New books from and about Hesse: Three scandals make history

GMy wife, cheap prostitute, Berlin hag, satanic countess, Natter, Lindwurm Hydra.” This is how angry citizens of Kassel called a woman in the 1920s who had lived discreetly and unobtrusively in the city since 1813 before she burst into the limelight in 1821 had gone public. Emilie Ortlöpp (1791 to 1843), the daughter of a Berlin goldsmith, became the target of abusive poems, threatening letters and citizen protests because she was the mistress of the married Elector and later Elector Wilhelm II of Hesse (1777 to 1847). However, it was not the electoral liaison that was the cause of the general excitement – Wilhelm’s father, Elector Wilhelm I, had even brought 24 children into the world with a total of three mistresses without anyone taking offense. “It wasn’t the relationship itself that seemed scandalous, but the way it was celebrated,” sums up Karl Murk in an article for the book “Hessian Scandals”.

Manfred Köhler

Head of department of the Rhein-Main editorial team of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Emilie’s great misfortune was that her rival, Electress Auguste, was extremely popular in Kassel. The beautiful Berlin lover, on the other hand, didn’t even think about staying in the background. The fact that things were more luxurious at the Kassel court after Wilhelm II came to power at the beginning of 1821 than under the stingy old elector was also thanks to Emilie, who, having been promoted to Countess Reichenbach, moved into the electoral palace with her five children. She enjoyed organizing festivals and performances and staging herself as a patron and benefactor.

He didn’t want to live without Emilie

After the change of government in 1821, the scandal became a state affair, which expanded into a political crisis of legitimacy for the princely rule, writes Murk. The more Emilie exposed herself, the more violently she was attacked and made a scapegoat. The elector’s reactionary style of rule, his police-state methods against political dissenters and an economic crisis did the rest and finally led to a revolutionary situation in 1830. Right in the middle of it all is the “Berlin harlot”, as a kind of North Hessian Marie Antoinette. “Anyone who demonstrated against Countess Reichenbach in the summer and autumn of 1830 was also protesting against the uncontrolled exercise of monarchical power and the hardship and misery of the subjects.”

A year later, Wilhelm II, unnerved, threw in the towel. His wife, Electress Auguste, had already emigrated to Bonn and Koblenz with her daughters in 1826, but he did not want to live without Emilie. At the end of September 1831 he handed his son Friedrich Wilhelm co-regency, withdrew from day-to-day politics and lived as an “early pensioner” with his mistress until her death in 1843, mainly in Hanau, Frankfurt and Baden-Baden. Two years earlier, after the death of his wife, he had led the woman he loved so dearly down the aisle. He should never set foot in Kassel again. Kurhessen, on the other hand, took the wrong side, the Austrian side, in the German War of 1866. It was occupied by Prussia, annexed and merged into the new large state.

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