Von Krüdener was born in Riga, Livonia. Her father, Otto Hermann von Vietinghoff-Scheel, who had fought as a colonel in Catherine II's wars, was one of the two councillors for Livonia and a man of immense wealth. He was a man of rationalistic views and a leading freemason. Her mother, the Countess Anna Ulrika von Münnich, was a granddaughter of the celebrated field marshal and a strict Lutheran.
Juliana, as she was usually called, was one of a numerous family. Her education, according to her own account, consisted of lessons in French spelling, deportment and sewing; and at the age of eighteen (September 29, 1782) she was married to Baron Burckhard Alexius Constantin von Krüdener, a widower sixteen years her senior. The baron, a diplomatist of distinction, was cold and reserved; the baroness was frivolous, pleasure-loving, and possessed of an insatiable thirst for attention and flattery; and the strained relations due to this incompatibility of temper were embittered by her limitless extravagance, which constantly involved herself and her husband in financial difficulties. At first all went well. On January 31, 1784 a son was born to them, named Paul after the grand-duke Paul (afterwards emperor), who acted as god-father. The same year Baron Krüdener became ambassador at Venice, later (1786) at Munich where he remained until transferred to Copenhagen in 1787.
In 1787 the birth of a daughter (Juliette) aggravated the nervous disorders from which the baroness had for some time been suffering, and it was decided that she must go to the south for her health; she accordingly left, with her infant daughter and her stepdaughter Sophie. In 1789 she was at Paris when the Estates General met; a year later, at Montpellier, she met a young cavalry captain, Charles Louis de Frégeville, and a passionate attachment sprang up between them. They returned together to Copenhagen, where the baroness told her husband that her heart could no longer be his. The baron was coldly kind; he refused to hear of a divorce and attempted to arrange a modus vivendi, which was facilitated by the departure of de Frégeville for the war. All was useless; Juliana refused to remain at Copenhagen, and, setting out on her travels, visited Riga, St. Petersburg where her father had become a senator of Berlin, Leipzig and Switzerland. In 1794 her husband became ambassador at Madrid. In 1800 her husband became ambassador at Berlin, and she joined him there. But the stiff court society of Prussia was irksome to her; money difficulties continued; and by way of climax, the murder of the tsar Paul, in whose favor Baron Krüdener had stood high, made the position of the ambassador extremely precarious. The baroness seized the occasion to leave for the baths of Teplitz, whence she wrote to her husband that the doctors had ordered her to winter in the south. He died on June 14, 1802, without ever having seen her again.
Meanwhile the baroness had been revelling in the intellectual society of Coppet and of Paris. She was now thirty-six; her charms were fading, but her passion for admiration survived. She had tried the effect of the shawl dance, in imitation of Emma, Lady Hamilton; she now sought fame in literature, and in 1803, after consulting Chateaubriand and other writers of distinction, published her Valérie, a sentimental romance, of which under a thin veil of anonymity she herself was the heroine. In January 1804 she returned to Riga, Livonia.
At Riga occurred her conversion. A gentleman of her acquaintance when about to salute her fell dying at her feet. The shock overset her not-too-well-balanced mind; she sought for consolation, and found it in the ministrations of her shoemaker, an ardent disciple of the Moravian Brethren. Though she had found peace, however, the disorder of her nerves continued and she was ordered by her doctor to the baths of Wiesbaden. At Königsberg she had an interview with Queen Louise, and, more important still, with one Adam Müller, a rough peasant, to whom God had supposedly revealed a prophetic mission to King Frederick William III. Chiliasm was in the air. Napoleon was evidently Antichrist; and the latter days were about to be accomplished. Under the influence of the pietistic movement the belief was widely spread, in royal courts, in country parsonages, in peasant novels: a man would be raised up from the north from the rising of the sun (Isa. xli. 25); Antichrist would be overthrown, and Christ would come to reign a thousand years upon the earth. The interview determined the direction of the baroness's religious development. A short visit to the Moravians at Herrnhut followed; then she went, via Dresden, to Karlsruhe, to sit at the feet of Heinrich Jung-Stilling, the high priest of occultist pietism, whose influence was supreme at the court of Baden and infected those of Stockholm and St. Petersburg. By him she was instructed in the chiliastic faith and in the mysteries of the supernatural world. Then, hearing that a certain pastor in the Vosges, Jean Frédéric Fontaines, was prophesying and working miracles, she determined to go to him. On June 5, 1801, accordingly, she arrived at the Protestant parsonage of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, accompanied by her daughter Juliette, her stepdaughter Sophie and a Russian valet.
This remained for two years her headquarters. Fontaines, half-charlatan, half-dupe, had introduced into his household a prophetess named Marie Gottliebin Kummer, whose visions, carefully calculated for her own purposes, became the oracle of the divine mysteries for the baroness. Under this influence she believed more firmly than ever in the approaching millennium and her own mission to proclaim it. Her rank, her reckless charities, and her exuberant eloquence produced a great effect on the simple country folk; and when, in 1809, it was decided to found a colony of the elect in order to wait for the coming of the Lord, many wretched peasants sold or distributed all they possessed and followed the baroness and Fontaines into Württemberg, where the settlement was established at Catharinenplaisir and the château of Bonnigheim, only to be dispersed (May 1) by an unsympathetic government.
Further wanderings followed: to Lichtenthal near Baden; to Karlsruhe and the congenial society of pietistic princesses; to Riga, where she was present at the deathbed of her mother (January 24, 1811); then back to Karlsruhe. The influence of Fontaines, to whom she had been "spiritually married" (Madame Fontaines being content with the part of Martha in the household, so long as the baroness's funds lasted), had now waned, and she had fallen under that of Johann Kaspar Wegelin (1766–1833), a pious linen-draper of Strasbourg, who taught her the sweetness of complete annihilation of the will and mystic death. Her preaching and her indiscriminate charities now began to attract curious crowds from afar; and her appearance everywhere was accompanied by an epidemic of visions and prophesyings, which culminated in the appearance in 1811 of the comet, a sure sign of the approaching end.
In 1812 she was at Strassburg, whence she paid more than one visit to J. F. Oberlin, the famous pastor of Waldbach in Steinthal (Ban de la Roche), and where she had the glory of converting her host, Adrien de Lazay-Marnesia, the prefect. In 1813 she was at Geneva, where she established the faith of a band of young pietists in revolt against the Calvinist Church authorities notably Henri Louis Empeytaz, afterwards the companion of her crowning evangelistic triumph. In September 1814 she was again at Waldbach, where Empeytaz had preceded her; and at Strassburg, where the party was joined by Franz Karl von Berckheim, whom she afterward married. She had been condemned some years previously in Württemberg to the pillory and three years imprisonment as a swindler (Betrugerin), on her own confession. Her curious history is given in detail by M. Muhlenbeck.
In 1809 it was obviously inconvenient to have people proclaiming Napoleon as the Beast. At the end of the year she returned with her daughters and Empeytaz to Baden, a fateful migration.
The empress Elizabeth of Russia was now at Karlsruhe; and she and the pietist ladies of her entourage hoped that the emperor Alexander might find at the hands of Madame de Krüdener the peace which an interview with Jung-Stilling had failed to bring him. The baroness herself wrote urgent letters to Roxandre de Stourdza, sister of Alexandre Stourdza the tsar's Romanian secretary, begging her to procure an interview. There seemed to be no result; but the correspondence paved the way for the opportunity which a strange chance was to give her of realizing her ambition.
In the spring of 1815 the baroness was settled at Schlüchtern, a Baden enclave in Württemberg, busy persuading the peasants to sell all and fly from the wrath to come. Near this, at Heilbronn, the emperor Alexander established his headquarters on June 4. That very night the baroness sought and obtained an interview. To the tsar, who had been brooding alone over an open Bible, her sudden arrival seemed an answer to his prayers; for three hours the prophetess preached her strange gospel, while the most powerful man in Europe sat, his face buried in his hands, sobbing like a child; until at last he declared that he had found peace. At the tsar's request she followed him to Heidelberg and later to Paris, where she was lodged at the Hotel Montchenu, next door to the imperial headquarters in the Élysée Palace. A private door connected the establishments, and every evening the emperor went to take part in the prayer-meetings conducted by the baroness and Empeytaz. Chiliasm seemed to have found an entrance into the high councils of Europe, and the baroness von Krüdener had become a political force to be reckoned with. Admission to her religious gatherings was sought by a crowd of people celebrated in the intellectual and social world; Chateaubriand came, and Benjamin Constant, Madame Recamier, the duchesse de Bourbon, and Madame de Duras. The fame of the wonderful conversion, moreover, attracted other members of the chilastic fraternity, among them Fontaines, who brought with him the prophetess Marie Kummer.
In this religious forcing-house the idea of the Holy Alliance germinated and grew to rapid maturity. On September 26 the portentous proclamation, which was to herald the opening of a new age of peace and goodwill on earth, was signed by the sovereigns of Russia, Austria and Prussia. Its authorship has ever been a matter of dispute. Madame de Krüdener herself claimed that she had suggested the idea, and that Alexander had submitted the draft for her approval. This is probably correct, though the tsar later, when he had recovered his mental equilibrium, reproved her for her indiscretion in talking of the matter. His eyes, indeed, had begun to be opened before he left Paris, and Marie Kummer was the unintentional cause. At the very first séance the prophetess, whose revelations had been praised by the baroness in extravagant terms, had the evil inspiration to announce in her trance to the emperor that it was Gods will that he should endow the religious colony to which she belonged! Alexander merely remarked that he had received too many such revelations before to be impressed. The baroness's influence was shaken but not destroyed, and before he left Paris Alexander gave her a passport to Russia. She was not to see him again.
She left Paris on October 22, 1815, intending to travel to St. Petersburg by way of Switzerland. The tsar, however, offended by her indiscretions and sensible of the ridicule which his relations with her had brought upon him, showed little disposition to hurry her arrival. She remained in Switzerland, where she presently fell under the influence of an unscrupulous adventurer named J. G. Kellner. For months Empeytaz, an honest enthusiast, struggled to save her from this man's clutches but in vain. Kellner too well knew how to flatter the baroness's inordinate vanity: the author of the Holy Alliance could be none other than the "woman clothed with the sun" of Revelations. Meanwhile, Berckheim had been French commissioner of police in Mainz and had abandoned his post in 1813.
She wandered with Kellner from place to place, proclaiming her mission, working miracles, persuading her converts to sell all and follow her. Crowds of beggars and rapscallions of every description gathered wherever she went, supported by the charities squandered from the common fund. She became a nuisance to the authorities and a menace to the peace; Württemberg had expelled her, and the example was followed by every Swiss canton she entered in turn. At last, in May 1818, she set out for her estate in Kosse, Livonia (now Viitina, Estonia), accompanied by Kellner and a remnant of the elect.
The emperor Alexander having opened the Crimea to German and Swiss chiliasts in search of a land of promise, the baroness's son-in-law Berckheim and his wife now went there to help establish the new colonies. In November 1820 the baroness at last went herself to St. Petersburg, where Berckheim was lying ill. She was there when the news arrived of Ypsilanti's invasion of the Danubian principalities, which opened the war of Greek independence. She at once proclaimed the divine mission of the tsar to take up arms on behalf of Christendom. Alexander, however, had long since exchanged her influence for that of Metternich, and he was far from anxious to be forced into even a holy war. To the baroness's overtures he replied in a long and polite letter, the gist of which was that she must leave St. Petersburg at once. In 1823 the death of Kellner, whom to the last she regarded as a saint, was a severe blow to her. Her health was failing, but she allowed herself to be persuaded by Princess Galitzine to accompany her to the Crimea, where she had established a Swiss colony. Here, at Karasubazar, she died on December 25, 1824.
Sainte-Beuve said of Madame de Krüdener: "Elle avait un immense besoin que le monde s'occupât d'elle . . . ; l'amour propre, toujours l'amour propre . . ." A kindlier epitaph might, perhaps, be written in her own words, uttered after the revelation of the misery of the Crimean colonists had at last opened her eyes: "The good that I have done will endure; the evil that I have done (for how often have I not mistaken for the voice of God that which was no more than the result of my imagination and my pride) the mercy of God will blot out".