The region stretching from Utrecht to the German border used to be one of the favorite holiday areas for the Dutch upper class. Covered with forests and somewhat hilly, it boasts countless country estates, from small villas to real castles, surrounded by large parks. Few people still remember that between 1918 and 1941 the area was the home of one of the most controversial personalities of the 20st century. Two of the region’s estates, Kasteel Amerongen and Huis Doorn, hosted for 20 years the former German Emperor Wilhelm II, exiled there at the end of the First World War.
The 10th of November 1918 must have started as a normal day. While the war had been ravaging Europe for four years, the Netherlands had managed to stay neutral. Except food shortages and economic difficulties, the country had passed through that terrible period with little damage. That morning however, the Dutch government received an unexpected request: the German emperor with his entourage was at the Dutch border, requesting asylum in the Netherlands. The war was about to end.
Apparently the request was received with great surprise, and the Dutch government had a long debate to decide how to respond it. Eventually, the former emperor was allowed to enter the country. He would live here for the next two decades, despite British requests that he should be extradited to be put to trial as a war criminal. A former official close to the Dutch court was asked to host Wilhelm for a few days at his residence in Amerongen. Eventually, he stayed at the Amerongen castle almost two years. In 1920 he moved nearby to Huis Doorn, an 18th century manor he decorated with the furniture and works of art he was allowed to take with him at his departure from Germany.
The two locations are open for visitors nowadays, and they present a perfect picture of life in the countryside for the upper class as it was 100 years ago. Moreover, they allow guests to get acquainted with a man who influenced greatly the destiny of Europe until today.
A grandson of the British queen Victoria through his mother, Wilhelm II was related to most of the European royal families due to the game of dynastic alliances. He had a difficult personality, an was seen by most of his relatives as arrogant. Very fond of the army, he tried to pose in martial postures during most of his public appearances. His attitude was often considered reckless in the strictly regulated world of international politics. It would cause much damage to German image abroad in his 30 years’ reign.
During his lifetime, Germany had grown from a patchwork of small princely states into a unified empire, the largest and most powerful country in continental Europe. The unification had been achieved swiftly due to the diplomatic and military skills of the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, after a series of short but decisive wars with Denmark, Austria and France. When Wilhelm was crowned as emperor in 1888, this age of the founders was over. German foreign politics was oriented towards maintaining a delicate balance of power with the other European states, in order to preserve the country’s unity and position on the continent.
With his aggressive behavior, the young emperor managed to destroy this fragile balance of power. He dismissed Otto von Bismarck and decided to coordinate himself German foreign politics. Claiming that his country deserved a better “place in the sun”, he managed through his statements and actions to turn against him public opinion in most European countries. A series of diplomatic crises convinced Russian and French political leaders that their countries were the future targets for German militarism. Even more damaging, he insisted on developing a strong German fleet, an act that was seen as hostile by British leaders. In 20 years, he became one of the most detested and ridiculed European personalities.
In 1914, the political tensions accumulating over several decades exploded into open war. It is clear now that the war was not only Wilhelm’s fault, and his aggressive foreign policies had the support of most of the German establishment. However, a more conciliatory attitude might have defused the crisis and avoid what turned out to be the suicide of Europe. During the war, Wilhelm played a limited role. Most military and political decisions were taken by his generals, while he traveled throughout the empire encouraging his soldiers and presiding over military ceremonies. However, he still had some influence in appointing military and political leaders, and he never hesitated to support the war effort. In 1918, when German defeat became obvious, revolutions broke out in the cities of the empire and the emperor was forced to leave.
He would spend the last two decades of his life in a comfortable exile in the Netherlands, only a few kilometers from the German border. He was permanently guarded by the Dutch military police (partly for his own safety) and was not allowed to travel far from his home without permission. Since he felt that demanding permission was demeaning for his rank, he stayed most of the time in Doorn, and had a very discreet public life. He spent his time writing his memoirs, discussing world news with his entourage, receiving private guests and hunting or chopping wood as exercise. He never gave up hope that his family would regain the German throne one day, even after the Nazis took power. He lived long enough to see the initial German victories in the second world war, and congratulated Hitler for having used “his” army so well. Wilhelm died in 1941 and was buried in Doorn, since he had vowed he would not return to Germany before monarchy was restored.
After 1945, Huis Doorn was confiscated by the Dutch government as war reparation, and it was soon turned into a museum, so it preserves perfectly the atmosphere it had during Wilhelm’s lifetime. A few decades later, also Huis Amerongen was turned into a museum by its last owner. The two residences are accessible by public transport and they are only a few kilometers from each other, so they can be visited easily in the same day. A perfect Sunday afternoon in the countryside, and a great opportunity to learn more about European history : )
See below the sites for the two museums: