It's often forgotten that the Kaiser who dragged millions of people into the First World War had a controversial second wife.
Who Was Hermine Reuss of Greiz?
How did Hermine Reuss of Greiz, a 34-year-old widow with five children find herself married to the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II and addressed as empress and queen?
Hermine was born in Greiz in the Principality of Reuss-Greiz, part of the German Empire, on the 17th December 1887. She was the fifth child and fourth daughter of Heinrich XXII, Reuss of Greiz and his wife Ida Mathilde Adelheid of Schaumberg-Lippe.
When her mother died in 1891, four-year-old Hermine was sent to live with Princess Louise of Baden, Kaiser Wilhelm I’s daughter, and her husband Prince Friedrich. In 1902, Hermine’s father died and her eldest brother Heinrich (XXIV) became ruler of Reuss-Greiz.
Hermine's First Marriage
On the 7th January 1907, Hermine was married to Prince Johann of Schonaich-Carolath and there were five children from this marriage born between 1907 and 1918: Hans, Georg Wilhelm, Hermine, Ferdinand and Henriette. Johann passed away in 1920 after a battle with tuberculosis.
That same year, her brother’s principality was subsumed into the new state of Thuringia in the German Reich, later commonly referred to as the Weimar Republic. In 1927, with his death, the House Reuss of Greiz ceased to exist in the elder line and continued with their cousins, the Reuss Younger line.
Kaiser Wilhelm II's Exile at Huis Doorn
Kaiser Wilhelm II, the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria, is remembered as the megalomaniac king emperor who initiated the First World War and was subsequently forced to abdicate and live in exile in the Netherlands.
Discarded by Germany, he settled begrudgingly behind barbed wire fences with Dutch guards at a modest country estate called Huis Doorn in the Netherlands. He was permitted his income from German property investments and so lived in comfortable financial circumstances.
He was banned from participating in any political activities but he wanted the monarchy restored and his throne back which visitors to his home never doubted. Hunting, archaeology, cutting down trees and writing memoirs that reconstructed events to absolve him of blame preoccupied him. His wife of 40 years “Dona” or Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg died at Huis Doorn in April 1921 just months after one of their sons, Joachim, committed suicide.
A Birthday Card That Changed History
On Wilhelm’s sixty third birthday, the 27th January 1922, he received a card from Prince Georg Wilhelm of Schonaich-Carolath. Wilhelm invited Georg Wilhelm and his recently widowed mother Princess Hermine, who he had not seen for nine years, to Huis Doorn for a visit. Hermine did not want Georg Wilhelm’s schooling interrupted so she went without him.
Wilhelm was enchanted by Hermine and found that they had a lot in common, ardent antisemitism included, and within days he was determined that she would become his second wife. Wilhelm and Hermine were fourth cousins once removed and also fifth cousins thanks to intermarriages between German dynasties. Both of them traced their ancestry back to King George II of Britain, the Elector of Hanover.
Empress and Queen in Name Only
Wilhelm and Hermine were married on the 5th November 1922. His family and the majority of German royalists were against the union, citing the 30 year age difference and the love still felt for Dona as impediments to approval and the restoration of the monarchy in Germany. Hermine, as wife of the former Kaiser who still used his styles and titles, was called Her Imperial Majesty, the German Empress, Queen of Prussia.
It was claimed by Wilhelm’s physician Alfred Haehner that Hermine only agreed to marry Wilhelm on the understanding that she would one day be the empress and queen in Germany. The physician believed that as time passed and it became clear that holding power in her homeland was virtually impossible, she grew bitter and dissatisfied with a life in exile. Haehner claimed that even before the couple’s first wedding anniversary she was heard to complain frequently that Wilhelm did not like her or treat her well.
In the Shadow of Kaiserin Dona
Hermine ran Huis Doorn, organised charitable ventures, raised sums for good causes, and numerous guests graced the couple’s home. She behaved much as a German empress would, albeit within the restrictions that the Dutch government and guards stipulated.
Wilhelm enforced a rule in their home. Rather like his grandmother had done when Prince Albert died in 1861, Wilhelm had left Dona’s rooms untouched and as a shrine to her memory so he did not permit Hermine to use these rooms at Huis Doorn. Wilhelm wrote to a friend that the respect he showed Dona was a tie that bound him to Hermine and was not seen as a divisive measure.
Henriette, Hermine’s youngest daughter, lived with Wilhelm and Hermine but Wilhelm did not interfere in her other children’s lives. Henriette was affectionately called “the General” by Wilhelm and she married his grandson Prince Karl Franz of Prussia (through Prince Joachim) in 1940. They divorced in 1946.
Anti-Semitic and Supporters of Adolf Hitler
Although Wilhelm was not allowed to participate in politics, Hermine happily canvassed the opinions of politicians and monarchists, championed the Nazi party as its influence grew in Germany, received eminent Nazi Hermann Goerring as a guest at Huis Doorn and hinted to all factions that her husband was ready to rule again in Hitler’s Germany. Wilhelm did not care for Hitler’s atheism but, as he blamed the Jews for his abdication, he and Hermine shared and endorsed Hitler’s antisemitism.
Hitler had no intention of restoring the monarchy but he kept the pretense of the possibility to maintain the couple’s support. Hermine was Wilhelm’s constant companion until his 1941 death. He was buried at Huis Doorn. Germany did not want him, dead or alive.
She experienced heartache in 1927 when she lost her second son Georg Wilhelm, and in 1943 her eldest son Hans was killed on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
The Cost of Courting the Nazi Party
She retired to one of her first husband’s German properties in Lower Silesia but in early 1945 she was forced to flee from advancing Russian Red Army forces to the sanctuary of her sister’s home in Thuringia. At the conclusion of the war, she was held under house arrest by the Red Army in her apartment in Frankfurt on the Odor before being imprisoned in the Paulinenhof Internment Camp.
Aged 59 on the 7th August 1947, she died from a heart attack whilst still in the camp. As with Wilhelm’s first wife, Hermine was buried in the Antique Temple at Sansoucci Park, Potsdam which fell in to post war Eastern Germany.
She is frequently overlooked in history. Whilst she had a modicum of power she used it eagerly but on futile endeavours. Her remaining son Ferdinand and her daughters Hermine and Henriette survived her.
- Hermine Reuss of Greiz - An Empress in Exile (Part one) - History of Royal Women
- Empress Hermine's descendants - History of Royal Women
- Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz, German Empress, Queen of Prussia | Unofficial Royalty
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Joanne Hayle