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Which World War destroyed Ruritania? May 31, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, military history.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Austria-Hungary was broken up by WWI

The Austria-Hungary coat of arms has Ruritanian elements

The post that I wrote February 8 about Ruritania has proven to be one of the most frequently visited posts of this blog, seeing multiple visitors nearly every day.  I have to admit I am surprised but pleased by the interest in my discussion of the nation of castles and swordfighting created by the novelist Anthony Hope.  I now pose to my readers a question: which of the two world wars could truly be said to account for the destruction of Ruritania?

As earlier noted, the Ruritanian capital of Strelsau might have been modelled on Prague or on Dresden, putting it inside either Bohemia or Saxony, and one visitor recently put forth the idea that it was based on Breslau, the city now known as Wroclaw in Poland—which would put it in Silesia.  Of those three cities, Prague made it through WWII intact, while Dresden was virtually destroyed, and in a simplistic sort of way Breslau splits the difference, having been first designated a “festung” (fortress) by Hitler and then roughly half

Surrender of German troops in Breslau

Surrender of German troops in Breslau

destroyed in 1945 when it was besieged by the Soviets.

Yet it could be argued that the physical destruction of large parts of these “Ruritanian” cities in WWII was only the logical working out of the defeat of Germany and the breakup of Austria-Hungary at the end of WWI.   The stylistic extravagance, the pomp and the splendor, of the Central European empires (exemplified in the coat of arms above) never came back after 1918.

The question of which world war destroyed Ruritania is in one way kind of a silly one (after all, it’s a made-up country) and in another way fairly deep, having to do with a huge chunk of 20th century history.  I will leave it as an open question for the moment.

Leaders of the WWI Central Powers: "In struggle there is unity," it says

Leaders of the WWI Central Powers: "In struggle united," it says


1. Roon - June 4, 2009

Mm, Jenny,
A meaty question indeed. Breslau/Wroclaw as a model for Strelsau doesn’t convince me. Ruritania would have to have been a picturesque but relatively insignificant corner of Central Europe to have survived as a little independent enclave among its powerful neighbours in the turbulent years before World War I. Breslau doesn’t fill that bill: located amid the rich coalfields of Lower Silesia, it fueled the 19th century German industrial revolution and became one of the cradles of the Prussian (and later imperial German) machine-building industry. Neither does its (pre-1914) population mix of arrogant Prussians and surly, subjugated Poles agree with the atmospherics of Ruritania, which seem more akin to the tolerantly multi-ethnic spirit of the Austro-Hungarian empire. No, for my money, Ruritania was a kind of Liechtenstein located somewhere along the western or southern edges of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia in mountainous, easily defensible terrain – too unimportant and too troublesome to capture militarily. Remember, the Austrian crown was already hard put to keep its demanding Hungarian partner-monarchy happy and subdue its increasingly rebellious Balkan subjects. Emperor Franz-Josef would hardly have been eager to add fresh tinder to these ethnic conflicts by seizing little Ruritania.
Maybe sentiment played a role too – Ruritania seems to have been an ancient, civilized fellow-monarchy soaked in the gracious blend of Bohemian (Czech) and Austrian history and culture that makes Prague so unforgettable. Its aristocracy would have been connected to the best families of the Empire. They would have graced the salons and ballrooms of fashionable Vienna, doffed their top hats to the ladies on Sunday rides in the Prater, built Strelsau town houses resembling those in Prague and Vienna, served as volunteer career officers with the Emperor’s army and promenaded with the international haute-volée at the Marienbad spa.
Ruritania would have found it hard to remain a neutral enclave between the allied German and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1914, but such an insignificant combatant might well have survived World War I even so. After all, the peacemakers at Versailles were at pains to weaken defeated Germany and Austria territorially. Apart from setting up a liberated Poland in former Eastern Prussia and separating both Hungary and the Balkans from Austria, they allowed tiny, German-speaking Liechtenstein to establish itself up as an independent princedom between the borders of Austria and Switzerland. Why not treat Ruritania similarly?
Amusing to speculate on Ruritania between the two wars – perhaps (like Liechtenstein today) progressive-minded advisers persuaded the king to turn it into a profitable tax haven. In the roaring twenties, monocled Ruritanian dukes might have rolled up on the Riviera in their Rollses and Bugattis to try and break the bank at Monte Carlo, sip the latest cocktails or learn the Charleston from short-skirted flappers. The Wall Street crash would have dented that prosperity, with the Great Depression confronting even peaceful Ruritania with rising unemployment and rival fascist and socialist agitators.

Thus unsettled, Ruritania would almost certainly have been engulfed by the Third Reich even before World War II. Perhaps paid Nazi agents bribed, intimidated or stirred up disaffected German-speaking elements of the mixed population to echo the “Home into the Reich” sentiments of the Sudetenland Germans in Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s pseudo-justification for his 1938 Munich Dictate (liberation of the Sudeten Germans from alleged Czech persecution) could then have been applied to the little neighbouring monarchy too. He could then have included Ruritania in the Nazi “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” he formed after swallowing the rump of Czechoslovakia the same year. Alternatively, he might have added Ruritania to the “Ostmark” provinces he merged into the Reich after the 1938 “Anschluss” of Austria.
Too little demographic information about Ruritania is available to guess how the perverted Nazi racial “scientists” would have classified its inhabitants – as Aryan race brethren or as “sub-human” products of slavonic miscegenation? As rehabilitated Teutons, Ruritanian boys would soon have been dragooned into Hitler’s ill-fated war on the Eastern Front, perhaps under the banners of their own SS battalion. As non-Aryans, many Ruritanians would probably have ended up as slave labourers or concentration camp inmates. Did the Nazis crush their sense of national identity? Or did memories of their ancient, proud traditions of independence foment underground resistance? Did they fear retribution from the invading Soviet soldiers, or did they hail them as liberators, hoping for lenient treatment from the Red Army as it barged across their country towards Germany late 1944? It hardly matters now. World War II redrew the map of Central Europe, redistributed millions of refugees and subjected the divided continent to conflicting ideologies during the subsequent cold war. Ruritania could only have survived such a cataclysm as a romantic memory.

2. Jenny - June 5, 2009

Roon, this is great! I have no doubt that you could also provide an analysis of the educational and transport systems of Ruritania, as well as a description of Ruritanian cuisine! I agree with you about Breslau—I think the person who suggested that may have been going mainly by the sound of the name. I hadn’t thought much about Ruritania between the wars, but I enjoyed your description of a jolly life during the Roaring Twenties. But I still feel that something was irretrievably broken by WW1, even if individuals in the aristocracy did not necessarily lose their wealth immediately upon the end of the war. I picture Ruritania as either part of Austria-Hungary or closely allied with Austria-Hungary, and once that empire was broken into many pieces, the monarchs’ sense of invincibility was gone. (Second thought from Jenny: No, they weren’t part of the empire, they were independent.)

3. Roon - June 5, 2009

This is fun, Jenny!
You’re right – Ruritania was never the same again after WWI. Until 1914, the divine legitimation of its kings is the lynchpin of its post-feudal society. Lacking a downtrodden industrial proletariat, its reasonably contented population base of self-subsisting peasant farmers is hardly stirred by 19th century socialist winds of change. But 1914-18 catapults sleepy Ruritania into a brutal reaility that decimates its young manhood in the allied Danube monarchy’s lost battles, impoverishes their families and sweeps away the ancient Habsburg monarchy in Vienna along with all the other ruling dynasties of Central Europe. After 1918, the king in Strelsau rules not by divine right but by the grace of the constitutional monarchy imposed by the victors at Versailles. My picture of Ruritanian highlife on the jazz-age Riviera is meant to suggest the decadence of an aristocracy bereft of absolute power and cut adrift from its former cultural focus in imperial Vienna and Prague. Selling their family jewels if need be, these lordlings fritter away the remnants of their heritage while the rural peasantry shares the poverty of the war-ravaged populations around them – a fruitful field for the depression-era fascist and communist agitators I alluded to.

Education, transport systems etc.? How about this scenario: Located in the Erzgebirge mountains between Saxony and Austro-Hungarian Bohemia (Czechia), Ruritania’s economy in the early 20th century is still based largely on peasant subsistence farming. It exports a modest surplus production of timber, animal products (e.g. tangy cheeses made from the creamy milk of the country’s famous dairy cows and goat-like mountain sheep, hides, semi-finished leather goods, intestinal sausage-skins prized by sausage-makers in neighboring Saxony etc.), a few semi-precious stones from little private mines, and peasant artefacts (traditional Erzgebirge wood-carvings, folk costumes and hand-printed muslins, still popular today). In medieval times, landowners and merchants had profited vastly from the underground salt dome at Ruritinienheim, which exposed Ruritania to foreign influences by linking it to the busy European salt trade routes of the time. But fortunes are no longer built on salt in the early 20th century, so a single-line spur of the Austro-Hungarian railroad easily handles the modest remaining trade flows. Built in 1892, this connects Strelsau via Reichenberg on the Elbe to the Prague-to-Dresden magistrale. From Reichenberg, Ruritanian goods can also be shipped down the Elbe to the Hamburg ocean port.

Education: The ruling caste is suspicious of the revolutionary idea of education for the masses. Its sons and daughters have private tutors or attend universities or ladies’ finishing schools in Vienna, Berne, Heidelberg and Paris. Ordinary folk are lucky to learn the three R’s from dubious village schoolmasters or church-run schools. As late as 1906, a meeting of the influential Daughters of the Ruritanian Nobility unanimously condemns the votes-for-women campaign of the British suffragettes as “shamefully unladylike”. Yet old attitudes have been changing since university students started to return from abroad with nationalistically inspired notions of popular uplift through general education. The progressive education policies of the neighbouring Austrian and German brother-monarchs finally shame the last king into introducing modest reforms – too late to equip Ruritania intellectually to fathom modern realities. The House of Nobles, Ruritania’s single-chamber advisory parliament, finally approves free education for all at state-funded schools in 1909 – five years before World War I changes everything.

Cuisine: Have you tried bear’s foot slow-cooked in a sauce of mountain-sheep cream and forest-berry schapps? Delicious. I ran across it in a little Paris restaurant run by a very old Ruritanian emigré. “Colonel Sapt”, he called himself. He’s dead now, of course.

4. Jenny - June 5, 2009

Roon, I chortled all the way through your ingenious “text” on Ruritania! “Goat-like mountain sheep” and “hand-printed muslins,” indeed! Daughters of the Ruritanian Nobility… single-chamber advisory parliament… all good. Who’s to say what exactly happened to the Ruritanian government after 1918–constitutional monarchy perhaps followed by some form of totalitarianism, as you suggest? Perhaps we could imagine some geopolitical anomaly that would allow Ruritania to make a gradual and peaceful transition to a democratic republic–but I fear that runs counter to the country’s whole setting.

Regarding Ruritanian cuisine, I started wondering what old Colonel Sapt and the others might actually have dined on. I pulled “Zenda” and “Hentzau” off the shelf and did some scanning, but was unable to find any mention of food other than eggs and cold meat, washed down with innumerable bottles of wine. In the course of looking at “Hentzau,” I was also reminded of how thoroughly tragic the book is. Everyone important dies except Flavia. That is apparently why the sequel didn’t get attention in Hollywood. I also found on my shelf a thoroughly second-rate knockoff titled “Truxton King: A Story of Graustark,” by George McCutcheon, published in 1909. It belonged to my grandmother. As alluded to in my first post, it was her mother who owned my 1896 edition of “Zenda.”

5. Ronnie - September 17, 2009

Please check out the micronation of Ruritania (www.ruritania.net) Obviously, someone has given this a great deal of thought and actually written a history of Ruritania from the time of The risoner of Zenda novel until the (virtual) present. It covers all the bases, fairly well, though, I’m sure someone will take issue with it.

6. Jenny - September 17, 2009

Ronnie, thanks for pointing out this website. This goes to show that while Ruritania is a subject of mere idle interest for me, for others it is a much more central concern. So the ruritania.net website works out a timeline in which Ruritania becomes a protectorate of Switzerland in the WW2 period! You know, I think my sense that the nation was destroyed or absorbed, versus the ruritania.net idea that it has survived as an intact monarchy, shows a fundamental difference in temperament. Being an essentially skeptical personality, I cannot or choose not to believe that Ruritania still exists as it would have been in the period Anthony Hope described. I am extremely fond of the books and my idea of the nation, but something just doesn’t feel right to me, personally, if I try to project it forward to the present day.

7. Ronnie - September 17, 2009

Jenny, I have been almost as fascinated with the micronation of Ruritania as I was with the original books. It’s nice to think that somewhere, out there the Elphbergs still rule and life goes on without all the nastiness of current politics, endless wars and global warming. OK, it’s idyllic and very improbable (we won’t say silly), but wasn’t that Anthony Hope’s idea in the first place? Ruritania was always supposed to be a place where men and women were honorable and chivalry still exists. Despite the fact that good people die and we don’t have a storybook ending, Zenda and even Hentzau have that sense of Hope that we can all be better than we are. I think it’s what has made the Arthurian myths last so long and why we are still talking about a couple of novels written over a hundred years ago.

Oh, and I wrote to Queen Anastasia on the website. She says there is a plan to eventually put out a page of Ruritanian recipes. That may solve the old question of what they were eating at the hunting lodge!

8. Jenny - September 17, 2009

Ronnie, I completely agree with you about the enduring value and attraction of those ideas of chivalry and honor. My idea, living in the 21st century world, is simply to try to uphold a personal code of behavior. I can’t do much to affect other people and their ways of life. As far as Ruritanian recipes are concerned, I would greatly enjoy any suggestions along those lines! Here is my notion of what they really might have been dining on: some kind of game like venison with Cumberland sauce–it’s a delicious sauce flavored with currants and red wine.

9. Alexey - March 21, 2012

Sorry, but wasn’t Anne from the “Roman Holidays” a Ruritanian princess?
In any case, thank you for this marvellous discussion. I must say that, being a Russian, I have a special interest in Ruritania. It seems to me that this kingdom definitely has a strong East Slavic component. The name is not casual. It resembles quite much “Ruthenia” which is the Latin name for Russia. And the conflict in the “Prisoner of Zenda” is obviously an Anglo-American version of the conflict between the nobility backed by British and the more grassroots movement represented by Prince Michael. Still, knowing the outcome of the Russian Revolution, I would not lend my support to the “people’s darling”, as Mr. Hope calls him.

Jenny - March 21, 2012

Hadn’t thought about the unnamed country of the princess in “Roman Holiday,” but of course you must be right! And I think Audrey Hepburn would have made an excellent Princess Flavia in a movie version of “The Prisoner of Zenda”–except that her hair color is wrong. (My favorite version is the one with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ronald Colman, and Madeleine Carroll, as mentioned in my other post about Ruritania.)

Alexey - March 21, 2012

Thank you for your answer, Jenny.
I’ve read your other post 🙂 but already after leaving my commentary.
It seemed to me that Anne was styled somewhere as “the Princess of Ruritania” though I cannot be sure, of course. She could easily be a granddaughter or a great-granddaughter of Flavia, why not?
The only movie about Zenda I’ve seen was the one with Colman, Fairbanks and Carroll (and my favourite David Niven as Fritz). Being a great fan of Stewart Granger, I nevertheless coudn’t bear the 1952 film for more than 10 minutes. A really arduous task was finding the book – quite impossible to find in Russia, it took me around ten years. So I am really grateful to you for making me relive a travel to Ruritania.

10. Alexey - March 21, 2012

By the way, do you know how I found you?
I was giving my student a lesson in history about WW I (I am a historian). And I looked for a nice picture of the chiefs of the Central Powers to make it all livelier (I also downloaded more than 30 posters of the war). And incidentally I find a picture with Kaiser, Sultan and Franz Josef on the page dedicated to Ruritania. Karma – as would the Indians say 🙂

11. Ronnie - March 21, 2012

For anyone who truly loves Ruritania, it was not destroyed by either WW. It is now a Micronation, http://www.Ruritania.net and the history page on the website fills in the how and why it survived 2 world wars. Long live the house of Elphberg!!

Jim Douglas - September 6, 2013

Really attractive ideas here. Want to hear more about Ruritania.
Which is, to my way of thinking, symbolic of the two Germanic
Empires of Pre-1914-18 Central Europe. Email me, please….
>> jimfdouglas@yahoo.com << Any & all random thoughts
are welcome…….Jim

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