Social history fascinates me, but my knowledge is extremely patchy and I’m not very good at remembering particulars. Nevertheless, sometimes I am astounded by something I discover and this was one of those occasions.

Did you know that Wilhelm II, the last German kaiser, spent the last years of his life in the Netherlands?

Now this is probably where vast number of my peers look at me incredulously and wonder how on earth I have got this far without knowing that because they all learned about it at school, but the fact is, I have never studied any World War I history, except for a tiny bit of background when I was doing A-level German. Our secondary school history department was much more interested in medieval history, then we skipped to the industrial revolution and stopped at about 1830-something. I then did a history minor at university where we went back to the Romans in Britain and got as far as medieval times and that was as modern as it got. I was also brought up on black and white films about the Second World War, but the Great War was largely a blank.

Kaiser Bill was a refugee in the Netherlands

Ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, in exile in the Netherlands Source:

For me, the idea that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany took refuge in the Netherlands after WWI was a complete revelation. When Germany was declared a republic in 1918, Wilhelm was staying at a hotel near the German military HQ in Spa in Belgium, where he had gone in October after his his abdication had been openly discussed in Berlin. Not by him, you understand! In the middle of the night, he decided to board the imperial train and go to the Netherlands. Anticipating trouble, the emperor actually got off the train and travelled the last part to the border by car, arriving at 6am on 10 November 1918 at the border town of Eysden. He was then forced to wait there for twelve hours on the train until the Dutch government decided to offer him refuge.

Even though he always hoped that the monarchy would be reinstated, he came to live in the Netherlands, first for two years at Amerongen Castle, hoping that he would be able to return. When it became obvious that this was not on the cards, he bought and renovated Huis Doorn (Doorn Castle), a mansion surrounded by parkland and forest. Why the Netherlands? Possibly because it was the closest thing to Germany he could find and the allies of the Great War considered him to be a war criminal, with calls for him to be hanged. For the Dutch government, allowing him to live here was a problem because they had a policy of neutrality. This was why it was in their interests to emphasis the fact that Wilhelm was related to the Dutch royal family and he did the same: there is a room in the house with many portraits of joint ancestors. The Dutch Queen, Wilhelmina, was Wilhelm’s cousin and both belonged to the Order of St. John, whose members are sworn to support each other. Nevertheless, she believed that a monarch, deposed or not, should have returned to his own country after the war was over, so refused to meet him in person. In spite of this, her daughter Princess Juliana went to Huis Doorn as a bridesmaid when Wilhelm remarried the much younger Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz.

What was ex-emperor Wilhelm like?

Wilhelm seems to have been impetuous and perhaps hyperactive. When he was still Emperor, he caused diplomatic crises by making impetuous speeches, hence losing much of his support. In fact, he sounds just like the political loose cannon that we see today in foot-in-the-mouth politicians like Donald Trump.

Even though I’ve always known the British royal family had links with Germany, given the two world wars, it still seems odd that the last German emperor, Wilhelm II, or Kaiser Bill as he came to be known in England, was one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons and often visited her at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. In spite of a paralysed left arm due to a traumatic birth, he became a keen sailor and his grandmother appointed him Admiral in the British Navy. In fact, Wilhelm was present at Queen Victoria’s deathbed and she died in his arms as he was helping the doctor to make her comfortable.

Wilhelm II and Hitler

Rather bizarrely, I think (though I certainly don’t know the ins and outs of it), Churchill offered  him refuge when the Netherlands was invaded in 1940, but he turned him down and stayed at Doorn. His reaction to Hitler and the Nazis seems to have been somewhat ambivalent. There is much debate, but it seems he initially hoped Hitler would be willing to restore the monarchy so that he could return to his beloved Germany.  He described the Nazis as “a bunch of shirted gangsters” after Kristallnacht and after Hermann Göring had visited, at the invitation of Wilhelm’s second wife Hermine, he ordered the chair he had been sitting on to be burned, but nobody knows whether it was a protest against the Nazis or anger because they refused to reinstate him as Emperor.

In June 1940, Wilhelm sent a telegram to congratulate Hitler when he invaded France, an act that the Netherlands considered a betrayal so that they confiscated Huis Doorn in 1945 as enemy property.  By this time, Wilhelm was dead and his second wife had returned to Germany.

Once exiled to Doorn, Wilhelm, led the life of an English country gentleman, laying out gardens, hunting and fishing. One of his hobbies and a way to keep fit was to chop down the trees on his estate. He felled an estimated total of 40,000, hence the derogatory nickname, ‘The Woodchopper of Doorn’. This was quite remarkable, considering that his left arm had been paralysed since birth, so had to use the axe one-handedly. Luckily, he also replanted trees. Not only did this bizarre hobby provide firewood for the house, but he also gave blocks of wood away as signed souvenirs, kept the most auspicious tree slices (the 5,000th tree felled, for instance). He also gave firewood to the protestant church (Hervormd) to distribute to needy parishioners.

Throughout his time at Huis Doorn, Wilhelm’s movements were restricted. Not only was the house itself tiny in comparison to his Imperial palace in Potsdam, but if he wanted to travel further than 15 km from Doorn, he was forced to ask for prior permission. He was a proud man and the only time he travelled further was when he travelled to the German border with the body of his beloved first wife, Auguste Victoria, who was buried in the family grave in Berlin.

In an interview with Dutch author and TV presenter Boudewijn Büch in 1998, Dr W. von Ilsemann, the son of Wilhelm’s adjutant. recalls how he was the last godson of the ex-emperor and was christened at Huis Doorn so that Wilhelm could take part in the ceremony. He had childhood memories of Wilhelm as a genial man who was always joking and he used to call him ‘Onkel Kaiser’ (Uncle Emperor).


When Wilhelm died in 1941 in the occupied Netherlands, Hitler allowed him a small military funeral in exile, though he would have preferred to have brought him back to Berlin as a demonstration of the continuity of German history. Nevertheless, Hitler respected the ex-emperor’s wish to never return to Germany unless the monarchy had been restored. On the other hand, Wilhelm’s request that no Nazi insignia should be displayed at his funeral was ignored. Not only did Hitler send an enormous wreath decorated with swastikas, but German uniforms were much in evidence and Reichskommissar for the Occupied Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, gave the Nazi salute during the funeral. Wilhelm was buried in a mausoleum at Huis Doorn, leaving instructions for his body to be reburied in Germany if the monarchy was ever reinstated. German monarchists still visit the mausoleum as a place of pilgrimage.


The Audrey Hepburn connection

Huis Doorn used to belong to Audrey Hepburn’s grandmother, Baroness W.C. van Heemstra-de Beaufort, so Audrey’s mother, Ella van Heemstra, spent much of her childhood there.

Coincidence – an Audrey Hepburn exhibition

The day after I was writing this, the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek (near Arnhem) announced a new exhibition for 2017 about Audrey Hepburn and her mother, Moederliefde: het geheim van Ella & Audrey (Motherly love: the secret of Ella & Audrey), with exhibits on loan from Audrey Hepburn’s sons. The exhibition will focus on the start of Audrey’s career and her mother’s role. It also promises to reveal a family secret which will also be the subject of a novel in Dutch, Het geheim van Audrey H (The secret of Audrey H). The exhibition will be opened on 26 January 2017 by Audrey’s sons and will run until August. It sounds like it’s well worth a visit.

More information / sources:

Wilhelm’s escape (in Dutch):

Interesting documentary on Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany (in English):