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History of the Iron Cross and Order of Louise

After Prussia’s crushing defeat at Jena during the Napoleonic wars, its King issued some drastic military reforms. One of the most crucial reforms was the fact that individual merit was valued much more than social status and whether someone was of noble descent or not. An order by the Prussian King from 1806 encapsulated this sentiment by stating that ‘All social preference is terminated in the military – everyone, whatever his background, has the same duties and same rights.’ One of the ways this sentiment was invigorated was by issuing new military decorations. These decorations were meant for men who distinguished themselves in bravery during wartime, whether a prince, an officer or a soldier. Today we’ll have a look at Prussia’s, and honestly, I’d say one of history’s most popular decorations, namely the Iron Cross and another lesser-known similar decoration: the Order of Louise. 

The Iron Cross

As we have seen in the previous video, after Napoleon defeated the Kingdom of Prussia in 1807, the Prussian King was forced into an alliance with France. When Napoleon’s troops retreated after the terrible Moscow-campaign in 1812, the Prussians saw their chance and switched sides. The Iron Cross was thus issued during the German Wars of Liberation against Napoleon in 1813. The idea behind this new decoration may seem pretty simple but was somewhat unheard of for that time.

Iron Cross 1st Class of the Napoleonic Wars, in its original form of 1 June 1813.

In order to recognise soldiers for their bravery and service to the fatherland, the Iron Cross was the first decoration that was to be awarded to soldiers of every rank. Generals and soldiers could earn the same award, something pretty revolutionary for that time. After all, it encouraged men of whatever class they were from to perform and excel. On March 10th 1813, this small Maltese cross-like medal was introduced. The King’s initials are engraved around the iron, and in the centre, it is adorned with oak leaves. It is said the King designed it himself, although other sources point to the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. All crosses ever issued don engravings of both the year of the campaign and the then-ruling Prussian King’s initials. As such, it became a sort-of self-renewing medal. Different campaigns bore different years in its engraving, and an Iron Cross earned during the Napoleonic Wars bore other initials than an Iron Cross awarded during the First World War. Soldiers wore the cross in the second buttonhole of their tunics. Up until 1838, the undecorated side of the cross faced forward, but after that, it became more acceptable for the engraved side to do so. 

Now, the design of the cross wasn’t completely random. As we have seen, the Teutonic Order colonised Eastern Prussia back in the 11th and 12th century – and the Hohenzollerns had to thank their ancestor Grand Master Albrecht for the hereditary possession of these territories. The Iron Cross was more or less a copy of the cross Teutonic Knights bore back then. Decorations of cast iron were something new during the early 19th century, but it wasn’t purely limited to military decorations. During this period women exchanged their silver and gold jewellery for the so-called Eisenschmuck, or Berlin Iron. The King put it fittingly in 1813 – while the Napoleonic wars were waging on: “It was a “time of iron” where only “iron and determination” would ensure Prussia’s victory.” 

Variations of the Iron Cross (1813-1870)

The King went so far that awarding any other military decorations during the Napoleonic wars were halted. The iron cross thus became a symbol for the era and the German campaign. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Iron Cross was incorporated into all Prussian flags and ensigns. It truly became a Prussian symbol, or rather, it was reemphasised as a symbol. There were three grades of the cross: the Grosskreuz for commanders, and the first and second class for personal courage during battle. The first class could be sewn onto a uniform while the second class could be worn with a black ribbon bar with silver lines.

The history of the Iron Cross saw three great hiatuses. Following the battle of Waterloo where Napoleon suffered his final defeat, the Iron Cross was not to be awarded until after the Franco-Prussian war that unified Germany in 1871. Interestingly enough the Iron Cross was redesigned in 1870 – the backside was unaltered but a crown was added to the side facing forward, including the initial “W”, after the Prussian King (and soon to be German emperor) Wilhelm I. Following the German unification, the cross ended up more or less forgotten again. After all, it was one of the longest periods of peace on the European continent. It was not until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that the decoration was revitalized. 

Iron Cross (World War I)

On August 5th 1914, the new Iron Cross design was made public. It was more or less similar to the 1870 design, aside from the apparent change in date to 1914. An interesting detail is that later during the First World War the materials, iron and silver, used for the cross were often supplemented because of the iron- and silver shortages. Ingredients such as aluminium and silver-paint were used. As the Iron Cross’s popularity pattern isn’t too difficult to follow, following the First World War, the decoration faded to the background. But when it was revamped in 1939 some substantial changes were made.

In 1939 Hitler had risen to power in Germany, and by September that year, Germany invaded Poland, signalling the beginning of the Second World War in the European theatre. As for the Iron Cross, that same month it was expanded to having four grades. The traditional first and second class and Grosskreutz still existed, but another variant was added. This was the Ritterkreuz, or Knight’s Cross variant. This military decoration had a swastika and the corresponding year engraved on it. Throughout the Second World War, multiple additions to the Ritterkreuz were issued. 

Ritterkreuz (1939)

First, the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds was awarded 27 times during the Second World War. 

With Golden Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds

During the final years of the Second World War, the prospects of Germany winning were close to non-existent – and in a desperate last attempt to up the morale, Hitler ordered the issuing of the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. This last award, issued in 1944, was meant for the twelve most distinguished German servicemen once the war had ended. Eventually, just six were manufactured, and only one was awarded; to Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Germany’s legendary ground-attack pilot. Before the others could be manufactured and issued the war had already ended, and the Nazis had lost the war. There’s a photograph online of Hans-Ulrich Rudel displaying his Ritterkreuz with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds in later life. The United States army seized the remaining five sets of rare Knight’s Crosses.

The Luisen-Orden

Alright, so earlier this video I mentioned women and the early 19th-century trend to exchange silver- and gold jewellery to Eisenschmuck, which was basically iron jewellery. Well, in line with this development, in August 1814 the Prussian King introduced a decoration for women, of any background, that had contributed to the Prussian war effort. It was named the Louisen-Orden, or Order of Louise, named after the King’s late wife, greatly loved by the Prussian population and the King himself.

Order of Louise, 1st class.

The King’s wife, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had passed away in 1810, four years before the order was issued. She was incredibly well-loved in Prussia, and although the royal couple had only been married for 13 years before she passed away, the couple had nine children. The love of the Prussians was, among other things, caused by her brave attitude towards Napoleon when he negotiated the cutting-up of Prussia with Tsar Alexander during the Peace of Tilsit in 1807. Perhaps you’ll remember her meeting Napoleon and attempting to convince him to reconsider his treatment of Prussia. 

And it was in her honour the order of Louise was issued, an award in iron-cross shape but with a medallion bearing the “L” in the centre, surrounded by Prussian Blue. Here too the King made sure the decoration could be given to any woman, whatever status she had, as long as she contributed to the Prussian war effort. So both the military decorations issued during the Napoleonic Wars were relatively progressive for their time, since no social classes enlisted in the army were excluded.

  After Napoleon was defeated in 1815, the Order of Louise too was more or less forgotten. It was not until 1865 that King Wilhelm I reinstated it, although there are sources that state the order was handed out after the violent revolutions of 1848 by King Frederick Wilhelm IV. I cannot emphasise this enough, but both the Iron Cross and Order of Luisa were testament of the integral importance of civilians of Prussia contributing to their state’s success. Whether you were a nobleman or not mattered less than it did during Medieval times – in essence, these decorations were the symbol of recognition that any man, rich or poor, noble or peasant, could significantly contribute to the state. That is not to say Prussia itself was an egalitarian society, however. After all, Junkers still dominated large rural parts of the state. There was a sharp distinction between nobility and commoners, but perhaps an even more considerable distinction between the military and civilians in terms of social status.

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The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch nearly ending the Weimar Republic (March, 1920)

After the German Empire lost the First World War and the Kaiser abdicated, the newly established Weimar Republic lingered in an incredibly unstable and chaotic situation. Both the far left and far right rejected parliamentary democracy. It’s a very fascinating time period with many different parties, interests and developments rapidly following each other up. As a matter of fact, I wrote my thesis in university about the democratisation process of the Free State of Prussia, and it was very intriguing to delve into the political machinations developing within that young Weimar Republic. One of the most infamous events must have been the Kapp Putsch. During the night of March 12 1920, an elite paramilitary unit entered Berlin. It aimed to overthrow the democratically elected government and install an autocratic military regime. Surprisingly enough, these paramilitary troops enjoyed support from the actual army and a considerable number of civil servants. For a moment, it looked like the young Weimar Republic already came to an end, before it really had begun. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25109 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

Prelude to the Coup

President of the new Weimar Republic was the Social-Democrat Friedrich Ebert. As interim chancellor following Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication in November 1918, he immediately was confronted with many obstacles and hurdles to establish anything that resembled a stable democracy in the former German Empire. These early events and political developments are essential to understand how the Kapp Putsch eventually came to be. 

The Social-Democratic movement, although the largest party in parliament, itself wasn’t uniform. In December 1918, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschland was established. It was a small splinter party without any mass support, since most German workers didn’t feel much for a communist revolution. Yet there was increasing radicalisation among the left-wing, such as the Independent SPD, a split-off left-wing version of the traditional social democrats. This led to more moderate social democrats such as Ebert, to drift towards the German Reich’s traditional powerhouses such as the army, known as the Reichswehr, judiciary, bureaucracy and the centre- and centre-right parties. 

Now, the Spartakists were a radical split-off group from the left-wing branch of the social democratic party. Their goal was to unleash a communist revolution and establish a government system similar to that of Soviet Russia, through violent means. Ebert was a man of the centre who had an aversion to radical communism just as much as far-right extremism. So considering the fragmentation of the political left, when the communist Spartakist uprising erupted in early January 1919, Ebert resorted to requesting the help of the Reichswehr and Freikorps. Freikorps were paramilitary units consisting of soldiers and veterans that served in the First World War. These paramilitary bands often were far-right reactionary timebombs. They helped to bloodily suppress the communist Spartakist uprising, however. 

Another problem that contributed to the instability of the Weimar Republic was the Treaty of Versailles. One of the Treaty’s demands was that the Reichswehr should be reduced to 100.000 men by 1920. Considering 1919 estimations of soldiers enlisted in the Reichswehr were between 350.000 and 400.000, this would lead to monumental lay-offs from the Reichswehr. And the Allies also demanded that before April 1920 all Freikorps, paramilitary units, should be disbanded. Considering it is estimated at that time Freikorps housed approximately 250.000 veterans and soldiers alike, this could lead to some real problems. The job prospects in the new, unstable republic weren’t exactly promising. As time progressed, the democratic government realised the danger, Freikorpses posed. Although they were useful in suppressing far-left revolts, many politicians started to feel the reactionary sympathies of the Freikorpses were a grave danger to the Weimar Republic as well. As such, something had to be done about them.

The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch

When in February 1920 the Weimar Republic’s Minister of Defence, Gustav Noske, demanded the disbandment of one of the most powerful Freikorps, Marinebrigade Erhardt, trouble broke out. The elite Marinebrigade was named after its commander, Captain Hermann Erhardt. Around 6000-men strong, most of its soldiers had seen combat during the First World War, in the Baltics soon after, and many of them were officers from the former Kaiserliche Marine. Erhardt’s response to Noske’s demand for the dissolution of his Freikorps was that he would under no circumstances even consider it. 

In protest, he staged a military parade through Berlin’s streets without notifying the democratic government on March 1st. The commander of the Reichswehr in Berlin, Walther von Lüttwitz, sided with Erhardt. He outright refused to disband the brigade, claiming it was imperative to combat far-left agitators. During the next week, he demanded the democratic government step down, organise new elections and have himself appointed as commander of the entire Reichswehr. Openly rejecting the democratic government’s authority could lead to nothing else but the resignation of Lüttwitz, which is precisely what president Ebert and Noske demanded. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J0305-0600-003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

Following a meeting between Lüttwitz, Noske and Ebert, the former was dismissed from active service. Still, the democratic government didn’t realise a coup was on its way. Because Lüttwitz, in fact, had already ordered Erhardt to prepare his troops to take over Berlin. He now lobbied for support among nationalist and monarchist parties and persons, such as war hero Erich Ludendorff and the ultra-conservative activist and high-ranking civil servant Wolfgang Kapp and the nationalist DNVP party. Although the DNVP officially did not conspire to overthrow the government, they neglected to inform them about Lüttwitz’s plans. These groups now conspired to overthrow the Weimar Republic’s democratic government and install an authoritarian military regime.

During the whole coup, Kapp’s task was to make sure that to the public it seemed most civil servants supported the coup attempt. He was designated as the Chancellor of the new, illegitimate government. It’s where the events that were about to transpire got its name.

Wolfgang Kapp

On the evening of March 12 1920, Marinebrigade Erhardt marched into Berlin and made their way to occupy government buildings. When Noske requested the Reichswehr put down the coup attempt in the republic’s capital, General Hans von Seeckt refused. He argued that “Reichswehr doesn’t shoot at Reichswehr.” As such, Berlin was relatively easily overtaken by Lüttwitz’s combined troops. And this course of events says a lot about the dubious loyalties of many parties during those early years of the Weimar Republic.

Kapp formed a provisional government, declared himself Reich chancellor, minister-president of Prussia and appointed Lüttwitz as supreme commander-in-chief and Minister of the Army. Meanwhile, in Berlin, democratic politicians fled the city, afraid of being arrested and unable to trust the Reichswehr that was supposed to protect them. In colonnes they drove to Stuttgart, all the while communicating with commanders of the Reichswehr and trade union leaders in desperate attempts to find a way to quash the coup.

From then on negotiations between Lüttwitz, the military, and the legitimate Weimar government ensued. In addition, the legitimate government coalition supported several trade unions that opposed the coup. Soon after the government left Berlin, they issued an official proclamation calling on the German people for a general strike. As a sign of how little popular support the coup enjoyed, massive strikes broke out among not just the working class, but also among civil servants throughout the country. In total 12 million people went on strike during these days. In Berlin daily life ran to a standstill. Gas, light and electricity all cut off. Besides some slight annoyances, this resulted in the coup’s orchestrators resolving to communicate via couriers’ letters instead of telegrams. It was the single largest strike in German history. 

Pamphlet by the legitimate government

It’s rather challenging to understand who did and who did not support the coup. Several Reichswehr and Navy commanders immediately jumped at the opportunity to proclaim their support for the usurpers. There certainly was no military resistance against the Marinebrigade parading through the streets. According to historians Dietrich Orlow and Christopher Clark, large parts of the army, police and civil servants recognised the new government and supported the coup. In East Prussia, for example, the entire bureaucracy recognised the new government. Yet in the west of the country, most commanders and high-ranking civil servants assumed a neutral position, waiting for events to unfold before they chose a side.

Whether the attempt enjoyed support among these groups or not didn’t matter eventually anyway. Because the strikes among the working class and a considerable number of civil servants led to the entire country to be paralyzed. The strikes spread throughout Germany and four days after Erhardt and his troops entered Berlin, the coup was brought to an end by the same people that initiated it. They simply were unable to govern the country. Brokering their resignation, the democratic governing parties promised new elections following the resignation of Kapp and Lüttwitz. 

Both Kapp and Lüttwitz received passports to flee the country from sympathisers in the police force.  Kapp fled to Sweden where he remained for two years. He returned to Germany due to his ill health and was charged with high treason. Yet before his case was brought to court, he passed away in June 1922. Lüttwitz fled to Hungary, and Erhardt went into hiding in Bavaria. Other participants of the coup fled the country. 

Strike against the coup

Ironically, the Kapp Putsch nearly achieved the exact opposite of what it aimed for. Following its failure, left-wing riots broke out, orchestrated by far-left parties that tried to unleash the communist revolution in Germany. These became known as the March-uprisings. The Ruhr Uprising is the best known of these, where nearly 50.000 workers rose up against the Reichswehr and several Freikorps. It resulted in nearly 3000 deaths, a significantly higher number than that during the Kapp Putsch.

In the subsequent June 1920 German federal elections, the Social-Democratic party lost over a third of its seats. The nationalist DNVP and extreme left-wing USPD were the winners of the election. The centre coalition of the Weimar government lost its majority. Two factions emerged: an anti-democratic and pro-republican faction, neither supported by a majority in parliament.

Having his arm twisted in negotiating with the army and giving a lot of concessions, Ebert’s moderate coalition remained heavily dependent on the Reichswehr, which often had anti-democratic sympathies. Under General Hans von Seeckt, later to be appointed as commander-in-chief, the Reichswehr became a ‘state within a state.’ And, well, the Weimar Republic remained an unstable democracy. Although the democratic government received an incredible amount of support from the working classes, which resulted in a popular strike, it cannot be seen as anything but a hopeful development for German democracy. 

Boterman, F. (2011). Moderne geschiedenis van Duitsland: 1800-heden. Singel Uitgeverijen.
Wielenga, F. (1992). Duitsland en de democratie 1871-1990. Boom Koninklijke Uitgevers.
https://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/weimarer-republik/innenpolitik/luettwitz-kapp-putsch-1920.html
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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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The Prussian Scam Artist that Robbed an entire Town

Prussia during the 19th century was an anomaly in the European theatre. By the early 20th century Prussia had managed to unify Germany in the German Empire, with its Kaiser, Wilhelm II at its head. Ingrained in Prussia’s culture was undisguised militarism, including the collective urge to obey army officers. Prussia’s militarism and its population’s docility to the army stand central in today’s story about a poor shoemaker, a petty criminal and scam artist that happened to be born in Tilsit, a city in then-Prussia. Thanks to a well-executed ruse, this man, Wilhelm Voigt, managed to impersonate a Prussian military captain, rally a troop of soldiers behind him and pulled off an extraordinary heist near Berlin which launched him to international fame.

The Prussian Scam Artist

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was born in 1849, Tilsit. Already at the age of 14, Voigt was convicted of petty crime and two weeks of imprisonment. He was expelled from school following the conviction and took up an apprenticeship with his father, a cobbler. According to Christopher Clark, he was convicted six times for theft, robbery, and forgery for which he received a prison-term totalling 25 years. He was released in February 1906, and settled illegally near the Schlesischer Bahnhof railway station, since Berlin authorities would not grant him a residence permit. He spent several months there as a night lodger, sharing his bed with factory workers that worked night shifts. 

Wilhelm Voigt

A bit over half a year after his release, in October 1906, in Western Berlin, Voigt managed to purchase second-hand Prussian military uniform parts from multiple thrift stores. He eventually managed to assemble the uniform of a captain of the First Foot Guards Regiment. On the morning of October 16th Voigt went to the Jungfernheide Park in Berlin and changed clothes into the captain’s uniform. He then made his way to the local military barracks, when he encountered four soldiers and a non-commissioned officer that were on their way back from guard duty at the Plötzensee prison. The officer told his soldiers to stand to attention while Voigt explained to them that he was under direct orders from the King and had to take command of the unit. He dismissed the officer and took the four soldiers with him to the Putlitzstrasse station. On his way there, he managed to get another 6 on-duty soldiers from the nearby rifle range to join his group in order to “carry out the supposed mission of the king.” He led his troops into a train that was bound to Köpenick, a historic town to the south-east of Berlin. On their way there Voigt treated ‘his’ men to beer bought at the station.

In Köpenick the band of soldiers made their way to the council chambers. There Voigt ordered his men to guard the main entrance, entering the building with the rest of his troops. They made their way to the suite administrative offices, the mayor’s workplace. In there were mayor Dr Georg Langerhans and the city’s most senior secretary, Rosenkranz. There, Voigt ordered the arrest of both men. Mayor Langerhans himself had served in the Prussian military as a reserve lieutenant. As such, when he saw Voigts epaulettes displaying his rank, the mayor immediately stood up and did not even consider resisting the arrest. Both the mayor and his secretary were told they were to be escorted to Berlin. Voigt also reached the office of the council police inspector. The inspector was sleeping, after all, this was an incredibly quiet district, and it was a pleasant early-autumn afternoon. Voigt reprimanded the inspector, before making his way to the office of the municipal cashier, von Wildberg.

Moving through the building Voigt arrived at von Wildberg’s office. He ordered him to open the municipality’s safe and give its entire contents to Voigt. Wildberg willingly did so, not even considering resisting a captain. Voigt cashed in 4000 marks and 70 Pfenning, and in turn, handed Wildberg an “official receipt”. Having managed to grab all the money the municipality had, Voigt now ordered his men to take their prisoners to Berlin and report to a military command post there. He himself left as well but disappeared on the way to Köpenick station. Much later Voigt told about what he did afterwards: he got rid of his military clothing, took another train to Berlin and settled in a café across the military outpost, the Neue Wache, he ordered his men to take the prisoners to. There he drank a beer as he watched the entire spectacle of confusion unfold in front of him. He then left the café and was on the run for six weeks before he got captured. He was arrested in December 1906 and received a prison sentence of four years.

Aftermath

Within days Voigt’s exploits launched a real media spectacle. German newspapers wrote about the ‘unheard-of trickster’s exploit’ and ‘a robber’s tale as adventurous and romantic as any novel’. The crime was perceived to be genuinely funny and Voigt’s motives were often elevated to him wanting to prove Prussian ‘militarism’ was dangerous. Berlin newspapers described Voigt as ‘cheeky’ ‘brazen’ ‘clever’ and ‘ingenious’ and for a while, everyone talked about it in taverns, on the street and on trains. Postcards of the ‘captain of Köpenick’ were produced and sold with considerable success. 

Statue of Voigt

International media too wrote about it. The Times reported that an event such as this could only happen in the militaristic German culture. Voigt rapidly became one of the famous fables of modern Prussia. In 1931 Carl Zuckmayr, a German writer and playwright, created the stage play Hauptmann von Köpenick which was later turned into a film which I have used clips of during this video. 

Voigt himself was one of the beneficiaries of his crime as well. He served less than half of his sentence when the German Kaiser and Prussian King, Wilhelm II ordered his release granting him a royal pardon. Within a week he was speaking to crowds in galleries and bars, reminiscing about his crime. Berlin authorities forbade him to make any such appearances and that is when Voigt capitalised on his foreign fame. He made an incredibly successful tour to the Austro-Hungarian empire, visiting Vienna and Budapest. He spoke at nightclubs, restaurants and fairs, talking about his adventure and selling postcards with his face on it. In 1910 he even left Europe to the United States and Canada. Apparently even a wax statue of him was created in London’s Madame Tussaud’s. In 1909 he published his memoirs: How I became the Captain of Köpenick, which earned him enough money to buy a house in Luxemburg, where he settled permanently. He stayed there during the first world war, living relatively comfortably from his book sales and tours. 

Wilhelm Voigt passed away in January 1922 at the age of 72. He started as a petty thief but due to his rather amusing crime, he ended up being an international celebrity for the last years of his life. I certainly think his story is worth telling and really enjoyed reading about him. And not just me, in 1996 the Köpenick municipality even created a statue for him, which stands in front of the council house.