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.
Shortly before Easter 1922, Hermine’s young son Georg Wilhelm learned of the lonely German Emperor in exile, Wilhelm II – and he begged his mother to let him write a letter to the Emperor. Wilhelm was so touched by it that he invited the young boy and his widowed mother, Hermine, to Huis Doorn in the Netherlands, where he lived. Hermine decided to go alone as not to interrupt her son’s studies. It would be their first meeting in nine years. Of their first meeting at Huis Doorn, Hermine wrote, “The Emperor’s hair is snowy white. It was beginning to turn grey when I saw him last. How changed he looks with his beard! The white frame accentuates the spirituality of his features. His carriage is firm and youthful. He does not look like a man who permits fate to bend his back. His Majesty stands before me in a simple field-grey uniform. With native chivalry, he helps me out of the car. Gallantly he kisses my hand and conducts me with elastic steps into his home under alien stars. His Majesty insists on taking me to my room.” The following morning, he presented her with freshly cut roses from his first wife’s rose garden.
Wilhelm found himself much cheered by Hermine’s visit and his behaviour did not go unnoticed. One secretary told Hermine, “Since Your Highness has been here, the dark clouds have disappeared from above the Emperor’s head. He no longer walks around like a figure from a Greek tragedy. You have made him human again. There is new light in his eyes and in his attitude.”
Much to Hermine’s surprise, Wilhelm proposed marriage to her just a few days into her visit. After much consideration, Hermine decided to accept. Wilhelm wrote to a friend, “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.”
Wilhelm’s family, on the other hand, were mortified to hear of it. In their eyes, no one could replace their mother, but that had not been Wilhelm’s intent in any case. After their marriage, Hermine would not be allowed to use the late Empress’ rooms, which had been left as a sort of shrine – and still are. Wilhelm later said, “The memory of Auguste Viktoria is not a spectre dividing us, but a tie that unites us.” Nevertheless, most of Wilhelm’s immediate family declined to attend the wedding, and the animosity against Hermine never really went away.