Bernhard - the power behind the throne?

2nd December 2004, Comments 0 comments

Prince Bernhard (1911-2004) was prince-consort of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, but in many ways he acted as though he was the monarch. Cormac Mac Ruairi looks at his legacy.

Prince Bernhard was not renowned for his subtlety, yet he made up for this by his unstoppable urge to enjoy life to the full.

Prince Bernhard ... a love of life and a fresh carnation every day

But that will to live finally succumbed to years of mounting health problems on 1 December 2004. Cancerous tumours eventually got him at the age of 93.

His death heralds the end of the old royal regime which saw the Netherlands through the turmoil of the German occupation during World War II.

The war years and the post-war reconstruction were in many ways Bernhard's finest. But some of his many critics continue to insist the prince wasn't even sure which side he was on during the Netherlands' darkest hours.

Others claimed Bernhard was at the centre of a right-wing conspiracy by industrialists and politicians to dominate the world.

Such was his ability to win friends and offend in equal measure; it will probably take some time for history to give its final judgement on Bernhard's legacy.


To begin with, he was German — a twist of fate that helped colour people's views of him.

He was born in Jena, Germany, in 1911 with a very definite royal spoon in his mouth. The eldest son of Prince Bernhard von Lippe and Baroness Armgard von Sierstorpff-Cramm, his full name was Bernhard Leopold Friedrich Eberhard Julius Kurt Karl Gottfried Peter zu Lippe-Biesterfeld.

At an early age, he learned that few might have been of blue blood, but the ravages of war and revolution can take away some of the privileges of being high-born. His father lost his municipality and the revenues it accorded the family after World War I.

But times were nowhere as bad for his family as they were for millions of other Germans who lived through the hunger, revolution and inflation caused by their country's defeat in 1918.

The young Bernhard was raised on the family's new estates in Eastern Prussia and he was educated at home until the age of 12. Later, he went to a gymnasium school in Berlin before studying law in Switzerland and Berlin.


Although the family had lost its principality, Bernhard enjoyed the life of a jet setting prince to the full. He loved horseback riding, flying, big-game hunting and fast cars. (On his 87th birthday, Bernhard gave himself the latest model of Ferrari.)

He nearly killed himself twice in his youth — once in a boating accident and later in an airplane crash.

Despite his joie de vivre and constant striving for new physical challenges, the young Bernhard also saw himself as a real entrepreneur and a member of the elite.

He was appointed secretary of the Board of Directors of German chemical giant IG Farben. It was a prestigious name at the time, but given the company's association with the Nazis and the Holocaust, his choice of career continued to cloud Bernhard's reputation for years to come.

Political antenna

Several obituary writers have noted that Bernhard's political antenna was often his undoing. As a student in the early days of the Nazi regime, he and some of his fellow students joined the SS.

Bernhard claimed years later that he was totally opposed to the Nazi ideology, but joining the SS enabled them to continue their education. In the months before his death, evidence that Bernhard had also been a member of Hitler's National Socialist NSDAP party hit the newspapers.

In the mid-1930s, fears were brewing of a new war in Europe. The announcement of the engagement between Bernhard and Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands wasn't greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm among the Dutch public.

Bernhard didn't help when he visited Adolf Hitler, who suggested the marriage was a sign of an alliance between the two countries.

Although he was bestowed with Dutch citizenship for the wedding, the prince insensitively briefed an SS officer about the political situation in the Netherlands, inc

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