At Heiligenberg Castle in Seeheim-Jugenheim a historical exhibition was shown from 15th till 30th September, 2022. Based on the life of Alexander Prince of Battenberg (1857-1893), it provided an insight into the difficult political and social conditions during the second half of the 19th century in Europe.
Today, Heiligenberg Castle is the seat of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation, which was established in 2007. The extensive tasks of this foundation not only consist of maintaining the historical heritage and the park grounds of this place, but, above all, it champions peace and international understanding with a series of expert discussions organised by the Forum Heiligenberg event group, as well as numerous cultural and musical events. The activities of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation also include handling of historical topics. In October 2018, for example, an international conference was held on the topic: The Battenbergs – a European Family (Comati 2020, 213-220), which also shed light on the extraordinary life of Alexander Prince of Battenberg, known as Sandro among his family and relatives.
After the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878, he served the country from 1879 till 1886. Sandro is firmly anchored in Bulgaria’s collective memory, but in Germany he is little known, almost forgotten. In recent years, Bulgarian visitors have come to Heiligenberg Castle to take a look at the home of “their” first prince, the place where he spent his youthful years, but his memory lay “dormant” there for a long time. This was only to change with the establishment of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation. Today, a bronze plaque at the entrance to the castle commemorates Alexander Prince of Battenberg. In the castle’s documentation and visitors’ centre, the so-called “Russenhaus”, there is now not only a considerable amount of further literature on the history of this family and its period in time, but also the genealogical table of the Battenbergs as well as exhibits and memorabilia.
An Exhibition in Memory of Alexander Josef (Sandro) Prince of Battenberg
In order to portray Sandro’s life in the 19th century, a time of conflict in Europe, the Heiligenberg Foundation, under the chairmanship of Dr Joachim Horn, commissioned a five-member working group to prepare an exhibition on the historical personality Alexander Prince of Battenberg, known in Bulgaria as Prince Alexander I of Bulgaria. The work group included (in alphabetical order):
Thomas Bröning: Bookseller and antiquarian with a bookshop in Biebesheim. His historical interests and extensive knowledge of uniforms, military ranks, orders and decorations, especially concerning the 19th century, greatly enriched the exhibition and the accompanying book.
Dr Sigrun Comati: Slavist and Bulgarian scholar, numerous publications in the field of South Slavic studies, President of the German-Bulgarian Society for the Promotion of Relations between Germany and Bulgaria e. V., since 2015 associated with the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation and the municipality of Seeheim-Jugenheim in many ways, co-initiator of the friendship agreement between Seeheim-Jugenheim and Karlovo (Comati 2019: 147-149).
Johnny Glover: Member of the advisory board of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation. He is very interested in linking the Battenberg family with British history due to his provenance as a Briton, responsible for researching and preparing archive materials from Hesse, Austria (Graz), England and Bulgaria
Olaf Kühn: History teacher and former mayor of Seeheim-Jugenheim with a special interest in the field of 19th century European history, contributed to the establishment of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation, also co-initiator of the Seeheim-Jugenheim – Karlovo Friendship Agreement.
Prof. Karl Listner: Member of the Advisory Board of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation known as a local historian and author of articles on historical characters and parks in the region in and around Seeheim-Jugenheim. In 2022 he presented a publication on the Tannenberg castle ruins.
Vanessa Novak: Musician and member of the advisory board of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation who has been working on the genealogy of the Battenberg family since 2005 and has a sharp eye for all photos of these family members from the 19th century. She dug into the Hessian archives and the archives of the University of Southampton looking for references on Sandro.
These authors prepared the 28 exhibition panels, a brochure on the exhibition and the biography accompanying the exhibition.
From the Bulgarian side the exhibition was complemented by Dr Tosho Peykov: As a sociologist and former member of the Bulgarian Parliament, author of numerous exhibitions and publications on Bulgarian history and culture, he enriched the Sandro exhibition at Heiligenberg Palace with his representative photographs from the time of Prince Alexander I of Bulgaria.
Prof. Nicole Kruse was responsible for the graphic design of the exhibition panels and the accompanying works. Thanks to her many years of cooperation with the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation, she succeeded in portraying the atmosphere of Sandro’s life in a way that appealed to the public. The Tübingen-based art publisher Legat, under the direction of Alexander Frank and Heike Ostarhild, enabled the completion of the accompanying biography to the Sandro exhibition with an expert hand and ensured a high-quality work that has already received much acclaim from the public and the readership.
A life in a Time of Historical Upheaval in the States of Europe
Most works on Sandro focus mainly on his time as Prince of Bulgaria but that was barely seven years. The intention of this exhibition, however, was to present the entire life of Alexander Prince of Battenberg during a period of historical upheaval in the states of Europe, which was marked by many wars and the struggle of the great powers for supremacy in south-eastern Europe. In the 19th century unprecedented social change took place, the industrial revolution began, the peoples of Europe rebelled against the feudal order and demanded nation states, the aristocracy lost power, and the bourgeoisie played an increasingly decisive role in society. Hence the title of the exhibition “Sandro – Alexander von Battenberg – a European Castaway”.
Sandro was born on 5th April 1857. His father, Alexander Prince of Hesse and by Rhine, was the son of Grand Duke Ludwig II of Hesse and by Rhine. His sister was married to the heir to the Russian throne, later Tsar Alexander II. He had gone to Russia with her. In St Petersburg he met Sandro’s mother, a lady-in-waiting to his sister, who was not his equal in terms of rank. Their relationship led to an éclat. Both had to leave Russia and married morganatically. Heiligenberg Castle in Jugenheim became their home. The Grand Duke conferred the title of Countess of Battenberg on Sandro’s mother. The parents thus became the founders of the Battenberg noble family and its English Mountbatten line. Sandro’s aunt Maria, Tsarina of Russia, often visited Jugenheim with her husband, Tsar Alexander II, to see relatives and enjoy the summer months there.
Heiligenberg Castle became a meeting place for monarchs, princes and envoys, an illustrious environment in which Sandro grew up and spent his childhood and youth.
After his school years, during which he attended the Landgraf-Georg-Gymnasium in Darmstadt and the elite Salzmann School in Schnepfenthal/Thuringia, he embarked on a military career. As a lieutenant, he took part on the Russian side in the Russo-Osmanic War of 1877/1878. After the defeat of the Ottomans, the major European powers redefined the territorial division in the Balkans. Bulgaria, which was under Russian influence, was created as a principality. Because of his family ties with Russia, and with the consent of the major European powers, it was agreed that Sandro, who at the age of only 22, would become its head of state.
Sandro ruled the Principality of Bulgaria and accomplished a great deal for the country in those difficult times. His greatest achievements were undoubtedly the unification of the Principality of Bulgaria with Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria’s military victory against the invasion of Serbia in the same year. But social constraints and external political influences did not allow him to complete his work there, as is described in detail in the biography accompanying the exhibition. The foundations for the creation of an administrative structure for the country, the construction of modern transport routes and the development of an education and health system were laid during his reign.
After he had to leave Bulgaria for good in 1886 under foreign and domestic political pressure, he returned to Darmstadt, married a bourgeois, the opera singer Johanna Loisinger, and moved with her to Graz. He had turned his back on the political stage, changed his name and title and now lived with his family in Graz as Count of Hartenau. There he entered the service of the Austrian military with the rank of colonal. The Villa Hartenau soon became a social meeting place in Graz. Unfortunately he died unexpectedly in Graz at the age of only 36. Bulgaria holds his memory in honour and he was buried in Sofia. His grave is now open to the public standing as a memorial.
The exhibition “Sandro – Alexander Prince of Battenberg. A European Castaway” sheds light on all these historical connections
Scheduled to open in early April 2020, the exhibition had to be postponed until September 2022 due to the covid pandemic. During the work on the exhibition, the members of the work group gathered historical details, personal lore and unique archive photographs that had not been presented publicly in this abundance before. Valuable exhibits from Sandro’s time in Hesse and Bulgaria were also put on display in showcases for visitors to admire. Since only a part of these could be included in the exhibition, the working group decided to use the two-year covid compulsory intermission to compile a biography to accompany the exhibition, which was available in time for the opening of the exhibition.
Opening of the Exhibition at Heiligenberg
On 15.09.2022 the ceremonial opening of the exhibition took place in the rooms of Heiligenberg Castle with great public participation.
Among the invited guests were the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bulgaria, Elena Shekerletova, Milena Dimitrova, who works as a senior advisor in the team of the Bulgarian Vice-President, the project manager of the Bulgarian Foundation “Values”, Slava Ivanova, the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Bulgaria in Hesse, Dr. h.c. Ingo-Endrick Lankau, members of the Bulgarian Consulate General of the Republic of Bulgaria in Frankfurt am Main, representatives of the Hessian state government, the mayor of the municipality of Seeheim-Jugenheim, Alexander Kreissl, the chairman of the Heiligenberg Foundation, Dr Joachim Horn, and numerous members of the advisory board of the Heiligenberg Foundation, members of the German-Bulgarian Society Darmstadt and, of course, the authors of the exhibition and the works accompanying the exhibition. The speeches at this festive vernissage not only traced Sandro’s life and paid tribute to his work, but also made very specific references to the present, as Dr Joachim Horn emphasised in his speech:
“The former historical connection, enriched by a series of fortunate circumstances and personal efforts within the framework of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation became the basis of the friendship agreement signed in 2018 by Karlovo’s Mayor Dr Emil Kabaivanov and Seeheim-Jugenheim’s then Mayor Olaf Kühn.”
The presence of descendants of the Hartenau family, Dr Franziska Hartenau, Mrs Elisabeth Gröller and Mr Dipl.-Kfm. Michael Gröller, who had travelled especially from Vienna for the occasion and were able to describe personal encounters with Johanna Loisinger, gave this vernissage a special touch.
The exhibition was on display from 15th September to 30th September 2022 in the rooms of Heiligenberg Castle in Jugenheim. Although it was only open for 10 days during this period, almost one thousand interested visitors came and took advantage of this insight into the 19th century with a focus on German-Bulgarian relations.
The continuing interest in this exhibition also became clear when Sigrun Comati, at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Thede Kahl of the Institute for Slavic and Caucasian Studies at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, gave a talk on the Battenberg era and its place in Bulgaria’s collective memory today as part of the institute’s “South-Eastern Europe Evenings”. In the following interesting discussion by the audience it once again became evident that there is great interest in 19th century European history with a focus on South-Eastern Europe and the major powers acting at the time.
The Exhibition Moves to Bulgaria
The board of the Heiligenberg Jugenheim Foundation was approached by the Bulgarian side with a request to present this work in Bulgaria, which was very gladly accepted. Therefore, preparations were soon made for a presentation of this exhibition in Sofia on the initiative of the Bulgarian Foundation “Values”, chaired by Dr Antonina Stoyanova.
The content of the exhibition panels were translated into Bulgarian and English. On 5 September 2023, the eve of the Bulgarian bank holiday celebrating the unification of the Principality of Bulgaria with Eastern Rumelia, the ceremonial opening of this exhibition took place in the premises of the former residence of Sandro in the capital of Bulgaria, in the present National Gallery of Arts, in Sofia.
Original written by: Sigrun Comati English translation: Johnny Glover
List of references
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Актуализирано двуезично издание немски-български. Предисловие Харалд Хепнер. Под ред. на И. Първев, Р. Златанова, А. Ненов. Показалец на личните имена. София.
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Comati/Glover/Kühn/ Listner/Novak und Bröning 2022
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