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Who was Princess Alice of Battenberg? (Part I)

Author: Dany Nobus / Sabrina Zehetner (TVP)

(01/09/2019)
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In his interview with THE VIENNA PSYCHOANALYST, Professor Dany Nobus reconstructs the clinical history of Princess Alice of Battenberg and provides insight into the history of psychoanalysis.

Dany Nobus is Professor of Psychoanalytic Psychology at Brunel University London, and the former Chair of the Freud Museum London. In 2017, he was awarded the Sarton Medal of the University of Ghent for his contributions to the history of psychoanalysis.


What sparked your interest in Princess Alice of Battenberg?

Dany Nobus: I’ve always been interested in the history of psychoanalysis, and primarily in theory development, relationships between theory and practice, and institutional conflicts. At one point, I became specifically interested in Freud’s reasons for excluding psychotic patients from the couch, which is something that runs through the entire body of Freud’s works. It’s crystal clear that, in Freud’s book, psychotic patients do not qualify for psychoanalysis, at least not for psychoanalytic treatment. Of course, he studied Daniel Paul Schreber, but he never met him, and if he had ever met him, he would have never taken him into psychoanalysis. Now, at the end of the 3rd volume of Ernest Jones’ biography of Freud, there is a section in which Jones includes fragments from Freud’s correspondence with Marie Bonaparte, and he makes it clear to the reader that what he’s going to present are documents that have been edited, so the reader knows that there’s more than what Jones includes in the book. There is one letter, which was written on 15 January 1930, which sparked my interest, because it’s a letter Freud wrote to Marie Bonaparte about a psychotic patient. Freud reiterates to Marie Bonaparte that he doesn’t consider psychotic patients to be suitable for psychoanalytic treatment, yet on top of that he indicates that he wants to rely on developments in endocrinology and related disciplines to come up with a treatment paradigm for psychotic patients. When you read this fragment, you know Marie Bonaparte must have written to him about a particular patient. But what you don’t know is which patient they’re talking about, because Jones deleted all passages that would enable us to identify the patient.

That’s enough for me to become curious and to put my detective hat on, and to start figuring out who they are talking about, what the context of the conversation was and whether there was a sequel to this letter. Now, the problem is that the correspondence between Freud and Marie Bonaparte is under lock and key in the Library of Congress until at least 2030. However, I knew via friends, acquaintances and colleagues who had done work on Marie Bonaparte that she was in the habit of translating, transcribing and sending out copies of Freud’s letters to various colleagues, especially to Ernest Jones, so I thought that maybe a copy of this letter might be in another archive somewhere.

This led me to the Bibliothèque nationale de France and a correspondence with the wonderful French scholar Rémy Amouroux, who has written the best book on Marie Bonaparte. Lo and behold, I managed to get hold of Marie Bonaparte’s transcript of the letter that she probably sent to Ernest Jones when he was working on his Freud biography, which is held at the Marie Bonaparte Archive at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The letter doesn’t say that much more, but it does include more details about the patient they are talking about. So, after putting various bits and pieces together, I came to the conclusion that the patient they were talking about must have been Princess Alice of Battenberg. Then, I read the two biographies of Princess Alice of Battenberg. There is the official biography written by Hugo Vickers and there is a biography by a Greek royal historian called Tonis Breidel Chatzidimitriou. That was the starting point of what became a more detailed analysis of her case history, Freud’s involvement with her treatment and her subsequent admission to the Sanatorium Schloß Tegel and the Kreuzlingen clinic in Switzerland.

Alice was married to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark. During the 1920s, they were living in Paris with their five children, the youngest of whom was Prince Philip, the consort of Elizabeth II, owing to the political turmoil in Greece, where Prince Andrew had become persona non grata.


Why did they choose Paris?

Dany Nobus: Prince Andrew’s brother, Prince George, was married to Marie Bonaparte. They offered Princess Alice and Prince Andrew a house on her estate in St Cloud, an affluent suburb to the West of Paris. During those years, Princess Alice generally spent her time fulfilling royal duties in either Paris or London, looking after the five children, doing some charity work, selling Greek merchandise and collecting a large number of books on spirituality.


What triggered her interest in spirituality?

Dany Nobus: I’m not entirely sure what triggered her interest, apart from the fact that, from a very young age on, she greatly admired her aunt Ella, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, who was married into the Russian royal family. After her husband, the Grand Duke Sergeii Alexandrovich, had been assassinated by a terrorist organisation in 1905, she became a nun who set up her own covent near Moscow. She herself was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. For Princess Alice, her aunt Ella was – to put it in Freudian terms – her ego ideal. This was a person she really admired for her courage, her spirituality, and her charity work. And so before long Princess Alice started reading books on spiritualism.

During the 1920s, she also became a member of the Greek orthodox church, relinquishing her Anglican protestant faith. In the late 1920s, Princess Alice’s spiritual leanings started to worry her family, because she would spend hours lying on the floor absorbing messages coming from Jesus Christ. She would tell the priest that she had become the bride of Jesus Christ. Speaking to god is generally fine, but when God starts speaking back to you it’s potentially problematic. First, her family called in a local doctor, who couldn’t do much. Then, they consulted her Greek gynaecologist. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone thought she was going through the menopause at 44, and back in the day there was already a certain belief that psychosis could be induced by hormonal changes. Dr. Louros came all the way from Athens to Paris, and he was actually the first to diagnose her as suffering from psychosis. Now, she was never going to be admitted to any of the large public institutions such as the Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, because she was a member of the royal family. France at the time had very few private facilities for patients suffering from severe mental health conditions. She could have gone to London, but in the end, Marie Bonaparte recommended to Prince Andrew and Princess Alice’s mother that she go to the Sanatorium Schloß Tegel in Berlin. Interestingly, in order to convince her that this was a good thing they had to set up a bit of a plot. They said to her gynaecologist, whom she was very close to: “Please tell her that this was recommended by the Lord Jesus Christ himself.” Otherwise she would never have gone. So what actually happened was that Dr. Louros whispered into Princess Alice’s ears: “The Lord Jesus, your husband, recommends that you spend some time at Kurhaus Schloß Tegel”.


Wasn’t the plot a little counterproductive with regards to her mental illness?

Dany Nobus: Well, fact of the matter is that she went. Conceiving and implementing a treatment strategy for psychotic people is one thing, getting them to comply with it is another thing. This is probably the only case in the history of psychoanalysis, where a patient acted upon a recommendation coming from the Lord Jesus Christ himself!


Was the application of a biological paradigm an attempt to make psychoanalysis more credible?

Dany Nobus: It’s one possible interpretation of what happened, but based on my historical research I don’t think that this interpretation applies with regard to Freud’s recommendation. Freud recommended to Ernst Simmel, who was the director at the sanatorium Schloß Tegel, that Princess Alice’s ovaries should be exposed to high-intensity x-rays. It’s definitely the case that Freud was not aversive to the biological paradigm, and that he was considering the value of developments in biochemistry, epidemiology, and what we would now call neuroscience in order to advance the psychoanalytic cause. Let’s not forget that Freud himself was a neurologist. I think there were good reasons as to why he left neurology behind to advance psychoanalysis, but time and time again you see biological references returning in his work. However, I think in the case of Alice of Battenberg it’s slightly different. When I first read this recommendation, it was extremely puzzling to me. Why on earth would the founder of psychoanalysis, in 1930, recommend to a trusted colleague of his, Ernst Simmel, to have recourse to this type of intervention? I thought there must be a much more substantive reason as to why Freud made that recommendation, which was by the way not executed under Freud’s supervision, because he never met Alice of Battenberg in person. The reason as to why he came up with this recommendation is again that he, unlike Simmel, did not believe that psychotic patients could be treated psychoanalytically. Simmel constantly wanted to convince Freud that it would be a good idea to open a separate wing on the grounds of Schloß Tegel for psychotic patients and Freud was very skeptical about that. In the end, it didn’t happen for practical reasons.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the recommendation is rooted in a rather controversial endocrinological paradigm. During the 1920s, in every part of the world, it was hailed as a massive, innovative invention, an intervention to rejuvenate the body. This paradigm was initiated by an Austrian doctor by the name of Eugen Steinach, who during the 1920s and 30s, was nominated for the Nobel Prize on numerous occasions, even though he never got it. His work was considered to be so groundbreaking that it was hailed as the new future for the human condition. Back then, people were already obsessed with rejuvenation and had recourse to the Steinach technique. There was actually a verb for it, which was invented by Alfred Döblin, the writer of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”: sich steinachen lassen.


What did the Steinach technique involve?

Dany Nobus: It involved a vasoligature, the precursor to the vasectomy, or as we say in England “the snip”. Now, a urologist would cut the vas deferentia but in the 1920s they would just tie it off. Steinach’s reasoning was that, if you do a vasoligature, the implication is that sperm cells don’t leave the male body and would occupy a certain space in the testes, as a result of which the man would become reinvigorated. Needless to say, Steinach first tested this on rodents and dogs.

Eugen Steinach was more famous than Freud. So, lots of men in various parts of the world got themselves steinached, and one of the more famous people who got himself steinached was Professor Freud himself. In November 1923, Freud was struggling physically and had been diagnosed with cancer. He had reached an age where his physical and mental powers weren’t as strong anymore as they used to be. And by virtue of his trusted friend Paul Federn, a member of the Vienna psychoanalytic society, he got himself steinached in Vienna by Professor Viktor Blum  


Did it work?

Dany Nobus: I’m not sure. There is some correspondence between Freud and Ferenczi about it. To Ferenczi, he occasionally said: No, it probably didn’t make any difference.

Why would Freud have shared this only with Ferenczi? I think he shared it with Ferenczi because Ferenczi also firmly believed that the future of psychoanalysis would be guaranteed through the biological paradigm. He shared his belief about how a biological intervention could have an effect on the mind with a colleague who was broadly sympathetic to the biological paradigm. Now, the equivalent for women of the Steinach operation in men was the x-raying of the ovaries.


To start off the menopause?

Dany Nobus: No, I don’t think so. That’s how it’s stated in Vickers’ biography, and that’s how it reappears in Simmel’s letters to Binswanger in Alice’s case file. But I think that in this case the menopause was a side effect, and I don’t think that the therapeutic value of exposing the ovaries to x-rays had anything to do with the menopause, because at that time the menopause was actually considered a possible trigger for psychosis, not a cure for psychosis.


What happened after her return to Paris?

Dany Nobus: What Simmel and Freud thought was that with Alice’s ovaries being steinached, because that’s what happened, she would be rejuvenated. When she was admitted to Tegel she was very weak, because she hadn’t eaten in a very long time and she didn’t eat because she wanted to punish herself for all the sins she had committed as the bride of Jesus Christ. They thought the treatment would restore her physical and mental energy, and maybe as a result of that her delusions would disappear. But subsequently, as a side-effect of the procedure, Alice of Battenberg did enter the menopause. I should also have mentioned that Princess Alice was profoundly deaf. She could lip-read very well, but if she received psychoanalytic treatment it would have had to be face-to-face.


What happened after she left Schloß Tegel?

Dany Nobus: Things got from bad to worse. Although she looked and felt better at first, in the end she was not well at all mentally, and another plot was devised to get her admitted to a closed institution. Her mother and Prince Andrew took her to Darmstadt, where she was sedated without her knowledge and was taken by force across the border to the Bellevue Sanatorium at Kreuzlingen, a closed institution led by Ludwig Binswanger, where she spent two and a half years. Once she was admitted to Kreuzlingen she was not in a good state. She managed to escape, but was caught at the train station. So, the Steinach technique did not do much good in terms of her psychotic condition. After two and a half years at Kreuzlingen, her mother agreed that she could be released, and she spent some time in Northern Italy first. During the 1930s, Princess Alice became a traveler. She travelled all around Europe and nobody knew where she was. This is a period in her life that remains very undocumented. She basically led the life of a “mad traveler”, to use Ian Hacking’s phrase. And before the outbreak of the Second World War, she moved to Athens. She did something that no one could have expected. She set up her own religious order on the island of Tinos and started dressing like a nun. She never wanted to be seen in public in anything but nun’s clothes. And during WWII, she also provided shelter to Jewish people, which could have cost her her life. The Greek Jews consider her to be one of their saviors. Here is a British royal, who is a nun, who is providing shelter to Jewish people in Athens, smokes like a chimney, is on occasion also in the casinos playing poker, and is revered as a saint.


Was Princess Alice of Battenberg mad?

Dany Nobus: Well, she definitely didn’t fit in. There is no doubt that she did have a mental breakdown. Does that make her mad? No. We all have our demons, and from time to time we struggle with them. She was incredibly caring throughout her life. Was she psychotic? I’m not convinced. I’m not even sure I know the answer as to what triggered her breakdown. During the late 1920s, she was madly in love with an Englishman, with whom she entertained an eroticized correspondence, and her mother would have intervened. The control was clearly on the side of her mother when it came to how Princess Alice should choose to live her life. When she was admitted to Tegel, who had the final say? Her mother. When she was taken to Kreuzlingen, who sent her? The mother. So, the father is completely out of the picture. For her, unconsciously or consciously, the breakdown was somehow a reaction against the overpowering figure of the mother who would rule over her constantly. Fact of the matter is that after she left Kreuzlingen there is no evidence that she suffered another serious mental breakdown. Of course, you could say that her commitment to the religious order, if not factually, at least metaphorically, did make her the bride of Christ. She found a way to become what she always wanted to be, without defying the social order of acceptability because nuns are highly valued. She found a way to become the bride of Christ without being defined as mad.


Contact information:
Dany Nobus

Comments

A. | 14-01-2019 11:02

Hallo!

Könnten Sie eine Kopie des Transkriptes hochladen, welches Sie in der Bibliothèque national de France erhalten haben?
DWP/TVP | 15-01-2019 08:58
translation
Hello! Could you upload a copy of the transcript you received from the Bibliothèque national de France?
Dany Nobus | 16-01-2019 20:35
Transcript
A copy of the transcript/translation by Marie Bonaparte of the letter she received from Freud on 15 January 1930.
A. | 19-01-2019 10:06

Thank you!
Bertha | 13-01-2019 00:09
Sehr geehrter Herr Prof. Nobus!
auch ich möchte mich sehr für den interessanten Einblick in das Leben von AvB bedanken. Gibt es auf Tinos noch Orten, die an die Prinzessin und ihre religiöse Gemeinschaft erinnern?
DWP/TVP | 15-01-2019 08:56
translation
Dear Prof. Nobus!
I would also like to thank you for the interesting insight into the life of AvB. Are there places on Tinos that are reminiscent of the princess and her religious order?
Dany Nobus | 16-01-2019 21:03
Tinos
To the best of my knowledge, no places on Tinos are directly reminiscent of the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, as the religious order Princess Alice established was called--by analogy with the Marfo-Mariinski convent her Aunt Ella had established -- but every so often her presence on the island is remembered by the people of Tinos with great pride. I´m attaching a copy of the local Tinos newspaper from April-June 2012. I´ve highlighted the relevant parts of the coverage Princess Alice received here on p. 7, which also includes a copy of the original announcement of her arrival on the island in 1948.
Helen Carabott | 10-01-2019 11:21

Very interesting article! Congratulations!
Sabrina Zehetner | 09-01-2019 13:29

Read more about the history of psychoanalysis: > Weblink
DWP/TVP | 09-01-2019 12:50
Dear Prof. Nobus!
Thank you very much for your interview. Today we present Part I. Part II will follow next Wednesday.
Like every week, our readers are now invited to comment or to ask questions; Prof. Nobus is joining our forum aswell! best wishes

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