Hermine Reuss of Greiz was one of the five daughters of Heinrich XXII, Prince Reuss of Greiz and his wife Princess Ida of Schaumburg-Lippe. Her childhood was overshadowed by the death of her mother in childbirth and the incurable disability of her only brother. A 13-year marriage to Prince Johann Georg of Schönaich-Carolath produced five children before her husband’s death of tuberculosis. However determined never to be married again, Hermine ended up meeting the exiled German Emperor Wilhelm II, and soon fate had other plans.
The book Hermine: An Empress in Exile is available now in the UK and in the US.
This article originally appeared as part of the book tour.
On 4 June 1941, Emperor Wilhelm died in his place of exile in the Netherlands. Unwilling to be buried in Germany if it was not a monarchy – he now rests in a mausoleum in the grounds of Huis Doorn. His widow Hermine decided to return to Silesia and only occasionally returned to Doorn to remember Wilhelm. The estate itself had been inherited by Wilhelm’s eldest son Crown Prince Wilhelm and after the war, it would be seized by the Dutch government as hostile property. Her last stay at Doorn would be in January 1944 for what would have been the Emperor’s 85th birthday.
In August 1943, Hermine’s son Prince Hans Georg was killed in action while serving as a captain in the Second German Army. She wrote to J.B. Kan, the liaison between the Hohenzollern and the Dutch government, “My beloved eldest son Hans-Georg I have given to the Fatherland, he fell in Russia, an endlessly heavy loss for me, as you can imagine.” It was the second child she had to bury – having lost her second-eldest son Prince Georg Wilhelm in a motorcycle accident in 1927.
Hermine was still in Silesia in January 1945 when she was ordered to evacuate by the Wehrmacht. Most of her possessions were lost as she fled to Rossla, where her sister Ida lived, but she surrounded by family again. She had her sister, her daughter Caroline Hermine and the young sons of her daughter Henriette with her at Rossla. She was warned of the coming Russian army by her step-son-in-law Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick but she initially refused to believe it. When the Russians came, Hermine was ordered to report to Torgau camp, but she was soon picked up and taken to a residential area on the outskirts of Frankfurt an der Oder, the Paulinenhof. She was kept under house arrest in an abandoned villa. She was allowed to take walks and returned to the habit she once formed with her husband. She was also allowed to have a radio, and she was allowed to buy newspapers, which were her only connections to the outside world. Eventually, she was reunited with her secretary, who brought her youngest grandson, Franz Friedrich, who had been born in 1944.
In early 1946, a British journalist, who had learned of Hermine’s internment, wrote to the British Foreign Minister Bevin and King George VI. The response was “It is not thought desirable for His Majesty’s Government to take any action in this matter” and “any suggestion that we were hobnobbing with the German royal family would be eagerly seized on by the Russians or anyone else who likes to call us revolutionary.”
Slowly, more and more freedoms were taken from her. A newspaper reported, “She lives in an apartment with six rooms, which she shares with seven other people, including her two-and-half-year-old grandson Franz Friedrich of Prussia, a secretary, a driver and his family, and a Russian who acts as a nanny and a translator. During the interview, she sat on a chaise-longue. She stroked her grandson. The walls of the room were filled with portraits of the deceased former Emperor. The interview took place in the presence of four Russian officers.”
On 5 August 1947, Hermine began to feel tired. A doctor diagnosed purulent tonsillitis and an abscess formed, which the doctor wanted to cut open to help Hermine breathe. However, he did not consider it necessary that she was hospitalised. 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.
After many attempts to have her body repatriated to the Netherlands to be buried next to Wilhelm, she was eventually interred in the Antique Temple in Potsdam – where coincidentally Wilhelm’s first wife was also buried. Hermine, the Empress in Exile, now lies just steps from the palaces from which she was supposed to reign with her husband.
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