I'm working my way through Robert Massie's voluminous biography of Peter the Great at the moment. It's truly a pleasure to read; one really does have the sensation of stepping into Peter's world. However, despite winning a Pulitzer prize, the work does seem to have acquired a reputation for inaccuracy; and, even a quarter of the way through, I've come across a couple of claims which cannot be correct. (I don't have the book to hand, but one of these claims involves Peter's sister and regent Sophia taking various ministers as lovers.)

The most outrageous claim so far - outrageous, both in the sense that the action described is deeply immoral, as well as in the sense that it is implausible, at least at first glance - is that one of Augustus II of Poland's many lovers was his illegitimate daughter, the Countess Orzelska. Is there any evidence to back up that claim?

Augustus the Strong is said to have fathered several hundred bastards, but he only recognised a handful as such. Anna Karolina, Countess Orzelska was one of that handful; so it seems that accidental incest can be ruled out. I find it difficult to believe that, if a Christian king deliberately slept with his own daughter, massive controversy would not have ensued, and the outrage would be common knowledge to this day.

I am not a fan of the saying that there is no smoke without fire. However, in this case, it would be odd for a writer of Massie's reputation to conjure such a claim out of nothing. Does anyone have any idea what's going on here?

  • 18
    Re "deeply immoral", not everyone shares your ideas of what is immoral, and - as a matter of observed fact - plenty of people are capable of performing acts which they themselves (let alone the rest of the world) regard as immoral. Just for example (of a great many), we might contrast the sexual behavior of the current US President with the expressed morality of many of his supporters.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 19 '20 at 16:52
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    Did Augustus the Strong sleep with his own daughter ? - Not yet. :-)
    – Lucian
    Oct 20 '20 at 4:54
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    @jamesqf This is obviously not the right forum in which to have a debate about whether such a thing as a universal morality exists. But a strong revulsion towards incest does seem to be a constant across cultures and periods - for what it's worth, Freud said as much - even if some cultures, such as the Egyptians and Zoroastrians of centuries past, have practised ritual incest.
    – Tom Hosker
    Oct 20 '20 at 9:34
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    @jamesqf Is there no escape from US politics? Oct 20 '20 at 13:28
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    @TomHosker Even in cultures that have a strong revulsion against incest, there's still a depressingly large number of men who sexually molest their daughters.
    – nick012000
    Oct 20 '20 at 13:34

No. there is no evidence to backup this claim.

Like it says on Wikipedia:

The Countess frequently appeared in men's clothing and even in military uniform. Some sources alleged that August the Strong made his own daughter his favorite; however, this cannot be proved.

It was a rumor going around at the time.

She was apparently of exceptional beauty and had very scandalous reputation. Just like her biological father August. But most people surrounding both were of quite similar reputation. She was presented in the nude to a future lover – Frederick the Great, no less – in public and not many thought ill of that procedure.

The rumor was apparently started (at least in its written form on which we have the best access to these rumors) by Wilhelmine of Prussia, Frederick's sister, as to be read here:

— Johannes Scherr: "Geschichte der deutschen Frauen: in drei Büchern nach den Quellen", 1860, p408 (archive.org; missing crucial pages: gBooks has them) —— citing as source Wilhelmine's memoirs, in French, vol 1, p84; p103 in the linked PDF)

It might be noteworthy that this rumor was used primarily by August's son August III, to distance himself from his hated father.

What seems clear is that indeed August II took quite the liking to Anna Karolina and favoured her much, also over his son, and that 'closer relationship' began apparently too shortly after the death of August III's mother Christine Eberhardine. So his son was simply quite jealous and tolerated further rumors.

For evaluating the alleged source of this rumor:

Almost everything that is known about this episode [Frederick's entanglement wih Anna Karolina, LLC] stems from the memoirs of Frederick’s older sister Wilhelmine. These are not to be despised as a source, for she was very close to Frederick and the sympathetic recipient of his confidences. On the other hand, she was writing long after the event and her memoirs are full of mistakes. All that can be said with certainty is that Frederick William I felt very uncomfortable in Dresden. On his return, he wrote to Seckendorf that he had been appalled by the ungodly behavior of the court there, adding piously, “But God is my witness that I took no pleasure from it and that I am as pure as when I left home and shall remain so with God’s help until the end of my days." The historian’s task is made more difficult by the reluctance of any of the participants to spell out exactly what they meant by “dissipation” or who exactly was “a kind person.”
— Tim Blanning: "Frederick the Great. King of Prussia", Random House: New York, 2016.

For context, some of Wilhelmina's quotes about Orzelska in English in — Thomas Carlyle: "History of Friedrich 2. of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great", Leipzig, 1858. (archive.org). And a general desription about August's many mistresses: — Reinhard Delau: "August der Starke und seine Mätressen", DDV Edition, 2017.

Looked at from the other side of the fence: scandals surrounding August II are so numerous, the one alleged to by his enemies wouldn't be that far off either. In terms of any morals prevailing I doubt that anything August II really did – like his treatment of women in general and Anna Constantia von Brockdorff in particular – could harm him in any way. And this incest thing was just a rumour to be compared with all his other real misdeeds …

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    Geez... after reading through some of that it's a wonder anything a politician today does is considered scandalous at all. Oct 19 '20 at 23:35
  • @DenisNardin From Blanning: "was not only very beautiful but also stark naked. […] his son from the room, but not before Frederick had seen enough to make him want to see more. He was, after all, of an age[…]. […] represented an attempt by Augustus to divert Frederick’s attentions away from his illegitimate daughter (and reputed mistress) Countess Anna Karolina Orzelska. He offered his guest the girl on the couch, […] on condition he abandoned the countess. Wilhelmine concluded: “My brother promised everything to gain possession of this beauty, who became his first lover.” Oct 20 '20 at 15:56

In "War Through The Ages" on page 370, it says

"The King of Saxony and Poland typified the worst German despotism of the age. Called Augustus the Strong because of his gross appetites, he left 354 illegitimate children as his chief claim to historical fame. The moral tone of the court at Dresden is suggested by the fact that one of his natural daughters became his mistress after marrying her half-brother." (Emphasis added)

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