shared power with Frederick. So though Louis was created Grand Duke he was rarely seen in public and Frederick was appointed regent. By 1856 the pretence that Grand Duke Louis II was anything more than a puppet was dropped and he was deposed dying two years later.
In 1856 Grand Duke Frederick married Princess Louise of Prussia who was the favourite daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I. This dynastic marriage between a Grand Duke and the daughter of the first Emperor of Germany was a strategic masterstroke. In addition to Baden being under the protection of Prussia, the monarchy was protected from the aggressive land grabs Wilhelm I ordered when he was proclaimed German Emperor at Versailles in 1871 in the presence of Grand Duke Frederick.
The marriage between Grand Duke Frederick and Grand Duchess Louise was a happy one. As she wrote to her sister-in-law Vicky (Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter) ‘since we met last my life has become so much more beautiful, more precious to me, my happiness is so much richer and deeper than before’. Louise’s great friendship with another of Queen Victoria’s daughters, Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse, brought her the approval of Queen Victoria who called her distant royal relatives ‘Good Fritz and Louise of Baden’.
The placid ruling family of Baden managed to maintain amity with the British and the German courts even when Grand Duke Frederick supported Austria in the Austro-Prussian War. From birth Louise had been an affectionate aunt to the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. In marked contrast to his hatred for his parents, Wilhlem said of Louise ‘she possessed considerable political ability and a great gift for organisation. She understood excellently how to put the right men in the right place: a model sovereign princess’. Grand Duchess Louise also corresponded with Florence Nightingale who considered her knowledge and practicality up to the standard of ‘any administrator in the Crimean War’.
Though politically cautious, Grand Duke Frederick was sympathetic to religious schism because of Baden’s strong and often contentious Roman Catholic population. He had a curious role in the birth of the Zionist movement. The Grand Duke employed Anglican Rev William Hechler (a noted crusader against anti-Semitism) as a tutor to the royal children of Baden. It was in this capacity that Hechler met Grand Duke Frederick’s nephew Wilhelm in the royal schoolrooms of Baden.
Many years later in 1896 the Grand Duke met Hechler’s admired friend Theodor Herzl who founded the modern political Zionist movement. The Grand Duke persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm II to give Herzl an audience in 1898 before the German Emperor met the Turkish Sultan. Herzl wanted European might to support his demand for an independent Jewish state in Palestine. On this occasion negotiations failed.
Grand Duke Frederick would not long survive the turn of the twentieth century. His son succeeded as Frederick II but had the distinction of being the last Grand Duke of Baden. In 1907, the same year as Frederick I’s death, his daughter Victoria became Queen Consort of Sweden. Victoria was visiting her family in Karlsruhe in 1918 when unrest broke out in the defeated German nation and swept towards Baden. The palace was stormed and the royal family were forced to flee. Grand Duke Frederick II abdicated and the Grand Duchy was abolished. Dowager Grand Duchess Louise lived as a guest of the new administration until Baden was absorbed into the greater Weimar Republic.