Thursday, May 31, 2018

Huis Doorn

If you ever find yourself in the Netherlands near Arnheim...
      … be sure not to miss Huis Doorn (in the town of Utrechtse Heuvelrug), a beautifully sited moated castle first mentioned in1289, though the actual building dates to the eighteenth century. Placid waters, green lawns and venerable shade trees constitute the estate's handsome English-style park, the perfect backdrop for the quaint yet picturesque residence.
      Huis Doorn was rescued from certain obscurity when Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia, chose this small castle, in truth more a manor than a royal dwelling, as his residence-in-exile after Germany’s defeat in 1918. The kaiser was staying at his headquarters in the eponymous Belgian town of Spa when revolution broke out in Kiel and Berlin. With vivid recollections of the fate of his cousin the czar, Wilhelm II deemed it wise to solicit an invitation from Count Godard van Aldenburg-Bentinck to lodge at his château of Amerongen in the neutral Netherlands. After some eighteen uneventful months at Amerongen and not desiring to overstay his welcome, the emperor resigned himself to the task of finding a new, permanent home. Huis Doorn was purchased from Baroness Heemstra de Beaufort to serve as Wilhelm II's Saint-Helena and renovations began in 1920. 

Kaiser Wilhelm II
His wife, Empress Auguste Victoria, still feeling insecure and slightly awkward about the unfortunate abdication business, for which nobody wanted to be blamed, was relieved to occupy herself with furnishing the new imperial and royal household. Naturally, nothing could diminish the couple's chagrin at the loss of 65 castles and palaces scattered about Germany, but the former imperial staff in Berlin cleverly selected and carefully packed 59 freight cars worth of paintings, furniture, objets d'art, tapestries, carpets and personal belongings to help ease their adjustment to newly reduced circumstances. 

The dining room
These highlights of the imperial apparat allowed Auguste Victoria to create a faint but comforting simulacrum of the exceedingly opulent Prussian palaces they had once called home but were forced to flee. In time the little court-in-exile—headed by Wilhelm II, who halfheartedly assumed the rôle of gentleman farmer—fell into a placid routine far removed from any official demands or obligations, a fact rather minded by the emperor and his wife, who were—not unlike the Stuart pretenders ensconced at St-Germain by an obliging Louis XIV—convinced that soon enough, with patience, their countries would see reason and their exile would be recognized as folly and life would return to its normal and natural order. Alas, the royalist press reported, the lingering new order—although temporary—nonetheless broke and finally stilled the empress’ heart (her son Joachim's suicide did nothing to make things better) and her funeral in Potsdam in 1921 was a sombre, belated monarchist triumph.

Empress Auguste Victoria
Devastated, Wilhelm II was obliged to remain at Huis Doorn; he had neither received permission to return to Germany nor was he interested in trodding on republican soil. The spectacular, theatrical outpouring of public grief rekindled the emperor’s hopes of also returning home—but triumphant and alive, of course. This hope too dissipated over time and the tiny court was forced to concede that an immediate restoration was not in the offing and that it would be best to make do with life at Huis Doorn for the time being. Considering Germany's hyper-inflation and the poverty and desperation left in the wake of crushing defeat, court life in Huis Doorn appeared relatively pleasant in comparison, if at times claustrophobic. 

A sitting room

To enliven the daily routine, a new marriage for the widowed emperor was concocted behind the scenes, and like a deus ex machina, young princess Hermine von Schönaich-Carolath appeared one day at the door. Daughter of Heinrich XXII Reuss, she was issue of a former reigning family and thus held the perfect pedigree for the match, having grown up in a tiny though independent princely state, the court of Greiz. Decidedly not beautiful, she nonetheless had interesting features, retainers remarked hopefully. Her youth, her determination, her slightly unconventional manners (notably her shockingly avant-garde views on women’s rights), as well as her erudition brought a spark of life and wit to the aging court upon their marriage in 1922. 

Hermine, Wilhelm II's second wife
 Like the emperor, Hermine was a stickler for etiquette and reveled in court protocol, insisting on being addressed as empress—a presumption that scandalized German monarchists, who believed it dishonored the emperor’s first wife. Clever as she was, Hermine had insisted on a prenuptial agreement assuring her the right to regularly visit her vast properties in Silesia, where she ran her affairs with great knowledge and business acumen. Initially considered a marriage of convenience, the relationship grew to become a great success and for almost twenty years Huis Doorn was a contented home for the last kaiser and his second wife. 

The Emperor's study
Though furnished in the early 1920s, the residence is still redolent of the decorative sensibilities of the Victorian age, most notably its horror vaccui. Wilhelm II was Queen Victoria’s favorite grandson; she died in his arms in London in 1901 and much of his taste was influenced by his many youthful visits to England. The halls, salons and smaller rooms of Huis Doorn are crammed with Prussian heirlooms, heralds of former glory; every wall is covered and desks bow under the weight of picture frames, and despite an undeniable grandeur, the interiors have an almost bourgeois coziness about them reminiscent of certain English country houses. The spirit of its former inhabitants still seems to reign over this small and strangely enchanted and enchanting kingdom.

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