Queen's father a creature of his own myths
A new biography of the late Dutch prince Bernhard, the current queen’s father, reveals more of his Nazi past.
Prince Bernhard zur Lippe-Biesterfeld (1911 – 2004) was the father to the Dutch queen Beatrix, a hero for the Dutch resistance against the German occupation during the second world war, and a member of the Nazi party. In a new biographical dissertation published on Monday, journalist and historian Annejet van der Zijl reveals a lot of unflattering information about this man who, even after his death, continues to inspire strong emotions.
Van der Zijl draws harder conclusions about his behaviour than other biographers before her. She writes that Bernhard’s lifestyle and the “myths” he created around his own person have done “permanent damage to the integrity of the monarchy”. She dubs him “a failure” in the history of the Dutch royal family.
In spite of his German blood, prince Bernhard was seen as a hero of the Dutch resistance against the German occupation of 1940 - 1945. But his life was also mired in controversy. In 1976, the prince was stripped of his military titles after allegations of accepting bribes from the American aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed, which was then trying to sell its planes to the Dutch military. In an interview that was published after his death, he admitted to having two illegitimate children, next to the four daughters he fathered with the late Dutch queen Juliana.
Saviour or failure?
Prince Bernhard’s marriage to Juliana, who ruled the Netherlands from 1948 till 1980, also remains the subject of frequent debate. The couple spent large parts of their lives effectively, though not publicly, separated. The marriage, and the monarchy, was cast into crisis when the queen befriended a faith healer, Greet Hofmans, in the 1950s. As the time Hofmans spent at the court and her influence on the queen grew, Bernhard increasingly objected to her presence. In 1956, he leaked the story of this ‘Dutch Rasputin’ to the German press, jumpstarting a chain of events that would lead to her removal from the court.
A biography of the couple’s marriage published in 2008 painted a far more flattering picture of Bernhard than Van der Zijl’s new work does. Its author, historian and legal scholar Cees Fasseur believed prince Bernhard had “saved the monarchy” by leaking the story to the press.
Even though Fasseur was a member of her dissertation committee, Van der Zijl comes to an almost opposite conclusion.
Lies and omissions
Van der Zijl, who is famous in the Netherlands for other biographies and works of narrative non-fiction, spent five years studying the early years of Bernhard’s life in Germany. Her dissertation was published under the title Bernhard, a secret history on Monday. According to Van der Zijl, the main question guiding her research: ‘What makes Sammy run?’ was quickly supplemented with a second: ‘What makes Sammy lie?’
Van der Zijl shows that prince Bernhard’s account of ‘facts’ in his life very often differed from reality. For example, he did not tell the (whole) truth concerning his membership of Hitler’s national-socialist organisations. “Bernhard may have later sincerely felt he was not a former Nazi, but he was one,” Van der Zijl writes.
She claims that till now Bernhard has never been placed in his proper historical context. In her dissertation, she describes pre-war Germany, where he grew up, as a place where “anti-Semitism was an everyday, almost unremarkable part of life – certainly with the nobility that classically thought in terms of ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ types of people” .
Prince Bernhard always denied he harboured sympathies for the Nazis, who came to power when he was 21 years old. He admitted to being a (novice) member of national socialist organisations like the German Students Association, but he always insinuated he had been forced into membership because, without it, he would have been unable to pass his exams.
Van der Zijl, however, found a membership card signed by the prince himself on which he reported being a member of the Nazi paramilitary group SA since April 27, 1933. The SA-membership was preceded by an obligatory six month novice membership, which means Bernhard must have applied for membership as early as 1932, a year before the Nazis rose to power, Van der Zijl argues. “At that time in history there was no pressing reason for him to do so,” she writes. She proposed this claim to the head archivist of Berlin’s Humboldt Universität, where Bernhard had studied. “It would be years before […] the nazification of education had progressed so far that political demands were placed on students from the top down,” he told her.
Bernhard lied about other things beside his Nazi involvement, according to Van der Zijl. For example, he omitted crucial facts regarding his athletic abilities. Bernhard, “who loved nothing more than to present himself as a born athlete”, never reported that “his athletic abilities were given a humiliating mangelhaft (lacking) grade” at the high school he attended. Bernhard had also said his parents were so rich he was the only student in Berlin in the 1930s who owned a car,but on his membership card of the German Students’ Association (Deutsche Studentenschaft), Bernhard reported he lacked means of transportation.
Money and social standing
Van der Zijl argues that Bernhard married Juliana not out of love for her, but for his own mother, Armgard. His marriage to Juliana assured Bernhard – and his family – a place in the highest circles. His father had done the opposite and lost social standing by marrying Bernhard’s mother.
Van der Zijl was allowed access to Bernhard’s Zur Lippe family archives. She also spoke to family members, friends and other people who had encountered Bernhard in the first part of his life. According to her, Bernhard himself proved to be one of the most unreliable sources.