Hermine Reuss of Greiz was born on 17 December 1887 as the fifth child and fourth daughter of Heinrich XXII, Prince Reuss of Greiz, and Princess Ida Mathilde Adelheid of Schaumburg-Lippe. Her elder brother had been injured during a childhood surgery, leaving him mentally and physically disabled. Her parents had been praying for a boy, but they would not have another son. Her mother gave birth to a namesake daughter in 1891 and died shortly after of complications. Her heartbroken father never married again.
The death of her mother and the disability of her brother cast a long shadow over her childhood. Hermine was especially close to her elder sister Carolina, who would later briefly become Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. The sisters were not close with their brother as his disability made it difficult to communicate with him. The family spent the winters at their father’s residence in Greiz and the summers in the hunting lodge near Greiz. Summer vacations were spent in Castle Burgk on the Saale and Hermine was especially fond of Burgk.
At the age of 14, Hermine lost her father as well. He had come back to Reuss in March against the advice of his doctors, who knew that it would be bad for his health. With his last bit of strength, he managed to visit the grave of Princess Ida, before dying on 19 April 1902. Although her brother officially became the reigning Prince Reuss of Greiz, Heinrich XIV, Prince Reuss Younger Line served as regent for him.
Hermine had a fascination for her future second husband, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, from an early age. It was her aunt Princess Marie Reuss of Greiz, who had married Count Friedrich of Ysenburg and Büdingen in 1875, who often came to visit and brought her niece photos and postcards of the man she idolised. “Ever since I was a child, the Emperor inspired my imagination. My aunt, who knew of my enthusiasm, helped to make my heart beat faster.” She actually met him for the first time at the wedding of her sister Caroline to Wilhelm Ernst, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar on 30 April 1903 at Bückeburg Palace. Hermine was just 15 years old at the time and her sister only 19. “How could he have foreseen that this blushing little girl was his future wife? I stood there, frozen on the spot where the Emperor had received my greeting. The Emperor went on and chatted with my uncle.” Just two weeks later Hermine’s eldest sister Emma married Count Erich Kunigl von Ehrenburg.
Caroline’s marriage was destined to be unhappy and brief. Caroline was so miserable that she barely ate, choosing to nibble on chocolates, almonds and petit fours when she did. She had also taken up smoking. Caroline died on 17 January 1905, just 20 years old. The cause of death was influenza. Hermine later wrote, “In her heart of hearts, she did not wish to live.” In 1904, Emma married Freiherr Ferdinand von Gnagnoni, leaving just Hermine and Ida unmarried. She was taken under the wings of Louise of Prussia, the Grand Duchess of Baden and the aunt of the future Wilhelm II. On 11 December 1906, Hermine married Prince Johann Georg of Schönaich-Carolath, a lieutenant colonel in the Second Regiment of the Dragoons in Berlin. They would spend the winters in an apartment in Berlin, while they spent the summers in Silesia at Castle Saabor with her parents-in-law.
They would have five children together: Hans Georg (born 1907), Georg Wilhelm (born 1909), Hermine Caroline (born 1910), Ferdinand Johann (born 1913) and finally Henriette (born 1918). Johann Georg suffered from tuberculosis throughout much of their marriage. He served in the First World War until he was unable to carry on. The end of the First World saw not only Emperor Wilhelm II abdicate but also her brother’s regent. Prince Johann Georg died on 6 April 1920 in the Wölfelsgrund sanitorium. He had spent the last eight months of his life in a wheelchair. Hermine was determined never to marry again, writing, “I was strongly determined to never to marry again, never to surrender the precious right to be the master of my soul.”
All of that would change in 1922 when her young son Georg Wilhelm wrote to the Emperor in his exile in the Netherlands.
“To His Majesty the Emperor,
I am only a little boy, but I want to fight for you when I am a man. I am sorry because you are so terribly lonely. Easter is coming. Mama will give us cake and coloured eggs. But I would gladly give up the cakes and the eggs if only I could bring you back. There are many little boys like me who love you.
Georg Wilhelm, Prince of Schönaich-Carolath”
Soon Hermine found herself and her children invited to House Doorn in the Netherlands.