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Hermine: An Exiled Empress

hermine wilhelm
(public domain)

Hermine Reuss of Greiz was born on 17 December 1887 as the fifth child and fourth daughter of Heinrich XXII, Prince Reuss of Greiz, and Princess Ida Mathilde Adelheid of Schaumburg-Lippe. Her elder brother had been injured during a childhood surgery, leaving him mentally and physically disabled. Her parents had been praying for a boy, but they would not have another son. Her mother gave birth to a namesake daughter in 1891 and died shortly after of complications. Her heartbroken father never married again.

The death of her mother and the disability of her brother cast a long shadow over her childhood. Hermine was especially close to her elder sister Caroline, who would later briefly become Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. The sisters were not close with their brother as his disability made it difficult to communicate with him. The family spent the winters at their father’s residence in Greiz and the summers in the hunting lodge near Greiz. Summer vacations were spent in Castle Burgk on the Saale and Hermine was especially fond of Burgk.

At the age of 14, Hermine lost her father as well. He had come back to Reuss in March against the advice of his doctors, who knew that it would be bad for his health. With his last bit of strength, he managed to visit the grave of Princess Ida, before dying on 19 April 1902. Although her brother officially became the reigning Prince Reuss of Greiz, Heinrich XIV, Prince Reuss Younger Line served as regent for him.

Hermine had a fascination for her future second husband, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, from an early age. It was her aunt Princess Marie Reuss of Greiz, who had married Count Friedrich of Ysenburg and Büdingen in 1875, who often came to visit and brought her niece photos and postcards of the man she idolised. “Ever since I was a child, the Emperor inspired my imagination. My aunt, who knew of my enthusiasm, helped to make my heart beat faster.” She actually met him for the first time at the wedding of her sister Caroline to Wilhelm Ernst, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar on 30 April 1903 at Bückeburg Palace. Hermine was just 15 years old at the time and her sister only 19. “How could he have foreseen that this blushing little girl was his future wife? I stood there, frozen on the spot where the Emperor had received my greeting. The Emperor went on and chatted with my uncle.” Just two weeks later Hermine’s eldest sister Emma married Count Erich Kunigl von Ehrenburg.

Caroline’s marriage was destined to be unhappy and brief. Caroline was so miserable that she barely ate, choosing to nibble on chocolates, almonds and petit fours when she did. She had also taken up smoking. Caroline died on 17 January 1905, just 20 years old. The cause of death was influenza. Hermine later wrote, “In her heart of hearts, she did not wish to live.” In 1904, Emma married Freiherr Ferdinand von Gnagnoni, leaving just Hermine and Ida unmarried. She was taken under the wings of Louise of Prussia, the Grand Duchess of Baden and the aunt of the future Wilhelm II. On 11 December 1906, Hermine married Prince Johann Georg of Schönaich-Carolath, a lieutenant colonel in the Second Regiment of the Dragoons in Berlin. They would spend the winters in an apartment in Berlin, while they spent the summers in Silesia at Castle Saabor with her parents-in-law.

They would have five children together: Hans Georg (born 1907), Georg Wilhelm (born 1909), Hermine Caroline (born 1910), Ferdinand Johann (born 1913) and finally Henriette (born 1918). Johann Georg suffered from tuberculosis throughout much of their marriage. He served in the First World War until he was unable to carry on. The end of the First World saw not only Emperor Wilhelm II abdicate but also her brother’s regent. Prince Johann Georg died on 6 April 1920 in the Wölfelsgrund sanitorium. He had spent the last eight months of his life in a wheelchair. Hermine was determined never to marry again, writing, “I was strongly determined to never to marry again, never to surrender the precious right to be the master of my soul.”

All of that would change in 1922 when her young son Georg Wilhelm wrote to the Emperor in his exile in the Netherlands. Soon Hermine found herself and her children invited to House Doorn in the Netherlands.

Hermine decided to go see the Emperor alone, and he later wrote of their first meeting, “When I saw her, I was immediately profoundly stirred. I was fascinated. I instantly recognised that she was my mate.” Just a few days into the visit, he proposed to her. Hermine realised that she would not be able to bring all her children to live here and that her life would be severely limited by his exile.

Nevertheless, her heart said yes. She reserved the right to spend time in Germany, where the Emperor was not allowed to go by the authorities, and three of her children would stay with her. The Emperor later wrote to his friend Maximilian Egon II, Prince of Fürstenberg, “So I have found a woman’s heart, after all, a German princess, an adorable, clever young widow has decided to bring sunshine into my lonely house & to help share my solitude and make it beautiful with her warm, devoted love. Peace and happiness have taken possession of my torn, tormented heart now that she has given me her hand… My happiness knows no bounds.”

They were married on 5 November 1922 at Doorn. Still, his family was not at all happy, and the Emperor angrily wrote,  “The Crown Princess is obviously furious that she is being set aside, she wanted to play the role of Empress herself.” His daughter Viktoria Luise wrote, “The fact that this woman came to Doorn with the idea of marrying the Emperor, whom she barely knew, is bad enough. Papa does not know what he is doing. His new wife will soon tire of him, of the life in Doorn and leave him.” Several family members were absent from the wedding. Still, it went ahead as usual with the Emperor’s brother Heinrich toasting, “I drink to the health of his Majesty the Emperor and King and of Her Majesty the Empress and Queen.”

Life with the Emperor in exile was one of routine. He was often outside chopping down trees, but he found joy in the presence of Hermine’s young daughter Henriette, whom he lovingly referred to as “the General.” But as expected by many, Hermine soon felt unhappy and restless. She often travelled to Silesia to care for her first husband’s estates, and when she was in Berlin, she was given the use of apartments in the Old Palace. Perhaps Hermine had fervently hoped for a restoration of the monarchy, and as Adolf Hitler rose in power, she found herself latching onto the new regime in order to lobby for it. Hermann Göring visited the exiled couple twice at Doorn and Hermine met with Adolf Hitler himself several times while in Berlin. The Emperor wrote to his aide-de-camp, “My return to the throne can not happen fast enough for her, but we won’t get there with her way. She follows the Nazis and does all she can in Berlin, and in writing from here, which does more damage than good.”

As the Second World War approached, Hermine and the Emperor suddenly found themselves in the middle of a war zone. Even a British offer of asylum could not sway him, and the Emperor said he “would rather be shot in Holland than flee to England. He had no desire to be photographed beside Churchill.” On 14 May 1940, the first German troops appeared, and the Emperor welcomed them with open arms. Hermine wrote, “The first German soldier in front of the steps to the house was such an incredible relief that I cannot find words to describe it. I shall never forget the expression on the Kaiser’s face as he stood on the steps together with the commanding officer of a regiment – suddenly he was 30 years younger.”

On 4 June 1941, the Emperor died at House Doorn at the age of 82. He did not wish to be buried in Germany without the return of the monarchy, and so he was buried on the grounds of House Doorn. Adolf Hitler’s plans for a state funeral did not go ahead. Hermine wore a heavy black veil. After the funeral, Hermine decided to return to Silesia. Her last visit to Doorn would be in 1944. In 1945, she was ordered to evacuate, and she was tricked into going to Berlin. She was arrested and taken to Frankfurt an der Oder, where she would spend her last years under house arrest in the Russian zone.

On 5 August 1947, Hermine began to feel tired, and a doctor diagnosed purulent tonsillitis. By 7 August, Hermine’s neck was so swollen that she was no longer able to eat and drink. Breathing suddenly became very hard, and when the doctor finally arrived, there was very little he could do. She died later that same day of a heart attack. Hermine’s will was clear – she wanted her body to be returned to Doorn to be buried beside the Emperor. Unfortunately, this never happened and she was eventually interred in the Antique Temple in Potsdam, alongside the Emperor’s first wife, Auguste Viktoria.

The book Hermine: An Empress in Exile will be released on 11 December 2020 (UK) and 1 January 2021 (US).