Queen Wilhelmina Helena Pauline Orange-Nassau (August 31, 1880 – November 28, 1962) was Queen of the Netherlands from 1890 to 1948.
She was the daughter of King William III and his second wife Queen Emma. Her childhood was characterized by a close relationship with her parents, especially with her father who was already 63 years of age when she was born.
King William III died on November 23, 1890 and a special law had to be passed to allow a female to ascend to the throne. However, according to the Dutch Constitution, her mother Emma became Regent for the young Wilhelmina until her 18th birthday.
On August 31, 1898, Wilhelmina was crowned in the New Church in Amsterdam. Although viewed as queen in a constitutional monarchy she in fact had absolute veto power over any legislation, appointed each member of the Council of State, and could alone dissolve the States-General. Tactful, and careful to operate within the limitations of what was expected by the Dutch people and their elected representatives, a strong-willed Wilhelmina became a forceful personality who spoke and acted her mind.
At the age of twenty, and only two years after being made Queen, she gained international stature when she ordered a Dutch warship to defy a British blockade of South Africa and rescue Paul Kruger, the embattled President of the Transvaal. For this, she earned the disdain of the men running the world at the time, but the respect and admiration of most everyone else.
In 1901, Wilhelmina married Prince Hendrik, Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. A playboy and a drunkard who is reported to have had several illegitimate children, the marriage was an unhappy one that did little more than meet its obligation by producing an heir.
The birth of their only child, Juliana, on April 30, 1909, was considered a miracle. All over Holland, spontaneous celebrations took place. A devoted mother, Queen Wilhelmina adored her daughter and spent hours playing with her. She would dress the child herself and look after her personal needs rather than having a maid do everything. The Queen taught her daughter the Protestant Bible, and about every inch of her small country. As a result, she and her daughter would have a strong bond for life.
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, a young Wilhelmina visited the powerful Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany who boasted to the child-Queen of a tiny country that “my guards are seven feet tall and yours are only shoulder high to them.” Wilhelmina smiled politely and replied: “Quite true, Your Majesty, your guards are seven feet tall. But when we open our dikes, the water is ten feet deep!” After World War I, the Kaiser would beg Wilhelmina for asylum in her tiny country.
In addition to her strong will, Queen Wilhelmina had a keen understanding of business matters and her shrewd investments would make her the wealthiest woman in the world and the first woman to ever accumulate a net worth in excess of a billion dollars. Her investments extended to the United States and to the oil wells in the Indies.
Wilhelmina would go on to become one of the most influential Dutch monarchs since the days of William I of the Netherlands. During her time, oil would become a major source of wealth, power, and war. She would invest in oil, and today the Dutch Royal Family is the single largest shareholder of Royal Dutch Shell. She sided with England and the United States over the annexation of Mexican oil properties and, taking a strong stand, embroiled her country in a dispute with Venezuela over the West Indies.
As a nineteen-year-old Queen, she offered the world one of her Royal Palaces at The Hague as a place where countries could come to settle their differences through peaceful arbitration, rather than war. This idea was the foundation of the International Court of the Hague. Wilhelmina’s work to prevent World War I is recognized as a brilliant effort that, had other leaders been of equal intellect, might have avoided the ensuing costly disaster.
While she helped keep Holland neutral during the first great war, sizeable German investments in the Dutch economy combined with a large trading partnership in goods, forced England to blockade the Dutch ports in an attempt to weaken Germany.
Civil unrest, spurred by the Bolshevik revolt in Russia in 1917, gripped Holland after the war. A proclamation by the Queen helped settle things down when the problems of the disparity between rich and poor began to be addressed. Hospitals and new housing for the poor were built along with the introduction of wage and working regulations that curbed exploitation. Engineers reclaimed vast amounts of land that had been underwater by building the Zuiderzee. Under Wilhelmina and a progressive government, the Netherlands began to emerge as an industrial powerhouse.
On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands and Queen Wilhelmina and her family had to flee to England. With no real army or the weapons to even attempt a defense against the powerful German onslaught, the country surrendered on May 14, 1940. In England, Queen Wilhelmina took charge of the Dutch government, setting up a chain of command and immediately communicating a message to her people.
Like Winston Churchill, Queen Wilhelmina broadcast messages to the Dutch people over Radio Orange. As always, the Queen pulled no punches, calling Adolf Hitler “the archenemy of mankind.” Her late night broadcasts were eagerly awaited by her people who had to hide in order to illegally listen to them under penalty of death.
During the more than four years of German occupation, the Queen was a symbol of hope for the Dutch people. They wore lockets with a picture of Wilhelmina, and in their gardens, defiant “orange” flowers began to appear. Men and women, of which more than 240,000 were murdered, risked being executed for thousands of acts of resistance against the Germans. German rule called for the all food to go to the German army first. The Dutch people starved, many executed for doing nothing more than eating an egg from their own henhouse.
During the war, the Queen was almost killed by a German bomb that took the life of several of her guards and severly damaged her country home near South Mimms, England.
When Hitler was defeated, Queen Wilhelmina was the inspiration for rebuilding a devastated country. Outraged that the German High Command had occupied her Loo Palace, she intended to burn it to the ground rather than live in a place the hated Nazis had used to cruelly rule over her people. Common sense prevailed and the palace was spared her wrath.
Immediately though, Queen Wilhelmina began riding a bicycle around the devastated countryside to motivate the people, oftentimes walking through mud up to her ankles to talk to displaced people in need of help. Greeted by cheering crowds who poured out their affection for their symbol of national identity, Queen Wilhelmina employed her keen business eye, using her bicycle trips to also check on government reconstruction projects. The country suffered as a result of destroyed infrastructure and although she remained enormously wealthy, the Queen never turned on the heat or electricity in her Palace so long as her own people were doing without.
While the country began to recover, the 1947 revolt in the oil-rich Dutch East Indies would see sharp criticism of the Queen by the Netherlands economic elite. After fifty years as Queen, on September 4, 1948 Wilhelmina abdicated in favour of her daughter Juliana. After her reign, the influence of the Dutch monarchy began to decline but the country’s love of their royal family would continue.
No longer Queen, Wilhelmina retreated to the Het Oude Loo Palace, making few public appearances until 1953 when the country was devastated by floods. Once again she traveled about, this time the 73-year-old grandmother used a car instead of a bicycle to encourage and motivate her people. Still working tirelessly on her investments, in the world of business, even at her advanced age she thrived, meeting and dealing with economic powerhouses at the time such as the American Mellons of Pennsylvania and the European Rothschilds.
During her last years she wrote her autobiography titled: “Lonely but Not Alone.”
Queen Wilhelmina died at the age of 82 on November 28, 1962 and is buried in the vault of the Dutch Royal Family at Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), Delft, Netherlands.