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In 1913, the First Balkan War ended with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by a coalition of Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian and Montenegrin forces.

Greece was considerably enlarged at the expense of Turkey, but divisions between the victorious powers in the Balkan League soon became apparent: Athens and Sofia vied for possession of Thessaloniki and its region. To affirm Greek control of the main city of Macedonia, George I moved to the city soon after its liberation. Just as he did in Athens, he went about Thessaloniki without any meaningful protection force, and while out for an afternoon walk near the White Tower on March 18, 1913, he was shot and killed by Alexandros Schinas. Olga, who said her husband’s death was “the will of God”, arrived at Thessaloniki the next day. She and her family visited the scene of the assassination and accompanied the body of the king to Athens. He was buried in the royal cemetery at Tatoi Palace.

George and Olga’s eldest son, Constantine, became king and his wife, Sophia of Prussia, became the new queen consort. Olga, as queen dowager, was given the use of a wing in the royal palace but soon returned to her native Russia, to spend time with her younger brother, Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich and his family at his home, and Olga’s birthplace, Pavlovsk Palace.

World War I

In August 1914, Olga was in Russia at the outbreak of World War I, in which the Allied or Entente Powers including Russia, Britain and France fought against the Central Powers including Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. She decided to stay in Saint Petersburg and establish a military hospital to support the Russian war effort. Olga created a clinic at Pavlovsk Palace where she cared for wounded soldiers with her sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mavrikievna. Other members of the imperial family, such as Princess Helen and Olga’s granddaughter Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna founded field hospitals at the front.

As the war continued, Olga became aware of the growing crisis in Russia, and attempted to warn Empress Alexandra in 1916 of the danger of revolution but the Russian empress refused to listen. A few weeks later, Olga attracted the fury of the Empress after signing a petition asking for a pardon for her grandson, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who had been exiled to the Persian front for his involvement in the assassination of Alexandra’s favorite mystic, Grigori Rasputin.

In contrast to Olga, her eldest son, King Constantine I of Greece, was determined to follow a policy of neutrality. His maternal relations were Russian, and his wife was the sister of Wilhelm II of Germany. His policy brought him into conflict with Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who favored the Allies. Constantine was soon accused of being a Germanophile and the Athenian government was regarded with suspicion in London and Paris. In what became known as the National Schism, Venizelos established a parallel government in Thessaloniki in opposition to Constantine.

On the collapse of the Russian Empire in February 1917, Olga’s sister-in-law left Pavlovsk with her family, but Olga stayed, soon to be almost alone except for a single young domestic named Anna Egorova. (After the Revolution, Egorova entered the service of Prince Christopher of Greece and became the governess of his son, Michael.) Short of food, the two women were limited to eating a little dry bread soaked in poor quality oil.

Their safety was far from assured, and a few days after the October Revolution, Bolsheviks invaded and ransacked the palace. Olga was physically unharmed. She accepted the need to leave Russia, but the Bolsheviks refused to let her go and diplomatic help from Greece was not forthcoming in the aftermath of the National Schism. In June, Constantine had been deposed and exiled to Switzerland. As the Allies did not wish to establish a Greek republic or see Crown Prince George succeed his father, Constantine was replaced on the throne by his second son, Alexander, who was thought to be more favorable to the Allies and more malleable than his older brother. Venizelos held power and the supporters of the deposed king were arrested or executed.

First exile

After several months of appeals for help, the Danish legation in Russia issued Olga a passport, which she used to enter Germany on the eve of its defeat, eventually joining her eldest son and his family in Switzerland in early 1919. Other members of the Russian imperial family did not escape. Among those killed were the Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra and their five children; Olga’s brothers Grand Dukes Nicholas and Dmitri Constantinovich; three of her nephews Princes John, Constantine and Igor Constantinovich; and the Empress’s sister Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna.