The Last Kaiser: Abdication and Exile of Wilhelm II

On November 10th 1918, the German Emperor Wilhelm II  arrived in the Netherlands, his place of exile, by train.  Following the First World War three of the largest European Empires collapsed, with the German Empire being the last, after the November revolution broke out in several harbours and cities, and spread to its capital Berlin. Although the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German Empire all collapsed, there were some fundamental differences in the way the respective Emperors continued their lives… or rather didn’t continue their lives following the collapse. To begin with the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II didn’t survive the power grab by the Bolsheviks and ensuing civil war. He was executed before Wilhelm II even abdicated. As for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the autumn of 1918 it disintegrated with incredible speed and its last Emperor, Karl I, was dethroned, exiled and died in 1922 at the age of 34. As such, two of the last rulers of European empires died soon after their disintegration…

But not Wilhelm. He lived for another 23 years after the war had ended. He lived in exile in the Netherlands and passed away only in June 1941. To give you an idea: that is well after Hitler had been in power, and two years after the Second World War broke out. Knowing this, it begs the inevitable question: what was the life of the Last German Kaiser like, in exile, with all those turbulent changes going on in the Empire he once ruled?

Initial Exile

Throughout the First World War, the Netherlands remained neutral. Because of its neutrality, there was an abundance of war-refugees that tried to find a safe place to stay in the Netherlands with the most famous war refugee arriving at the end of the war. Wilhelm’s reasoning to flee to the Netherlands was out of fear that the victorious Allied powers would imprison him and charge him with war crimes, or even worse: a potential violent overthrow by a revolutionary mob, as had happened in Russia. The emperor’s military headquarters, where he resided, was in Spa, Belgium, close to the Dutch border.

Aside from the geographical convenience, it helped that there were strong historical ties between the royal House Hohenzollern and House Oranje of the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. In 1646 Prussia’s Great Elector married Louise Henriette van Oranje-Nassau. Louise was the daughter of Frederik Hendrik, Prins van Oranje. It is how Prussia’s army ended up being developed in the 17th century: the Great Elector used a lot of modern Dutch military strategy to expand his own army. I’ve created an entire video about the origins of Prussia’s army and the ties to House Oranje if you’re interested in that. Following this marriage, there were more marriages between the houses. William V van Oranje married Wilhelmina of Prussia, the sister of King Frederick the Great. King William I of the Netherlands married Frederike Luise Wilhelmine of Prussia, the daughter of King Frederick William II of Prussia. Their son, Prince Willem Frederik Karel van Oranje Nassau married Louise Augusta. She was the daughter of the Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm III.

Wilhelm II before crossing the Dutch border

Anyway, on the night of the 10th of November, a train wagon from Belgium arrived in the Dutch border town Eijsden. When the border guards checked the carriage, they found it did not contain Belgian refugees but the Emperor of Germany. He subsequently requested asylum. Before the Dutch government responded, the next day, the armistice was signed between the Allied powers and Germany. This meant the emperor could, in theory, be arrested for war crimes. Yet the day after, the Dutch government and Queen Wilhelmina agreed to offer Wilhelm asylum on the condition that he would not interfere in politics so that the Allied powers could not accuse the Netherlands of violating their neutrality.

Although it was assumed the Dutch government and Queen were surprised by his arrival, in 2018 the Dutch historian Beatrice de Graaf uncovered that Queen Wilhelmina played a crucial role in Wilhelm’s decision to come to the Netherlands. Wilhelmina never spoke of it during her life, and the public didn’t learn about her involvement until 2018. And there’s a good reason why it wasn’t that well known: throughout Wilhelm’s entire stay in the Netherlands the Queen never went to visit him once. 

Initially, the Dutch government housed Wilhelm in Castle Amerongen, where the hospitable Count of Aldenburg Bentinck offered the Kaiser and his entourage a free stay. On this castle, Wilhelm signed his abdication two weeks after his arrival. Although the former-Emperor was granted a six-day stay in the castle, he ended up living there for eighteen months. It wasn’t just him, though. He took his family and forty servants with him. What is more, the still incredibly wealthy Wilhelm didn’t have to pay a single penny for his stay, which led to Count Bentinck selling large parts of land surrounding the castle to fund the stay of his guests. Because of the number of servants and personnel Wilhelm took with him, the cook even had to stay in the local Tavern, Den Rooden Leeuw.

The fact the Allies might have twisted the Dutch government’s arm into extraditing Wilhelm overshadowed this first period of exile. After all, the propaganda during the First World War demonised the Kaiser. In the minds of many, he was the sole person responsible for the disastrous war. US President Woodrow Wilson barred initial extradition. And Christopher Clark identifies four reasons why even after the Allies held Wilhelm’s person responsible in article 227 of the Treaty of Versailles, the extradition never happened.

To begin with, the Allies found no judicial basis for extradition, only using vague terms such as ‘international morality’. Secondly, although the Dutch government was surprised by Wilhelm’s arrival, they would not agree to extradition as it would put a dent in Dutch sovereignty. Thirdly, Dutch Queen Wilhelmina and Belgian King Albert opposed an indictment for war crimes. Although King George of England was against it as well, he didn’t actively engage in the political discussion. And lastly, building forth on the first point, the Allies simply couldn’t agree on a reasonable charge. Was Wilhelm an enemy of the human race, or against the Allies, or just a war criminal? Although discussion about the extradition simmered in the background, after 1920, most essential parties lost their interest. And Wilhelm would never be extradited or stand trial for war crimes.

Huis Doorn

By 1920 it was about time the former Emperor, including his slinking entourage, moved to a place of his own. He purchased Huis Doorn, a manor house that was built in the 14th century, located in the Utrecht province. Over here Wilhelm resided for 21 years, until his death. It took sixty train wagons to ship Wilhelm’s furniture, paintings, uniforms and other items he ordered to be brought over from his palaces in Potsdam and Berlin. 

Huis Doorn

Living here, Wilhelm enjoyed gardening and walked in the woods surrounding his manor. Not just walking, though, the former Emperor liked woodcutting as well… A bit too much perhaps. During his stay at Castle Amerongen, so that’s during that year-and-a-half, it is estimated he cut down 13000 trees! During his early years at Huis Doorn, the thick woodlands surrounding the estate thinned out at an incredible pace. The beautiful rose garden he commissioned barely made up for it. 

Wilhelm’s uniforms were important to him, and although he wasn’t officially an emperor anymore, he would dress up multiple times a day. A suit during the day, but military uniforms including his decorations during dinners.

Whereas Wilhelm seemed to have the ability to flee into his imaginary fantasy world, his wife suffered more under the exile and constant pressure of potential hostile actions against her family. Succumbing under the stress of their uncertain life Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein died in April 1921, at the age of 62. Her body was moved to Germany to be buried in the Royal Mausoleum of the Neues Palace in Potsdam. When the procession drove through Germany, it is said an ‘unbroken human chain of at least 200.000 mourners’ formed. Apparently, the Royalist sentiment in Germany hadn’t completely vanished, nor had their love for the Queen that was endearingly called ‘Dona’ by the public. 

Wilhelm II with his new wife, Hermine

Although Wilhelm genuinely mourned the death of his wife, within 18 months, he remarried. The marriage to his new wife, Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, was recorded on film and as you can see, there was quite some interest from the public. The next 18 years, until his death, consisted of a pleasant yet unchanged routine. Wilhelm occupied himself with woodcutting and woodworking and the reading of popular science and archaeology books. He wrote his memoirs, in which he absolved himself of any blame and upheld correspondence with an extensive network, the letters of which have been preserved in multiple archives around the world. 

And, well, one of the primary subjects of his correspondence was trying to find any one person or group to blame for his fate. This is where the accusations of rampant antisemitism stem from, as Wilhelm often blamed the Jews for his misfortune. The fact he had multiple close friends he often wrote that happened to be Jewish didn’t influence his views. Christopher Clark argues that his behaviour and the policies he supported during his actual reign did not point to singling out Jewish citizens systematically. Wilhelm openly rejected the antisemitic stance of the conservative party in the 1890s for example, and was a welcome guest at German synagogues and homes of wealthy Jewish businessmen. 

Yet following Wilhelm’s exile he was not only isolated from these groups, but he also required a scapegoat for the situation he was in. And at the end of the war, he wasn’t isolated in embracing antisemitism. The well-known stab-in-the-back-myth, the idea that Germany would have won the First World War if it wasn’t for certain hostile elements behind the frontlines, was a welcome theory for the conservatives and military command to explain their failure during the War. In short, isolated on his estate in Doorn antisemitism was an easy answer to the difficult questions Wilhelm faced about his own fate. Sure, when the news of Kristallnacht, the pogrom against German Jews, reached Wilhelm, he proclaimed it was the first time in his life he “was ashamed of being German”, but when opportunity allowed it he eagerly blamed any one group for his fate. 

Wilhelm and the rise of Hitler

During the 1920s Wilhelm frequently criticised the Weimar Republic, the successor of his Empire. He’d like to see the monarchy and his reign restored, something which his new wife tirelessly advocated by travelling through Germany to rekindle the love for the monarchy. Yet by the late 1920s, it was evident that restoration was very unlikely, to the degree that Wilhelm’s children had to point it out to him. 

Yet he didn’t lose hope. And during the early 1930s, after Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party had several electoral successes, Wilhelm briefly hoped they would restore the monarchy. In 1931 and 1932 Hermann Göring even visited Huis Doorn to discuss these matters. Although as time progressed, it became apparent this was just a simple ploy by the Nazis to gain the monarchist voters sympathies. After the electoral victory by the Nazis in 1933 and the subsequent descent of Germany into a totalitarian state, any hopes of a renewed monarchy vanished. As for Wilhelm, his epiphany that Hitler would not be the key to the restoration of House Hohenzollern was when the Nazi leader ordered all festivities in Germany to celebrate Wilhelm’s 75th birthday to be halted. Still, within Wilhelm’s family, there were conflicting views about the Nazi party.

Prince August Wilhelm ‘Auwi’

Wilhelm’s oldest son, Crown prince Wilhelm had commanded an army corps during the First World War. He openly collaborated with the Nazis until he, just like his father, realised they would not reinstate the monarchy. Prince Eitel Friedrich was an opponent of Hitler, just like Prince Oskar. Yet Prince August Wilhelm endearingly referred to as Auwi, didn’t just join the Sturmabteilung in 1928. He willingly participated in Nazi propaganda and went out to canvas for votes. He was a member of the Reichstag, the parliament, and an official within the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the party.

In May 1940 the Germans invaded the Netherlands. The British offered Wilhelm refuge, but he refused and stayed in Huis Doorn. He didn’t want to run away a second time. Although by this point Wilhelm detested the Nazis and Hitler personally, he did send Hitler a congratulatory telegram in June 1940 following the German successes in France. According to some historians, this was more the doing of his wife, Hermine, who wanted to secure the position of German nobility under the Nazi regime. Hitler supposedly cried out ‘What an idiot’ when he received the telegram, and for the rest of the war Huis Doorn was locked up from the outside world by the Geheime Feldpolizei. The former German emperor became a prisoner of the new German regime, on Dutch territory. To the Dutch government in exile this telegram was a betrayal, and it’s the reason they expropriated Huis Doorn after the war. 

Funeral of Wilhelm II

Wilhelm himself wouldn’t be around for the takeover, however. At 82 years-old yet being known for his physical health, his death came as a surprise to nearly everyone. On March 1st, 1941 he became unwell while sawing wood. His children quickly travelled to Huis Doorn, and after recovering for two months it seemed like all was going well again. All of them, except his daughter Victoria Louise left in May. Yet, on June 3rd, breathing problems befell Wilhelm. That day his condition rapidly deteriorated and he lost consciousness that evening, never to wake up again. On the morning of June 4th, surrounded by his daughter, his wife Hermine and his trusty aide Sigurd von Ilsemann the old former-emperor passed away, from what turned out to be a pulmonary embolism.

The funeral ceremony took place in the Netherlands under German occupation. His family and Nazi representatives took part, among them Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reichskommissar of the Netherlands. But also Wehrmacht Generals and generals of the former imperial army, such as August von Mackensen, the ‘last Hussar’, aged 91 at that point. He attended in full imperial uniform, instead of customary newly designed Nazi uniforms. One of Wilhelm’s last requests was that no swastika be displayed at his funeral, a wish that ended up being violated. The wreath Hitler sent to the funeral displayed large swastikas. 

Wilhelm’s body is still interred in the Mausoleum he designed himself, on the estate of Huis Doorn. His last wish was that his body be transferred to Germany once it becomes a monarchy again. As of today, I highly doubt there is fruitful ground for a German monarchy. As such, the last German Emperor will remain on Dutch territory for the next foreseeable future, if not forever.

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