Maria Karoline of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – The Princess who was gassed by the Nazis

(public domain) Maria Karoline is the little girl in front of her father.

Princess Maria Karoline of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born on 10 January 1899 in Pula, in present-day Croatia, as the daughter of Archduchess Karoline Marie of Austria and Prince August Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. She was intellectually disabled but initially lived at home with her parents. In addition, two of her siblings, Leopoldine (born 1905) and August (born 1895 – died in 1908) were also intellectually disabled. It is unclear what it was exactly, but one source suggests that it may have been genetic.1

In 1918, the family moved from Pula to Schladming, where Maria Karoline’s condition deteriorated as she became older. She may have also contracted polio around this time. She was appointed a nurse and spent most of her time in her room on the second floor of the castle in Schladming.2 Until 1938, both she and Leopoldine were still living with her mother and other family members. Their father died in 1922. After the annexation of Austria, her mother and Leopoldine moved to Budapest at the behest of their son and brother, Philipp Josias. Due to her ill health, Maria Karoline had to be left behind and the family decided to send her to the Salzburg Hospital in Lehnen. This hospital specialised in treating patients with neurologic diseases and was run by nuns.

maria karolina
Maria Karoline is the baby (public domain)

A certain Dr Leo Wolfer was the medical director of the hospital, while his son Dr Heinrich Wolfer was the head of the male ward and the hereditary diseases division. The younger Dr Wolfer was a supporter of the eugenic policies of the Nazis and often surveyed old people’s homes and nursing facilities around Salzburg to identify patients who could be sterilised to prevent the transmission of hereditary diseases. In addition, he was a member of the SS and the head of the local office for racial hygiene.

When the euthanasia program began in Austria, several hundred patients were selected for transport and execution. On 21 May 1941, Maria Karoline was one of 86 moved to Niedernhart Hospital, and on or around 6 June 1941, she was taken to Schloss Hartheim, where she was gassed. An estimated 18,000 physically or intellectually disabled people were killed at Niedernhart and Hartheim between May 1940 and August 1941.

schloss hartheim
By Dralon – CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Schloss Hartheim was just one of the killing centres for physically or intellectually disabled people. It was responsible for institutions in Austria and some in south Germany and Saxony.3 The “destruction of life unworthy of life” was put into practice.4 We do not know exactly what happened to Maria Karoline, but the process at Hartheim is described in detail.

The people were often aware of what was happening, and force had to be applied when they were picked up from their institutions and put into the notorious Gekrat busses. In Hartheim, people sometimes also arrived by train. Local “death busses” would then transport them from the train station in Linz. They were then met at reception and were told to undress. The transport usually consisted of either men or women, but separate undressing facilities were provided if both arrived. They were then measured, weighed and underwent a physical examination. This was all to give the deceptive appearance of normality. The physician would also mark people who had valuable gold teeth or gold bridges that could be extracted after death. The people were then numbered and photographed to show the so-called physical inferiority “for scientific reasons.” The naked people were assembled again so they could be led into the gas chambers, which were disguised to look like shower rooms. At Hartheim, the gas chambers were located on the ground floor, and the group moved directly from the examination room to the gas chambers. Once they were inside the gas chamber, the staff closed the steel door and made sure everything was hermetically shut. The valve of the compressed gas canister was opened, releasing the lethal gas into the chamber.5

Gas chamber at Schloss Hartheim by Stefan97 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The valve was supposed to be operated by the physician, but at Hartheim, the gas was administered by Valasta, the senior stoker. Georg Renno, a physician at Hartheim, told post-war interrogators, “I did not study medicine to operate a gas valve.” The number of people differed from time to time. A Hartheim staff member reported, “Once 150 persons were gassed at one time. The gas chamber was so full that the people in it could scarcely fall down, and the corpses were therefore so jammed together that we could pry them apart only with great difficulty.” After about five minutes, the people were unconscious, and in about ten minutes, they were all dead. The staff waited one or two hours before ventilating the chamber. The physicians then pronounced the death, and the bodies were removed. They were then piled into a so-called death room, where they could be robbed of their golden teeth, and some underwent autopsies.

The death room at Schloss Hartheim by Stefan97 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So-called stokers then placed the bodies on a metal pallet, which was pushed onto a clay grill in the crematorium oven. 6 During the years 1940-1941, 18,269 people were killed at Hartheim.

Crematorium at Schloss Hartheim by Stefan97 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Maria Karoline was probably gassed the same day as her arrival. There is a memorial plaque to her in the family crypt in Coburg, which mentions her exact date of birth and the fact that she was gassed. In June 1941, 1,364 people were gassed at Hartheim. After cremation, ashes were either transported to the Danube or buried in the eastern part of the gardens.

Used with permission from Royal Travel

Maria Karoline’s father had died in 1922, but her mother was still around when Maria Karoline was killed. Perhaps she received the letter that informed her that her daughter had died of “natural causes.” For Maria Karoline, a later official cause of death was given as “Insane – official measures.7 The so-called condolence letter informed the relatives of the death of the person but never contained any elaborate explanation. Usually, an institute would be expected to ship the body back to the relatives, but since there was no body, relatives were usually informed of the legal requirement to combat epidemics that had required cremation. An urn with ashes could be requested, but these obviously never contained the ashes of the deceased. An urn with “her” ashes was sent to Coburg by post, and a memorial was held for her on 16 July 1941. The urn was placed in the mausoleum of the St Augustine Kirche with three church officials present. If a person had any possessions, these would be “damaged during disinfection.”8

Her royal name and even her relationship to her “uncle Charlie”9, Charles Edward, former Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, could not protect her. He received a personal notification of her death of “natural causes” at Hartheim and was shocked to learn of her death. However, he was not present at the memorial service held for her.10

In late August 1941, Hitler ordered a stop to the murder of the physically or intellectually disabled by gas and Hartheim, conveniently located near Mauthausen Concentration Camp, remained operational and continued to gas people from Mauthausen.11

By Christian Michelides, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Her sister Leopoldine lived with relatives of her brother Philipp Josias’s wife in Hungary until her death in 1978. 80 years after her death, Maria Karoline received a so-called Stolperstein in Schladming. These stones are embedded in the pavement and have the names and dates of the person who once lived there.

  1. Heimatkundliche Blätter von Schladming
  2. Heimatkundliche Blätter von Schladming
  3. Henry Friedlander – The Origins of Nazi Genocide p.93
  4. Henry Friedlander – The Origins of Nazi Genocide p.22
  5. Henry Friedlander – The Origins of Nazi Genocide p.94 – 96
  6. Henry Friedlander – The Origins of Nazi Genocide p.96 – 98
  7. Heimatkundliche Blätter von Schladming
  8. Henry Friedlander – The Origins of Nazi Genocide p.104-105
  9. They were actually third cousins once removed
  10. Read more: Charles Edward of Saxe-Coburg: the German Red Cross and the plan to kill “unfit” citizens 1933-1945 by Alan R Rushton p.112-116
  11. Henry Friedlander – The Origins of Nazi Genocide p.148

About Moniek Bloks 2249 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.


  1. My family lived in the UK and I was born in 1941. My brother was born in 42 and suffered from Meningitis when just a few month old I remember my mum saying she was terrified of England losing the war with my brother being disabled and she said what happened to people like my brother. I was shocked to read about the Princess not to mention all those millions of people who died because of a cruel person like Hitler and all his cohorts !!

  2. Thank you very much for this interesting article! As Coburg is my hometown, I am astonished and bewildered that nobody here knows or talks about Maria Karoline and her fate! The focus is very much more on “our” Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, the famous couple. And their descendants, of course. As Charles Edward, the last Duke of Coburg is known as very far right winged, his glory was fading early, but the area around Coburg is still called “former Duchy”. The relationship to other Royals makes this small town interesting for tourists. But never ever mention the dark period and what happened then!
    Thanks again, I really appreciate your effort and knowledge!

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