SCANDALS: A Prince in Dutch

  • Share
  • Read Later

"You can ask me to be cynical about lots of things, but not about the monarchy," said a student in Amsterdam. The vast majority of the Dutch press and public last week embraced the Prime Minister's advice to consider Prince Bernhard innocent until proved guilty. That generosity of judgment was partly self-interested: the toppling of national idols is always painful, and the Dutch understandably prefer their princes upright. Their open-mindedness was also a gesture of gratitude to the German-born prince, who in cool and timeless service to The Netherlands had transformed his adopted countrymen's initial wariness about his origins into almost universal esteem.

Born heir to the pocket principality of Lippe-Biesterfeld in 1911, Prince Bernhard Leopold Frederik Everhard Julius Coert Karel Godfried Pieter spent a carefree childhood riding horses, hunting and fishing on a family estate in eastern Germany. After what he calls "a fairly perfunctory" university education in Switzerland and Germany, the prince studied law at the University of Berlin where, like all German students, he was forced to become a member of the Hitler Youth Movement. Severing all connection with the Nazi Party, Bernhard, after his graduation in 1935, took a job in the Paris office of I.G. Farben, the German chemical cartel. While attending the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, the prince met and charmed the plain but sweet-tempered Princess Juliana, Queen Wilhelmina's only child and the heir to the Dutch throne. Renouncing his German citizenship, Bernhard married Juliana the following year and took the title Prince of The Netherlands, rejecting the traditional term prince consort which, he complained, was "the utmost in male abominations."

Dutch grumbling about Bernhard's German background subsided during World War II. Princess Juliana went to Canada when Germany occupied The Netherlands, but Bernhard stayed in London to serve as a top adviser to Queen Wilhelmina and her government in exile. After earning his fighter-pilot wings with the R.A.F., he organized a Dutch air squadron in 1942; two years later he became commander of the Dutch infantry brigades, including the vast underground army that fought with the Allies to liberate Holland.

After the war, the by now tremendously popular "fighting prince" transformed himself into an immensely useful "salesman prince." He joined the boards of several companies, including KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Hoogovens Steel and Fokker Aircraft, and began a new career as globetrotting good-will ambassador and ardent promoter of Dutch exports. Former Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek called him "the best commercial traveler I've ever met—and in Brazil we meet them all."

The peripatetic prince now serves on more than 300 boards and committees. He was one of the moving spirits in setting up the Bilderberg Conference, an annual off-the-record dialogue among influential Europeans, which has been running more than 20 years. Although an avid hunter, the prince is also the energetic president of the World Wildlife Fund, which is devoted to the preservation of endangered species.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2